Genetically Modified Food and Feed

[back to previous text]

Dr. Ladyman: These Committees have been getting rather consensual of late, but the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has made several political points so let me respond in like fashion. In 1999, the Conservative party proposed a five-year moratorium on field trials for GM crops. All the research that he says we need to gather information would not have started for another two years if we had gone down that line. Although I do not support my Labour colleagues' actions of abstaining in the European Parliament debate, I shall not have them lectured by the hon. Gentleman.

Having said that, I shall make a few comments that I suspect will find more favour on the Opposition Benches than with my hon. Friends. I have always supported GM technology. Two recent authoritative reports—one published by the World Wide Fund for Nature, which came out today, I think, and another from a scientific committee of the United States Government—show that we are using our planet's resources at an unsustainable rate. A crisis is coming in terms of the raw materials that we use, the food that we produce, the energy that we use and the way in which we deal with our atmosphere, with regard to such problems as greenhouse gases. Many of those crises can be prevented only by deploying technologies that we develop.

Genetic modification is one such key technology which we must deploy to offset the crises. It will have huge economic benefits. I know that people who are against genetic modification will say that that means people making more money, but I am afraid that I am not against people making a living, and if economic benefits are to be had and some are passed to consumers, I am all for it. Let us not forget that many GMO products that the legislation will affect reduce energy consumption because less energy is consumed by their production. They reduce chemical use on fields. They reduce greenhouse gas production, as we do not have to till soils to the same extent. There are many potential benefits for the third world in deploying such technology. I do not suggest that such benefits will automatically accrue. Political decisions and guidance will be necessary to reap all the benefits of GM technology, but we must exploit its potential.

We are getting into the most awful muddle by drawing what I regard as a false distinction between GM and other products. For example, there is a strain of pea that is grown because it produces its own insecticide, so not so much insecticide is necessary to grow it. It was developed not with GM technology but with a perfectly ordinary ancient process of plant breeding, and it brings economic benefits. Are we

Column Number: 23

going to label that product as having been produced from an insecticide-producing pea? Of course not. People will eat it tonight in the Members' Tea Room without even questioning what variety of pea they have on their plate.

I once worked with a scientist who identified a brand of potato that defeated insect attack by having sticky hairs growing out of the stem so the insects could not walk up it. The problem was that the potatoes tasted like—urgh. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever managed, using old-fashioned techniques, to put that stem on a potato that tasted delicious. If anyone had been able to do so, it would have been a great step forward. GM technology could do that tomorrow. If it can do that and produce a major step forward so that we no longer have to treat our potatoes with insecticide, why not exploit that and give people the opportunity to do it?

Mr. Jack: I follow, and sympathise and empathise with, many of the hon. Gentleman's points. Will he consider the implications of labelling packs of tomatoes ''Subject to biological control agents'', which are perfectly natural control mechanisms, thus obviating the need for pesticides?

Dr. Ladyman: Exactly.

In the old days, when someone managed to produce a new variety of plant through old-fashioned production techniques such as cross-breeding, that person would have to grow the plant, collect the seed, grow the seed and collect more seed, and it would be a long time before there was a commercial crop. About 20 or 25 years ago, we developed a technique whereby we take the first plant, break it down into its cells and grow the cells in tissue culture, and a commercial crop can be produced from that one plant in a few months. Practically everything that we eat tonight will have been produced on that basis. Yet we are going to take an anti-science view of GM products just because we find them a bit difficult to cope with.

If we accept the regulation that the European Parliament proposes, and something that comes from a GM product, even though it contains no GM material itself, will have to be labelled in future, on what principle will we do that? The principle seems to be that the original GM product might have some harmful effects. We know that the one that we are selling does not have any harmful effects, but we shall label it as though it does anyway.

Are we going to follow that to its logical conclusion? If the Minister eats a green tomato tonight, she will be very sick, but the process of ripening that tomato destroys the toxin in it, and the red tomato is perfectly harmless. Is she going to place a label on every tomato in every supermarket that says, ''This comes from a poisonous unripe fruit''?

