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3.59 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker): I shall do my best to respond on behalf of the Government to what has been an important debate. I have the biggest audience of the afternoon, but I am not sure whether that is out of interest in my reply or because people are getting their seats for the next debate, which is obviously much more important, between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party.

Mr. Gray: Tickets are being sold.

Mr. Rooker: I understand that that is the case.

First, on the central issues regarding aspects of trade, I wish to make it abundantly clear that the rules of the World Trade Organisation do not stop the United Kingdom--or any country--from protecting public health through trade measures, where necessary. However, covert protectionism--the theme of some speeches this afternoon--is not allowed. If measures to protect public health or the environment are to succeed, the arguments must be based on some firm science.

Secondly, the WTO rules allow countries to take a precautionary approach by adopting provisional measures where there is insufficient information, provided that a serious attempt is made to establish a more informed basis for action within a reasonable period. Those two points are crucial. They are the foundation of the policy and underpin our negotiations in the WTO.

Mr. Chidgey: Does the Minister agree, in the light of his second point, that insufficient information is one of the EU's key failings over modified beef?

Mr. Rooker: Of course it is. I shall come to the three elements featured in the debate--beef treated with hormones, bananas and genetic modification.

I shall deal with the hormone problem first. The present dispute has lasted a decade, as I have made clear. In addition, I made it clear--and I was not playing party political games with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) when I said it--that the present Government have continued the previous Government's policy in respect of hormone-treated beef. We have not received any information or advice to cause us to change that policy. Nevertheless, we have gone along with the wider European Union decisions on the matter, and we have done our best to facilitate a solution. We take extremely

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seriously, the responsibility to protect consumers and we attach paramount importance to their safety and that of the environment.

The World Trade Organisation rules do not prevent us from taking action in that area, but that action must be based on science. The United Kingdom voted against the European Union ban on hormone-treated beef, on the ground that it was not justified by the science. Last year's WTO ruling came to the same conclusion. The Government will examine very closely the new studies released last week, and we will take independent advice as to whether they contain any new evidence that might alter the United Kingdom's view. That is consistent with our approach so far.

It would be useful for me to make it clear that there has been no ban on US beef as such, only on hormone-treated beef. In 1996, imports into the UK of bovine carcase meat amounted to 2,847 tonnes; in 1998, the figure was 1,580 tonnes, worth just under £4 million. The trade exists, but it is very small and concentrated on the high-quality end of the market.

It has recently been alleged that some of that beef was not hormone free, and the European Union has been in discussion with the Americans about that. Nevertheless, we have made it clear to both the US and Canadian Governments that retaliation against UK products is wholly unjustified. We want to deal with the matter calmly and objectively. Labelling is not the answer to everything, because labels would be attached only to products that were considered safe.

Labelling would not excuse unsafe products: we would not allow products to be sold that we thought were unsafe and posed a risk. Labelling exists to give consumers an informed choice about whether they wish to purchase hormone-treated American beef, non-hormone-treated American beef, or any other beef. That is one of the reasons why the beef labelling scheme operates on a voluntary basis in this country.

Mr. Gray: If it is so important that consumers can choose whether to eat carcinogenic American hormone-treated beef, or American beef that has not been treated with hormones, why does the Minister ignore consumer choice over beef on the bone in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rooker: The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of beef on the bone in about three interventions in the debate. I should be happy to defend the Government's position with respect to beef on the bone, but the interest evident in the next debate means that insufficient time is available. We have scientific and medical evidence that justifies the ban on beef on the bone.

The chief medical officer's lengthy and considered report, published in February, stated that the matter would be revisited in six months. Given that no beef is sold that is more than 30 months old--to which must be added the gestation period of the calf--and that the only known cause of bovine spongiform encephalopathy is maternal transmission, it is highly likely that there will be some advances in the policy. There is nothing new in that: we have said as much before. However, it is abject nonsense to argue that the existing ban is not based on scientific and medical evidence.

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I shall turn, briefly, to bananas. The allegation has been made more than once in the past few hours that the Government took no action during our presidency of the EU on bananas. That is simply untrue, and I invite hon. Members to check the record.

