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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 November 2003

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

GM Science Review

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

9.30 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before we begin, I should inform right hon. and hon. Members that in accordance with past practice and Mr. Speaker's express wishes, I intend to invite the Chamber to observe a two-minute silence at 11 o'clock.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): This is a narrow debate. It is focused on the GM science review. As my intention is to get the Government's reactions to that review, I have informed my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment of the questions that I intend to ask. I hope that I and other Members will be brief, so that the Minister has sufficient time to answer our questions.

The GM debate is all too often characterised in this way: on one side are the scientists who understand the issues, and on the other, non-governmental organisations and the public who are ignorant and unjustifiably alarmed. The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that this issue will be decided on the basis of sound science, but many of us do not accept that science is the only criterion on which to decide about GM.

The position of those who argue for the commercialisation of GM crops in Britain would be greatly strengthened if the science review were comprehensively reassuring about GM foods and crops, but it is not. Importantly, for the first time in a review of GM science the lead was taken from expressed public opinion, and uncertainties and gaps in knowledge were documented. The review demonstrated that in all the areas that it covered, from human health to the environment, scientific knowledge on the potential impacts of GM food and crops is limited and uncertain and that harmful and irreversible effects may occur. When I read the report, I expected that many of my concerns would be seriously challenged and that my arguments would be undermined, but they were not. In every chapter, evidence that gave confidence to the case for GM was soon followed by evidence that a continuing lack of knowledge presented risks.

It is worth recalling a few of the statements in the GM science review that emphasise our lack of knowledge in areas that are not trivial. For example, it states that although existing evidence on animal and human health indicates a lack of adverse effects, there is uncertainty about the extent of any hidden adverse effects that might

It states:

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It states:

It also declares:

On gene flow, it states:

The science review also reminds us of the unpredictable nature of GM:

I will now point to some of the uncertainties in greater detail. In a recent parliamentary answer to a question of mine, the Minister with responsibility for public health told me that in research using seven human beings

Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that the volunteers were fed only one meal of GM soya, and that there was evidence that a part of a transgene was transferred to a micro-organism?

My hon. Friend will know that the science review concluded that there was no difference between the fates of transgenic and natural DNA. Can he point me to any studies that allow us to draw such a conclusion? Can he also tell me what research has been conducted on humans and farm and laboratory animals on the transfer of transgenic DNA from plant material to micro-organisms in the mouth? What evidence of gene transfer was identified, and did the gene construct used affect the outcome?

As I said, the science review acknowledges many uncertainties, yet it is repeatedly reassuring about the GM foods and crops already approved. It states that

provides "a double safety check."

Elsewhere, it is stated that such testing

That is reassurance until one reads the research, undertaken for the Austrian Government, that reviews 11 GM plant and food dossiers submitted for European approval. That research was not considered by the science review, but has been submitted to the comments website by a group of NGOs—Econexus, the Five Year Freeze Campaign, GeneWatch UK, which has helped me with my research, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Soil Association.

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Although the science review refers to testing new crops, food or feed in its entirety, the Austrian analysis of EU applications concluded:


Yet the science review says:


The Austrian report notes that in reality,

We might conclude that those deficiencies in the process have been found too late to deal with food and crops already approved, but the scandal is that only yesterday our Government gave their support for Bt11 sweetcorn—Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis—tested under those very procedures. Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell me why, in light of the Austrian study, the Government are minded to give their consent to Bt sweetcorn?

In this short debate, it is not possible to follow through on the fascinating and well-written 250-page science report. I will restrict my comments to one further source of uncertainty. My hon. Friend the Minister recently answered some parliamentary questions of mine on the persistence and invasiveness issues, and rightly pointed me to the science review's deliberations. Perhaps at that time he had not seen the response of English Nature to the review. In that response, English Nature questioned the reliance on a sole set of experiments, the PROSAMO—Planned Release of Selected and Modified Organisms—experiments, which suggest that the current generation of GM crops are unlikely to be invasive.

The conservation bodies point to other work that throws the underlying assumptions into question. What is my hon. Friend's response to that criticism by English Nature? Can he tell me what research has been conducted on the invasiveness of GM herbicide-tolerant and other GM crops inside arable systems that use herbicides and fertilisers?

My hon. Friend will be aware that, throughout the review, great emphasis was placed on a case-by-case analysis. That is obviously highly important in relation to invasiveness. Can he say whether any of the long-term studies of invasiveness involve exactly the same GM crops—the same GM lines—as were tested in the farm-scale evaluations? What does my hon. Friend consider is the significance of the fact that the Canadian authorities have made Roundup Ready canola one of the country's top 10 weeds?

In conclusion, I congratulate the Government on commissioning such an extremely important review. I have asked only a few questions; other hon. Members will have many more. I am certain that the available evidence and its interpretations are still contentious.

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Questions, such as whether we should proceed with GM food and the commercial growing of GM crops in this country, remain unresolved. The science review does not give a green light to GM food and crops. In particular, it gives no basis for hasty decision making. Why, in the face of such uncertainty, should we place the importance of making a decision about GM foods and crops above getting on with the vital task of pursuing a policy of sustainable agriculture and safe and nutritious food, which has been so well developed by the Government?

9.41 am

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on calling for the debate. It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) here. I congratulate him on his new position in the unbeatable line up.

The hon. Lady seems to live in a world of certainty, which is one of her problems. She thinks that, when scientists say that matters are hard to predict or that there are areas of uncertainty, it sometimes nullifies all scientific progress. Well, not in my book.

Joan Ruddock : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Key : Good grief, no. Not at this stage.

