§ 2 pm
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
I am pleased to have secured the debate to which I welcome the Minister and hon. Members. The choice of subject recognises that we are supposed to be in the middle of a public debate, and I am sorry to say that it has taken a Back Bencher to secure a debate on the matter in Parliament. It would have been nice if the Government had secured the debate because the subject involves their public interface.
I shall make clear my position on GM technology: at first, I recoiled in horror at the idea of it, but now I am less concerned about the technology and more concerned about its application. The principle of humans interfering with food genes was established many millennia ago in Iraq, around Nasiriya, which is in the news today. Improving plants through selection allowed people to test tiny variants in plants on the human population over many generations, which allowed them to understand the limits of human digestion and which variants are bad for us.
GM allows us to bypass that involved process, which is potentially dangerous. GM technology is a hierarchy that must be considered with precautionary principles in mind. At the bottorn, demanding the least concern, are non-food crops such as biomass crops, which are improved from within their own species gene pool. Food crops, which have been improved in a similar way, are next. I am more concerned by non-food crops, such as pharmaceutical crops, and food crops modified with genes from outside their species, like the famous Sainsbury's fish-flavour tomato paste in Private Eye. GM technology within animals and our own species, which is not impossible to conceive with modern technology, is of greatest concern.
I want to examine those technologies from the point of view of consumer choice, the environment and health. First, however, I want to ask what has happened to the great debate. In Wales, it has not amounted to a row of beans—GM or otherwise. There has been a handful of public meetings, most of which were organised by anti-GM groups. The Welsh Assembly Government have organised nothing; for example, the matter is not mentioned on the National Assembly's website. The consultation information and questionnaire are available only in English, so some half a million Welsh speakers have been disfranchised from the great debate at the start, which is a disgraceful way to approach public consultation. In addition, the debate is taking place without the full evidence being available. The Government's studies—a scientific assessment and the field studies—will not be published until the autumn.
Let us start with the effect of GM technology on health. As a Member of Parliament, I will not support a novel technology if I do not think that its effect on human health has been properly evaluated. I owe that duty of care to my constituents. It is therefore up to the proponents of GM technology to demonstrate that it has no ill effects on human health, animal health and the environment. GM technology is being given a soft landing as a novel food technology by the regulatory bodies and by the Food Standards Agency in particular.
209WH I prefer to eat local food, followed by organic food and finally bog standard food—I hope that it is not bog standard, but hon. Members will catch my drift. Others have a different set of priorities: some will eat the cheapest food first and perhaps have some treats to bolster their diet. I wonder which avenue FSA members follow. Why is everyone so keen to subject the UK population to a giant experiment in digesting novel GM foods? The research has been insufficient to evaluate the short or long-term effects of GM foods on human health.
Genetically modified crops are usually created by adding genes from bacteria, viruses and other plants to make them immune to chemical weedkillers or to enable them to produce toxins to kill insects that feed on them. The genetic modification may make the plant toxic when eaten. Even if that toxin is present in small doses, it can build up to cause harm, especially to vulnerable individuals. Allergies, which are generally on the increase among the population, may also develop.
There has been virtually no monitoring in the United States, where the main human testing is taking place, of the number of GM ingredients in food or of the impact on the general population. All that we know is the general trend of allergies and health effects emerging in the population; we do not know where they have come from. There is no doubt that food allergies are increasing as we eat more varied diets with new ingredients. It will soon be possible to test whether GM genes come from peanuts, which are known to cause severe allergies in some people. Dr. Michael Antoniou of Guy's hospital said:The reason why we can't be specific about the health consequences of GM food is that we don't know enough…Each genetic engineering event holds its own dangers. You could have acute toxicity or something that sneaks up over many years. Any of these things are possible.Another danger is antibiotic resistance. Genes are often used for antibiotic resistance as selectable markers, which allow plants to select cells that have taken up foreign genes. They have no further use, but the genes continue to be expressed in plant tissues. Most genetically engineered plant foods therefore carry fully functioning antibiotic-resistance genes. There are two possible consequences: first, eating those foods could reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics taken as medicine; secondly, the resistance genes could be transferred to human or animal pathogens, making them impervious to antibiotics. It is unlikely that very strong resistance will occur, but any possibility of that requires careful scrutiny, especially as we know that so many diseases today, such as the SARS virus, come from animals.
That is why the overall health risks were assessed by the Royal Society last year. It said that GM products needed rigorous investigation before marketing to vulnerable sectors of the population, including the elderly, babies, those with chronic disease and pregnant women, due to theunpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods".
§ Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I call him my hon. Friend in this instance because we share the same 210WH concerns. Does he agree that a major concern is the lack of peer evaluation in GM issues, which has come about because of a fear of commercial confidentiality? In every other avenue of science, peer review is considered essential for the evaluation of new products.
§ Mr. Thomas
The hon. Lady—my hon. Friend——has put her finger on a particular problem there. Many of the so-called tests have been undertaken by the companies themselves, so the foods have not been subject to the rigorous examination that we would expect before we could say to our constituents, "These are safe foods to eat; eat as much of them as you want". I cannot say that, and I share the hon. Lady's concern.
As far as I am aware, the only study commissioned by the FSA looked at bacteria from GM food which is shown to be transferred through the human intestinal lining. If in, say, 1983 we had had results from an animal feeding test of cows' brains being changed as a result of the animals ingesting sheep's brains, I wonder whether we would have been wise to press on with feeding animal proteins to ruminants. We need to learn a lesson from BSE. The United Nations has certainly done that, because its food standards body said only last week that the failure to carry out adequate checks could lead to toxic reactions, allergies and an increased resistance to antibiotics. As far as I am concerned, the food safety case has not been made.
I turn to agriculture and the environment. Wales, through the National Assembly, has declared itself a GM-free zone. That is a declaration of intent, rather than a reality, but it exists as a political will expressed through a democratic body. I am sure that the future of Welsh agriculture does not lie in the production of mint-flavoured lamb chops or antibiotically enhanced milk. Following common agricultural policy reform, farmers will have the opportunity to sell to local markets, to add value directly to their products and to engage in sustainable agriculture, including the growth of organic crops, which is particularly relevant and important to agriculture in Wales. GM technology does not sit easily with that vision. I claim a constituency interest in the matter because Ceredigion is part of a west Wales cluster of organic farming with world-famous producers such as Rachel's Dairy and the organic centre for Wales at Aberystwyth university.
