HL Deb 14 May 2003 vol 648 cc239-41

3.7 p.m.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they expect an imminent decision by the United States Government to file a complaint with the World Trade Organisation challenging the European Union's moratorium on the import of genetically modified foods; and, if so, what action they intend to take.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the United States Government announced yesterday, 13th May, that they are seeking consultations with the European Commission on the so-called moratorium on the approval of GM products within the European Community. If the issue is not satisfactorily resolved by consultations then, 60 days after receipt of the request for consultation, the US has the right to seek the establishment of a World Trade Organisation dispute panel to consider the matter. It is a matter for the Commission, in consultation with European Union member states, to decide how to defend the case.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, but has not the so-called moratorium—I agree with the language of the noble Baroness on that—been viewed for many years by the Commission as illegal? Three years ago, a Commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, said that the moratorium was illegal and unjustified. Why has nothing been done about it? Is it not also profoundly anti-science? That being so, how does all that square with the Prime Minister's speech last autumn at the Royal Society, which was both pro-trade and pro-GM food—and, of course, pro-science?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the United Kingdom has never agreed with the so-called de facto moratorium on GMOs, which was imposed by some EU member states. We have made clear that we support an ordered return to effective and evidence-based European Community decisions on approval of GM products.

However, the noble Lord is not right to say that nothing has been done. We agree with the Commission that the conditions already exist for taking decisions on GM products, particularly since the entry into force only last October of the strengthened generic GMO release and product approval directive. That is an important development. I am sorry that the United States has decided to move to the disputes procedure now, when we have in place a mechanism that, we hope, would allow us to resolve the difficult issue.

I agree that it is very important that our decisions on GM are science-based. We believe that we have taken the right decision in the consultation exercise in which my noble friend and his colleagues in DEFRA are involved. We should have some answers on that in September this year.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I take it from the Minister's comments that she is as disappointed as I am that the US invokes international institutions only when it will benefit the US and that it fails to come on board with international institutions ranging from the Kyoto Protocol to the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, will the Minister impress on the EU the importance of adapting the labelling regime to take account of country-of-origin labelling so that consumers have a proper choice when it comes to GM?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot agree with the entirely sweeping nature of the noble Baroness's opening remarks. It is important to recognise that a number of disputes are running in the WTO at any one time. It is possible—and I hope that it will be the case—that we will resolve the dispute without running through all the issues. Around a quarter of WTO cases are solved before they have run through a process that can last as long as two years.

I agree that traceability and labelling are very important. The United States has already said that it would regard it as another restrictive practice. The United Kingdom believes that it gives consumers information on which they may make an informed choice.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the failure to agree in Europe on traceability and labelling has caused the de facto moratorium? It is caused specifically by the difficulty of identifying produce that, although not genetically modified itself, is derived from genetically modified processes. Does the Minister agree that an identity-preserved route is probably the best way to deal with the matter? Admittedly, it places the cost on those who seek to avoid genetically modified food, rather than the producer.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not know whether the traceability issue has made it difficult for some of our partners to move from the de facto moratorium. We have a mechanism in the directive, to which I referred in response to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, about a way through. The issue is now being used for a number of approvals, although it is taking some time. We wish to see the issue of traceability resolved. It is right that we found some difficulties with the proposals put forward because of the basis of the thresholds used. I stress that it is argued that any decisions that we take on GM and GM products should be in the interests of this country's consumers.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, will the Government point out to their EU partners who support the moratorium that, not only is it without any scientific base, but it is deeply damaging to a very important industry and has devastating effects on the developing world?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have made clear our position on the moratorium, as I hope that I have made clear to noble Lords. There are several issues relating to the developing world and GM food. One of the most difficult has been that some aid to parts of Africa in desperate need of food and other aid has been in the form of GM grain. It is enormously important to deal with the issue sensitively. It is a matter of enormous sensitivity in this country, particularly to young mothers and others with young children. But it is also a matter of great sensitivity in parts of the developing world. It is made so difficult because there are issues for consumers and, as the noble Lord rightly pointed out, producers.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, in discussions with the US Government on the issue, will the Government take into account the WTO approval of up to 4 billion dollars worth of sanctions to be levied by the European Union on the US because of its illegal use of export tax breaks?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, we certainly will. Those of a cynical turn of mind might note that the WTO has indeed calculated that damage to the EU in respect of the foreign sales corporation tax is around 4 billion dollars. I am sure that those noble Lords who have studied the matter will also have noted that the United States has said that the damage that the EU position on GMOs causes to the US economy is, astonishingly enough, 4 billion dollars.