I find the hon. Lady's attitude to such matters so negative that I think that she is a red flag walking in front of a train. I must draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. The way that media and pressure groups have portrayed the various studies that have been produced by the Government does not do justice to those studies. In a year in which the planting of GM crops throughout the world exceeded twice the area of the United Kingdom, we must consider carefully what the studies have meant.

Leading up to the science review, the strategy unit economic review concluded that there were many potential benefits for genetic modification. It said that existing crops that offer cost and convenience advantages to United Kingdom farmers will be available, that future developments in GM crops have the potential to offer more wide-ranging benefits to farmers and consumers and that possibilities included GM crops with agronomic benefits more suited to the UK. The review pointed out that GM crops could deliver direct health benefits and that the overall balance of costs and benefits will depend on public attitudes. We are engaged in a battle for public attitudes.

The strategy unit recognised that, although economic benefits to the United Kingdom are likely to be limited in the short term, that was due mainly to the relatively minor status in the UK of the crops currently being considered and would increase considerably when traits suited specifically for the UK and GM crops, such as wheat, were available. It is worth noting the limitation of benefit that the unit identified was due to the limited market and public perception, not to the fact that the intrinsic economic benefit of the crop was low.

The science review was extremely positive. It concluded that, globally, there have been no observed detrimental health impacts as a result of the introduction of present GM crops and GM foods. The science review was based on a wealth of accumulated

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peer-reviewed scientific evidence and nearly 700 publications. It stated that there were no expected or observed detrimental health impacts from the introduction of present GM crops and GM foods. It went on to say that genetic modification, as an option for developing crops, was as predictable and reliable as other crop breeding methods, that DNA—or genes—were a safe, normal component of food regardless of origin and that a case-by-case assessment is essential for GM crops. It said also that there was no evidence that current GM crops would become "super weeds", and concluded that

Finally, the science review concluded that the current herbicide-tolerant crops envisaged for the UK offered increased flexibility and an improved environment profile of weed control.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problem of a case-by-case analysis according to scientific evaluation is that it is dangerous to allow particular parts into the food chain until we know the full impact of GM?

Mr. Key : No, I do not accept that view. The report also concluded that the UK and Europe have a very strict science-based regulatory regime, which ensures that today's GM products are at least as safe and nutritious as their non-GM equivalents. Biotechnology companies support such science-based reviews, which lead to a better understanding of the true impact—that is, the risks and benefits—of GM crops within the UK and globally. They welcome the science review's important contribution.

Reports on the "GM Nation?" debate, focused almost entirely on an uncontrolled and self-selecting sample and paid little attention to the check of the focus group survey. That was interesting, especially as Professor Malcolm Grant—the chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission—commented publicly that the wider self-selecting arm of "GM Nation?" was not representative of the UK public. We knew that of course and we should not assume that such an organisation is representative of the public.

Although participants had concerns, the more representative focus groups also saw the positive benefits of GM crops in providing cheaper foods, helping British farmers and improving the environment by reducing inputs, such as pesticides and fertilisers. There was also the possibility of significant medical advantages, and that GM could help developing countries. Interestingly, a comparison of samples of people from the focus group with samples of people from the "GM Nation?" debate showed that when it came to helping developing countries only 12 per cent. of people in the debate, as opposed to 55 per cent. of the focus group, thought that that was significant. Only 15 per cent. of those involved in the GM debate, as opposed to 52 per cent. of the focus group, thought reducing inputs was important. When it came to helping poor old British farmers, only 10 per cent. of people in the GM debate, as opposed to 48 per cent. of the focus group, thought that that was important.

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When the results of the farm-scale evaluations were added to the above reports, it suggested that none of the reports should be viewed in isolation. The farm-scale evaluations confirmed what industry had long argued: the flexibility of GM crops allows them to be grown in a way that benefits the environment. I have seen that myself. I spent a day at Brooms Barn and saw what was being achieved in the sugar beet experiments. I came to understand the issues, which were different from what I thought they were until I went to see for myself. I subsequently read the scientific review of the Brooms Barn experiment and the reports in the press, but the latter bore little resemblance to what the science suggested in the report itself.

Pressure groups claim that GM crops are, in effect, green concrete and would wipe out wildlife. The farm-scale evaluation results showed that that was scaremongering and not supported by the facts. On the contrary, the evidence reiterates that commercial experience around the world shows that GM crops are more flexible and can enhance biodiversity. It is also important to remember that the farm-scale evaluations were not putting GM on trial. As the statement by the scientific steering committee said:

What was significant was not GM versus conventional farming, but different approaches to crop type, herbicide use and management practices. That research highlighted that the impact on biodiversity is all to do with how crops are grown and how farmers control weeds. When a person wants to grow a high-quality, safe, affordable food, they have to control weeds that would otherwise degrade quality, safety and affordability.

After the most intense year of debate and investigation we have expanded proof of the economic benefits and safety of GM crops and there is no evidence of health or environmental risk. There is a good argument, based on the scientific evidence, for moving forward with the responsible, case-by-case introduction of GM crops to the UK under our robust, safe regulatory system. If the Government decided to proceed, they would allow UK farmers and consumers to benefit from the choice and flexibility offered by GM—that is denied them at present.

9.51 am

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate, on her wisdom in seeking to direct questions and intelligence to the Minister, and on giving him ample time to reply. I shall also be fairly brief, although I am tempted to reply to various points made by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who spoke on behalf of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council.

The science review is an excellent, pretty balanced, wide-ranging report, but it did say this: first, there was no test of the health impacts on humans of eating GM foods; secondly, the environmental testing was limited and the long-term cumulative impacts on the environment were not tested; and thirdly, no coexistence

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framework existed and it would be irresponsible to proceed to the commercialisation of GM crops until there was one.