Let us look at the latest GM gee-whizz idea to grab the headlines: ready-decaffeinated coffee. I drink decaffeinated coffee, having discovered what caffeine does to the body, but should I be drinking GM-decaffeinated coffee? It sounds good not to have to remove the caffeine with a chemical or water-based process, but the coffee plant contains caffeine for a reason: to defend the coffee beans against fungi. Plants that are unable to produce caffeine might be susceptible to fungi, which can produce toxins. Fungal toxins, such as aflatoxin, are potent human toxins that can remain active through food preparation processes. I have no doubt that there will be a GM solution to that, perhaps by introducing GM markers to provide resistance to the fungi, but is that really how we want to produce our food?
I turn now to virus-tolerant crops. For reasons not yet well understood, plants producing viral components on their own are resistant to subsequent infection by those viruses, and there is a risk of creating new and worse 211WH hybrid viruses through recombination and transcapsidation. For that reason, the European Parliament has handed a lifeline to organic and conventional crop producers in the United Kingdom on the issue of cross-contamination. It voted last week on an amendment tabled by the Plaid Cymru-Green group in the European Parliament to amend directive 2001/18 on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and insert new article 26a, which states:Member States may take appropriate measures to avoid the unintended presence of GMOs in other products.I should like to know how the Government intend to implement that new article when it has been approved, as I presume it will be, and whether the Welsh Assembly can draw up its own regulations on implementation. I understand that although the directive gives member states the right to take appropriate measures, the regulations will be drafted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for England, and by the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. There must be a GMO land registry, as the Chartered Institute of Surveyors suggested, which is open to the public, showing where GMOs are being planted, the nature of the planting and so on. The public must have access to such information.
Finally, on consumer choice, the European Parliament has voted on a strict labelling regime for all GM foods and derivatives with over 0.9 per cent. GM content. That used to be 1 per cent. but the rule has been tightened. The Government must explain how they will protect consumer interest in the World Trade Organisation negotiations. Some countries may seek to downgrade that interest and to introduce an alternative agreement, but we must protect it. I defend the right of members of the FSA to stuff themselves full of GM food, as well as the right of the rest of us to choose a different path. Perhaps that is why the British Retail Consortium, which represents 90 per cent. of high street shops, said on 8 June that it did not see a market for GM foods at present.
The GM industry tends to concentrate production in monopolistic companies. Corporations are given patents on the genes that they use and the crops and seeds they develop. Royalties may then be charged for the use of their technology. Companies and Governments of the developed world are now pushing developing countries to accept patents on genes and seeds, sometimes for gene and seed banks that they have developed through traditional methods of agriculture. That will benefit the companies that produce GM crops, but many small farmers cannot pay the royalties or purchase the herbicide or pesticide that must be used with the GM crop.
A Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, has been held responsible for Monsanto canola which grew on his land although he did not plant it. Monsanto produces over 90 per cent. of GM crops worldwide, and Syngenta, Bayer Cropscience, Dow and DuPont produce the rest. Leaving worldwide production to five multinational corporations, and saying that that is the way to feed the starving world, is like leaving Dracula in charge of the blood transfusion service and expecting him to give a drop to everyone. All the companies are putting pressure on the United Kingdom, as well as on developing countries, to buy their products, thereby forcing more traditional farmers out of the market.
212WH Conversely, the GM industry wants no legal liability for any genetic pollution or potential health or environmental effects of the crops. It is not willing to be held accountable, despite its claims of GM safety and success. The only clear winner is the GM industry, which wants to play the game by its own rules. There is absolutely no evidence that farmers, consumers or the environment in the UK or Europe will particularly benefit from GM crops.
The decision of the European Government, or rather the European Parliament—there is no Government yet, but perhaps at some time we will have a debate on that—is a step towards better regulation, but the introduction of GM foods in UK agriculture has not been thought through. If and when organic and non-GM foods are contaminated, who will be held responsible for the economic and environmental consequences? More importantly, who will pay for the damage? Welsh farmers cannot compete now with large corporate farms. How will GM foods help the Welsh agricultural economy and environment, which sustains not only biodiversity but cultural diversity?
Finally, the cruellest canard is that GM crops will feed a starving world. Already enough food is grown throughout the world to feed everyone on the planet to sufficiency. Feeding the world is a matter of political will and better distribution, things which genetic modification cannot achieve. The push for GM foods serves only to hide the root causes of poverty, hunger and disease. Even if a case could be made for immediate relief in developing countries, there would be the potential for catastrophic long-term effects. The genetic contamination seen in the loss of crop diversity in the developed world may be more of a problem for developing countries. Many crops have wild relatives and can cross-pollinate. In tropical countries, where many staple foods such as rice, maize and potatoes have evolved, there is greater potential for genetic contamination. Already, imported GM maize has contaminated native maize varieties in Mexico.
My central point is that agricultural biotechnology may have a role to play, but it is not a substitute for sustainable agriculture, which solves problems by understanding and adjusting elements of the system to achieve its goals rather than by developing new products that must be purchased. Agricultural biotechnology, by contrast, is basically an input industry, developing relatively expensive products and always depending on the novel. In sustainable agriculture, new products are less important than new knowledge and new ways of manipulating agricultural ecosystems.
I wish to end with some direct questions for the Minister. How will the precautionary principle be applied to GM foods? I ask him seriously to consider extending the great debate to at least October, in light of the poor publicity, the lack of public meetings and the call by eight major organisations, including the Consumers Association, to extend the period. I ask him also to ensure that the Government's studies are published before any conclusions are made about the public's opinion of GM crops. I say that even though I suspect that the public consultation is running heavily against GM crops. It is better that any public consultation is done on the basis of all the evidence and not on preconceived ideas.
213WH I would like the Minister to give a copper-bottomed guarantee that labelling or strict co-existence regulations will make it possible for those who do not wish to ingest GM foods to avoid having them stuffed down their throats. Will he explain how the European Parliament's co-existence proposals will be brought into force in the UK and how organic farming in particular will be able to protect its position as a non-GM system of food production?
It is said that the Government have already made up their mind on the commercial planting of GM crops—at least, according to the Evening Standard.
§ The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley)
I wonder why.