European Standing Committee A met on 25 March 1998. I was the Minister dealing with the matter for the Government, and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) led for the Opposition. He said:

He went on to say that the Opposition "support the Government's approach."

Indeed, in our time in the presidency, the Government succeeded in getting amendments to the banana regime from January 1999. Those amendments were challenged in the World Trade Organisation, and were found not to obey the WTO rules in all respects. That matter is now under active negotiation and discussion with all the interested parties, because we are not prepared to ignore the fragile economies of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.

We have a moral and economic obligation to ensure that we can find a solution to this difficult matter. I agree with some of the points made by Opposition Front-Bench Members about the level of American retaliation, which the arbitrator reduced from $520 million--with which the Americans had been proceeding unilaterally--to less than $200 million. As has been noted--and it is in line with the arbitrator's ruling--the United States has reduced the list of European Union products on which sanctions are imposed.

We are proceeding as fast as we can to solve a problem that is very difficult, but surely not intractable in a civilised world. We want to establish a trading relationship that is satisfactory for banana producers.

Mr. Chope: Will the Minister say what the Government will do to help the innocent victims of the banana dispute?

Mr. Rooker: All the victims of the banana dispute are innocent, especially the ACP countries. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I ask the House to come to order. There are far too many private conversations going on in the Chamber.

Mr. Rooker: After the discussions have been concluded, we shall bring to the House our proposals for a solution to the problem. Beyond that I cannot go this afternoon.

Many hon. Members have made points about genetic modification, trade and the Government's policy. Our policy on genetically modified organisms could have implications for our trading relations with the United States, but that is not so at present. Our primary duty is to protect people and the environment, not to take risks. People are not being used as guinea pigs, and we are satisfied that a comprehensive science-based framework is in place to regulate biotechnology and provide advice.

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On 17 December, we announced a Whitehall-wide review of the regulatory process for biotechnology across the fields of human health, agriculture and food. I have told the Select Committee on Agriculture that we shall act on that before the end of the month.

GM crops have the potential to contribute to sustainable agriculture, provide environmental benefits and possibly enhance the competitiveness of UK industry. Some people do not like that idea, but it is true, and we are not prepared to walk away from science that could do all that. We are satisfied with the rigorous safety assessments, although we always seek ways to tighten them or to make them as transparent as possible.

Many hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), referred to the Christian Aid report. I want to record some comments made byDr. Philip Dale, a senior research scientist at the John Innes centre in Norwich, in his response to that report. Dr. Dale has worked in the area for a considerable number of years, advising Governments in the third world and more modern Governments. He thought that the Christian Aid report

The same could be said about the opening speech by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. Dr. Dale added:

    "I find it a useful rule of thumb that if an article is entirely negative or entirely positive it is more about propaganda than informing people in a balanced way."

The same has sometimes been true of today's debate.

Dr. Dale also said that concerns exist about the influence of multinationals, arguing that they must be watched carefully by Governments where necessary. The idea that a Government can never be trusted and that big business is always corrupt, while non-governmental organisations and campaign groups are always honest is highly prejudicial. It is ludicrous to base a policy on that position, but that was the thrust of the speech by the hon. Member for Eastleigh.

Dr. Dale--like, to be fair, Christian Aid--points out that more than 800 million people in the world are hungry although there exists one and a half times the food needed to feed the world. The problem is that the food is in the wrong place. We have to grow food where the starving people are, not distribute it to them as if they were refugees. It is possible that GM technology may provide the answer to that problem, once it has been checked out.

In workshops in which Dr. Dale has been involved, people have told him that

That is how it is in the third world where people are trying to grow crops, often using second-hand chemicals that we would not allow. New technology may make it possible for them to grow enough food without having to pour chemicals on to it. We have to discuss and investigate that possibility, not dismiss it with tabloid headlines.

Dr. Dale makes a final point about terminator crops, and we have made the same point before. No one ever mentions that the use of a terminator crop

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    In those cases, too, seeds have to be purchased every year. Terminator technology may be an advance, particularly in northern Europe where we would not have to spray chemicals on people out in the fields in the following year.

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