I have one or two questions on health and the environment. Replies from the Department of Health to parliamentary questions confirm that it has not commissioned any research to look at horizontal gene transfer from GM to gut bacteria—why not? I take it that the answer to that question is that the Food Standards Agency conducted a small study that found:

I should like to know why the Government continue to use that evasive FSA formula, which I believe is highly economic and selective and says that

I should say that trial data from the Newcastle trial

I make no apologies for the diet. I simply report what happened. As a result, the experiment

My objection is that the FSA responded by saying that that was nothing new and that there was no risk to human health. I believe that both those statements are inaccurate.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Is my right hon. Friend suggesting that DNA from transgenic organisms is more likely to transfer to other organisms than non-transgenic DNA?

Mr. Meacher : No, I am not suggesting that it is more likely to—the key point is whether it does transfer. Prior to the Newcastle study, scientists and, I think, the biotech industry, believed that that would not happen. They were amazed when it did. That is why it is so dishonest to pretend, as the FSA did, that there was nothing new about the experiment. It was astonishing, and produced the exact opposite of what was expected. The normal scientific response in such cases is to say, "This may be a freak result. I do not know whether it is. We will replicate it by further extensive testing." That is not what has happened. The result has simply been dismissed and pushed under the carpet. That is wrong.

Furthermore, the trial data also show that

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What conclusion do the Government draw about the implications of that? Additionally, the data show

That is a serious issue, which makes it clear that we need much more extensive, direct health testing. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree?

On the environment, we all know that the environmental testing in the farm-scale evaluation trials, although well executed and undertaken—I have no objection there at all—was limited and confined to herbicide management, as was confirmed by the science review. What action are the Government taking to have further environmental testing on soil residues and bird populations? If farmers in a normal market situation sought to maximise commercial yield and not minimise environmental impact, as happened in those trials, what would be the impact on the environment? That, in particular, is a key issue.

The Government made it clear—I know this because I made it clear when I was in government—that if there were a risk to the environment, they would not license GM crops. Does the Minister accept that the evidence required to meet the Government criteria is absolutely irrefutable with regard to oilseed rape and beet? Do the Government therefore accept that, at least in respect of those two, there is no need for further evidence to reach a decision?

On maize, does my hon. Friend accept that, as has been widely said, the trial has been flawed by the use of atrozine—it has now been banned so it is no longer a valid comparison—by those growing conventional maize? Does he also accept that on the other side of the equation—the GM side of the field—the test was also invalidated by the fact that Bayer CropScience told its farmers that they should spray only once? It no doubt intended more weeds to return, which would be good for wildlife, and the environmental effects to be minimised. Does the Minister accept that in Canada there are never fewer than two sprayings and that sometimes there are three? Again, the result is invalidated. Will he confirm that in the beet trial the bolters were removed every two weeks on the GM side? That is totally contrary to normal commercial practice, in which the bolters might be removed—to reduce cross-pollination—only once in the whole season.

The most recent research on GM oilseed rape gene flow indicates that it is inevitable in the case of weedy relatives, such wild cabbage, and is likely to be on a much bigger scale than we thought. Does my hon. Friend believe that if such hybrids become established or become a serious problem, they will be able to be controlled or eradicated? What evidence is there to support claims that hybrids could be controlled?

My next point appeared in the science review and is very significant. In modelled arable systems of two years of winter wheat and one year of winter oilseed rape, with no attempt to control the feral population after the first harvest, it took 16 years after the initial oilseed rape crop for impurity in yield to fall below 1 per cent. Even if there was firm control, it took five years. Would that not have a serious implication for British agriculture if we were to proceed to commercialisation? What research

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has been undertaken into the control of oilseed rape volunteers by farmers? In Canada, they are now regarded as one of the top 10 weeds and the Canadians are fearful that if we have GM wheat, things will become worse. What levels exist at present and would the need to control GM volunteers lead to detrimental impacts on wildlife?

I have a host of further questions. Perhaps my hon. Friend will try to answer some of them now and the rest in a letter, which I hope can be put into the public domain so that a fuller understanding of GM science, which is in the interests of all, can be secured.

10.2 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing a debate that focuses on perhaps the most important aspect of decision making on the future of the commercial planting of GM crops in the United Kingdom. I was fortunate to secure a debate on the wider topic of GM food a couple of months ago, so I will confine my remarks to a few questions to the Minister, to which I hope that he will take the opportunity to reply.

I want to pick up where the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) left off on the scale of the field-scale evaluations. The scientific review is of great importance to decision making. One of the key questions that comes out of the review is whether there have been the sort of results that the Government had in mind—although a different Minister was involved at that stage—when they said that if there was environmental harm from the planting of GM crops, they would not license those crops. The question must be: do the results indicate that sort of environmental harm? We know about the difference in the results, particularly with beet and rape, but the question is whether the Government think that those results are in themselves significant. They have yet to say yes or no to that question and if we can get one thing out of the debate, it should be that.

Two points follow on. What measurements of yields were made during the field-scale evaluations? My understanding is that none whatever were made.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley) : There are so many questions that I do not know whether I can get through them all in the short time available. I will answer some before they slip my mind. There was a detailed scientific assessment of yield and that has been published as a separate scientific paper. My understanding is that the actual maize crop was managed in normal commercial circumstances.

Mr. Thomas : I thank the Minister for that reply, which leads to my second point. I understand that the herbicide regime will not be legally available. We have been told that the Liberty-atrozine regime will not be the commercial regime for the future.

Mr. Morley : That pesticide has not been approved. An application would have to go through the normal pesticide pathway for approval, which is not happening at present.

