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Westminster Hall

Thursday 13 January 2000

[Mr Michael Lord in the Chair]

GMOs and Biotechnology

[Relevant documents: First Report from the Science and Technology Committee Session 1998-99 HC 286 and the Government response thereto (Cm 4527) and Fifth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee Session 1998-99 HC 384 and the Government response thereto (Cm 4528).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

2.30 pm

Dr. Michael Clark (Rayleigh): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to open the debate and for allowing it to take place in Westminster Hall so early in the new year. I have not spoken here before and I am pleased to do so today, as I am to share the debate with members of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). I am also pleased that we are not divided by party, but that we sit among those with whom we have a common interest in scientific matters. It is a good format for a Select Committee--of which I am talking principally of my own, the Select Committee on Science and Technology--to pull together and generally form a common view. That is the right format for the debate that we are about to have.

The Science and Technology Committee has undertaken a major study into the scientific advisory system--the quality of scientific advice that is given to the Government, how the Government use that advice and the consequences of that advice on their policies and legislation. We undertook a series of case studies, the first of which was on genetically modified foods. The second case study examined mobile telephones, to which I shall refer in a moment. We decided to publish our reports separately as we thought that each of them was topical and relevant in its own right. Today when we debate genetically modified foods I shall speak from the point of view of the Science and Technology Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington will put the view of the Environmental Audit Committee. I shall take a broad-brush approach to the matter, because members of my Select Committee will speak on specific topics. In that way we hope to minimise the risk of our speeches overlapping and maximise on the number of hon. Members who can speak.

I want to deal with four points. First , members of the Select Committee agree that science must be allowed to progress. Indeed, scientific development must be encouraged. Genetically modified foods can be used as an example of the controversy that science can bring about. However, when that controversy is analysed properly and considered, it can be seen that

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science must not be stopped by some doubters and heretics. It must be allowed to progress as it has done over the centuries.

Scientists have a strong responsibility to ensure that they do not transgress moral or proper boundaries, and I wish to draw some parallels between genetically modified foods and the use of the human embryo and cloning. We accept that there is a need for responsibility and that there are boundaries beyond which we should not go. Experiments, especially in relation to genetically modified foods, must be contained and I am sure that the containment of those experiments for environmental reasons will be raised later in the debate by members of the Environmental Audit Committee.

Secondly, we recommended in our report that there must be openness with the public especially customers and users, about all genetically modified experiments. I must emphasise, however, that when the one genetically modified product was on the market--tomato paste made from genetically modified tomatoes--it was labelled clearly and became a fast seller, outselling by far conventional tomato paste. Consumers considered it to be better in flavour and texture than conventional tomato paste. Sales continued until scare stories began and consumers were persuaded not to use the product.

Thirdly, there must be honesty from scientists who are working in the genetically modified area. They must ensure before they publish their findings that they are reviewed by their peers and that their experiments are repeatable. I say that because genetically modified foods have been set back by the work of Dr. Pusztai, whose experiments have not been replicated and have not received peer approval. Politicians must be honest, too. It is not honest of them to describe genetically modified foods as "Frankenstein foods; that is emotive and non-scientific. It does not give much honour to scientists to use the expression and is of no help to science and its consequences. While on the subject of honesty, I must mention newspaper reporting. On 26 April 1999, the Daily Mail carried a massive scare headline, "Scientists warn of GM crops link to meningitis. Such a link is tenuous, if it exists at all. It will be dealt with by the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard).

My fourth point concerns the morality of the experiments and their consequences. More important still is the morality of having knowledge that is vital to human beings, but not using it. For example, what would have happened 150 years ago if we had had the technology that we have now, whereby we put genes from snowdrops into potatoes to stop them rotting in the ground? If we had known that, by doing that, we could stop potato famine in Ireland, would it have been right to say that experimentation should not be done, or to say that it should be done, thereby preventing deaths and misery?

If we know that we can develop crops that will give two or three yields a year rather than one, are we right, knowing that there is a shortage of food and many mouths to feed in Asia, not to pursue such experiments? If we can develop crops that will grow on one half or one quarter of the amount of water that they currently require, do we have the moral right not to develop such crops, bearing in mind the famine and starvation in the horn of Africa? Morality has two sides: that of

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experimentation and that of not experimenting. Do we have the right to withhold the developed world's science from the under-developed world's population?

The objections to genetically modified foods arise mainly because people in this country do not perceive the benefits of such foods. I referred earlier to the mobile phone report. It is said that the transmitters pose risks and that there are even risks from the hand-held sets which, after all, are transmitters as well as receivers. We could not show or prove any hazards. But no one complains about mobile telephones, because they are of massive benefit to the population. I nearly said genetically modified telephones and perhaps that is what I should have said. People in this country object to genetically modified foods because they cannot see the benefit.

Before concluding, I want to refer to the Government's response to our report. I am pleased to say that they welcomed and received our report very well. They state:

The first half of the last century was the era of the internal combustion engine, which led to road and air transport. The second half of the last century was dominated by electronics, computers and information technology, which gave us the ability to solve high labour-intensive problems, such as the genome project. I believe that the first half of this century will be the age of biotechnology, when we learn to combat, prevent, cure or even eliminate many diseases. The United Kingdom has a significant contribution to make. There are financial and economic benefits to the UK from genetic modification and biotechnology. There are social, welfare and health benefits, as well. The widely despised GM maize may well come to be seen as the seed-corn of the 21st century, and the controversy associated with it will pale into insignificance compared with the many benefits that are likely to accrue.nb

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to initiate this debate.

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2.43 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): It is appropriate that we are discussing genetically modified organisms today because it was about a year ago when they began to hit the headlines in a very serious way. I am saying genetically modified organisms deliberately--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Someone has an electronic device. Will he or she deal with it immediately? The rules on the matter apply just as much in this Chamber as they do in the main Chamber of the House.

Mr. Horam : I say deliberately genetically modified organisms, which does not yet include genetically modified phones--regrettably, in view of what has just happened.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Terminator gene.

Mr. Horam : I am indebted to the hon. Gentleman--a terminator gene might be very welcome indeed.

About a year ago, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised eyebrows during Prime Minister's Question Time by introducing the subject of GMOs. I remember that the Lobby correspondents and parliamentary sketch writers were somewhat amazed at how such a brilliant man as my right hon. Friend, who is so excellent during Prime Minister's Question Time, could have made such a serious mistake. What were GMOs and why was he introducing such a trivial topic at such an important time? There was some puzzlement in the Press Gallery, but my right hon. Friend's finger was right on the button. They were and remain a matter of considerable concern to the public. I remember the Prime Minister's bewildered reaction. He almost began say that biotechnology was a good modern industry, and to ask what the fuss was about. The right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who was the Cabinet enforcer at the time, followed up rather more aggressively by saying that GMOs involved the biotechnology industry, in which we had invested a great deal and on which Britain was the leader, so he could not understand why everyone was complaining. The Government had been caught off balance by the public concern about the issue, and they remained so for some time.

We then began to notice--certainly the Environmental Audit Committee did--that there was another voice in the debate, not a million miles away from the Minister for the Environment, whom I am glad to see here today. It became apparent that there were two voices in the Government, separated by a chasm. They presented themselves to my Select Committee. The right hon. Member for Copeland gave evidence first and was clearly sticking to the remit of the biotechnology industry, whether it be good or bad. The Minister for the Environment came along, in the company of his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who at the time was a Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and it became clear that there was a certain discordance.

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The Environmental Audit Committee made some sensible suggestions. First, we suggested that there should be an overarching advisory committee to consider not only the science of the issue, but ethical and environmental questions, so that we would get a clear, strategic picture of the position. Secondly, we suggested that we should not proceed from field trials of GMOs to commercial plantings until everyone was fully satisfied that the results were satisfactory and could be released to commercial use.

Since then, the Government have described what I call a gentle parabolic curve towards the position adopted by my Committee; I am very glad of that. The announcement late last year that there would be two strategic commissions considering these matters--one concentrating on health issues and the other on the environment--is extremely welcome. However, there is still some way to go--as there always is.

I have some questions for the Minister and I want to make some points about what needs to be done. First, I want to raise the issue of handling the press--a point that was made strongly by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. In our report we call for an improved information strategy to address what was acknowledged by the Minister to be media hysteria on the issue. I do not mean a Charlie Whelan performance, with a pint of beer in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, outside the Red Lion, bellowing in blue language to a poor old hack that he had not understood the import of the article, and that what the Prime Minister said was that he would not enter the euro this year, even though he had said that he would in the article. I do not mean that sort of a spin-doctoring performance. I am sure that the Minister for the Environment has been around for far too long to stoop to such new Labour tactics. Does he even agree with such tactics? I am sure that he does not.

In the run-up to further problems with the media, the Government should have a clear view of the risk involved. There are questions of risk, whether we are talking about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, GMOs or whatever. The Government should say how far they are prepared to go with public health, the environment and so on, and begin to educate the press--and the public--on the serious issues. They should set a framework in which future controversy can be contained.

I have not heard a clear Government statement of the benefits of biotechnology. I have read a lot from Sir Robert May, the chief scientific officer on the subject. He has clearly stated his view, but we have not had a clear Government statement. We noted in our report that Baroness Young said that it was her

Why are the Government not prepared to make a significant effort to push science in the direction of greater sustainability? My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee clearly stated

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that science and technology have a role in tackling the big environmental problems that the world faces. I, too, believe that they have a role, which is why I support experimentation. For example, the internal combustion engine has been much improved during the last decade or so; we have been able to cut pollution with new technology.

My hon. Friend and I also believe that world climate changes may cause problems in feeding the world population and that GMO technology may help us deal with it. However, the science must be properly handled. Monsanto is a chemicals company, and its prime short-term aim is, obviously, to maximise its sale of chemicals--herbicides, pesticides and so on. It is unlikely to devote a sizeable effort to reducing the need for pesticides or producing crops that need less water, which is certainly something that we may need in future. I know from my time as Minister with responsibility for science in the previous Government that the facilities available to the Government to push science in the right direction are considerable. The science Minister has his own budget and can set his own spending priorities, although individual spending decisions are taken by academics in the various research councils. Technology foresight allows agreement to be achieved between industry, academia and the Government on the way forward and what is practical.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has its own science budget, and public funding of science is available to push science in the right direction, yet the right hon. Member for Perry Barr, then Minister for Food Safety, stated openly to our Committee that it was for the biotechnology industry to take science forward--a hands-off, free-trade approach. I am surprised that a Government even as right-wing as today's are prepared to go quite so far in the direction of Adam Smith that they want to let all the flowers bloom and not interfere. The right hon. Gentleman spoke emphatically on behalf of the Ministry, but even the strategic commission that the Government have set up makes no mention of the need to encourage sustainable agriculture. Surely, that is an essential part of a proper, overarching view of what we should be doing.

