HL Deb 12 November 2003 vol 654 cc1354-6

2.44 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy towards their legal liability for accidental contamination by genetically modified crops.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission is due to submit a report to Government later this month on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops and the related issues of liability. We will consider our policy further in the light of that report.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I appreciate what the noble Lord says about consideration in the light of the report, but perhaps he might say a little more. I declare an interest as a farmer, although not one who grows GM crops. In the absence of insurance cover, what arrangements would the Government make to protect farmers who grow GM crops from suffering economic loss as a result of breaches of statutory thresholds through no fault of their own?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is precisely the area on which the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission is about to advise. If we were to allow the growth of GM crops on a commercial scale in the UK— a question on which we have not yet decided—there would clearly need to be guidelines for the co-existence of such crops with non-GM conventional and organic crops. Conditions would have to be set for such growth going ahead and breach of those conditions could lead to liability on the GM farmer. The European Commission has already introduced broad guidelines for member states, but our UK guidelines will be based on the advice we receive from the AEBC.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, given the "unsafe" verdict of his department following trials of GM sugar beet and oilseed rape, will the Minister spell out that they will ban such GM crops in the UK or, if not, accept legal liability for contamination from such crops?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we now have the reports on three crops. He uses the word "unsafe"; we were considering the environmental rather than the human health impact. There was a greater detrimental effect on the environment from two of those crops compared with conventional crops. We will clearly need to take that finding into account in considering any application to grow such crops. Were they or any other GM crops to be allowed to go ahead— which is entirely hypothetical—they would be subject to the guidelines, on the details of which we are expecting advice within the next few weeks.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, over what distance do the Government consider that wind-borne and insect-borne contamination from GM crops can be spread?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is no simple answer to that. As they are already in the public arena, I am happy to furnish the noble Lord with the reports on the crops involved. It depends on the local conditions, the type of crops and the time of year. It is precisely such detail that may need to be covered in guidelines.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the GM crop trials in 2001 and 2002 in Scotland, which were paralleled in England, suffered from an admixture of GM material that was not covered by the consent for the trials? Do the Government have any plans to introduce a more rigorous purity test for genetically modified seed than that which currently operates for conventional seed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is already substantially greater testing of GM seed than of conventional seed—although at the end of the day, the public health impact may well be the same, so they may therefore have to be tested subject to the same degree of proof and caution. If there were a consent, anyone who breached the terms of that consent would, in certain circumstances, be liable, but we are discussing so many hypothetical questions that any detailed answer to that question must await our verdict on the basis of the advice that we are about to receive.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, does my noble friend accept the advantages of researching GM crops for countries that are not able to grow enough to feed themselves?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it appears that in certain circumstances there may be some advantage in that respect. The economic report which is part of our general consultation on future attitudes towards GM showed that, in certain development circumstances, there could be some advantage, although it was not as great as is sometimes claimed.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, is the committee that is due to report at the end of this month on the GM situation considering the implications, not just for whole crops, but field trial crops also? As the noble Lord knows, last week we talked about the trashing of those crops, and, fortunately, that verdict has been overtaken. However, we have lost the science from Bayer, which has pulled out of field trials, and Monsanto has pulled out of cereals altogether. Is the Minister not concerned that we might lose future science and technology development in this country, which would probably be very regrettable?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is one concern. It is unfortunate that Bayer and Monsanto have taken those decisions. However, it is important to recognise that Monsanto's decision was not related to GM research but a general rationalisation of its European research efforts, most of which was on conventional crops. We are anxious to get better research. Further to the earlier question on development, we are jointly financing research with the Rockefeller Foundation to ascertain better the benefits of GM crops in a development context. If we opt for any planting, in trials or commercially, it needs to be subject to a regime of co-existence.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, Bayer pulled out of its GM crop trials because the Government insisted on releasing the six-figure grid reference, thus it was concerned that its trials would be trashed. In retrospect, do the Government think that that was unwise? Will they consider not always insisting that companies give out the six-figure grid reference in future?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords. Transparency is an issue. There would be greater public concern, particularly among local farmers, were they not aware that a GM crop was being grown in their area. That would create the exact kind of anxiety that I thought the noble Lord was concerned about in his first Question.