Mr. Thomas : I thank the Minister for clarifying those matters from his perspective. There is still the question

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whether growing maize under the field-scale evaluation regimes is a commercial option. I hope that he will say whether the Government considered environmental harm when they set up those evaluations.

Will future developments occur on a case-by-case basis? We have two options. First, we can say that there are severe doubts about some aspects of some GM crops and that we will not therefore progress with their commercialisation. Secondly, we can say that the results were mixed for maize, beet and rape, and that every single GM crop will go through a field-scale evaluation. I understand that the industry is not desperate to sow many more GM crops in the United Kingdom, but whether that will be done on a case-by-case basis or whether the results are sufficient to take forward the commercial planting of GM crops is a point of principle for both us in the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Mr. Drew : That is one of the crunch points. It is possible that individual companies will go to individual countries within the EU to try to prove that there is every reason to license their crops. What will that do for countries that may not want to license such crops in the EU? In that case, the science would become irrelevant.

Mr. Thomas : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The chair of the review body examining the evaluations, Professor Chris Pollock of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth, said that the results are applicable throughout the European Union. My question to the Minister is how will the Government interact with other European Governments? Do the results mean that maize is okay in the UK and is therefore okay in every other country?

My final question to the Minister is on the European dimension. I do not know whether he knows this but at the end of last week the Welsh Assembly Government joined with 10 other European regions to declare themselves the network of GMO-free regions. Those regions include Wales, Upper Austria, Tuscany, Aquitaine, the Basque country, Limousin, Marche, Salzburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Thrace-Rodopi.

Michael Weir (Angus): Does the hon. Gentleman feel that those regions and nations have enough power to declare themselves GMO free? He mentioned Upper Austria, which is taking legal action against the decision that it cannot declare itself a GMO-free zone.

Mr. Thomas : That is an important point, which I want to put to the Minister. When Franz Fischler came to Wales in the summer to visit the Royal Welsh show, he said that it would be possible for regions to ban GM if there was evidence of harm. Do the field-scale trials provide such evidence? The 10 regions do not include Scotland, but no doubt the issues will be explored there. What will the Government do at a European level to ensure that Wales, and Scotland if it so chooses, can continue its GM-free status? The Welsh Assembly Government's statement was an important statement of principle and of public view, which was based on the precautionary principle. I think that they would say that some of the findings of the evaluation support what they did in that regard.

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My final question comes down to the nitty-gritty. What will the Government do regarding co-existent regimes, in relation to their own policies and those in Wales? The Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly for Wales are very concerned about the impact of GM crops on the organic sector in Wales. We have a bigger organic sector than the rest of the United Kingdom. It is an expanding sector: a new organic plan for Wales is being discussed at this moment and will be launched by the end of the year, which will put Wales at the forefront of organic growing throughout the whole of western Europe.

The planting of GM crops has obvious implications for organic agriculture and the key will be any co-existence regime. I want assurances from the Minister that he will be prepared to bat for Wales based on what the Welsh Assembly Government want from a co-existence regime, and he will ensure that those matters can be implemented in Wales in the way that the Welsh Assembly wants.

The key to the whole debate is how we will be able to work together at a European Union level and how we can use the information from the field-scale evaluations to make some hard decisions based on environmental harm and the precautionary principle. We must ensure that that is done transparently and in a way that does not make the public lose some faith in food safety and the environmental concerns of the Government.

I congratulate the Government on having the evaluations—they were very important—but they have thrown up as many questions as they answered. I want the Government to give at least some of those answers later this morning.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that if the Minister is to be interrupted at two minutes to eleven, it is all the more important that the winding-up speeches start no later than 10.30 am.

10.11 am

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I want to concentrate on the field trials that feed into the science review and make several general points. First, I welcome the fact that the field trials were completed because they have provided a wealth of information that is being used on both sides of the argument. I hope that those who tried to disrupt the trials are now thoroughly ashamed of themselves and an apology to the public at large would be extremely helpful. For those people to try to prevent evidence from being collected discredited their opposition to GM crops. I am glad that the evidence has been collected, despite their efforts.

The field trials were the largest investigation of farm ecology in the world and as such, they pose some rather interesting questions about British agriculture, which are much bigger and more important than the debate about GM crops. The key data that came out of the field trials showed that the most important issue was not whether a crop was GM or not—although there were significant differences between the GM and non-GM

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crops. The key issue was that of the crop—whichever it was—and the regime under which it was grown. Where it was grown in the UK seemed to be pretty irrelevant: it did not seem to make much difference. That demonstrates that we should have had such trials before GM came into view because they allow the public to have a clearer view of issues of agricultural practice and the decisions that have to be taken.

The trial clearly demonstrates that to talk of banning or not banning GM crops is to miss the point. The debate has to be conducted on a case-by-case basis because the issues are different with each crop. I will cite some figures to demonstrate that it is the crop that matters, not whether it is GM or not. If one considers beetle numbers—I do not know what sort of beetle was counted—1,707 were collected in a year from conventional sugar beets, whereas 1,576 were collected from the GM crop. That is a significant difference, but it pales into insignificance compared with the counts for conventional and GM maize, which were half that. The differences between maize and beet were hugely greater than the differences between GM and non-GM varieties. One finds similar differences throughout.

The crucial factors are the crop and the herbicide. I regret the fact that the first GM crops to be tested were all genetically modified for herbicide resistance, because those crops are the most contentious. Had the manufacturers had the sense to introduce a GM crop with rather more obvious benefits to the consumer, the debate would have been hugely different and more balanced.

The field trials concentrated on three crops—maize, beet and rape—that are relatively unimportant in the UK anyway, in that they cover only 10 per cent. of UK arable land. The trials did not deal with wheat, which covers 50 per cent. of arable land and, whether GM or not, is almost certainly the most inimical to biodiversity because of the way it is cultivated. The value of the crop is hugely diminished if it contains any weed seeds.

