HL Deb 20 October 2003 vol 653 cc1266-8

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would be prepared to use her discretion to allow a trial of genetically modified crops to go ahead without publication of the exact location of the trial.

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

My Lords, decisions on proposed GM crop trials in England are made on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, the level of detail at which we require trial site locations to be notified and published would depend on what was considered to be proportionate in terms of safety and the need for transparency in each case. To date, we have required such locations to be notified and published at a level no less specific than 1 square kilometre on an Ordnance Survey map.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, is not the Minister concerned that Bayer, for example, and now Monsanto, are withdrawing from field trials—Bayer, in particular, because it cannot guarantee that the trials will be completed? Would it not be sensible for those six-figure digits not to be placed on the web? It is right that they should be known, but to allow people to come to trash trials blocks those trials. Is he not fearful for the future development of crops in seed production?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I of course condemn anyone who uses that information to trash trials which, as has been shown in the case of farm-scale trials, yield valuable information for making future decisions. However, an issue of transparency is also involved, both locally and nationally. The body that makes recommendations to the Secretary of State on the matter, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, advised that although the location was not needed for safety reasons it would be important for reasons of transparency. The Secretary of State accepted that recommendation. Regrettably, Bayer felt that it could not proceed as a result of that decision.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is important for farmers whose land surrounds crop trial areas—and, indeed, beekeepers, who may be keeping their bees within 2 or 3 kilometres; or, reputedly, up to 16 kilometres of a trial site—to have access to that information, so that they know what is happening to their livelihoods?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, without necessarily accepting the distances to which the noble Baroness refers, it is of course important that neighbouring farmers know what is being grown close to them, whatever the size of the trials. That is one reason why the committee and the Secretary of State felt that we needed to divulge that information.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend rightly mentioned the need for transparency, but does he accept that farmers who participate in the trials or, for example, in the Krebs trials on bovine TB, are doing a great service by providing proper scientific data under which case-by-case decisions can be taken? In those circumstances, do they not deserve some protection—if not by hiding the trial sites, at least by adequate police protection against illegal action by people who only want to trash, not to achieve scientific results?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept that those conducting such trials are providing a service and deserve protection. It is important that the police and the courts take those duties seriously.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not apparent that the trashing is by people purporting to belong to non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace? Further to the previous question, are they not using bullying tactics, and should they not be persuaded to be effective through argument and scientific proof rather than by ruining other people's crops?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it has been the Government's stance throughout that organisations objecting to the commercialisation of GM crops should allow the trials to proceed in order that we get information. It is ironic that, when some of the information that emerged appeared to go their way, organisations seized on the trials as important, whereas a few months ago they had been involved in trashing the crops or disparaging the trials.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further. If the original decision by ACRE was that the location of the trials should be known, is the Minister not concerned that we will export our ability to carry out the research needed to bring greater benefit to crops in the long term? At their trial, people accused of trashing were found not guilty. As a consequence, there is nothing to stop such people; they are not technically breaking the law. If that is so, should not ACRE reconsider the decision that it took all those years ago?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the decision was not taken all those years ago; the recommendation is quite recent. We have been consistent throughout. Given that there is such concern about GM crops, it is important that the Government act in a straightforward, consistent and transparent manner. It is also important that property is not damaged, and that the criminal justice system and the police take seriously any threat to it. The information from such trials—whether farm-scale trials or smaller scale seed trials—benefits future decisions on the commercialisation of such products.