It is not that the Government refuse to push science in the right direction in other areas. For instance, combined heat and power and renewable energy are exempted from the climate change levy--the non-fossil fuel levy, first imposed by the previous Government. An attempt is clearly being made to arrive at solutions using other energy sources that are environmentally sensible as well as being good science and good commerce. It is a pity that the Government have not grasped that. I hope that the Minister will tell us today what else has been done during the past 12 months and whether more is proposed. That is a fundamental issue.

Finally, the Government are relying heavily on field trials to determine their future policy and to restore public confidence. What are they doing to ensure that those findings are not rubbished by the other side arguing that the trials have not been properly conducted? I understand that the framework for the trials was agreed with the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops--SCIMAC--but that is an industry body. The Government endorsed that and published a code of practice, but disagreements are already surfacing. The Government say that the rules

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are tough, but Friends of the Earth say that they are feeble, unworkable and unenforceable. The Government are unlikely ever to get the agreement of Friends of the Earth on that matter--I fully accept their difficulty--but the Government could at least have consulted English Nature, to gain an element of environmentalist support for the code of practice. Why has that not been done? Why is the Minister confident that, when we come to the end of the experiment in 2002 or 2003, it will not be rubbished by those who feel that they have played no part in drawing up the ground rules for the experiments?

I have no doubt that the Government's second thoughts at the beginning of last year were better than their first thoughts. They have made progress. The danger is that, in the near future, we shall once again hit severe controversy and further headlines of the sort that contribute nothing to a rational debate. In that sense, the contribution that biotechnology can make to sustainable development will be set back.

2.55 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): First, I congratulate both Select Committees on their reports, and on the opportunity that we have to debate them. I also congratulate the Government on their response to that parliamentary scrutiny, public concerns and pressure from the numerous non-governmental organisations on these issues. We have been assured that the three new responsible bodies--the Food Standards Agency, the Human Genetics Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission--will engage stakeholders and the public in debate. Their work will be crucial. I look forward with great interest to finding out when their work is to start. I am sure that many questions will be asked and I hope that we can all participate.

In their response to the reports, the Government reiterated their commitment to consumer choice--which is to be achieved primarily through labelling. They enthusiastically welcomed the European Union commitment to a 1 per cent. threshold, but many consumers were extremely disappointed. Retailers are now able to achieve a 0.1 per cent. threshold and, given that technical feasibility, I hope that the Government will continue to press for a threshold as close to zero as possible. I hope also that they will keep to their commitment for an early review.

I applaud Tesco's recent announcement that it does not wish its suppliers to grow crops in areas that may have been contaminated by crop trials. That may be a marketing ploy, but it is also entirely logical for those who want to offer proper consumer choice.

In response to the findings on the regulatory and advisory systems, the Government repeated their assurance that human health and the protection of the environment were their prime concern. We all endorse that. However, Ministers must understand the reason for our continuing concern--the fact that monitoring is post-release. Millions of people have already eaten GMOs, and they continue to do so. The field trials are set in a living environment, which is why the application of the precautionary principle, as advocated by the

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Environmental Audit Committee, is so crucial. It is why so many NGOs and their parliamentary supporters, including me, have argued for a five-year freeze. That would mean no new imports of GMO foods or crops, no new registrations of GM seeds, no patenting of genetic resources and, of course, no commerical growing in Britain.

Although field trials are important in helping us to reach decisions, they answer only some of the questions. I have no confidence in the good intentions of the companies that brought those new foods to market without public consent, without labelling. In many ways they were scientifically irresponsible. The Government say in their response that they will not allow commercial planting of GM crops until they are absolutely satisfied that there are "no unacceptable effects. That would lead some to ask what would be acceptable effects of GMOs on the environment and human health. The Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Dr. Clark), spoke earlier about the morality of scientists in relation to GM foods. In my view, there was no morality in companies using antibiotic markers in their gene transfers, when we all know that the world is fighting desperately to secure and protect the use of antibiotics in human health and when, even in our own country, hospitals are fighting against superbugs.

For all those reasons, many of us will continue to be extremely concerned, even those of us who have some scientific knowledge and who are generally supportive of science and keen that it should be allowed to progress. Science cannot be allowed to progress at any price, and that is what our debate is about. The hon. Member for Rayleigh also mentioned the possibility that transferring snowdrop lectin to potatoes could have prevented the potato famine--a possibility that requires a huge jump of imagination and has nothing to do with science. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that research was recently undertaken in Dundee on snowdrop lectin, which found that it combines with the human white blood cell? That could be of enormous significance in terms of the immune system. We do not know anything further than the results of that initial research, but it has been peer-reviewed and is important.

Dr. Michael Clark : I should like to make a correction. I did not say that the transfer of snowdrop lectin would have prevented the potato famine. I asked whether, if we had known that it could have done, we would have been morally right 150 years ago to prevent such an experiment from taking place. I do not know whether it would have prevented the famine--I presented it as an example of an "if.

Joan Ruddock : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that correction. However we know that there is research demonstrating that there is real reason for concern; thus the assumption that the kind of gene transfer that has already taken place constitutes definitive progress is not yet proven. That is the case that I am making.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Had a foodstuff containing lectin, about which there is such doubt, been marketed for consumption, my hon. Friend would be justified in complaining that the regulatory system was completely awry. However, that is not the

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case and she should not imply that it is. Would she deny the opportunity of developing genetically modified crops--such as bananas--that can contain cholera vaccine or crops that are modified to have high levels of vitamin A, which could save many people in developing countries from going blind?

Joan Ruddock : My hon. Friend suggests that those are realities, but as yet they are all just experiments in laboratories and it is quite unscientific to suggest that we can now produce those developments without risk. The research into their adverse effects has not been carried out. The series of laboratory experiments conducted on insect-tolerant Bt maize, for example, have demonstrated that the insecticide produced by that plant as a result of genetic engineering is leaking into the soil. That was unknown and unresearched prior to the crop being grown. My hon. Friend does no justice to her case by suggesting that those developments are a reality.

In answer to my hon. Friend's question, such developments are possible; I would not deny that. However, there is no reason to presume that they will come to the fore and be positive advances in treating people with disease or in solving the food problems of developing countries. The food problems in developing countries are due not to shortage of food, but to problems with distribution and with control and ownership of land.

Several hon. Members rose--

Joan Ruddock : I know that many hon. Members want to speak and I wanted to be brief; I am not the presenter of either of the reports. I am more than willing to give way to the hon. Members who have just risen, but I ask other hon. Members not to complain if I then take more time than I might otherwise have done.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Will my hon. Friend add to her list of the major causes of food shortage in the third world loss in storage and loss from pests? Those problems might be resolved in many ways, one of which is genetic modification of crops.

Joan Ruddock : I am perfectly happy with that intervention and I will take the next one.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): In discussions that I was fortunate enough to have with some Indian farmers at the beginning of last year, they pointed out that they have a real concern about blindness, but that there are other possible solutions to that problem. One of the most significant of those would be simply to stop spraying crops in the fields with pesticides, which would be extremely helpful. Wonder solutions are not the same as sustainable solutions. In regard to blights, the agenda being set in the developing world is much more about using plant diversity to deal with infestation management systems, than about the pursuit of monocultures, which inevitably produce their own new blights.

Joan Ruddock : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would add that it is paternalistic to think

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that we in the west should decide that people in developing countries should have vitamin A-enhanced rice. I think that people in developing countries would like more diversity in their diet and I am opposed to a deliberately engineered mono-diet.

The Government have said, quite rightly, that the farm trials results have to be made available before any decision is taken on unrestricted planting. In one of their responses, they laid out details of the consents that are required--that there has to be approval of the herbicide to be used in herbicide-tolerant crops, that the seeds have to be entered on the seed register and that there has to be Europewide marketing consent.

I found it difficult to follow the responses to the two different reports, so I wish to put a question to the Minister. In response to the Environmental Audit Committee, the Government said, in reference to oilseed rape that is under trial, that if a European marketing consent were granted,

I also ask my right hon. Friend to clarify the Government's explanation in that response for the use of AgrEvo's herbicide-tolerant maize, which already has European marketing consent. The Government's argument seems to imply that further consents could be given during the period of the crop trials. Will the Government permit the seeds of herbicide-tolerant maize to be registered during the period of crop trials? Will the Government approve the herbicides that would be used if it were to be grown commercially? Will that be done in advance of the completion of the trials? If so, not only will it involve public expense, but it would seem to go against the precautionary principle to which the Government adhere. During crop trials, the Government should vote against marketing consent for crops involved in the trials that do not already have such consent, as they have the power to do in the European Union. They should stop the progression of crops through seed regulation, and should not approve any of the pesticides involved.

In their responses, the Government, rightly, deal with all the details of containment, regulation, testing and labelling, subjects about which the hon. Member for Rayleigh has spoken. However, the Government must remember that we are locked into that process only because biotech companies went to the marketplace with untried and untested products.

Throughout Europe, Governments are trying extemely hard to catch up with the biotechnology industry. In focusing on doing that, it becomes difficult to see the bigger picture, but a picture there is. Although support from the public and business for genetic engineering in pharmaceuticals and medicines in the wider sense continues, rightly, to thrive, the opposite is true for GM food and crops. Although demand and markets for organic produce greatly outstrip supply in

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the UK, there is virtually no market for genetic modification of food. Furthermore, we have no food shortage in Europe; on the contrary, we have an embarrassing surplus. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister and hon. Members to keep that bigger picture in mind as they deliberate.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend. Does she oppose genetically modified food per se? If not, what information would satisfy her anxieties about the safety of such products that would subsequently allow her to endorse their use wherever it might be most beneficial?

Joan Ruddock : I do not oppose genetic engineering per se, but, as I have already made clear, many issues are not being dealt with and many fundamental experiments are not being carried out. As my hon. Friend has raised the subject, I take the opportunity to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister again what progress has been made in devising a means to monitor human health. At present we have no means of monitoring the consequences for human health of eating genetically modified food.

Much work remains to be done. Because I want to progress, I shall not go into further detail, but I assure my hon. Friend that many environmental aspects have not yet been resolved. Comparisons should be made in terms of sustainable agriculture and biodiversity between the effects of GM crops and those of conventionally grown non-GM crops and organic crops. The simplest way to reduce the rate of decline in biodiversity is to grow organic, rather than GM or non-GM, conventional crops. No proof has yet been provided that GM crops will give us what we require for sustainable agriculture. For those many reasons, I continue to worry about GM crops.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Following on from the previous intervention, does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty in the debate over the past two years--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam) : Order. An electronic device seems to be operating. If the hon. Member responsible does not know how to switch it off, he should remove either the batteries or the device.

Mr. Chaytor : The problem is that anxiety about the effects of GM food has seemed incompatible with support for biotechnology as a key science of the coming century. We need to shift the paradigm slightly so that it can be perfectly reconcilable to support biotechnology in principle and appreciate its potential value while accepting that the precautionary principle must underlie the development of GM food, as with other biotechnologies.