Essentially, the field trials also gave no information on the effect on the environment of crops for which herbicide resistance has been gained by conventional plant breeding methods. I suspect that they are just as inimical to the environment as GM crops. Again, that shows that we are arguing about the wrong thing. We, the British public, ought to be arguing about agricultural practice in the UK and what we are prepared to pay for it. We are not really talking about those crucial questions, which I wish to highlight.

The field trials should help the British public to start a proper debate about agriculture in this country—about whether we want a more biodiverse countryside and if, as taxpayers, we are prepared to compensate farmers so that, essentially, they look after the countryside rather than maximise their financial yield. We must decide whether we are prepared to pay farmers to create and maintain a biodiverse countryside and to compensate them for the fact that they will get a low financial return on crops that have a high weed content. Do we want to pay them to reduce the area under cultivation for crops that of necessity provide a regime that is inimical to biodiversity and wildlife, or to leave greater areas of land uncultivated to create biodiversity?

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Those issues are hugely more important than the relatively unproductive debate about GM and non-GM crops. I hope that people will use the interesting field trials results to move on to much bigger questions about the way in which British agriculture operates.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I correct myself. The Minister will be interrupted a mere 15 seconds before 11 o'clock. None the less, it is still desirable that winding-up speeches begin at 10.30.

10.18 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I shall be brief to allow my colleagues to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on raising the debate and other colleagues on turning up today. This serious subject is really about science, the public and the Government and getting the whole mix together so that we can have a proper debate.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) was speaking, I was tempted to challenge every conclusion that he made about every experiment, but that would be being a clever Dick. There will be another time and place for that. Sound science is an interesting concept. I have no knowledge of sound science, because there is always someone who will argue until the cows come home about how to interpret an experiment. There are usually various interpretations. The phrase "sound science" dribbles off the tongue, as if science gave the ultimate answer. It does not. It gives part of the answer, and that is how we should view the issue.

This debate always has been and will continue to be polarised. Let us consider the link between mobile phones and radiation. I wonder whether mobile phone technology would have been developed had we known about that. We must consider how the public perceive certain technologies at different stages in their development, and how opposition to them is conveyed. There is more evidence against the safety of mobile phones and telecommunications masts than there is against GM in scientific publications.

There has been a lot of hot air from both sides. It is completely untrue to say that because of the anti-GM culture, bioscience people are flooding out of the country to work elsewhere; there are more people entering this country because plant biology is about not only GM but many other things. The Biological and Biotechnological Science Research Council has put £56 million into that area. An institute in Norwich tells me that many bright young people destined to be stars have come over from Australia and the United States.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said that the debate was the wrong way round and that by focusing on one technology it becomes a lightning rod for a never-ending list of hypothetical concerns. We should start with the overarching problems in the long term and work back to the science and technology. It would bring together all the stakeholders to co-operate rather than produce the inherent dialectic of being for or against a specific technology. We should determine what science and technology could contribute towards a solution and identify the policy needed to facilitate the process.

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The major remits ought to be the consideration of what level of photosynthetic production is sustainable in this country and in the world; how much we should share with other species; and how we obtain global food security with a technology-delivery window of 20 or 30 years hence if Australia's harvests are disastrous, eastern Europe has low grain reserves, Africa has a food deficit, global food deficits occur by 2020, there is little new prime land because of spoilage, and global climate change takes effect. We should discuss all that, not only one aspect of it, and then we might not need GM technology because science might develop in other ways. I doubt that it would because a lot of gene technology has developed in biomedicine, and it has been accepted because one can prove the benefits of developing new insulin and new drugs, and that does not worry people.

We should initiate a risk-benefit analysis, which does not exist in GM. It is a difficult concept that cannot be dealt with in this debate. The GM science review seems to suggest such an analysis. Many people on the review took up polarised positions and it was magnificent that they produced that document. It was like a Select Committee report: a minority report could have been produced but it was not. It is a very thoughtful document and it should be taken seriously.

The Science and Technology Committee will reassess the evidence. Tricky decisions must be made and there is a lot of research to undertake, as other Members have mentioned. We should be less vehement in our opposition to each other and we should discuss the wider context. In that way, science and technology will benefit, and it will not lead to an anti-science and technology culture, which sometimes seems to be around the corner.

I welcome the fact that the debate is now enjoined. I have sat on the Royal Society's committee for the public understanding of science and it has been very difficult to talk to the public about the issue. I am not convinced that the people who were consulted could be considered ordinary members of the public; I know who they were and they were drawn from polarised organisations and positions. That is not the way to engage in public debate and we have lots to learn. We should step back and consider the issue in less of a hothouse atmosphere.

10.24 am

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the Government on holding the science review in the first place. It is easy to lose focus on the importance of the UK position, given that we lead the international debate on what science can tell us, what the limits are of what we know and what we do not know. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to our questions. We should be admiring and praising the Government for conducting the science review. It has put us way ahead of almost any other country and places us in the unique position of defining the next set of issues that we will have to address nationally and internationally.

The Minister knows that I have raised several issues with him in written form, a couple of which I shall focus on today. I refer to co-existence and what we know about the evaluation techniques in the science of

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unintended consequences. As a benchmark, I want to say that GM is different from commercial plant breeding. It is not simply another form of it. There are risks and downsides in the production of many plants and the over-consumption of different food types. The difference with GM is that, with other conventional plants, we have inherited and accumulated knowledge that has been built up over 1,000 years. We are discussing a revolutionary technology and we do not know the consequences of some of the risks that go hand in hand with that. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say how we are attempting to put in place the benchmarks of a science that is about assessing and evaluating the risks associated with the revolutionary step change in what technology can offer?