§ Mr. Thomas
Perhaps we will hear a little more about that. As a constituency MP, such questions are of interest to me. If they cannot be fully answered now, it will mean that it is too soon and too risky to countenance such a move.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)
It would be advisable for me to remind hon. Members that it is customary in these 90-minute debates to commence the first of the three winding-up 30 minutes before termination. That leaves us with 41 minutes in which to accommodate the five right hon. and hon. Members who are trying to catch my eye, only two of whom have given me prior indication of their intention to do so. I appeal to everyone to make their comments as brief as possible and to bear in mind the time constraints when accepting or making interventions.
§ Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton)
By my calculation, that means that I have eight minutes. I will do my best.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on an excellent speech that raised the relevant questions. I endorse and confirm its content. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister allows me to pursue some points that I raised on Friday, to which I received a rather limited response. My first question concerned what the Government's response to the farm-scale evaluation trials will be. They will receive a report on the conclusions of the research in September. I argued, as we all know, that a decision has to be taken on the commercialisation of GM crops in accordance with the terms of EU directive 2001/18, but that that does not mean a yes or no determination. That is a key point.
A further option is for the Government to invoke the precautionary principle, which is allowed under item 8 of the preamble, which states:The precautionary principle…must be taken into account when implementingthe directive. That is also covered under article 23 of the directive, which is the safeguard clause, and under article 5 of the phytosanitary agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister's response was thatif the evaluations are inconclusive or demonstrate that there are potential problems that require further investigation, that will be undertaken.214WH He did not follow through the logic of his position. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, there are huge uncertainties about GMOs because the long-term research on clinical and biochemical impacts has simply not been carried out. The random position and the lack of control of the gene's functions could change any character of a plant, and that might not be evident immediately. In the US, there are already many examples of undesired effects being identified only after approval has been given.
Those are more than adequate reasons why, in the case of each and every GMO, approval should be deferred until the long-term epidemiological, clinical and biochemical research has been fully carried out— exactly as is already the case in relation to the introduction of new drugs. My first question is, will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that that option is open to the Government and that they are seriously considering it?
At the moment, the Government seek to avoid that option by regularly citing the mantra—I signed many letters in these terms—thatthere is no evidence of any greater risk from a GM product than from its non-GM counterpart.However, the truth is that no one has undertaken the systematic tests to find out whether that is true. It is simply assumed. The biotech companies look at the various nutrients, allergens and toxins and if, in their view, the GM plant has similar levels to the non-GM variety, it is assumed to be safe in all respects. That is the so-called principle of substantial equivalence—an infamous concept, if ever there was one—which is at the heart of the whole problem. The Minister did not mention that in his reply last week. Will he do so today?
My second question is, will the Minister confirm that that process has no scientific validity whatever, that it is open to fraudulent manipulation and that it does not meet the criterion of giving certainty to people, which is what they want, on whether a GM product is safe to eat? People want to know not whether a GM food or ingredient is similar to something else, but whether it is inherently safe to eat—without any side effects—and whether all the tests necessary to check that beyond any reasonable doubt have been carried out.
There is also the question of biotech companies' own credibility in these matters. In the case of GM forage maize called Chandon LL, the company claimed that there was no nutritional difference. I would point out that when the company data were subjected to peer review, it was found that there were significant variations in fat, protein and fibre content.
My third question is, will the Minister confirm that the Government will not sanction any GMO until full-scale, long-term research on health and biochemical effects has been carried out on the GMO in its own right, not on the basis of its alleged similarity to something else? The only reason for introducing the deceptive and misleading concept of substantial equivalence was saving the biotech companies the lengthy and expensive research necessary to establish what the truth is directly, or conceivably because they feared what such tests might reveal.
I asked the Minister last Friday about the organic sector, which he, I and the Government are committed not only to preserving, but to expanding. How will that 215WH sector be protected against cross-contamination from GM, which could drive most, if not all, organic farmers out of business? His reply on that point was tempting but rather unconvincing:We must consider the most appropriate separation distances on the basis of good, scientific advice.That is fine, but he added:I do not want the organic sector or its viability to be threatened.That is absolutely excellent, but the logic is clear. The separation distances must be set so that cross-contamination is so small that it is below detectability. If they were set at such a level, the organic sector would be protected. If they were set above it, the organic sector would be threatened, and slowly destroyed, which is exactly what has happened to the organic oilseed rape industry in Canada.
We know that the detectability of GM is about 0.1 per cent. We also know from research by the National Pollen Research Unit at Worcester what the separation distances are for different crops that will yield cross-contamination no higher than 0.1 per cent. My fourth question is, if GM crops were to be commercialised in the UK, will the Minister guarantee that separation distances will be set statutorily at a level that ensures that any cross-contamination does not reach detectability? If he does not take that view, how will he deliver his commitment that the organic sector will not be threatened?
I raised the crucial question of liability, and the Minister replied a little airily:We must examine that more carefully."—[Official Report, 4 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 728–30.]Quite so, but mere examination is not nearly enough. My fifth question is, will the Minister guarantee that the Government will not approve the commercialisation of any GM crops until a legally enforceable liability provision is in place that ensures that any organic or conventional farmer whose crops are subject to contamination from nearby GM cultivation is eligible for full compensation so that his livelihood is not disrupted or destroyed in any other way?
Although I was going to raise other points on health, I shall take one more minute to raise my final point, to which I did not receive an adequate reply. If the Government believe in consumer choice, and I believe that they do, how will they deliver for that large number of people—perhaps the majority of the population—who want to eat exclusively GM-free food? That crucial question was also raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. Why should people be forced to eat GM food if they do not want to?
The Minister referred to the recently agreed EU threshold of 0.9 per cent. for labelling GM food. With great respect, that misses the point. If a tin or package on a supermarket shelf has no GM label, does that mean that it is GM-free or that it might have nearly 1 per cent. GM content? That does not provide for consumer choice. It provides the opposite: it means that we will all soon be eating food that contains small amounts of GM, but without being given that information. In my view, that will be unacceptable to the British people.
My last question is, will the Government enforce labelling rules in the UK that provide for genuine freedom of choice by placing the labelling level at the 216WH threshold for detectability, which is far below 0.9 per cent. and probably as low as 0.1 per cent? If the GM debate is for real and not mere window dressing, we need answers to those questions. I look forward to receiving them today.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
I start by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.