Does my hon. Friend further agree that next week's conference in Montreal to negotiate the biosafety protocol is a key moment whereat the precautionary principle can be firmly embedded in international agreements? It could be the first international

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environment agreement of the new millennium, and I hope that she and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will refer to it.

Joan Ruddock : Sometimes I explain the problem by saying that if something goes wrong when we are taking pills, we can stop, but if something goes wrong with food, we may not know how to stop. A big divide exists between the use of genetic engineering in contained systems, as in the pharmaceutical industry, and the release of GMOs into the environment and the consequences of the unlabelled and unregulated distribution of crops, seeds and foods that has been taking place around the world.

The Government are pre-eminent in their attack on regulatory regimes and the means by which we attempt to make our environment and people safe; I pay great tribute to them for everything that they are doing. However, the same is not true of Governments around the world, which brings me to the biosafety protocol. In the history of disputes in which the environment has been set against trade, trade has always won. That must not happen in the case of GMOs. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister agrees with me on that, and that the Government opposed tying GMOs into the World Trade Organisation framework, which we applaud. I hope that he will go to Montreal and be robust in his defence of the right of all nations to say no to the import of GMOs. That right is necessary for our own protection, for our national interest and the environment and health of our people, and it should be available to every other nation, especially developing nations, which face the greatest threat in terms of loss of biodiversity and have the greatest anxieties about control by multinational companies of their agriculture. Thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker.


Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I, too, extend my gratitude to the two Select Committees that produced the reports. If I intimate that I prefer the conclusions of one or the other, that is not to denigrate either in terms of the work involved and the careful consideration of important issues. I welcome the Minister, who has been a beacon of common sense in this matter when others have been perhaps slightly over-enthusiastic in various ways. I am sure that we are all grateful to him for his work on the biosafety protocol, to which I shall return.

Genuine anxieties have been expressed to a much greater extent, not only in Parliament but by members of the public, as a realisation of what is involved has become more widespread. I am keen to consider this important aspect of biotechnology on the basis of facts rather than superstition. I simply do not believe that we need to declare that the sky is about to fall on our heads in order to prove a point that is based purely on science. As a sort of scientist--a bad one, a long time ago--I believe that I have at least some understanding of the framework of science. Perfectly sound arguments need to be adduced to the debate on the development of GMOs and biotechnology--arguments that do not rely on assertions that cannot be supported by evidence produced through scientific investigation. I do not take the view that GMOs are innately evil and, simply because of their derivation, must be resisted at all costs.

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To do so would be to decry the entire history of breed improvement in agriculture, which would be nonsense. Nor do I suggest that we should put aside the potential benefits, which the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Dr. Clark) described. The technology is important, and Britain has an important stake in it. There are potential benefits to extending research in terms of medicine and agriculture.

The precautionary principle is the basis for addressing issues of concern, as several hon. Members have said. Tests must be applied to assure us that the novel processes, products and organisms pose no threat in terms of safety, health and especially the environment. The technology is revolutionary in many ways. Trans-species manipulation of genetic material has not been considered previously, as it does not naturally occur other than in a limited sense between feral populations of closely related species. Therefore, we are right to consider the matter with extreme care.

Let us consider possible problems and how to address them. If we are to take the subject of food safety seriously, we must distinguish between foods containing genetically manipulated material and foods derived from a genetically manipulated organism. They are not the same. A substance produced by a genetically modified organism could be chemically and physically identical to one produced by an organism that has not been manipulated, so it would be nonsense to suggest that there might be differentiation between them based on the organism from which they have been derived. That does not apply to the ingestion of genetic material that has been manipulated, which should be tested so that a high level of safety is demonstrable before it is presented to the general population.

I shall not pretend that genetically modified crops necessarily represent an enormous health risk. However we do not know what health risks some of the organisms will present in the long term. There may be short-term risks, especially to people with allergies because we risk introducing unusual allergens into food products that otherwise would not contain them. Tests must be done to satisfy us that that is not the case.

More importantly, we must give the public the right to choose what they ingest. We must allow them the right to take risks even though some would say that there are no risks. That can be achieved only by effective labelling, so that people know what they are being asked to buy, and, if it is realistic, proper segregation. We know already the history of soya in the United States and the extent to which there has been a mingling of supplies. People find it difficult to know whether they are eating genetically modified products.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I agree almost entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that we hear much about managerialisation of Government? To some extent, that is the consumer reaction--it is democratising the consumption process. Nothing can be wrong with that if consumers have the choice and the right to be secure in the knowledge that what they eat will not do them harm.

Mr. Heath : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. The watchword is "Trust the people. Doing so involves giving them adequate

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information on which to make an informed choice. I do not believe that such information is now in the public domain or that the public can make informed choices. They are not aware of what they eat. That applies to directly produced foods, but we must also bear in mind the feed given to livestock and the meat derived from it, so segregation is important.

The most obvious environmental aspect was alluded to by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who made an extremely helpful contribution. Non-contained experimentation and commercial planting of crops risk genetic contamination. Until we can be satisfied that surrounding flora and fauna are not being contaminated, we must be sure that such contamination would not cause adverse environmental effects.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Will the hon. Gentleman explain the difference on the subject between GM crops and ordinary conventional crops? Are the problems any different?

Mr. Heath : They might not be different. If a conventional crop is placed where it is not native and is surrounded by species to which it is not normally neighbour, risks apply. Trans-species genetic manipulation, especially from animals to plants, introduces an extreme element of risk. It is risk, not proven effect, but we must take it into account.

Genetically manipulated crops may offer an initial benefit, but produce changes to the growing regime used for the husbandry of the crop. We do not know yet whether there will be reduced or increased herbicide use, or whether there will be changes in crop rotation patterns. We know that such matters should be investigated and that we should have clear protocols for continuation.

Dr. Starkey : Would the hon. Gentleman explain why he suggests that there should be restrictions on genetically modified crops to control changes in agricultural practices? There is no such control on farmers who change to agricultural practices that might be detrimental to the environment, such as intensive agriculture.

Mr. Heath : The effects of intensive agriculture on the environment are self-evident and have not been to its advantage. There is no difference in kind between one adverse effect on the environment and another. I am simply postulating that herbicide-resistant crops would logically result in the application of herbicide to reduce weeds between the crops. Therefore, herbicide use would increase and you would effectively produce a monoculture surrounded by a desert. To me, that is not an advance in agricultural practice and is not environmentally beneficial. I accept that that can happen by other means and will be equally adverse. That is a subject on which you--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman has introduced "you a few times into the debate, none of them cloned so far as I know. When he addresses the Chamber, he should use the third person. By referring to "you, he is referring to me, and I have not used herbicide for years.

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Mr. Heath : I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was using "you in the impersonal sense of "one rather than the personal sense. I have no knowledge of your agricultural or horticultural pursuits, so I would not wish to ascribe anything to you.

The third potential problem is the environmental, social and ethical problem, to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford referred: the potential effect on developing countries. Is it beneficial for those countries to have these new crop varieties, as may well be the case, or is it linking them inevitably into a trade position that is to their long-term social disadvantage and may be to the environmental disadvantage of their country? That is why we need to hold tests.

It is not sensible to say that there should be no tests. Without tests one cannot obtain the scientific evidence needed either to support or to refute the positions that I have advanced. I shall set aside the question of contained experiments for the moment because I have no problem with them; they are a sensible and useful way forward. What is needed before the okay is given to farm-scale trials to proceed is an absolutely rock-solid protocol. First, it should ensure credible results that are transferable to other situations; and, secondly, it should ensure that the trials themselves do not represent a danger either to the local environment or the health of the local population. I am not yet satisfied that such a protocol is in place.

There is some support for that position, as the Minister well knows, from those who are interested in environmental matters. Indeed, a report published today is of considerable importance. I hope that he has read that report and can respond to it. It looks at pollen dispersal patterns and the potential for hybridisation of a series of plants that are candidates for GM trials. It suggests that the current isolation zones are wholly inadequate to prevent both dispersal and inter-fertilisation with feral varieties, particularly oilseed rape, although sugar beet and maize also present genuine problems. If we have question marks about basic elements such as buffer zones, we need to go back to the drawing board to ensure that the design of these experiments is right before we have a massive increase in the number of farm trials held around the country.

There are several concerns about the Government's position. As I suggested earlier, I partially absolve the Minister for the Environment of responsibility for some of those, although in collective terms, of course, he has a responsibility. There has been a disregard in part for the precautionary principle espoused by the Government in what has happened to date. It is not acceptable simply to trust the experimental evidence produced by a company such as Monsanto on its own crops without having it corroborated by extensive research elsewhere.

We have not had a balanced debate in this country. The Government have acted as cheerleaders for this technology, but that is not what the public expect from them, nor is it founded in a sensible assessment of the pros and cons of the technology. The Government have not yet taken sufficient interest in the design of the trials to ensure that they provide that credible basis for future research. The moratorium that was eventually wrung out of the Government is voluntary and therefore has no real meaning. In fact, it is more likely to be sustained by commercial and public pressures than by anything the

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Government may choose to do. It is not based on the length of time needed to obtain credible scientific results that can be used to establish the safety of commercial planting.

We have the Government's basic dictum that no unrestricted cultivation of GM crops in Britain will be allowed. That is reassuring, but what does it say about restricted cultivation of GM crops in Britain? Will that go ahead and to what extent will crops be allowed to enter the food chain? The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford drew attention to AgrEvo maize, which has commercial marketing consents. Is it likely to be proposed for the national seed list? Is commercial use of AgrEvo maize in this country imminent? The labelling threshold is a welcome innovation, as far as it goes, but 1 per cent. is a high figure. Retailers are running far ahead of the Government and the industry in what they are prepared to do. We have the MAFF surveillance programme, which is looking not at the observance of segregation but at whether the claims can be justified at retail level. That seems a cock-eyed way of using the Government's resources to ensure safety.

I shall end by talking about the biosafety protocol. The meeting is coming up in Montreal on 28 January. Will the Minister attend it?

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher ) indicated assent.

Mr. Heath : I am glad about that. Without ministerial attendance and the political impetus that it can provide, the talks are unlikely to succeed. It is very important that we establish in those talks a realistic hierarchy between the biosafety protocol, the World Trade Organisation and other multilateral agreements. It is important that we establish the precautionary principle on an international as well as a national basis. It is important that we establish where liability lies if the technology at some point, somewhere in the globe, ends with a disaster of one kind or another. It is important that we establish the principle that developing countries should not be put at either short-term or long-term disadvantage by the interests of corporate America or anywhere else that wished to unload a technology that is to its commercial advantage but may not be to the environmental or social advantage of developing countries.

This has been a useful debate. We could explore other areas that are important in terms of biotechnology such as gene patenting and TRIPS, the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights agreement, but it is more important to focus on key issues relating to GM crops. I hope that the Minister will not only give some reassurance today, but tell us what the Government intend to do to ensure that the future development of this technology is based on safety, environmentalism and a precautionary principle to which we all, I hope, subscribe.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I suggest that if hon. Members stick to around 10 minutes it will be possible to fit in everyone who has risen, but if they do not, it will not.