Unlike mobile phones or the A-class Mercedes that fell over when it went round corners, it is difficult to identify a product recall mechanism when commercial approvals have been given to the system. I wish to ask the Minister a couple of specific questions about the stage at which the science is now. Has he read the two most recent studies on oilseed rape that were published in the UK during the last month, one of which was undertaken by Warwick et al and the other by Wilkinson et al? Both studies raised extremely important issues about the movement of genes between species. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) made clear, the industry had denied the prospect of horizontal gene flow. We now know that that is not only a prospect, but a reality.

The study carried out by Warwick produced the evidence that transgene escape from oilseed rape to a wild relative from a commercially released crop was a measurable reality. Now that we know that, we need a science that is capable of evaluating where that goes and the risks that it entails.

Dr. Gibson : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also gene release in more conventional crops? That is how hybrids are achieved in nature.

Alan Simpson : I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. My point is that we have never before experienced a widening of the gene pool that has not been controlled by nature. We have a science that is capable of crossing all the frontiers that nature has set. We need a measuring process that is up to evaluating the risks that that leap forward can carry with it.

I come now to the connected issues raised by Wilkinson et al, which was published in last month's issue of Science. It shows that 32,000 hybrids between oilseed rape and the waterside form of wild turnip form each year and that there are 17,000 with the weedy population, primarily wild cabbage. The study showed that, if oilseed rape were grown, genes from bacteria and viruses could be introduced into the gene pool. That is the risk element—the uncertain area—in which we could become involved. We are not denying that nature has itself been responsible for the maintenance and change of the gene pool evolution. We are talking about the risks of a scientific revolution. The issues that we

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must understand and evaluate relate to the consequences of that revolution for both human and environmental health.

Dr. Starkey : Does my hon. Friend accept that the way nature controls the situation, as he puts it, is through natural selection, which, as it relates to non-genetically modified organisms, operates against genetically modified organisms? If organisms do not have a select advantage in the wild environment, they will be wiped out by natural selection.

Alan Simpson : I am quite fond of nature's ability to control and regulate the planet. I am worried that the science of what can be done technologically is not matched by the scientific evaluation of the consequences for society. We need to know whether we are introducing the risk of new susceptibilities to bacteria and viruses. It worries me that industry has been good at producing scientific breakthroughs and then doing a runner when the cost of the damage becomes clear to society.

Will the Minister carefully consider the comments in the science review on the phrase "no evidence"? Will he take on board the recommendation made last year by the United States National Academy of Sciences that the US Government should not use the term "no evidence" in their environmental assessments? It added:

Given the Minister's comments about the science of uncertainty about our current knowledge limits, can he tell us what new regulatory framework will be introduced to undertake clear risk assessments before he even contemplates commercial approvals?

10.32 am

Andrew George (St. Ives): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing this debate. She hoped that we would all speak as briefly as possible in order to give the Minister ample time to answer the myriad questions that have been thrown at him, so in the spirit of that request, I shall do my best to keep my remarks brief.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) emphasised the distinction between the views of those who are often characterised as anti-GM—people who roll around in fields wearing spacesuits and oxygen masks and take a luddite view—and what today's debate has been about, which is a healthy and responsible scepticism based on the uncertainties that the scientific debate has thrown up thus far. The debate has uncovered the fact that the more that we understand the subject, the more questions and uncertainties arise, and I hope that the Minister will address some of those questions.

When crucial decisions need to be made, I hope that it is recognised that we are far from having an adequate picture, and, in light of the evidence so far, I hope that they can be put off. I do not think that we will ever have the whole scientific picture, but an adequate picture, rather than the current piecemeal approach, will help to advise the Government and the Council of Ministers

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when they take their decisions. Yesterday, there was a classic example when the regulatory committee considered Bt11 sweet maize; it could have made a decision yesterday that could have started us down a particular route.

What concerns me and many hon. Members is that there has been insufficient debate in the House. We have had the "GM Nation?" debate in this country, but so far, limited scientific evidence has been brought forward. We might be sleepwalking with small, incremental steps towards making a significant decision, although there has not been adequate opportunity for that decision to be taken on the big stage. Instead, it will have been taken through the back door. That is what worries me. I am pleased that the regulatory committee has put off a decision until at least December; more evidence is required.

Many hon. Members pointed to the significant difference between medicines such as thalidomide, which, having been released into the market place can later be withdrawn, and GMs, where, the decision having been made to release them into the environment, it is largely irreversible, as the Canadian example shows. The fundamental point, which I hope that the Minister will take on board, is that we want reassurance that decisions will be taken only once we have an adequate and full picture of the science, rather than irreversible mini-decisions being made elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) raised questions about GM-free zones. I would be interested in the Minister's response to the fact that in October, following the FSE results, the health and consumer protection commissioner, David Byrne, is reported to have said that

in respect of GM-free areas. Perhaps the Minister would like to reflect and comment on that.

I was interested to find that the GM review threw up a lot of points of uncertainty. For example, it concedes that

It also says that

is "likely to increase" with the development of second-generation GM crops.

The review states:


including foods and animal feeds derived from GM crops. On the environment, the review says:

There are many questions that have been thrown up by the science review. I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

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Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the Government on setting up the review panel. I know that, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said, there is great polarisation within that panel, and it has done well. At what point does the Minister believe that the Government will be in a position to make strategic decisions, not simply delegate them to the FSA or others, about what they believe? When will they be able to say what safety conclusions they have come to in respect of GMs? It is clear that the science review so far has to take on the FSA results; there are further results to come next year.