This debate is not about the pros and cons of GM, so I shall not go down that road. First, I believe that there is no such thing as risk-free food. That is seriously important, because if the debate is to mean anything it must be about risk assessment. There are risks in every sort of food; whether food is fatty or non-fatty, or a host of other things, we take a risk with every spoonful that we consume. It is also true that there is no such thing as GM-free food. It is a bizarre deception that people should think that food can be labelled GM-free even if it has up to 1 per cent. of GM produce in it. Patently and obviously, such food would not be GM free.
Looking at it semantically, one could say that all food has been genetically modified; it is a question of who does it, how it occurs, how fast it is done and how long it has taken to evaluate. I visited the Broom's Barn establishment 18 months ago to find out about GM sugar beet. I learned an enormous amount in my day away from Parliament, and I began to understand what is at stake. The images of Frankenstein food quickly slipped away as I came to understand the enormous potential of GM foods and the good that could come from them—for the environment, for the nutrition of people around the world, and for other uses including pharmaceutical ones.
In our debate, we first need to know the facts. That is where the Government have been slow, and I am critical of them for that. Trying to get information from the Government is like trying to get water from a stone. The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) is absolutely right to press the Government hard on the basic facts of the matter. Only when we have more facts can we make an appropriate risk assessment.
I have asked a series of parliamentary questions in order to elucidate some interesting information, and I have perused the daily outflow of answers on GM from DEFRA. It is clear that the Department is working extremely hard, and I commend the Minister and his officials for that. I was also interested in the answer of the former Secretary of State for International Development to a question from the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). She said:Developing countries must have the opportunity to make their own informed decisions on whether or not to adopt modern biotechnologies based on an assessment of the risks and benefits from their safe development and use. Developed countries have a responsibility to help developing countries build the capacity to make these choices."—[Official Report, 24 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 67W.]If we block people's choices by saying that certain foods cannot be imported, even if they are safe, because the EU has a 1 per cent. threshold, we shall be doing them no favours.
I turn next to an answer from Lord Warner, an Under-Secretary of State for Health in the other place. He said: 217WHAll genetically modified foods approved for sale in the UK have undergone a rigorous pre-market safety assessment by independent scientific advisers…There is no evidence that the consumption of genetically modified food has caused an increase in allegenicity. The available evidence does not indicate that GM DNA transfer to gut bacteria has adverse consequences for metabolism, organ development, and the immune and endocrine systems. DNA is consumed as part of our normal diet."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 July 2003; Vol. 650, c. WA153-4.]Indeed it is—just as, every day, we all consume genes. That is important.
I tabled a question about what evidence there was on the safety of GM food consumption, and asked for a statement. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), replied:The available scientific evidence does not support the view that the consumption of the genetically modified foods approved to date would lead to any harmful effects. The safety is assured using procedures developed by the World Health Organisation."—[Official Report, 30 June 2003; Vol. 408, c. 117W.]I asked, pursuant to that question, whether she would list the scientific evidence on which her answer was based and whether she would describe the procedures developed by the WHO. Answer came there none—so far. It is extremely important that those sorts of answers are produced.
The same Minister, in an answer to a question from the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), said:Details of the research programme"—the Food Standards Agency's programme—are published in the FSA's research and surveys programmes annual report and are available on the FS A web site".—[Official Report, 3 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 483W.]The website address is given, but the website simply does not work. People cannot get the information—that is worse than useless, because it makes the Government appear to have something to hide. I do not believe that the Government have anything to hide. I wish them well; it is extremely important that they win the debate. I want genetic modification to be used in the production of food; it would have a huge impact and could be of benefit around the world. However, it is right, of course, to ensure that the scientists are completely open.
I end with a plea that the Government do something radical: start to be an open Government. It does not matter whether we are talking about nuclear energy, about the response to terrorism or about GM foods—it is about time that our Government came clean with the public. The culture of the United States of America is wholly different in that respect. Some in this country, particularly civil servants, argue that our Government are dangerously open; they are not.
The approach of the Americans——I have discussed it with them recently, with respect to terrorism, on a visit to the United States—is that the more information that can justifiably be made public, the more people will realise that someone is on to them before they start. A similar argument applies in this country. We need to be far more open and to present the scientific evidence in a way that the layman can understand—then we will have a proper debate on GM.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. This has happened a couple of times, and I would be remiss if I did not remind hon. Members that, when establishing proceedings in this Chamber, the House decided that the occupant of this Chair should be addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker.
§ Joan Ruddock
I am so sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the first occasion that I spoke in this Chamber it was different; I had not appreciated the change.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate and, in particular, on the way that he has presented his case. I do not want to go over the same ground, but everything that he said on the developing world, on choice and on liabilities I would have wished to say myself.
I believe that there is a consensus in this country on the issues that we need to address in UK food and farming, such as food safety, food supply, food costs and environmental pollution. Genetic modification needs to be judged against that background. So, first, does genetic modification enhance food safety for animals or humans? The answer is no; there is a risk and it is unquantified. Do we need GM crops to guarantee UK food supplies? No, we are generally a country of surpluses.
Should food costs be paramount in the debate? The answer is no. Experience tells us—and has told us all too recently—that a cheap food policy compromises food safety and nutrition and drives farmers out of business. Will GM foods be cheaper in the long run anyway? There is no guarantee of that. Finally, the issues relating to environmental damage are well understood: we do indeed need to reduce pesticide and chemical fertiliser use, but we do not need GM crops to achieve that.
Can we, as a nation, tackle the major challenges in food and farming today? The answer, surely, is yes. I believe that we are doing so. Indeed, the Minister and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), have done much to drive the process forward. Why, then, is GM now imperative? Why are we as a nation on the verge of making an irreversible decision that could have totally unpredictable effects on our countryside and on animal and human health?
The answer is simple: one company, Monsanto, rushed from the laboratory to the field to plant GM crops, and it irresponsibly sought to mix the products of those crops with non-GM foods. It did so with the lightest of regulation and without waiting for public consent. Today, it is still responsible for 90 per cent. of commercially grown GM crops. Although millions of Americans have eaten the products of those crops, that is testimony not to the popularity of those products but to the fact that they had no choice.