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3.39 pm

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I shall do my best to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In welcoming the debate this afternoon, I want to try to put it into context. The issue of time and the short and long terms has been mentioned, and various hon. Members have suggested how this debate arose.

I should like to take the clock back to the days before the Westminster Hall Chamber and its horseshoe setting of seats--the purpose of which was to try to bring together the different parties so as to reach agreement on how we might proceed--and recall a meeting of the Globe group which I attended with colleagues just over a year ago. Many of us have felt a sense of time running out in relation to this debate. Some of us were fortunate to be able to attend a meeting of Globe UK at which we heard about what was taking place in Brazil. We were told that it was possible to supply non-GM soya, but that, because of the imminent planting season and the threat of an inability to differentiate between non-GM soya and GM soya, the choice could be taken from us. That would mean that United Kingdom retailers would no longer be able to find a source of non-GM soya.

Whatever views the hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who is sitting beside me and who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, has about how the debate began, those events at the Globe meeting and my sense of my own biological clock ticking away as I approach my 50th birthday, made me want to do something to give the issues being debated in Parliament some resonance with people outside the House. By coincidence, I was fortunate to win an Adjournment debate which just happened to be on the same morning as the Leader of the Opposition asked a question about GM foods.

I want to consider what has taken place since I was fortunate enough to introduce that Adjournment debate on 20 February. At long last, discussion is out in the open, and the bottom line is that this is a debate about trade liberalisation, environmental protection and sustainable development. We heard a little while ago from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, who remarked that we are now in the age of biotechnology. I should like to think that we are in the age of sustainability and that we shall use our concern about the environment and our desire to implement the precautionary principle to underpin all that we do. I particularly welcome today's debate because I feel that the work of the two Select Committees has led to a much more informed public discussion in the period since the events of almost 12 months ago.

I am delighted that the Environmental Audit Committee agreed to hold its own brief inquiry, whose results we debate today. I also want to put on record my thanks to the staff of the offices that service Select Committees. I hope that in the coming months Select Committees will take a much more proactive role in influencing Government policies by bringing together Ministers and parliamentarians. Select Committees are an important means of doing that.

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This collaborative debate, with colleagues who are members of the two Select Committees here in force along with other hon. Members, adds force to the debate about GMOs and where we go from here. There has already been a transformation, from the atmosphere of the combative question put to the Prime Minister on the afternoon of my Adjournment debate last year to the much more considered and constructive engagement between different parties in the House, and between those of us of differing environmental persuasions. My hope is that we will bring everyone together and underpin everything we do with a precautionary principle. That way all of us will be part of the solution. The discussion cannot be divided from the international sphere and the many varied developments that have occurred throughout the year.

As we discuss the first report of our own Science and Technology Committee, I remind colleagues that we engaged with a wide range of organisations that are now fully part of the on-going debate. I hope that they will be part of the solution, along with the Minister. The fact that there is now a Government information website on the subject of GM foods means that all who gave evidence to our inquiries are much better placed as equal partners to be part of the way forward. We consulted extensively organisations such as the Countryside Agency, the Environment Agency, the Environment Council, Greenpeace, the Institute of Biology, Friends of the Earth, the Institute of Directors, the National Farmers Union, the National Environmental Research Council, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and many more. That reveals the extent to which everyone is coming together in the debate.

The starting point of our inquiry was the evidence that the Government had inherited an issue about which previously there had been little joined-up thinking between Departments. On a couple of occasions during our inquiry, it was felt that there was still not as much joined-up thinking between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions as we would have liked. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has taken gigantic steps towards bringing about such thinking across Departments. He is to be congratulated on that.

At the outset, there was a reluctance to jeopardise trade at the expense of the precautionary principle, and to upset vested interests. There was also an acceptance that perhaps too great account had to be taken of focus groups whose members probably did not understand that environmental concerns resonate throughout the population of the UK. Our inquiry has helped to assemble a much wider and more informed public debate in which we can create an agenda and ensure that this overdue debate continues.

Our questions today are as pertinent as they were a year ago. Of all the issues that the Environmental Audit Committee discussed I want to concentrate most on international issues. I want to know what scope the UK and the EU have for policy initiatives and what prospects there are for multinational agreements and

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the release of GMOs into the environment, with special reference to the World Trade Organisation and the general agreement on tariffs and trade's disciplines and obligations. One conclusion of the Environmental Audit Committee was:

    "The explicit subordination of a multinational environmental agreement such as the Biosafety Protocol to agreements on international trade rules would be a deeply unfortunate precedent to set. We recommend that the Government must take every effort to revive the negotiations on the protocol and bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. I was extremely pleased with that conclusion.

The Minister for the Environment has indicated that he will be the UK's delegate to the Montreal negotiations, which begin on 20 January; perhaps he will confirm that when he replies to the debate. I should be grateful if he would also tell the House of the latest position on the biosafety protocol, bearing in mind the debacle that occurred during the EU's negotiations in Seattle and the failed talks in Cartagena before that. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work in rescuing something of the situation in Seattle. I understand that the EU's Environment Commissioner paid no regard whatever to the previous consensus among other European representatives there.

Can the Minister tell the House who else will attend the biosafety protocol meeting on 20 January? Will he also confirm that it will be a genuine opportunity to pre-empt the implementation of any previous decision of the WTO? We need to be told what steps are being taken to prevent a repeat of the events in Seattle. We certainly cannot have the EC trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, appeasing the United States of America by proposing a WTO biotechnology working group. Fundamental to today's debate is the need for a United Nations protocol--a need to prevent at all costs WTO dominance of multilateral environmental agreements. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), I want this to be the first multilateral environmental agreement of the new millennium.

The proposed biosafety protocol, if agreed, would allow national Governments to regulate trade in GMOs, to restrict trade in them on environmental health grounds and to set rules for liability and labelling. It would protect the interests of consumers and primary food producers, and set limits to the activities of multinational biotech companies. Today's debate comes at exactly the right time. It will set the scene and give added strength to the Minister in Montreal. Our Government should insist on the agreement, so that people all over the world can have the right to say no to GMOs. There is growing support worldwide for that fundamental right. Public opinion is better informed than ever, especially as a result of the internet. In our global society there is greater awareness than ever before.

The other main issue is the Select Committee's recommendations on labelling. To recap, we predicted an ever-growing demand for information about the food that we eat--both its constituent ingredients and the wider impact of the processes by which it is produced. Labelling for process is a valuable goal and we urged the Government to achieve it. Organisations such as Greenpeace rightly reminded us that GM crops,

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in the form of animal feed, are getting into the food chain through the back door. Despite a proposed EU regulation for labelling on animal feed, there is still no requirement to label feed or the food products of animals fed on GM crops.

The Government have responded to the Select Committee recommendations, but I would welcome confirmation that they will continue to press the EC for rules on GM-free labelling and for proposals on the labelling of animal feed. That has been on the table since 1996. I am uneasy about this sentence in the Government's response:

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Does my hon. Friend have any evidence of the harmful consequences of animal feed products being brought into the food chain? Proteins are broken down inside animals to individual amino acids and then reconstituted for the food that we imbibe ourselves. What evidence does my hon. Friend have that that process harms the human race?

Ms Walley : I do not have any such evidence. However, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham. Deptford (Joan Ruddock), I want to ensure that all risk assessment is under way, so that new processes can be investigated on a step-by-step basis. That should not be pre-empted because of a failure to synchronise the right precautions and have them in place at the right time. We are being rushed into production without having had the necessary step-by-step research and review.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend, but I remind her of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). To be satisified that no risk is associated with GM food, she will need to understand the potential risks of every aspect of GM food's relationships to other bodies or lives. Does she believe that science today is advanced enough to provide that understanding? If not, what sort of information will make her confident that, as far as can be determined, no safety implications are associated with the digestion of GM foods or their subsequent realisation through animal feed stock?

Ms Walley : The important point is that we are dealing simultaneously with food safety and environmental diversity. During the Select Committee inquiry, we explored in detail--with English Nature and Baroness Young--some of the wider environmental issues. We are not talking solely about the implications of--

3.56 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.11 pm

On resuming--

Ms Walley: In response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas),

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who has not had chance to return from voting in the Division, I want to make the point that we must be sure that we are not dealing with irreversible actions. We must consider that, as with BSE, we do not know about incubation periods. We must not let a genie out of a bottle that we cannot put back again. That is why I am convinced that we must proceed on a step-by-step, sure and steadfast basis. We should take precautions, rather than have to worry when it is too late, as with BSE.

I welcome paragraph 35 of the Science and Technology Committee report, which reinforces the need for regulations to include requirements for animal feed and meat products. I hope that we will make good progress and, if possible, place a European agreement on the statute book. If necessary, we should pre-empt action in Europe by ensuring that we take the lead.

The food industry and retailers have already taken action. Only last month, the United Kingdom's largest retailer, Tesco, announced that its target was the complete eliminaton of GM ingredients from animal feed, to be achieved using forms of segregated non-GM soya from Brazil. Consumer-led demand can bring about changes in retailing, which can make a world of difference.

I remind everyone of the interdependence of all that we do. I end as I began--with Brazil. After the Adjournment debate that I initiated last January, I and other parliamentarians in the Globe group had the privilege of meeting a delegation from the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, led by Mr. Hoffman, who is its Secretary of Agriculture. The aim of that visit to Europe was to assess the demand for GM produce and to protect further the democratic development option, in which the state and its citizens protect their sovereignty over their own agricultural sector and food supply systems.

It is important that Brazil has, so far, maintained a non-GM policy because of a federal court ruling that bans the commercial planting of GM crops until a full environmental impact study has been conducted. Again, full environmental impact studies and the time to produce proper results are crucial.

Dr. Lynne Jones : Will my hon. Friend explain why she is calling for proper environmental impact assessments while expressing reservations about farm trials and talking about the need for a moratorium on such trials in this country?

Ms Walley : I support the five-year moratorium on commercial planting, but it is important that research is done to find out how to proceed with certainty.

We have seen a victory for consumer choice in the United Kingdom. The refusal of the United States agriculture business to segregate GM crops meant that they were, in effect, being force-fed to consumers. Maintaining Brazil as a non-GM source has allowed the food industry to fulfil its wishes, and those of its customers, to have non-GM food.

In urging the Government to press ahead with implementing our recommendations, I shall end with the statement made on 29 December by the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. He called for an agreement at talks in Montreal to send the world a strong message on biosafety and regulating the

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movement of living modified organisms. Success in those negotiations would send a strong and timely signal to the international community that environmental concerns can be satisfied without creating new obstacles to free trade. I hope that today's debate will reinforce Kofi Annan's message. I look forward to the response of my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has done so much already to ensure that we have a proper and informed public debate on the subject.

