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Mr. Brown: I completely reject the attack on the Government's handling of the issue, and the attack on the Government's candour. We established the facts and put them in the public domain. The hon. Gentleman asks why we did not seek to make a formal statement yesterday: it was an Opposition day and it is a convention that the Government do not make statements on such occasions. In any event, Madam Speaker, you have said that the use of written answers is a proper way to put information before Parliament. The charge that the Government have acted with less than candour is one that I completely
Officials were first informed by the company on 17 April and I am not aware of any earlier information being available to the Department. The hon. Gentleman also asked about testing. As I said in my statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is introducing testing techniques for conventional seeds to test for GM content, and those arrangements will be in place by 1 June.
The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point in inquiring about separation distances, and the regulatory authorities are keeping that matter closely under review. That is also why we are conducting the trials. I am advised by the Government's professional advisers--just as the previous Government were when they were in office--that there is no danger to human health, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for accepting that point. Because of the nature of the GM product, which is present only in small quantities, there is no danger to the environment either.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I thank my right hon. Friend for making such a frank statement. In view of what he has just said about making technical information available in the Library, will he be more specific so as to clear up some of the confusion that exists about the RT73 strain of Monsanto seed? Is there only a genetic trace for glyphosate herbicide tolerance? If it is possible that the plants are not sterile and could cross-pollinate and spread GM pollution, will he be prepared to trace where the seed has been used and order the crops to be pulled up?
Mr. Brown: The advice that the Government collectively have received is that it is not necessary to trace and destroy the crops. On the question of the sterility of the GM modification, I am happy to put a technical note in the Library, because that will be helpful to the House. In this whole matter, the Government are proceeding on the basis of professional advice provided to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on food safety and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on the environmental issues.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I welcome the statement and the additional information that will be made available. I accept the Minister's assurances that no harm will be caused to the environment, but considerable harm has been done to the reputation of the Ministry for openness, especially because of the partial nature of the information available yesterday. There was a statement from the Home Office yesterday, so the Minister could have made a statement. Will he accept that the matter has destroyed the credibility of the import controls, such as they are; has made a nonsense of the so-called safe separation distances; and has caused potential economic damage to farmers who have planted non-GM seed in good faith?
Will the Minister confirm that on 18 June 1999, in The Times, Dr. Phil Dale of the John Innes centre in Norwich drew attention to the specific problem of a 1 per cent. contamination of seed from north America?
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is overstating his case. There is no reason why this GM product cannot be used for food purposes, as was agreed under the previous Conservative Government. There is no risk to human health, and no one so far this afternoon has alleged that there is. I am grateful for that, as it does the cause of those opposed to genetic modification in principle no good to exaggerate the problems or to pretend that there are risks where there are none.
Clearly, there is a real problem with seed purity. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is introducing testing from 1 June for environmental purposes. The aim is to check that field trials are not being affected by inadvertent contamination by commercial seed product. That must be taken forward as a matter of urgency at international level, but it is to do with seed purity, not with environmental contamination or public health.
I completely reject what the hon. Gentleman said about the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We established the facts and put them in the public domain. In addition, I have given the House an assurance today that the technical information that supports the advice to Ministers will also be placed in the House of Commons Library.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I also thank my right hon. Friend for the statement that he has made today. Given what he said about sterility, and what Advanta has said about the cross-pollination which it believes was the cause of the contamination, may I press him on separation distances? Many hon. Members have supported the experiments being carried out on GM crops but, for useful comparisons to be made, proper separation between GM crops and conventionally grown and organic crops is crucial. Will he allow SCIMAC--the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops--to make its annual review in the normal way, and will he and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions instruct it to undertake an immediate review of the matter? Most of us who support the experiments and the precautionary principle are worried about what has happened, and believe that the separation distances must be enlarged.
Mr. Brown: My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who takes the ministerial lead on these matters, tells me that the re-examination sought by my hon. Friend is already under way in his Department. I think that she is on to a strong point.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to reassure the public on matters such as cross-pollination, sterility, separation distances and so on? Will he also acknowledge that there is a rather casual attitude towards GM crops in north America? Will he reassure his friends in rural areas that he is taking the matter very seriously?
Mr. Brown: I take very seriously the issues of seed purity, protection of the public, and protection of the environment. That approach is the one adopted right across Government. The hon. Gentleman is right that what happened should not have happened: the question for the Government is what to do about it. I believe that the response that I have announced today, and that was announced yesterday in my right hon. Friend's written answer, is the right one. It will provide reassurance to farmers, just as it provides more general reassurance to the public.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend, but the incident is clearly disappointing. The Government need take no lessons from the official Opposition, whose only contribution to the debate was to license GM foods in the first place.
The third report from the Select Committee on Agriculture examined the question of the segregation of GM crops, and determined that that segregation was very difficult to achieve. Given the comments from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), should we not tell the north Americans that, until and unless they sign up to the Montreal bio-safety protocol, we will have to consider our own actions in relation to GM crops? That would mirror the unilateral action that they have taken in continuing to evaluate the risk analysis on BSE.