This debate should focus on one question: does this country need GM crops? My answer is a resounding no, and I must tell the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) that the Monsantos of this world have done nothing to convince me otherwise. Of course, public knowledge and understanding would be increased if the Government's scientific review, the strategy unit's 219WH economic report and the results of the farm-scale trials and evaluations were made available. None of those documents has been published, and it will not be possible to take them into account in the public debate, which ends next week. The time allotted to that debate, and the nature of the process, have been inadequate to the task. I commend the attempt to deal with the issue, but it is ludicrous to keep the three strands—the public debate, the science review and the economics—separate.
All of that raises the suspicion that the public debate will be sidelined. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether public hostility to GM will be the determining factor for the Government if it remains as strong as it is or whether the decision to commercialise GM crops will be taken regardless of public opinion. Does the Minister believe that the Government have any scope to respond to public opinion and to keep the UK GM-free? Is not commercialisation inevitable, given US pressure and the potential role of the World Trade Organisation? What is his assessment of the arithmetic in the European Union? Does a majority of states still oppose the commercialisation of GM crops?
I cannot think of a more important issue. It is more important than any changes that we might make in the administration of our health or education services. The decision to commercialise GM crops could bring irreversible change to our plants, animals and environment, but the topic is virtually undebated in the House. Indeed, I would put money on the fact that only a few MPs actually know that the great national GM debate is under way at all. Why is that? Sadly, many MPs are wary of issues when they feel that they might not fully understand the science or that expressing their gut instincts could result in them being labelled ignorant or anti-science. However, expressing one's gut instincts is neither irrational nor primitive when one is considering the quality of the food that we ingest and the environment that we inhabit.
Genetic modification is not a simple extension of centuries-worth of tried and tested old plant-breeding technologies; it is fundamentally different. It crosses species and creates organisms that would not arise in nature. The crops under trial—maize, oil seed rape, sugar and fodder beet—have all been modified for tolerance to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium. None of the constructs between the bacteria and the crops would occur in nature and all pose potential threats to the environment. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton has said, none of the resulting food products has been subjected to long-term human or animal testing.
What is the utility of GM crops? They are simply tolerant to the weed killer to be used during the growing season; all that they do is allow the farmer to put the herbicide on the crop without destroying it—so the farmer has a seed that is tied to a herbicide and the company has a farmer that is tied to the company.
The debate has hardly begun. I have accessed all the material on the public debate site and I estimate that it takes about three hours to read and digest it. I commend the effort, but people cannot easily engage in the debate, express themselves and form a view for or against. I understand, having read the transcripts, that people have been tremendously frustrated at the meetings because they cannot question experts and receive 220WH answers. The Government have not even organised a public meeting in London; there are many deficiencies in the public debate.
I remind the Minister that the country has been working systematically towards a sustainable agriculture policy. The commercialisation of GM crops in the UK would fatally undermine the consensus on sustainable agriculture. I urge the Government to continue to accept the precautionary principle. There will be enough speakers with views that indicate that the precautionary principle can and should be applied, despite anything that comes up in the documents and reviews that are under way. Sufficient evidence exists for us to say "case not proven; not yet, and maybe not ever," but we have to have the choice.
I end by asking the Minister to extend the period of the public debate. It has had far too little publicity and the House has not been engaged, and it is critical, in a democracy, that it is.
§ Mr. Roger Williams Brecon and Radnorshire)
I draw the attention of hon. Members to my entries in the Register of Members' Interests in relation to agriculture, although they might not be relevant to this topic. I have a background in plant breeding, so I am interested in the issue. I would have liked to debate a number of the points that have been made. However, I shall restrict myself to a few of my interests.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on having secured the debate. I was interested in his hierarchy of concern about the ways in which GM has been applied to different crops, and I should like to have another look at it. I, too, am more concerned about GMOs as applied to animals and human beings than to plants. It is strange that the public seem to be more concerned about the application to crops than about other applications that could be critical to the future of the human species.
It has been said that the public are expecting a simple answer to emerge from the debate—GM technology will either be accepted in a blanket way or deemed unacceptable. The important point, which is being made well, is that each genetically modified organism should be examined to determine the implications for safety and human health. Each genetically modified organism should also be examined to discover what effect it has on the environment.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of the Welsh Assembly's aspiration to make Wales a GM-free country. Whether the Assembly has the competence to achieve that, I do not know. The evidence from field trials on contamination could well suggest that GM technology is acceptable in some environments and ecosystems, but not in others. Indeed, some ecosystems may be so sensitive or perhaps so important for biodiversity and other things that it would be very harmful for there to be any GM intrusion, whereas the fact that big arable areas may contain few native plant species or plant species of any importance could make them appropriate areas in which to commercialise GM production.
221WH The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) mentioned the four crops that are being produced in connection with GM technology in this country: rape, maize, sugar beet and fodder beet. The hon. Member for Ceredigion talked about the large expansion of organic farming, but that is not based on arable production, so contamination into that type of organic farming would be limited and perhaps not even an issue at all.
Just as there will be no universal answer to the question of whether GM is a safe or unsafe technology, so there will be different answers to the question of where GM crops can be grown. When it comes to taking a decision and making an announcement, will or can the Minister come out with a solution that respects the sensitivity and importance of certain ecosystems?
§ Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)
Like the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), to whom I pay tribute for securing this debate and the powerful speech he made in opening it, I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee. That Committee spent hardly any time discussing the subject at issue this year or last year. That is not because we have been lax or are not interested; as many people have pointed out, the subject is one of the most crucial issues in the environmental sphere in recent years. The reason is that when we raised the issue earlier in the year it did not even occur to us to begin a serious discussion and investigation into the subject before the results of the first UK farm-scale trials were made public and we had proper, detailed evidence on which to base a sensible judgment. I am therefore absolutely amazed that the Government should have leapt in and sought to have the debate in a few weeks, before any farm-scale evidence becomes available and long before any of the long-term scientific implications are made known.
The potential impacts of GM crops are huge: on the environment, on public health, on local sustainability and even on our culture, particularly that of the small farmer. There is also the impact on consumer choice—real choice that will eventually not be a gift of a handful of the world's largest multinational corporations. More and more people across the political divide are becoming convinced that those who farm the countryside are its guardians and not, in Mrs. Thatcher's famous phrase, its freeholders. It is therefore ironic that those individuals, who manage the landscape on our behalf, working with the natural order, not against it, should be confronted by crucial, irreversible changes of such enormity, yet not have access to full and proper research or the more broadly based scientific understanding that any sensible person would like to see before taking such a huge step. I cannot understand why the Government are so complicit in denying them that wider debate.