4.16 pm

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): In this debate it is appropriate to say that, before being elected to the House, I was group research and development manager with Zeneca and so associated with major research development programmes exploring and applying biotechnology.

Genetic modification and biotechnology are not new. For thousands of years, people have been crossbreeding plants to improve the growth, yield and survival of cultivated crops. Anyone visiting a dog show or going to the races sees the results of the selective breeding of animals over many years. Those processes involve trial and error and so are inevitably hit and miss. The revolution that is modern biotechnology began with the immense British achievement of Watson, Crick, Wilkin and Franklin: the discovery in the 1950s of the structure of DNA--the stuff of which genes are made. Genes are the governors of a plant or animal's development and determine characteristics, such as blue eyes, long legs, wide leaves or yellow flowers. It is amazing that many genes are common across all animals and across all plants, and that some are common to both plants and animals. For example, a gene that helps to fight fungal infection is common to scorpions, shellfish and radishes.

During the past 40 years, we have developed techniques to manipulate and transfer genes to achieve effects deliberately, without using the hit-and-miss techniques of plant and animal breeders. At the start, that meant that the time-honoured process of plant breeders could be speeded up, but modern techniques for genetic manipulation go much further than that. Effects can be achieved that could never have been produced by crossbreeding and creating hybrids. Essentially, genetic manipulation is like long division; it is a technique for achieving a particular result. You cannot generalise, as many commentators have done recently, saying that genetic modification is inherently unsafe, any more than you can say that long division is unsafe because it was used in the calculations that led to the atomic bomb.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. It was only my maths teacher at primary school who said that my long division was unsafe at times.

Mr. Beard : I am talking about the generic quality of long division.

Even if it were proved that genetic modification for herbicide resistance was unsafe, it would not mean that it was unsafe when used, for example, to increase the yield of rice; nor would it necessarily be unsafe if a crop were manipulated to tolerate cold weather. Yet those are exactly the absurd generalisations that have become

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common in the media following Dr. Pusztai's appearance on television in a "World in Action programme on 10 August 1998. Dr. Pusztai essentially claimed that genetic modification was unsafe as a technique. That utterly false, irresponsible and discredited claim on television began the media hysteria that has understandably generated public anxiety and reaction against genetically modified food. Before that, there had been no reaction to clearly labelled GM tomatoes. In fact, they had been bought in preference to established varieties of tinned tomatoes.

Of course, there should be concern if such new technology is used to produce crops that are damaging to the environment or food that may be unsafe for the consumer. The public cannot know these things and the Government have a duty to act on their behalf to determine whether a particular genetically modified crop is an environmental or health hazard and, if so, to stop its commercialisation. That has been the recognised duty of Governments in the European Union and Britain for some years.

The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment assess and prevent respectively health hazards and dangers to the environment from genetically modified crops. Both committees comprise some of the most eminent academics and experts in their relevant fields and both have the authority to demand that further tests be done if they are not satisfied on any point when a new genetically modified food is brought before them. It should be emphasised that, under that arrangement for advice to Ministers, there has not been a single case of genetically modified food causing ill health, and no genetically modified crops have yet been permitted to be grown commercially, so they have certainly not damaged the environment.

I am glad that the Select Committee on Science and Technology roundly condemned the unjust attacks that have been made on the public-spirited men and women on the two advisory committees who have served the community well. To promote the view that genetic modification in general should be banned, irrespective of any scientific evidence, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth unjustifiably and unscrupulously attacked the objectivity and competence of the committees and those who serve on them with the vehemence of fundamentalist cults. Now it appears that Greenpeace is ready to vandalise the very fields that will produce evidence on whether genetically modified trees damage the environment. That is not just an abandonment of legality; it is a demand to abandon science and rationality as a foundation of public policy.

The Select Committee made various suggestions for adapting and adjusting the current regulatory system, most of which the Government accept in their response to the report. The predominant need is to establish public confidence in the regulatory arrangements through far greater openness in the way in which the two advisory committees operate. However, that move will be nullified if individual scientists and the media continue to deal with the issue as they have done since Dr. Pusztai's television appearance.

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Dr. Pusztai's experiments, on which he based his televised claims, were incomplete and some had not been carried out at all. His interpretation of his data was disputed within his own Rowett Institute and by an independent statistical analysis which was commissioned by Dr. Pusztai and presented to the Select Committee. Dr. Pusztai contradicted what he had said on "World in Action when he gave public evidence to the Select Committee. None of his work had been reviewed by his peers. The Royal Society had Dr. Pusztai's work reviewed by six of the most eminent authorities in the field. They concluded that his work was

Dr. Gibson : Is my hon. Friend aware that there have been attempts to repeat Dr. Pusztai's experiments, but that they have been unrepeatable?

Mr. Beard : No, I was not aware of that, but it lends force to the point that I was making.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): While we are involved in this character assassination of Dr. Pusztai, will my hon. Friend confirm that, in his evidence, Dr. Pusztai told us that his initial interview with "World in Action was cleared by the Rowett Institute and that his work had now been published in The Lancet, having been peer-reviewed before publication?

Mr. Beard : It has certainly been published in The Lancet but, as The Lancet said, as a means of publicising it and in no way as an endorsement of the results.

Mr. Chaytor : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Beard : No, I will not give way again.

Such coverage was, and is, recklessly irresponsible journalism playing on justified anxiety arising from the BSE scandal.

Modern biotechnology springs from a great British achievement: the discovery of the structure of DNA. Many British scientists have built on that, giving Britain a world lead in science and making us second only to the USA in applying that knowledge through biotechnology. However, public hostility to genetic modification, even under the strict Government regulation that has now been whipped up, puts that position in jeopardy. As a country, we are again in grave danger of inspiring leaders of science but having to watch the USA and Japan reap the economic benefits. That is the context in which the Select Committee asked academia to ensure that scientific staff were able to respond effectively and competently to the media. In their response, the Government accepted that. Concerted action is needed throughout universities. It

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would be appropriate for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to take the lead in recommending how that can best be achieved.

The Select Committe also recommended that media editors and reporters should establish a code of conduct for dealing with scientific information and that it should be endorsed by the Press Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission. The Government do not endorse that recommendation on the grounds that the newspaper industry's code of practice--as overseen by the Press Complaints Commission--the BBC charter and the Independent Television Commission's code of practice already require accuracy and impartiality. However, the Government seem uncharacteristically complacent, as none of those safeguards has had any effect over the past 18 months.

The inadequacy of the Press Complaints Commission is well illustrated by the Select Committee's own complaint about the way in which coverage of this issue has been handled. Perhaps the most blatant distortion of the facts was a Daily Mail headline, which has already been referred to, linking GM foods and meningitis. No evidence was presented in the text to justify the headline: like many of the Daily Mail's headlines on this issue, it was a deliberate scaremongering tactic without factual foundation. The Press Complaints Commission has filibustered and prevaricated over the complaint for months instead of objectively adjudicating as it should. Even if the complaint is now upheld, it is far too late for any rebutal to have an impact. If that is the way in which a complaint from a House of Commons Select Committee is handled, are we to expect the PCC to provide better redress to the scientific community at large?

There is no suggestion by the Select Committee of any limitation on either academic freedom or press freedom; both are essential to a healthy democratic society. However, there is a need for self-discipline by both academics and journalists to avoid abuse of those freedoms. The promotion of public debate on scientific issues is vital if Britain is to build on its immense scientific heritage and benefit fully from the opportunities that are being created. Britain cannot prosper with a public culture that is hostile to science. The past 18 months have shown that neither academia not the media are providing the conditions for that debate. If the Select Committee's mild proposals to create the right conditions are not accepted, it is incumbent on the Government to come up with an acceptable alternative approach. It is not, however, constructive to rely on a Press Complaints Commission of proven inadequacy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call the next speaker, I want to re-issue my warning about time. If speeches continue to be long, not all hon. Members will be able to contribute.

4.29 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I shall try to keep within a more reasonable time frame, especially as many of the points that I want to make have already been covered.

We must debate the subject rationally: we have not yet achieved that. We are making progress and have gone beyond where we were a year ago, when, the debate

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was polarised between unhelpful commercial pressures and those who seemed to assert that genetic modification was morally and religiously indefensible witchcraft.

Monsanto made almost as great a contribution to the public unacceptability of genetically modified foods as did Dr. Pusztai and the way in which his work was used. I am quite glad to see the richly deserved negative effect on Monsanto's stock value--it is nice to see capitalists being hoist by their own petard. Monsanto was pressing the commercial exploitation of GM food technology in a country with no food deficiency--we have a surplus--on the ground of modifications with no human benefit. For food consumers, insect or herbicide resistance is neither here nor there. The company sought entirely commercial benefits of no benefit that the consumer could immediately appreciate. The public might have been more receptive had Monsanto tried to create rice strains that would produce vitamin A or crops that would survive in arid climates and so benefit the third world, but it did not do so. It simply sought profit and thought that, by an expensive advertising campaign, it could get the British public to buy its products. It had the opposite result and it is now virtually impossible to sell GM foods in this country--they have almost disappeared from supermarket shelves.

That result is not necessarily happy because it has set us back. Monsanto should have been more responsible; it got itself and other agri-merchants a bad name by trying to tie farmers to its products. Its use of suicide genes meant that, instead of being able to keep seeds to use the next year, as third-world farmers commonly do, farmers had to buy from the supplier more expensive seed and the products to go with it. It is no wonder that agri-business got itself a bad reputation and it fingers deservedly burnt.

I am afraid that Dr. Pusztai, and those who seized on his evidence, have also done us a great disservice. Dr. Pusztai's starting proposition was perfectly respectable. I do not think that any member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology would argue with the proposition that the development of animal models in which to look for toxic effects of GM foods, or any other food substance, is desirable. There was nothing wrong with that scheme.

Dr. Lynne Jones : Should not the public be pleased that there is Government funding for such research? The results have never been validated, but had they been such projects would never have been exploited.

Dr. Turner : I thank my hon. Friend. It must be remembered that the subject of Dr. Pusztai's experiments was not a modification being developed with a view to commercial exploitation but a modification for use as a test model. Nobody in his right mind would want to rush to market with a potato modified to produce a potent toxin. No sensible person would do that, but Dr. Pusztai was testing such a potato. His first experiments, which received all the publicity, did not even use the genetically modified potato. They used an ordinary potato laced--spiked--with the toxin. You would not expect rats to like that. In addition, the procedures and experiment design that Dr. Pusztai used

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was so bad that all that you could legitimately deduce from his experiments is that potato alone is not an adequate diet for rats. You would say that of feeding human beings on potato alone.

Dr. Gibson : Chips are all right.

Dr. Turner : Well, they have a bit more to them.

The experiment was linked with the press hysteria and misrepresentation that has been referred to. The situation was not helped by the senior management at the Rowett Institute, who handled it badly. They took time to wake up to the fact that the Rowett, a Government-backed institution, had released factually untrue material. We must get away from that, and get down to real evidence for whatever we do in future.