At what point will the science review panel, which is perhaps the best that is available, and the best science forum for this debate, and the Government be in a position to make those crucial decisions? Can the Government reassure us that those crucial decisions will not be taken through the back door in Europe, whether through the FSA or otherwise, until that crucial decision is taken?

10.40 am

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): I echo the remarks of other hon. Members by congratulating the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on initiating this debate on a matter of great public importance. I do not wish to sound too carping a note, but it is regrettable that this issue has yet again had to be debated in Westminster Hall, as a result of the initiative of a Back Bencher. That has inevitably meant that there is not as much time as all hon. Members want for the Minister to provide a full response.

There have been a number of excellent contributions and the wide cross-section of opinion that exists on this matter has been demonstrated. Those opinions are not determined along party lines. However, if there is one thing that everybody agrees on it is that, in order to proceed with the development and exploitation of technology of this kind, it is essential that we have as much information as possible. Whether one is an opponent or a supporter of GM, nobody would disagree that things must be done on the basis of scientific analysis, and that that must be made public so that everyone is capable of reaching a judgment. I agree with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) in condemning those who have sought to prevent the further investigation of the possible effects of the exploitation of GM by disrupting field trials. That is something that nobody who is serious about this issue should support.

As hon. Members know, my involvement in this subject is relatively recent. It is less than 24 hours since I was debating the future of broadcasting policy.

Dr. Gibson : The hon. Gentleman is an expert.

Mr. Whittingdale : That is very kind but I am, perhaps, not an expert yet, and for that reason, as well as because the Minister needs to be given enough time to speak, I want to offer a very few preliminary thoughts.

The first question, which everyone must address, is whether we need GM crops at all. The answer is that we probably do not. Nevertheless, evidence is emerging that they have the potential to offer genuine economic

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benefits and an improvement in the human condition. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) set out some of the areas where this technology might offer benefits. It might benefit the environment by leading to herbicides being used less—or certainly being better targeted. It might lead to the benefit of increased yields, and the consequent prospect of cheaper food, which would have benefits for the third world and the alleviation of starvation. There are also other potential benefits to do with pharmaceuticals and general health.

Nevertheless, this is a technology about which we still know very little. I agree with the Members who pointed out that, unlike with many other scientific advances, with this one when the genie is let out of the bottle it will be extremely hard to put it back in. Therefore, we need to proceed with great caution in exploiting it.

For all the assurances that scientists have given, the public still do not believe their statements. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford suggested that science is not the only criterion that is applicable in this debate. I agree. We have to take into account public concern. We must also accept that the assurances of scientists are now viewed with considerable suspicion. I was in No. 10 Downing street when the Government were saying that there was no available evidence that BSE could pass into the human food chain. I was also there when the Secretary of State for Health said, "Well, Prime Minister, at the beginning of the week that statement was true, but I have to tell you that, as from yesterday, it no longer is." It is unsurprising that people are not going to accept the word of scientists when they have been shown to be wrong in past. There is a real problem with the public acceptance of a vast array of technologies including mobile phone masts, nuclear power, electricity distribution and GM technology.

The debate has focused on the science review and that is certainly an excellent contribution that has generally been positive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said. The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) is, however, justified in saying that although the questions dealt with so far have produced relatively reassuring answers, some have not yet been focused on. Although we can continue to deal with matters that have not been properly dealt with, we still need to pause and ask further questions.

I am also slightly concerned about the general approach of adopting a case-by-case analysis. We need to examine bigger questions such as the overall impact, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said. There are various other concerns that we have not touched on in the debate and into which I shall not go today. However, we must tackle the potential impact on a growing industry—the production of organic food—and how we can ensure that consumers have properly informed choice through labelling, and legal liability. The bottom line is that the safety of the technology is not in itself a sufficient condition for proceeding, but it is necessary.

The debate has exposed real concerns that still exist. People still have real questions, even after all the answers provided so far, and the Minister has the

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opportunity to deal with some of the detailed questions. Accordingly, I shall not speak any longer, so that he has the maximum time to do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I remind hon. Members that I intend to invite the House to observe the two-minute silence. It would, of course, be inappropriate for hon. Members to leave the Chamber until the end of those two minutes.

10.46 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate and on the way she made legitimate points with which we need to deal. The Government recognise that—and so do I. I have some technical answers to some of her very technical points. I shall come to those in a moment.

I also welcome the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) to his new post. I look forward to debating with him on many future occasions. He touched on BSE, which is at the root of many of these problems. There was an erosion of public trust and confidence—that is part of the problem that we face today with new technologies, such as GM. The Government are trying to deal with that by putting much of the decision-making process into the hands of independent bodies. We think that setting up the Food Standards Agency and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, involving the wider public and being open and transparent, is the right way forward.

I lived through BSE—I was on the Opposition Front Bench at the time, on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food team—and I would not blame the scientists. There was a lot of scientific evidence of trans-species transmission, but the implications for humans were not accepted. I do not believe that evidence is being ignored in the GM debate. There is an attempt to take all the evidence into account. That is the idea behind setting up the science review, the role of which is to bring together all the evidence to be properly evaluated and considered.

I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). This country has a world-class reputation for science, including plant science. It is true that people, institutions and organisations are keen to be based and work in this country because they will be supported in a range of scientific studies looking at the scientific horizons. That is important; we make no apology for it.