One argument that is most commonly used by those in favour of GMOs is that they are necessary if we are to feed the world. The Prince of Wales has been outspoken in trying to pump prime the debate, and I praise him for the work that he has done speaking across party political boundaries to try to interest the public in it. In 222WH 2001, in a speech to Essex university's centre for environment and society—an event sponsored by the Department for International Development—he said,No-one in their right mind would resist a technology which could solve the world's food shortages if that was the only way forward. But where people are starving, lack of food is rarely the underlying cause. It is more likely to be lack of money to buy food, distribution problems or geo-political issues. But there is very clearly a need to create sustainable livelihoods for everyone, particularly those in developing countries. This is why I would like to argue for a more balanced approach, looking at all the options, particularly where research is concerned.The department of land economy at Cambridge university recently argued:There is a strong case for research and development funds to he made available for organic agriculture.It explains that that would help organic farming to reach the productivity levels of conventional farming, which has benefited from extensive Government-funded research in the past 60 years. The department also pointed out theexisting imbalance in the technological development of the two farming systems"—which is—likely to put organic agriculture at a distinct disadvantage.It concludes,a long term research strategy for organic agriculture would aim at rectifying that imbalance and help to improve the efficiency of organic production, thereby making it more attractive and more profitable.At the moment, the emphasis seems to be on supporting research into genetically modified crops, which, regardless of any possible environmental threat, certainly pose an acute threat to organic farmers and to all those consumers who wish to exercise a right of choice over what they eat. I am particularly concerned about the impact on organic agriculture in the UK. Public consumption of organic produce is rising at 15 per cent. a year, yet we are able only to produce a fraction of the total demand for such produce. It is a huge growth area for British agriculture, but it could be snuffed out in its infancy by the rapid introduction of GMOs.
Scientific studies demonstrate that cross-contamination of GM and non-GM crops is inevitable. Separation distances of a few tens of metres are completely inadequate when we know that pollen is naturally designed to carry over much greater distances. Furthermore, pollen is not the only problem. Gene flow can take place through cross-contamination of seed supplies and through plant material attaching itself to machinery, people and animals moving between farms. Unlike other forms of pollution, which diminish over time through a process of natural degradation, genetic pollution has a natural propensity to reproduce itself. The idea that genetic-free agriculture should compromise with the new technology is crackers. GM agriculture is the intruder and although genes flow both ways, the damage is done only one way, as conventional and organic farmers lose their GM-free status.
Exactly the same arguments apply to GM food. GM-free food production was there first and it is up to the GM industry to keep its products out of the pre-existing food chains. As the Soil Association has argued,We must have consumer choice to eat non-GM food. Ultimately we should be consumer focused in what we deliver.223WH I do not understand why the Government are seeking to pre-empt a properly informed debate, whatever conclusions may emerge from it. I do not understand why they are in such a rush to reach conclusions before the research has been done. I do not understand why they have such a short-term agenda with a technology with such long-term implications.
There are conflicts of interest at the heart of the Administration. It must be a matter of profound concern that Lord Sainsbury, in many ways a great and admirable Minister for Science and Innovation, although also a donor of millions of pounds to the Labour party, sits at the very heart of the debate. Surely the time has come for him to remove himself from this position of conflict and for the Government to adopt a sensible, un-alarmist but nevertheless clearly precautionary principle over planting and licensing, before the views of the British public and the clear scientific evidence become a retrospective irrelevance
§ 3 pm
§ Andrew George (St. Ives)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing this debate and making such a powerful, comprehensive argument for the need for more time to consider further information and evidence. That is a theme that has come through this debate. We need that to inform what is clearly going to be a truncated public debate, in which that crucial evidence is simply unavailable.
One of the first points that the hon. Gentleman made was that we must learn lessons from past mistakes. In my view, the two most recent and expensive—to the public purse, at least—food chain catastrophes to hit the UK teach us two simple lessons that we are showing signs of rapidly forgetting. The first, from BSE, was that we adulterate any part of the food chain without the backing of sound, cautious science at our peril. The second, from foot and mouth disease, is that unnecessary and excessive transportation of food helps to promote, and undermines efforts to control, disease. Whether we will take heed of those lessons in respect of other challenges is yet to be seen, but they should at least give us pause for thought before we launch headlong into a brave new world, or push back the frontiers of science with indecent haste and without the backing of sound science.
The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), who clearly knows a great deal about the subject and about the internal workings of government in relation to it, made a rather revealing comment towards the end of his contribution, when he expressed concern that the public debate should not be seen merely as window dressing. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) argued eloquently why we need more evidence and why the parliamentary questions that other hon. Members and I have tabled have not been fully answered. Clearly, an information gap is obscuring any possibility of an informed public debate.
Information from the Department of Trade and Industry in one of the answers that I received most recently, on 26 June, column 922W, identified the amount of money that the Government are spending to promote genetic modifications through biotech companies. A certain amount is going through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 224WH but let us compare the £500,000 being spent on the public debate with the DTI grants to the biotech industry of£18 million in 2002–03, and the £81 million spent in support of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's work, and other grants given in support of biotechnology. That is quite apart from the £13 million put into biotechnology companies to promote biotechnology, as I pointed out to the Minister in the last DEFRA questions to which he responded.
§ Mr. Morley
On the money going into biotechnology-related industries, which other hon. Members have also mentioned, those industries are not all related to GM technology. Some work sponsored by the biotech council concerns biological control in horticulture, which benefits the organic sector. The hon. Gentleman should not think that all the money goes into GM technology.