Happily, we have not, so far, faced a real threat in this country because the foods licensed have not done any harm. There is not the remotest evidence of harm to consumers and there have been no crop releases. Campaigners for fixed moratoriums--of three or five years--are being simplistic. It would be much better to take the line of my right hon. Friend the Minister and say that there will be no commercial releases until we have sufficient information on individual crops. It does not matter if that takes three years, five years or longer. There should be no releases until we have the evidence. That is the only proper line to follow, and that is the line that the Science and Technology Committee would endorse.

We should do more to test products than has been done in the past.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I am sorry to interrupt by hon. Friend, but will he explain what additional useful information can be obtained by commercial testing of GM crops in this country that cannot be obtained from tests carried out abroad?

Dr. Turner : The ecological circumstances are different. You cannot translate results from the growing of a field of maize in the United States to our own ecology because ours is much smaller and more diverse. Only about a third of the United States is under cultivation and those areas are separate from wildlife areas. The areas are mixed in the British countryside. You cannot extrapolate from American results to the British countryside. You must demonstrate the effects here. I think that many hon. Members will share that view.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : There have been an awful lot of "yous this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman has got into the habit of using them.

Dr. Turner : I humbly beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall refrain from sheep farming in future.

I was about to say that I want the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes to go beyond the principle of substantial equivalence in assessing the safety of prospective foods, because that is a bit crude and inadequate. We do not want to allow "coulds to remain, or to leave potential hazards uninvestigated. We

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should look at least for evidence from feeding trials, to ensure that no unsuspected toxic effects arise from manipulation. Manipulation is much more precise than hybridisation but it is not all that precise. Science cannot yet control exactly where on a chromosome a gene will be inserted. We cannot be 100 per cent. certain that the effect will be what was intended. We must take that into account and be sure.

I do not have a problem with the precautionary principle--depending on the limits that you set to it. If you were to take it to its logical extension you would test every food that we now eat, many of which are extremely toxic--for instance, if they are not cooked properly. You must be a little sensible and bear in mind that it is impossible to prove--[Interruption.] My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is absolutely impossible to prove a negative: one can only do one's best.

Future regulations perhaps need a little tweaking in the way I have set out, but we have a reasonable Committee structure, especially with the new Committees that have been established, and I have confidence in the Food Standards Agency's approach to the matter--and, from the environmental perspective, that of my right hon. Friend the Minister.

We owe it to the consumer, ourselves and British science--which we must not endanger, because biotechnology is our only real growth industry and it would be folly for the future of the British economy and British jobs to endanger it unnecessarily and on the basis of false accusations--to reach a properly rational position on genetic modification.

4.44 pm

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I congratulate both Committees on the reports that have been presented, and particularly welcome the fact that we are able to consider them jointly. I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister and thank him, even before he has said anything, for the nod that he gave to confirm that he will attend the Montreal conference on biosafety. That is wonderful news for those of us who look for something more substantial than the working agenda that was allowed in Cartagena.

I endorse the report of the Environmental Audit Committee and I have substantial praise for the Science and Technology Committee. Perhaps I may gallop through in the time allowed and identify the matters where there is common cause among those of us who are campaigning for a five-year freeze and the right of consumer choice, and the matters that are open to substantial dispute. The call, in the Science and Technology Committee report, for a full audit trail of GM foods and crops, from seed to supermarket shelf, is welcome; so is the call to define thresholds because it is vital to separate GM from conventional crops. Also important is the call for the right of local discretion to be built into the framework of European rules. Perhaps most important is the demand that the precautionary principle should underpin our approach to a science that applies to medicine and agriculture. It will prove phenomenally helpful if we can also obtain amendments to directive 90/220 to ensure an assessment of the cumulative effect of GMOs and an extension of publicly funded research into their environmental impact. All

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those developments would be as welcome to those who have been campaigning for a freeze as to the supporters of the biotechnology industry's claims.

Less happy is the lack of clarity about where thresholds should be set. The answer has already been provided outside the House and in the marketplace. I understand that Sir Paul McCartney has already taken the decision to move the whole of the Linda McCartney food range out of any contact with GM organisms. The company is setting a threshold of zero and can see no reason to accept any other. To accept any other is like suggesting that it is possible to be a little bit pregnant. The advice is that one should not be pregnant at all if one does not want to be. The public have the right to exercise the choice: something that is said to be GMO free should be exactly that.

Dr. Lynne Jones : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Simpson : I will not, I am afraid, because I want to try to squeeze what I have to say into six minutes.

I am also pleased that many Japanese beer manufacturers have adopted such an attitude: to ensure that their products will be GMO free, they are buying huge acreages of land in the United States. We should not be afraid of setting a zero threshold.

It would have been a help if either or both of the Committees had been able to approach a little closer to the Genetically Modified Food and Producer Liability Bill, which I presented last year, and connect the issue with a direct responsibility: producer liability. I expect that to become one of the most important benchmarking elements by providing commercial linkage. It will produce clarity in the minds of those who say, "This is a wonderful, whizz-bang science and we should charge ahead with it, if they know that they will be financially liable for all consequential damage. I am keen to pursue that approach.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to have a second look at another issue. Before we decide that Codex is the legitimate body in which to invest new responsibilities, it is worth recognising that many of the criticisms of it by the sustainable farming and environment movements are based on its being dominated by commercial interests that have pushed for early and unrestricted release of GMOs into the environment. The structure of Codex may have to be tackled in much the same way that my right hon. Friend has addressed the credibility and independence of some of our scrutiny Committees.

It is wrong, however, to suggest that there must be a strengthening of the novel foods process. It is remarkable what such a scientific revolutionary process can do, but, as a Parliament, we assume wrongly that it cannot be dealt with under the existing regulatory regime. It is mistaken to describe a revolutionary scientific process as though it were a different form of cake decoration. We need new benchmarks against which to scrutinise the possibilities of the science and the consequential risks and damages that may be associated with it. It is not enough to refer to the absence of proof of damage: absence of proof is not proof of absence. It is important to recognise that it is our duty, as people who set the regulatory framework, to stick by the right to exercise precautionary principles and say, without

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being ashamed or apologetic, that claiming the right to buy time to put ourselves in a position to know more is an act of responsibility rather than a missed economic opportunity.

We have committed the dreadful error of allowing the commercialisation of biotechnology processes to drive the time agenda which says that, if we miss out now, the process will be gone for ever. The Science and Technology Committee was right when it said:

Mention has been made of the ability to transform crops; the potato was taken as an example. Companies in the United States are producing genetically modified potatoes with Bt toxin built into them. Such crops produce their own insecticide; they do not need to be sprayed because it is as though insecticide factories are chugging away inside them. We can all buy crops, nutrients for the soil and pesticides from garden centres, but bottles of pesticides have no cooking instructions on their labels. I am concerned about health warnings. We need new scrutiny systems by which to assess genetically modified crops that would deal with the revolutionary change in the scientific base. I am not being anti-science, but the five-year freeze demand is part of the process of buying time for ourselves so that we can act responsibly on the basis of good science rather than poor science.

Some time during early February, we are hoping that Professor Terje Traavik from Tromso university will address a meeting at the House of Commons. He is one of the world's leading scientists and has studied horizontal gene transfer and its risk implications. I should be delighted if my right hon. Friend the Minister could find time in his diary to talk to Professor Traavik during his visit here. It is important that we are familiar with some of the implications and risks of horizontal gene transfer, the extent of which we are only now beginning to understand. That will be a way in which to reconnect the scrutiny process with the uncertainty agenda of the public.

At the end of February, I shall be talking to farmers in the United States about why the European public will refuse to buy their crops. Some of them are now questioning whether they want to grow them. Law firms in that country are initiating class actions for damages from biotechnology companies and I shall want to discuss with them how class actions for damages can be initiated in the United Kingdom. The issue of liability must connect with that of scientific scrutiny.

We know already that an agenda has been formed, without our permission, in the developing world about food sufficiency. It is important for both Select Committees to recognise that to a great extent that is not driven by a clamouring demand for access to genetically modified crops. Much of it is based on the desire to put on the global agenda, first the right to sustainability criteria and, secondly, the right to sufficiency criteria in terms of World Trade Organisation negotiations or what flows from them. Some of those criteria are

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reflected in the demands of the Indian Government that countries be allowed to produce for food sufficiency, rather than be made to leave their markets open either to short-term commercial exploitation to feed the west, or to the long-term transfer of the ownership of their biodiversity to corporate acquisition, which will also do them no favours other than bequeathing long-term gifts of even greater insufficiency and poverty. If my right hon. Friend the Minister intends to bring something to that agenda in Montreal, I hope that it will lead to the balancing of the opportunities that may exist in the science against the risks and rights of other people to determine their own sufficiency and sustainability agenda in future.

Colleagues have warned about the irresponsibility of those who are part of the freeze campaign, but I refer them back to the Asilomar declaration. In 1975, some of the pioneers in biotechnology--the scientists who did the ground-breaking work in that area--said, "We do not know enough about the downside. One of my footballing colleagues was part of that process, but those who did the ground-breaking work said then that there should be a moratorium on the commercialisation of biotechnology until more was known about the broader consequences for human and environmental health, and the impact on the ecosystems on which we all depend.

The moratorium, for which genetic scientists called, was undermined by the companies saying precisely what some hon. Members have said earlier--that unless such matters are pushed ahead, we shall be left behind. The pursuit of crude science for commercial gain, not necessarily for societal or environmental gain, has shifted the agenda to its current position. I am probably one of the greatest admirers of Monsanto because no organisation has helped to move the agenda away from biotechnology and back towards sustainability in the way that it has. I am not advancing an anti-science argument: I am trying to put the case for good science as opposed to poor or crude science. There may be huge potentials in biotechnology and they may be greater in relation to medicine than to agriculture.

A different agenda is opening up about how the world can feed itself sustainably. It is one of the most exciting parts of the broader political agenda of our time. The problem is that, politically, few of us have had the remotest connection with it. National Governments in the industrial world have been among the worst at understanding the new agenda. However, if we trust people just because they are scientists, we shall be judged harshly. We have had enough experience of the best-intentioned advice taking us down catastrophic paths in terms of human health, animal health and environmental damage.

The jury is out on biotechnology. It was not out on Tommy Archer. When he was charged with acts of vandalism about which we have been warned--pulling up GM crops--the jury said that it was a legitimate and socially responsible action in response to the risk of horizontal gene transfer into soil bacteria. Tommy Archer may be proved right and we may prove to have been well behind in understanding the balance between risk and opportunity. Our duty is to exercise a precautionary responsibility towards the people who

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elect us. We must not surrender them to short-term commercial exploitation and, perhaps, long-term catastrophic damage to human and environmental health. Buying the time to set down new benchmarks for scientific scrutiny may allow us to take the sensible decisions for which both Select Committees are calling.

