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European Standing Committee A Debates

Genetically Modified Maize

European Standing Committee A

Monday 21 June 2004

Mr. Alan Hurst

Genetically Modified Maize

[Relevant documents: European Union Document No. 8235/04 relating to the marketing of maize genetically modified for glyphosate tolerance; explanatory memorandum thereon from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of 6 May 2004; European Scrutiny Committee Twentieth Report of 18 May 2004.]

4.4 pm

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr. Hurst. I appreciate that there is strong competition for hon. Members' time, given my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's statement on Europe, so I am pleased by the attendance in Committee now that we have a quorum.

The draft Council decision proposes that a glyphosate-tolerant GM maize, line NK603, be placed on the market in the EU for use as any other maize, with the exception of cultivation and uses as or in food. This application is restricted to feed use, although there is a parallel application for processing. The decision would in effect permit the import of NK603 GM maize into the EU and its use in animal feed. Approval for its use in human food is subject to separate assessment in the normal decision-making procedure.

The decision would not apply unless and until authorisation for the use of NK603 in human food has been obtained under the novel food regulation 258/97, a prudent measure that ensures that authorisations for animal and human feed uses remain in step with one another. No decision was reached at the regulatory committee on 3 April on the food application, which is to be referred to the Council for a decision.

Directive 2001/18 requires that each proposed commercial release of GM product is subject to a detailed risk assessment, which involves careful scrutiny by independent scientists, not only here but throughout the European Union. The procedures for assessing applications, including the timetable for different stages, are mandatory requirements, and the transparent, case-by-case risk assessments are based on sound scientific evidence to avoid adverse effects on human health and the environment—issues we regard as paramount.

Monsanto notified the Spanish competent authority that conducted the initial assessment of the application. The authority submitted its positive assessments to the Commission in January 2003. In August of that year, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, ACRE, concluded that

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    ''ACRE sees no reason that consent to market NK603 maize should not be given''.

That advice and comments from other bodies were endorsed by the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations, and consequently adopted as the UK's opinion, which was submitted to the Commission.

The UK opinion raised two detailed issues that needed to be addressed before consent to market NK603 maize was given: traceability and labelling, and post-market monitoring. New regulations on traceability and labelling came into force in April, and any animal feed intentionally containing NK603 GM maize will have to be labelled. Details of monitoring requirements are specified in the draft decision, and take into consideration the amendments requested by the UK. Six other member states—Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France and Italy—raised the same issues as the UK; Italy and Belgium raised other issues relating to molecular characterisation; and Austria raised the question of potential allergenicity. The UK was satisfied with the information provided on all those aspects in relation to those queries.

There are two periods of mandatory public consultation organised by the Commission on applications and their assessments, and the right of public access to information about GMOs. Comments from the public were received from nine member states—interestingly, 40 per cent. of all the responses were from the United Kingdom—and were taken into account in the UK assessment of the dossier. The GMO panel of the European Food Safety Authority concluded that NK603 maize is as safe as conventional maize, and therefore its placing on the market for food or feed, or processing, is unlikely to have an adverse effect on human or animal health, or indeed on the environment. The specialist advice was that there was no reason to object to the marketing of GM maize NK603 for use as any other maize, with the exception of cultivation and uses as or in food.

Those are the principal details behind the application. I know that a number of detailed and specific points were referred to our advisory committees, and if hon. Members have any questions, I will be only too pleased to try to answer them.

The Chairman: We now have until four minutes past five at the latest for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that these should be brief, and should be asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample time for everyone to ask several questions.

4.9 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I echo the Minister's comments welcoming you to the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Hurst. When a similar debate was held a few weeks ago about the marketing of genetically modified sweetcorn, the Minister responding to the debate said that a fundamental part of the Government's position was that the consumer should be free to choose. She went on to say that, in every possible way, people should be able to

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    ''live in line with their own wishes''.—[Official Report, European Standing Committee C, 26 April 2004; c. 006.]

Is the Minister happy that the consumer will not be given any information about whether the milk or meat products that they purchase in shops may have come from animals fed GM maize?

Mr. Morley: In principle, I have no objection to the maximum information being given to consumers. Some retailers have decided to ensure that the milk and meat from their suppliers is from animals that are not fed with GM feed, and that is their right—it is part of consumer and retailer choice and is a market decision—but if animals are fed GM feed, it is completely undetectable in the meat and milk, so there is no possible test to determine whether that has happened. It is impossible to detect, there is no test for it, and there is no difference for the animals. Therefore, it is impossible to label for. However, if people wish to apply their own standards, as some retailers do, that is a matter for them, and the Government have no problem with that.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): On behalf of the permanent members of the Committee, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst—it is always good to see you in your place. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the Government initiatives on labelling and traceability, which I strongly welcome. Will he tell us what proportion of the UK and EU import market this type of maize will eventually account for?

Mr. Morley: That is a difficult question. If there is an assessment, I will write to my hon. Friend. A high proportion of animal feed is GM, because GM soya has been on the market for many years and is often an ingredient in animal feed. It is also likely that GM maize will be taken up. Feeds containing GM material are clearly labelled, so farmers are well aware of what they are buying. That can be tested for and is therefore distinguishable. However, the overall proportion will be driven by the market and will depend on whether people want to buy the products and on the level of market demand.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): What has the farming industry's response been to the proposal? Is there likely to be widespread uptake of the use of this GM maize?

Mr. Morley: There is no evidence from the farming press or from my discussions with local farmers that I meet at shows that there is widespread resistance. Some farmers would not wish to buy GM feed, and as the feed is clearly labelled, they will have that choice.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): May I refer to the Minister's remark about detection in milk and meat? Detection at the moment is at 0.1 per cent., so it is not impossible that there is content but, as he rightly says, it could not be detected. The issue for many people, however, is that some process may occur, of which we are yet unaware, that would affect the quality of the meat and milk, going beyond the question of whether there is GM content.

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Is the Spanish Government's initial assessment in line with the Commission decision of 24 July 2002, which established the guidelines for environmental risk assessment, including considering health impacts. The matters that needed to be accounted for were listed as:

    ''assumptions and extrapolations made at various levels in the ERA . . . different scientific assessments and viewpoints . . . uncertainties . . . the known limits on mitigation measures''

    ''conclusions that can be derived from the data.''

Have any of the Minister's officials seen the Spanish dossier? Does it comply with those standards? I am advised that it does not. Has he any view—

The Chairman: Order. I fear that the hon. Lady is misleading herself into a speech.

Mr. Morley: My advice is that it does comply with all those aspects. I should also say to my hon. Friend that our own advisory bodies will take such issues into account in their assessment. We are free under the EU process to do our own assessments and come to our own conclusions using our own independent assessment bodies. We give our opinion as part of the dossier and the final consideration, which is led by Spain.

My hon. Friend is also not correct on the 0.1 per cent. It is possible to detect GM material at 0.1 per cent—of course, the lower the level, the more demanding it becomes, but I assure her that if there was GM material at that level in milk or meat, it could be detected. However, it cannot be detected, because there is no evidence at all of any GM material in the milk or meat.

 
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