§ Andrew George
I entirely accept that point, but some of the money is going into companies that support and promote genetic modification. In a previous question to the Minister, I mentioned that£13 million is going into biotechnology companies, which are clearly in the business of promoting genetic modification.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) mentioned one aspect of the debate that we might easily have overlooked. The four crops being trialled in the farm-scale trials are primarily used for animal fodder. Animal feed is an element of the debate that is often overlooked. My hon. Friend also described the particular conundrums that arise when the Welsh Assembly or a local authority declares itself GM-free.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) made an impassioned argument in favour of considering not only human health and the environment but local sustainability, consumer choice and the impact that GM technological might have on organic and small farmers. He made those points eloquently and I hope that the Minister listened to them.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) asked whether this country needs GM crops. That is a crucial issue on which the farming industry must reflect carefully. The hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly pointed out that in June the British Retail Consortium said that there is no market for GM produce in the UK. If farmers are going to be sucked into producing GM crops, they must know whether there is a market. It would be pointless for them to consider producing GM crops if there is no market.
Several hon. Members referred to liability. The European Commission produced a report last month demonstrating that the introduction of GM technology will impose significant costs on organic growers, which is an issue that the Government must get on top of. The Government have undertaken their own research and have identified potential problems looming for growers. The contracts between tenants and landowners demonstrate that GM technology could further strain that relationship.
Farmers must consider the extent to which biotechnology companies have a stranglehold over the industry. They are clearly not best pleased that 225WH supermarkets have got them by the short and curlies. Biotech companies will have farmers by the throat if farmers enter into contracts with them because they clearly have a widespread interest in the food chain having bought up a number of seed companies.
A further concern is that GM technology will set farmer against farmer. Hon. Members have identified the problems for organic growers and those who wish to remain GM free, who will face significant problems where a neighbouring farmer chooses to take up the opportunity to grow GM crops. Those issues have not been properly resolved and it is important that the farming industry can speak with one voice.
Finally, GM technology could be a public relations disaster for the farming industry. Farmers have been wrongly maligned and criticised for being responsible for BSE by urban consumers. To take on genetic modification when it is unwanted in this country, whether that decision is based on sound science or not, would be a public relations disaster, and they need to reflect on that carefully.
The recurrent theme in today's debate, on which I hope that the Minister will reflect, is that people feel that the situation is entirely unsatisfactory. We need more time and more evidence. The evidence is not available at present. The Government's inquiries and research have not yet been published and the public debate should begin when that evidence is in the public domain.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
This has been a particularly well informed and interesting debate, with sensible speakers from all parties. I fear that the Minister may be a little isolated when he replies, supported only by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). All I can say is that I am glad that Salisbury plain comes between his constituency and mine. Such a distance may be enough to prevent any cross-pollination across the plain. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) for securing the debate and for his sensible and intelligent opening of it. He spoke extremely well.
The debate's quality stands in sharp contrast to the quality of what the Government have described as the public debate that has lasted some six weeks. How ludicrous, patronising and absurd to suggest that the nation could debate something as fundamentally important as GM in six weeks. There will be a date after which one cannot debate the issue any more because the Government are going to make a decision, which will mean the end of the debate. It is nonsensical and dangerously patronising of the Government to have that debate some months before the only serious scientific research on the matter—the field trials— becomes public. We shall continue the debate for as long as matters continue to be unclear and until scientists are clear about them. The notion that somehow we have reached the culmination of the great debate after which it will be quite all right for the Minister to reach a conclusion about all our futures is absurd.
The debate has been badly handled—it seems to have been a Government PR exercise rather than anything sensible. There have been regional debates in 226WH Birmingham, Swansea, Taunton, Belfast, Glasgow and Harrogate at a cost of£500,000, which were not particularly useful. Several sensible organisations, such as the Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the National Trust, Unison, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Sustain, wrote to the Secretary of State to say that the entire public debate was chaotic. Lots of people would have liked to enter into a debate had it been sensible. Why is an important decision about to be taken when the public debate has been nonsensical?
I particularly want to highlight two issues arising from the debate. The first is the precautionary principle. Rather like the matter of telecommunications masts, while there is any scientific doubt about something, it is only reasonable not to allow it until such time as the scientists or those proposing it can give us a 100 per cent. guarantee, backed up with bonds or funds, that it is 100 per cent. safe to the environment and human health. If Monsanto will not do so, that leads many people to ask questions.
What has happened to the precautionary principle? Do the Government support it or are they letting it lapse? That particularly applies to one aspect that concerns me more than the others: transgenic GM. That means, in other words, taking a gene out of a pig and putting it into wheat, which strikes me, as a bit of a simpleton, as unnatural and unusual. I would like particular Government assurances that that is guaranteed to be 100 per cent. safe, now and for all time.
The second matter has been raised by a number of people, including the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). I pay tribute to him, as he probably knows more about the subject than the rest of us put together. There is a possibility of damage to the organic industry, which has grown enormously. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said that it has grown by 15 per cent. a year, but the figure is 30 per cent. a year. There are 680,000 hectares in organic production, which is growing massively. Tesco reckons that sales will be "1 billion by 2005. Of course, 70 per cent. of the organic food that we eat at present is imported.
The important thing about organic production, as several Members said, is that there is a strong likelihood of cross-contamination of one sort or another unless the separation distance is adequate. So far, the Government have stuck to a separation distance of 200 m for GM crop trials, but the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and the European Commission all say that that is inadequate. There is evidence that seeds can be spread as far as 1.5 km away. Equally, BBC News Online looked into the matter and found that seeds in the soil can easily be carried by vehicles.
We need to know more about cross-contamination. Will the Minister give a guarantee to the Soil Association and organic farmers that there is no possibility whatever of cross-contamination? That must be the benchmark.
The Minister must also deal with labelling, which has been raised by several Members. It is extremely important that the public know precisely what they are buying in the shops, so labelling must clearly distinguish 227WH between products that are GM free and those that contain GMOs. Otherwise, we will interfere with the consumer's right to make that decision.
The Minister may not yet have come to any clear conclusion on that matter, but he must tell us how he will enforce labelling laws. There must be no room at all for cheating. The Food Standards Agency described the labelling of traces of GM material as a cheat's charter, so we want to know precisely what the Government intend to do to prevent it. Fair labelling schemes are extraordinarily important.
Whatever else is concluded by this afternoon's debate or the dreadfully truncated and condescending national debate that the Government have called on the issue, one thing is certain: no one knows the answers to the questions. If they did, there would be no need for a debate. If the answers were known, the scientists would come along and say, "Don't worry, here is the evidence." If it were 100 per cent. clear that there was no risk to the environment or to health, we would not be having a debate. We would all acknowledge that there were some benefits, such as feeding the third world, and that there may be environmental upsides in reducing the pesticides required in certain conditions. However, the fact that we are having a debate at all shows that there is a lack of clarity. Threfore, we very muchy look forward to hearing the Minister"s answers in his winding-up speech and, more importantly, in the month ahead, because the Government will have to be extremely clear on the issue.