5.1 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): There is no doubt that we have crossed the threshold of a second green revolution. Like all revolutions--scientific, political or otherwise--it is almost impossible for one individual to do anything about it, and it would be difficult for Governments to interfere in this exciting revolution.

I agree with the conclusion of the Environmental Audit Committee, that we should try to push the revolution in a direction that is good for all mankind. This revolution is unlike the first green revolution in that our constituents are much better informed than they have ever been, because of the internet, satellite systems and better education in the developed world. Electors are questioning the people they have elected more than ever before. There have been difficult circumstances, such as a series of food scares involving E. Coli, salmonella, listeria and, more recently, the much more sinister BSE crisis, which has not ended yet. It is no wonder the public are concerned. The media have been irresponsible and have generated a kind of hysteria.

I am much more concerned about genetic modification occurring naturally in micro-organisms, leading to new diseases that will be drug-resistant in future, than I am about controllable development of GMOs. All the problems that we have experienced have occurred in that way, apart from perhaps the prion.

People have talked about baselines against which we can measure progress, especially if the commerical production of GM crops and foods is allowed. In parallel, organic farming, which I welcome, is developing. I was an organic farmer in my youth. I had lettuces covered in aphids and cauliflowers in caterpillars--everyone is welcome to the organic food that I used to produce. I hope that we are not going back to those days. We also have farmers returning to integrated crop management systems. It will be very difficult to set a baseline for the development of any one of these three areas and measure them intelligently. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has published 150 sustainable development indicators, among which there are headline indicators, which is a welcome advance and will put us in a much better position to set baselines than ever before.

No one has mentioned civil liability for environmental damage. We must get a hold on that issue. Will liability lie with the companies that sell the products, the farmers who grow the crops, or the Government who licence the crops to be grown? Who will decide the framework of the legislation that might be forthcoming in future? Will it be single countries like Britain, or a combination of countries, such as the European Union, or will the matter be agreed at a global level? It is an important question which must be debated.

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I feel sorry for the scientists who are involved in GM work. They have faced many difficult crises, some of which have been mentioned this afternoon. In any important development, we must weigh the risks against the benefits. I have studied seriously the benefits in food that could be gained from the development of GM crops. I have also tried to understand the risks. There is no doubt that there are risks, but if we push the development of GMOs in the right direction, using all Government pressure, the benefits will far outweigh the risks. GM foods are often sold on the basis that they taste better and last longer. I do not think that that is much of a selling point. It could be a bigger selling point if we developed GM foods with better nutritional properties. They could have a higher protein content and more vitamins.

There is a possibility of producing disease-resistant crops and decreasing the amount of pesticides used by farmers. That argument may have been oversold, but it is a possibility. We should not forget the lower energy demands that would be a consequence of that, because of lower production of chemicals and reduced transport costs, including crop-spraying costs. We can reduce soil tillage and protect good micro-organisms in the soil. There is the exciting possibility of increasing crop yields. The benefit that attracts me the most is the possibility of genetically modifying crops in such a way that, like leguminous crops, we can get them to fix their own nitrogen from the air. That would be a major single advance if it were possible. Consider the damage that nitrates in watercourses do.

In our Select Committee debates, we dealt mainly with crops for foodstuffs, but crops that produce chemicals are being developed, for example, as energy sources. The world will run out of oil and not too far into the future, chemists will need new resources for chemicals. We can produce non-food crops by GM technology. For example, it is possible to enhance the production of certain chemicals in oil-producing crops to produce drugs. I like the idea of growing new crops on highly contaminated land that has been almost written off because of earlier industrial experiences. We can grow crops to take up contaminants and store them so that they can be burned or destroyed in some other way. That is an exciting prospect.

Mention has been made of the hungry and starving in the world. One hundred million people are starving and a further 800 million, at least, are hungry. I accept that we are probably growing enough food worldwide to feed them, but there are serious political and economic problems of transporting the food from the European Union to starving people in Ethiopia. Genetic technology delivers the possibility of feeding them. The patents will run out one day. We can determine how long patents should last, but there is the possibility of handing to people crops that they can grow on dry soil, in frosty conditions and in adverse climatic conditions of all kinds. We are in the process of climate change, so we cannot ignore the possibility that some of us north of the tropical belts will begin to experience difficulties with crop production far into the future. There is an opportunity of handing to the people in all difficult parts of the world the possibility of growing crops for themselves where they live.

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Hon. Members have mentioned marker genes. We may all be against the antibiotic-resistant marker genes, but it was one of the easiest changes to introduce. I agree with the Select Committees that it must be taken out, and the technology exists to do so. However, we need to put another marker gene in its place. I agree with other hon. Members that we need to trace every genetically modified foodstuff. From growing the grop to putting it on the plate, we need to trace it right through the food chain, and marker genes are absolutely necessary to do so. An analytical technique is being developed that is capable of detecting genetically modified food to well below the 1 per cent. threshold to which the European Union has agreed--even to small fractions of a percentage--but that can be done only if a marker gene is present in the crop.

There are other difficulties. I do not have time to list them all today. If we get it wrong, we could produce unknown viruses or other unknown micro-organisms. We might produce foods that give rise to new allergies or toxic effects, but scientists and the Government have the ability to control that. I have worked with many scientists over the years, and I fully appreciate that their research has only one purpose--to advance the cause of human nature. They are working not to damage it, but to try to enhance the quality of life.

Demands have been made to stop the development of GM crops, largely on the grounds that we do not need them; at the very least, a moratorium has been called for on commercial development in the United Kingdom, if not throughout the world. The former is a luddite reaction, and the Government have rightly made it clear that they will not allow commercial planting until we are satisfied that the risks have been reduced to an acceptable level. They will never be reduced to zero. We take risks in everything that we do. However, if we allow GM crops to be released for commercial growing, we must be persistently involved in post-release monitoring. That monitoring must be funded by the Government as well as by others.

As has been said, we are at the cutting edge of genetic engineering, which will have huge commercial benefits for the country. We must not even begin to listen to the luddites, or the research will go underground. Scientists will carry on the work, but we shall not hear about it because it will be driven underground--or, even worse, it will be driven abroad. I warn the Chamber that Zeneca moved its research and development in genetic engineering to what was at the time a much more conducive atmosphere--the United States of America.

The added danger of giving in to the doom merchants is that it will have a knock-on effect on genetic engineering in the health arena. Some difficult debates lie ahead of us. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and I witnessed that the other evening during a debate on therapeutic cloning.

I am aware of the risks. As elected Members of Parliament, we must be absolutely sure, by watching all developments, that they are made for the good of mankind. We must also try to reduce the risks to a minimum.

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5.14 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I warmly welcome this afternoon's debate. I congratulate both Select Committes on having produced outstanding reports, both of which have made a valuable contribution to the debate that raged during 1999, often producing more heat than light. Each of the reports is admirably rational, and has helped to act as a counterweight to some of the more emotive contributions to the debate.

I start, as others have done, by acknowledging that the Minister--I welcome him here this afternoon--is conspicuous as being one of the few members, if not the only member, of the Government who recognise the importance of the environmental questions raised by the use of genetically modified crops. I congratulate him on that. I regret that the Government's approach last year was characterised by a good deal of confusion and a fair amount of incompetence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said that in February 1999 the Leader of the Opposition suggested, as did I, that the Government should take the advice of English Nature and delay commercial planting of genetically modified crops until research had shown that they were environmentally safe. The commentators in the Press Gallery were astonished when the Prime Minister poured scorn on the idea. He said that it would not be sensible to do so and that the scientific evidence did not support it. He said that public concern would increase if such delay were imposed. That was an early example of the Prime Minister's tendency, which we now see more frequently, to make claims that are utterly without justification.

On 4 February, the then Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), told the House that commercial planting could take place as early as the autumn of 1999. On 18 February, the Deputy Prime Minister and the then Cabinet enforcer, the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), sent a "Dear Colleague letter to all hon. Members. It said:

The Committees' advice and calls made by the Conservative party and many members of the public have been heeded, at least in part. I cite that letter not only to point out that some of us arrived there a little ahead of the Government, but to emphasis the extent and nature of the Government's recent change of policy. I hope that the Minister understands that many people would like to hear the new policy reiterated without equivocation as often as possible. I hope that he will use this opportunity to confirm that the Government will not permit any commercial planting of GM crops until it is clear that it is environmentally safe to do so, and that he will confirm that no abitrary timetable will be imposed.

I have enormous respect for the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson)--I know that his prospects in the Labour party are already pretty low, so

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it will do him no harm to say that--although I do not share all his views. However, I do not believe that it is right to campaign for a specific five-year freeze. It is not scientifically sound. We must wait until research tells us that it is safe. I do not know how long that will be; it could be more than five years, it could be less.

It is important to proceed rationally. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is the Government's intention, and that there is no fixed timetable. I say that because, paragraph 33 of the Government's response to the Environmental Audit Committee, specifically states that the agreement does not extend beyond the year 2002. There seems to be a time limit on it.

Both Select Committee reports raise a wide number of issues and I have time to touch on only a few of them. The Science and Technology Committee's recommendation (h) referred to the need for EU regulations to

Recommendation (i) of the Science and Technology Committee report refers to the precautionary principle, to which other hon. Members have referred and which is also mentioned in the Environmental Audit Committee report. The Minister will be well aware of the widespread public concern about the consequences of not applying the precautionary principle in relation to several aspects of GMOs. The Government's response to recommendation (i) is extremely vague. It makes no reference to the precautionary principle but refers only to an "appropriate precautionary approach. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain his distinction between an "appropriate precautionary approach and a precautionary principle, which was the phrase used in both the Select Committee reports.

Another issue of great and topical concern is that of GM crop trials. Since that programme of trials is expanding rapidly and will cover a much greater area in the coming year, it is important to address some of the anxieties. First, will the Minister tell us whether the Government are confident that none of the produce from those trials will inadvertently be consumed by people who would wish to avoid doing so? Secondly, is he satisfied that he has the resources available for monitoring the trials, which will enable him to be sufficiently rigorous in ensuring that all the conditions attached to them are properly enforced? This is probably the right moment to say that I condemn absolutely and without reservation any unlawful disruption of the trials. Critics of GM crops--those who want to prevent them from being grown in this country--should confine their actions to legal forms of protest, of which plenty are available. By the same

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token, it is equally fair to say that the companies carrying out the trials also have a duty to honour the conditions laid on them. Unfortunately, there have already been examples of those conditions being breached.

Thirdly, will the Minister tell us what compensation may be available to neighbouring farmers, whether conventional or organic, whose crops suffer contamination from nearby GM crop trials? There is little comfort for those farmers in the Government's response to recommendation (n) of the Environmental Audit Committee report, on liability. I strongly endorse paragraph 55 of that report. The news today of a study commissioned by the Soil Association, which questions the adequacy of the isolation distances, is another example of why the question of compensation is extremely relevant and urgent. Fourthly, in regard to the evaluation of crop trials and the measurement of the possible environmental gain from GM crops, does the Minister accept the need to compare the effect of GM crops on the environment, not just with the effect of continuing to farm intensively on the same land, but with different methods of farming on that land?