It might be worth reminding ourselves of the conclusions in the first report of the science review. I say "first report" because there is, of course, ongoing research. Some of the points that hon. Members mentioned are being considered in terms of the latest research on a whole range of issues—I shall touch on some of the details later. The first report concluded that although there is no scientific case for ruling out all GM crops, they should not be given blanket approval. The report endorses the Government's precautionary approach to regulating each GM crop case by case. The science review is neither a red light nor a green light for GMs. It is a thorough, neutral analysis of the actual

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science. The review raised some comprehensive questions. It states that there are gaps in our knowledge, which we must address. It is fair to say that knowledge is never complete. What matters is whether we have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the risks to make decisions on the risk analysis—a point on which Members touched.

Overall, the science review is generally positive, but it is measured. It is very good and has received a wide welcome. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) said, it is also true that we are taking an international lead in the thoroughness of our work. Our work has three strands—the scientific review, the economic review and, of course, the farm-scale evaluations. No other country is carrying out such a detailed and thorough review of GMs.

The science review also says that we should not be complacent in either the risk analysis or the regulatory process, which must match advances in science. Going back to BSE, it is always in the back of my mind that we commissioned the Phillips report, which gave sound advice on examining all risks and not ruling out anything. We must examine everything through science-based and risk-based approaches.

I welcome the comments from the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who has spoken about the matter on a number of occasions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), for Lewisham, Deptford, for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Nottingham, South, and the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for St. Ives (Andrew George) are all involved.

We recognise that there are gaps in knowledge, which we must address. That point is recognised in the science review and by the Government. My right hon. Friend was right to say that the experiment carried out with volunteers by the Food Standards Agency involved only one meal, which was indeed soya burgers and soya milk.

On DNA transfer, the science review concluded that the experiments to investigate the transfer of transgenic DNA from GM plants to bacteria have generated consistently negative results with one exception, which we must examine to determine what it means. The balance of evidence points in the opposite direction, however, and the consequences of transfer have been risk assessed.

It was always assumed that DNA transfer could occur. The studies were conducted on the assumption that DNA transfer in the gut will happen. We must consider the potential consequences and whether any known risks have been identified. That has not been the case so far in these studies. The studies go back to 1996, when the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which was concerned by the presence of antibiotic resistant marker genes, conducted one.

A number of research projects were commissioned by the FSA to determine survival in the gastrointestinal tract and to address the potential for gene transfer in bacteria. The research demonstrates that the risk of transfer is extremely low. One can never say never, but I understand that further work has not identified DNA in bacteria. That work continues, but the FSA feels that

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that research study's findings were not significant. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West is right that the findings were entirely consistent with those for non-GM food and that there is no difference in the transfer of DNA. There is nothing special about the findings so far.

In relation to the Bt11 crop, the Austrian research was published in 2002, so it is not new and it has been taken into account in the evaluations and our own scientific research. The Austrian research is known, and it raises a series of questions rather than coming to a conclusion in itself. Those questions are reasonable and need to be addressed in our scientific review, which is based on the international standards for such research. An attempt is being made to create some consistency internationally in the way that that is done.

Only three objections of substance were made in any of the 25 countries in the EU involved with Bt11. There were a range of issues relating to post-market monitoring and traceability. We are also concerned about that and want it in place before there is progress.

Andrew George : Will the Minister reassure us and explain who was delegated at the regulatory committee yesterday to take the decision due to be taken, and what consultations were made with the Government and other agencies before that decision was taken?

Mr. Morley : There has been detailed analysis of the crop. Sweet maize is not for planting in the EU or UK: it is to be imported for animal feed and processing. That was referred to the normal committees, including the Food Standards Agency, which evaluated it and came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of any risk. That was the basis of the guidance that was given in response to that application.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford mentioned English Nature. That organisation congratulated the chair and panel of the science review on producing such a "comprehensive review". It agreed that the research should be conducted on a case-by-case basis, and it also agreed with the panel's view that although risks may be associated with growing some GM crops, there may also be significant benefits for the environment. The organisation raised a number of issues; that is absolutely true. I understand that the science review panel is looking into those points and takes them seriously. We would expect that and there is a representative of English Nature on that panel.

My hon. Friend mentioned invasiveness and there has been a great deal of research on invasiveness in relation to crops: "Environmental Risks of Herbicide-Tolerant Oilseed Rape" published in 1999; "Investigation of Feral Oilseed Rape Populations" in February 1999; "Monitoring large scale releases of genetically modified crops, incorporating report on project EPG 1/5/30: monitoring releases of genetically modified crop plants" in December 2002; and "Consequences for agriculture of the introduction of GM crops" in October 2003. A further project investigating aspects of persistence of oilseed rape is currently underway. Entitled "Factors affecting cross-pollination in oilseed rape varieties, particularly of low male fertility, growing under typical UK conditions", it is due to be completed in 2006. A lot of comprehensive work is going on, which relates to the oilseed rape involved in the FSE trial.

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On the question about Canada and what is classified as a weed, the canola is Roundup Ready canola, which has no approval in the UK or the EU, and the findings of the Canadian experience would guide the regulatory process if there were any application in the EU or the UK. We take that particularly seriously.

On the question about soil asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton, I understand that studies carried out so far have been unable to detect evidence for horizontal gene flow between GM plants and bacteria in soil. That issue has been considered. As for wild birds, it is difficult to put a study together for wild bird populations unless one has very large GM areas in which to measure. Of course, measuring the availability of food—seeds and invertebrates—in the FSEs can be modelled to give an indication of the impact on wild bird populations. My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have some experience in such areas, so I know how that can be done.

There is not much time to go further into the detailed points, and I shall ensure that written answers are provided for the questions that have been asked.

The debate has been very useful. This was not the first on the subject—we have had several—and, because of the interest, there is certainly an argument for more detailed debates in the future. Taking seriously and addressing the relevant and perfectly reasonable points that hon. Members of all parties have raised will be an ongoing process.

11 am

The Chamber observed two minutes' silence.

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