I wish to add some questions to the very clear ones posed by the right hon. Memebr for Oldham, West and Royton. What review will be made of the results of the GM field trials? Will the public have an opportunity to express their views and contribute to the debate once the dield trials have ended—not on a six-week basis, but over the long term? What separation distances have the Government decided on to minimise crosscontamination? Who will be liable for the economic loss to organic and traditional farmer if there is crosscontamination? That is a very real worry.
Finally, will the liability laws be retrospective if damage found years after commercial GM planting? The reality is that the answers are unclear and people are very concerned about the issue. Only the Government can reassure us, and I hope they will. I look forward to the Minister trying to do so.
§ The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley)
May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion(Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate? He made a very reasonablespeech and many fair points. I shall try to address the important issues that he raised, as well as the question asked by the hon. Member for North Wilshire (Mr. Gray). Hopefully, in the 11 minutes that are available, I shall also be able to answer the complex questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton(Mr. Meacher)
It is patronising to suggest that the whole issue has been condensed into six weeks, because this has been a long-running debate. The Government wanted an independent debate with an opportunity for people to 228WH question the issues and to hear both sides of the argument. That was challenging and difficult, and the organisers made a very good effort to achieve that. It was never going to be a simple process, but it has stimulated debate. The fact that we are having this debate now is a result of that stimulation. There have been questions to the Prime Minister, Adjournment debates and reams of newspaper articles. The issue has even been featured on the "The Archers", which many people listen to. The suggestion that the profile of GM has not been raised is wrong. The debate has been successful in that respect and in allowing people to ask questions.
I should make it clear that we decided that the debate process should be independent of the Government, and that was right. It is not for the Government to organise it because people would think that there was an ulterior motive or an attempt at manipulation. The same applies in the Welsh Assembly, which wanted to remain at arm's length from the debate, but that is not to say that questions cannot be raised in the Welsh Assembly under the same democratic process as we have in the House.
Health issues have been raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton, who has raised such matters, knows perhaps better than anyone the procedures for dealing with health issues, how those are applied and how they go through the FSA, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. That approach is open and transparent, and it is reasonable to raise concerns and to ask about studies and how they are carried out. I shall come to that in a moment.
I want to make it clear that we must avoid the mistakes of the past. I remember the BSE issue, and I assure the Chamber that I have no intention of feeding GM burgers to my children on the basis that they are absolutely safe and that there is no problem. It is not for the Government to do that. The process must be independent, which is why we have the independent FSA and a range of independent bodies to examine the issues and report publicly to Government so that people are aware of them.
§ Mr. Morley
That is an extreme example and there is no approval at present for that product. There are ethical issues concerning biotechnology and animals which were raised by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. We treat the matter very seriously, and although it is a separate issue, it is part of our evaluation.
The FSA is considering whether there should be a long-term health study on the effects of GM. It is looking into the feasibility and potential benefits of such a study, and it will make its conclusions known very soon. It is treating the issue very seriously.
Some hon. Members referred to choice. The Government accept absolutely that farmers, consumers, processors and retailers should be able to choose whether to take advantage of GM products. That should not be forced on them. We need clear labelling so 229WH that that choice is available. I also accept the point about the WTO and world trade. It is essential that we are not bullied by any country into taking products without giving people a choice of whether to buy and use them.
We also recognise that it is important to take into account the needs of the organic sector and of conventional farming. The issue of separation distances has been raised. Obviously, those need to be considered, particularly in the context of the farm-scale evaluation studies. One reason for conducting those studies is so that we can consider things such as pollen spread. I will say a little more about that later.
We warmly welcomed directive 2001/18. In fact, we are about the only country in Europe that has started to implement it—we began to do so even before the European Parliament changed it. We need to consider the scientific advice, particularly on the co-existence rules, which relate to separation distances.
Although the public debate is coming to an end—some Members have suggested an extension, but there has already been one—I accept that the FSE results and the scientific review are an important element. People must have the chance to look at them and comment on them. We have agreed with the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment that, when the FSE results are made available, ACRE will hold an open meeting so that stakeholders can submit their concerns or views.
The meeting will be held in public, so that those attending can see the process and watch the decision being made. That will be helpful in ensuring that people have the opportunity to comment on the results of the FSEs and their implications. The fact that the formal part of the debate happens to finish in July does not mean that there will be no opportunities for further public participation and involvement, which I am keen to see.
I take the point about genetic modification and developing countries. Claims should be considered on their merits, or otherwise. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who said that, in the end, it is a matter for individual countries to decide whether such technology brings benefits, and that must 230WH be part of the evaluation. Such decisions should not be foisted on countries, but should be considered in light of their potential benefits as part of good scientific evaluation.
I also accept that environmental liability is an issue. We have asked for advice from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission about how to shape liability and about what regulations we may need. I also agree that sustainable agriculture goes much wider than genetic modification, which is just one issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) made that point.
There were a number of detailed questions. I was asked how the precautionary principle would be applied. The whole approach has been based on that principle. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton made another detailed point about whether we can refuse applications simply on the precautionary principle. That depends on the evidence and on people's doubts and concerns.
There is also article 23. I am sure that my right hon. Friend did not want to give the impression that I refused to answer his questions in the earlier debate. As he knows, he was on his feet asking me questions when I ran out of time to answer them. I gave him an undertaking that I would reply in detail to every question that he asked. I have already put that process in train and it will be completed—he will get those replies. Some of the questions were technical and others asked for absolutes; some of the answers might not be absolutes. I will have some difficulty in answering the other questions in the 50 seconds available. My right hon. Friend may wish to discuss the information that I will provide, and I am happy to do that with him, as with any Member.
This is an ongoing debate. I shall not do justice to the pertinent questions that have been put, but there will be further opportunities to ask them both inside and outside the House. There are legitimate questions to be asked. I take the point of the hon. Member for Salisbury. If hon. Members are concerned about not having received adequate answers, they should raise the matter with me or with other members of the Government, and we shall ensure that answers are provided.