I disagreed with the Science and Technology Committee on one issue: its recommendation (t), referred to by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), which suggested that the Government were right to rely exclusively on data provided by applicants when making assessments. That may be acceptable in several, if not the majority of, instances, but it cannot possibly be right to depend totally in every case on information provided by organisations that have a substantial commercial interest in the outcome. I am interested in the Minister's view on that.

I should like to touch on the concept of substantial equivalence in regard to assessment.

Dr. Michael Clark : On our response to recommendation (t), may I point out to my hon. Friend that we did not say that it would be appropriate or practical to use applicants' own data exclusively. We meant that it should not be rejected as biased information and that it should be included in the assessment.

Mr. Yeo : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification, which I entirely accept. In paragraph 61 of its report, the Science and Technology Committee expressed a limited and qualified reservation about relying too heavily on substantial equivalence. In responding to recommendation (v), the Government did not refer to substantial equivalence. Are we to take it from that omission that the Minister has no doubts about the use of the principle of substantial equivalence?

Paragraph 52 of the Environmental Audit Committee report refers to the need for better labelling. Consumers are entitled to know the country of origin and the method of production of the food that they eat. Labelling should also specify whether a product contains GM ingredients. The threshold for such a declaration is a matter for debate and will no doubt be periodically reviewed. I understand that it is technically possible to measure a very small content of GM

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ingredients, so I hope that the Government will in due course move below the figure of 1 per cent. that is currently used.

Many hon. Members have rightly referred to the biosafety protocol. The Environmental Audit Committee report expresses a clear view on that, in paragraph 48:

Finally, on the question of animal feed, the Science and Technology Committee acknowledged in paragraph 35 of its report the need to extend the separation of genetically modified and conventional crops for the purposes of animal feed and meat products. I am sure that consumer pressure will in any case force moves in that direction and it would be helpful if the Government gave such developments their support. I note that, in their response to that Report, the Government did not refer to animal feed.

In conclusion, although I recognise that GM crops have the potential to confer great environmental and productivity benefits, they also--espeically, perhaps, in a small and crowded island such as Britain--carry significant environmental risks. The scientific evidence suggests that such environmental concerns are much more relevant than any health risks about which people have been concerned.

I urge the Minister to proceed with care and not to run risks with our environment. I believe that the protection of the British environment does not need to inhibit our role as a leader in the biotechnology industry--a leadership that will be strengthened, not weakened, if public confidence in the Government's handling of the issue is restored.

5.29 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): Having listened to the debate for most of the past three hours, I believe that it is one of the best and most outstandingly enlightening debates--despite the differences involved--that I have heard in the House for a long time. I warmly congratulate the Chairs and members of the Committees on two reports that set out an improved and balanced framework for sensible debate. All power to hon. Members' elbows in ensuring that that new spirit prevails, because it is certainly needed. I also thank the two Chairs for the fair and balanced way in which they presented the reports.

We have considered the two reports extremely carefully. Last year, we published the Government's formal responses, to which the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) referred at some length. As we explained then, many of the Committee's

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recommendations have already been acted on. We have opened up and strengthened our regulatory procedures, as we were asked to do, and we have introduced a more strategic approach through the new commissions--the Human Genetics Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission--and the Food Standards Agency.

We have worked to ensure that the GM debate is based to a greater extent on scientific fact by, for example, launching the GM information site, for which we received credit from Greenpeace and the Consumers Association, so it cannot have been that bad. We offered to host the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference on GM foods, which will take place in Edinburgh shortly, and we are increasing consumer choice by leading the way in Europe in pressing for an agreement to extend labelling requirements to caterers and restaurants, which have now been extended to additives; and by supporting other farming methods, especially organic farming. We inherited a programme valued at about Euro 1 million a year; it is now Euro 19 million a year. Many people would say that that is still not enough, but it is certainly a considerable increase.

We have tried to put in place what I regard as the four central props of a sensible policy. The first of those props is to strengthen the regulatory procedures in respect of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. We have extended its brief to require it to take into account, not only direct, but indirect effects and not only immediate, but delayed effects--and cumulative effects, to which I shall return. We have ensured that ACRE is free of commercial interests--not that I doubt the integrity of people with an industrial background, but, like Caesar's wife, ACRE must be seen to be above reproach, and we must avoid even the public perception that an improper influence might be involved. We have also ensured that the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes has opened up its workings to the public gaze, which I strongly support.

The second prop is the farm-scale evaluations, which many hon. Members mentioned, and the four-year programme. No widespread growing will take place before 2003, and it will do so then only if a null hypothesis is generated. The hon. Member for South Suffolk was kind enought to refer to me generously. As I have repeatedly said, no commercial planting will take place until we have sufficient evidence to judge authoritatively whether damage to the environment is involved. Many people think that, once the four-year period has passed, commercialisation will take off. That is not so. The null hypothesis case must be demonstrated not only to me or to the Government, but on the basis of evidence that will be made fully and transparently available.

The third prop is the important strengthened directive 90/220, which Environment Ministers agreed last June. A string of important measures has been introduced to strengthen the regulatory system, especially post-market monitoring, which is important. Some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), mentioned the ending of the use of antibiotic marker genes. He is right. Ethical

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considerations will be brought into account--it is not an easy issue, but they should certainly be included. Licences will have a 10-year limit in order to keep the matter continually and genuinely--not merely continually, as they say in Whitehall, where everything is continually under review--under review. The fourth prop is the biosafety protocol; the international trading element is very important and I shall certainly attend negotiations on that subject.

Hon. Members made many points, which I shall try to cover. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Dr. Clark), who made a fair and generous speech, referred to the need for honesty in newspaper reporting--I am sure that we would all agree--and to the need for morality in relation to not only the experiment but the consequences. I understand his point. It would be an advantage to be able to prevent potato rot or to provide crops that can grow in more saline or frosty soils, for example. The problem is that those in the biotech industry have shown far more interest in the producer--themselves--and their own benefit than in the consumer. However, that does not mean that potential for the consumer does not exist.

I understand the argument that many hon. Members have made that potential benefit exists for developing countries. The problem is the lack, not of biotech, but of control over rapidly expanding populations and of proper land redistribution and farm reform. Those aspects, too, are important parts of the process. I agree with whoever said that Monsanto, by patenting the terminator gene, has probably been the most successful company possible in turning public opinion against its own interest. Although it has now desisted, that caused undue but great, and probably justifiable, anxiety in the minds of the public about its intentions.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) made several points. He mentioned the need for a Government statement on the benefits of GM. Once again, I have been stereotyped as being on the sceptical wing, but I would be the first to recognise that GM has many potential benefits, and not only in respect of medicine. It has provided insulin for diabetes, helped protect people undergoing chemotherapy from infection and produced safe blood products for haemophiliacs. In dealing with agriculture, however, it is a different matter, and in the face of such opposition, many people would ask, "Why bother? I accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East. I do not think that people are interested in rosier apples, sweeter taste or longer shelf life, but if GM can add proteins, reduce fats or produce pest-resistant foods, we would be wrong not to continue to investigate that potential. All members of the Government recognise that such benefits may be possible.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked how I could be sure that farm-scale evaluations would not be rubbished. I cannot be sure, but the protocol for the evaluations, which was published in February 1999, is on the table and has been endorsed by English Nature. The interim report on the conduct of the first year of the trials was published in November. The trials are being carried out to the highest scientific standards according to published guidelines, and are being overseen by a scientific steering committee, which is independent of the Government, and which includes two representatives of English

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Nature, one of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and several other academic representatives. The trials are entirely independent of industry and are being funded by the Government. Although they will no doubt be attacked, they have a firm foundation. We are trying to do it properly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) made several points with which I shall try to deal quickly. Her first point was about consumer choice and the 1 per cent. threshold. We should like to go below that as soon as possible, and I am keen to reach a 0.1 per cent. threshold. I am told that a laboratory in Birmingham can achieve that, but we do not yet know whether it would be feasible throughout the country. We are investigating the matter, and have asked the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission to review the situation within two years.

Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned Tesco, which has now gone back on what I imagine it sees as a slightly premature statement. Certainly, its action had no basis in scientific evidence and it has made its full support for the trials clear. Its proposed ban will operate for only one year after the fields have been used for GM crops, and it covers only field vegetable and salad crops. It has been specified that the crop following the GM planting in the farm-scale trials will be maize or wheat, so the issue will not arise.

My hon. Friend also asked what I meant by unacceptable effects of GM. That is not my decision or a decision for civil servants and other Ministers. The judgment will have to be made on evidence that will be put before the public and on which there will have to be a public debate. She also asked about marketing consents granted during the trials. Each approval is based on its own criteria. Therefore, seeds registration or pesticides approval will proceed if they meet the criteria. Even if all approvals are granted--GMO marketing, seeds registrations and pesticides approval--the produce, which could be fed to animals, will be labelled, including meat and milk.

My hon. Friend was right to raise the question of the difference between GM in contained systems and in open fields, but the farm-scale trials are about the impact on biodiversity, and we can get that evidence only if they are based on open-field trials. All the products have already been tested in the laboratory and in much smaller field-scale trials.

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I shall attend the biosafety protocol meeting. Let me make it clear that the United Kingdom and the European Union, which we fully support, will insist on the three principles that we upheld at Cartagena. They are: that an advanced, informed agreement must govern the first trans-boundary movement of GMOs to other countries; that adequate labelling and documentation must be provided so that importing countries know what they are doing and understand what is involved; and that we cannot and will not accept the savings clause that the United States and the Miami group are demanding, as it would subordinate the biosafety protocol to the rule of the World Trade Organisation and free trade. We will not stand for that, because it would blow acceptance of the technology out of the water.

I am rapidly running out of time. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to separation distances, as did several other hon. Members. Separation distances are not intended to secure a total insulation of the effects of GM crops from the surrounding countryside. Given the messy nature of the world in which we live, that is not possible. Even if we accepted the Soil Association's figure of six miles, that would simply be exercising a precautionary measure to reduce cross-pollination. I accept that the issue is extremely fraught and I well understand many people's unhappiness about it. We are trying to ensure that UKROFS, the UK register of--what does the "f' stand for? Well, we are trying to ensure that the Soil Association and its friends discuss SCIMAC--the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops--with the industry to see whether they can agree. I do not think that Government can simply lay down the law. The settlement must be between both types of farming, so that they can live together.

The hon. Gentleman also said that we are not the cheerleaders for biotech, and we are not. We are not pro-GM or anti-GM. We are pro-safety, pro-environment and pro-choice. He raised the question of animal genes in crop plants transferring to the environment. No crops with animal genes have been tested in the UK and we have an assurance from the industry that there are no proposals to develop such crops.

It being fifteen minutes to Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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