There is a lectin in red kidney beans of which small microgram quantities are more than enough to kill everyone in the Room. It is denatured when kidney beans are cooked. Is the Minister going to label every can or serving of chilli con carne on sale as coming

Column Number: 24

from a poisonous stock? Rhubarb leaves are poisonous, but its stems are not. We know about that. If we were to label meat on the basis of what the animals had eaten, there would be some very unpleasant labelling because animals eat some very unsavoury things. We are not proposing to mention those on our labels.

It is all very well to take the attitude that we have to have special arrangements for GM products. In my view, the necessity for those special arrangements has come about as a result of a misunderstanding of the science and the technology. My advice to the Minister and the Government is, in devising the new framework, to keep it simple. If we end up with a regulatory process that is the equivalent needed to put a medical drug on to the market, the technology will never go anywhere. We must keep the process simple.

I am in favour of a system of labelling that divides the information that consumers get into three broad bands. I am quite happy with ethical information being provided on labels. However, the Minister justified her stance to me by saying that people have strong views on GM technology. I put it to her that people have strong views on the use of animal products in their food. I do not share those views, but many of my constituents do not want to touch anything with animal products in it. Animal products are used in the production of most red wine. To the best of my knowledge, the Co-op is still the only retailer that insists that the labels of red wine produced with animal products contain that information. The Minister is not going to insist that the label ''This product uses animal materials'' be put on every bottle of red wine. Having strongly held views is not a justification for Government action.

Keep the process simple. By all means, include ethical information, known health risks and origins—whether something is organic or from a GM product—on the label, but keep it simple. Only by keeping the label simple will we ensure that consumers have information that they can understand. We will then give GM technology the opportunity that it needs to produce the benefits that I think society must look for in the coming years.

5.52 pm

Mr. Jack: The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) gave a truly excellent exposition, and I warmed to every word that he said. He displayed considerable knowledge and understanding of the science in this field.

I shall try initially to follow up one of the themes that he advanced. We have some precedent on the way in which we inform consumers about matters connected with genetic modification. Before certain newspapers coined the phrase ''Frankenstein foods'', Sainsbury's and Safeway had put on sale a tomato paste made from genetically modified tomatoes. It was an outstanding commercial success. Customers liked it and bought lots of it. It tasted better than before. I, as a Member of Parliament, received no letters of complaint from anyone who had purchased or consumed that product. Then, for some reason, the

Column Number: 25

supermarkets were suddenly frightened of putting on a proper label that said that the product was made from genetically modified contents, and took it off the shelves. They were panicked by a campaign that was not objectively based.

I compliment the Minister, while she grapples with some of the complexities of the science, on her words of common sense which reflected the explanatory memorandums put out in connection with the debate, which recognised that there is still a practical chasm to be crossed if the whole field is not to become a lawyers' paradise. Going back to the tomato paste, that was an example of an open declaration allowing consumers freedom of choice. In reality, they liked what was on offer. Since we have had an irrational discussion on the matter, that element of consumer choice has disappeared altogether.

Everything that we are discussing is almost a theoretical situation, save for food imported into the European Union, on which the discussion is very relevant. As hon. Members who have contributed to the debate so far have indicated, there is a heavy commitment to GM crops in the United States, in soya bean production, for example. In the United States—a country that is highly conscious of food safety and in which litigation abounds—we have seen a general acceptance of that technology. No great public health issues have arisen and, so far, no major areas of litigation have resulted. American consumers are well advised of what is available, and they have a great deal of choice. Because of the stance taken in the European Union that we cannot have even commercial plantings of genetically modified crops, we cannot enjoy the next stage—products produced in the European Union from indigenous production of genetically modified materials. It is quite possible that foods as defined by the directive could be produced here by the use of GM ingredients brought in from outside the EU. That is rather odd.

I would like to look briefly at the inverse of that situation. We focus on the requirement to tell consumers clearly about a particular characteristic, either of the product or food on offer or, in the case of farmers, of the feed that they give to their animals. Why are we giving that information? What is the reasoning for it? We already have ingredients lists—that is required. We seem to want to give that information because collectively we feel that there is public concern. What are the public concerned about? What lies behind their concern about GM foods? I think that it is a question of the unknown, worry about the science and perhaps a question about the safety of the food.

We do not require certain information on our labelling. If the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes—which I gather from what the Minister said earlier will still have a part to play in dealing with such matters—agrees that a functional food such as Benecol is okay, we do not have a counterbalancing statement on the packet that says, ''This product has been approved by the Food Standards Agency's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. It has looked very hard at the science and says that this

Column Number: 26

is safe for you to eat. Tick in the box.'' Most interestingly, the committee's chairman, Professor Bainbridge, has made it clear that she would prefer to have a product made from genetically modified substances for exactly the reasons given by the hon. Member for South Thanet. In the natural world, there are substances that go into our food that may pose a toxic threat far greater than anything from a genetic modification.

We know far more about a product that is made from a genetically modified substance because we have made it. However, we do not put that information as a positive assurance on our food. We are invited to agree to a labelling regime that leaves many questions unanswered—perhaps for negative reasons. Putting that information on the packaging may tell the consumer something, but it does not answer the subsequent questions that come as a result of that information being available. If we are to have proper labelling, it is about time that we coupled it with proper information.

The Committee has heard reference to matters raised by the National Farmers Union, and I think many of its concerns parallel those of the Minister. On scientific analysis and traceability, huge questions remain unanswered. That is why I pursued my line of questioning in looking at, for example, what we mean in defining products and why I raised the practical question whether burgers would be incorporated in the definition.

It would be helpful if the Minister would assist me in answering a question that was not answered but hangs in the ether of the Committee: what actually happens in the context of the restaurant trade? Somewhere in my dim and distant memory, I remember that there is a requirement to declare on menus that there may be some genetically modified ingredients in the items. However, that leaves the question hanging. Some 40 per cent. of our food spend is now outside the home, and I get the clear impression from the regulations that they are far more exacting about packaged products—and require declaratory label information—than they are about the 40 per cent. of product that is eaten off the menu without any information given on the ingredients that are available. If we can sanction 40 per cent. of our food spend in an information-free zone, why are we concentrating so hard on the 60 per cent. that may result from manufacturing activity?

I would like to endorse what the Minister said about the difficulties of scientific analysis. If one were to batch-test all the ingredients that came into Britain, what resources would be available in this country, for example, for carrying out a full scientific analysis and fulfilling traceability requirements?

The American Soybean Association sent information to members of the Committee thoroughly probing traceability and the requirement for having information at many stages in a complex chain. I would be interested to know whether any officials have actually been to the United States and followed the distribution chain of American soya beans, worked out how documentation and sampling would operate

Column Number: 27

and dealt with the questions that the American Soybean Association asked: why must data be kept for five years? In what form is it to be kept? Why five years? I envisage a minefield in this subject, unless identity preservation is the route chosen for so-called GM-free products.

I associate myself with some of the very telling points that have been made about the nature of GM-free products. I am beginning to think, particularly in the context of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, that the European Parliament has happened on a rather subtle way of effectively banning GM imports by making a regulatory requirement so incredibly difficult that no one would want to send such products into the European Union. Again, as has been mentioned, the United States may take action under the WTO dispute provisions to challenge such a requirement. It would make steel look like a side-show, given the size of the business.

A great many terms have not been satisfactorily defined. The NFU rightly drew attention to the fact that ''GM free'' has not been properly defined. The European Parliament saying that 0.5 per cent. is better than 0.6, 0.4 or 1 per cent. is dancing on the head of a pin.

I conclude by associating myself with the hon. Member for South Thanet. We must be practical about the information but, equally, the Government must be robust in ensuring that the declaration that a product contains a genetically modified organism is not a signal that in some way it is less safe than food produced by any other mechanism.

6.3 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 9 July 2002