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16 Oct 2007 : Column 189WH—continued

9.51 am

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I would genuinely like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate, which is on an important issue. He has been through many of the issues that I wished to touch on and I shall try not to repeat what he said, but I will follow a generally similar line of argument.

I would like to say first, as my hon. Friend did when he finished his speech, that I am not against better welfare for animals or better production methods on farms and trying to produce a farming product, whether it is an animal or a vegetable, of as good a quality as possible, with the least damage to the environment. There is a general consensus that that is a good thing. Unfortunately, the label “organic”—which is a bit of a misnomer; as though there was some other kind of farming—has come to mean “good” and that all the rest is bad. That is inappropriate.

Before getting into the detail of what I want to say, I shall quote C. S. Prakash, a famous and distinguished plant biologist, who said:

That is the worry with following the line of argument that many of the people who lead the organic movement follow.

This debate allows us to explore two issues. First, what are the Government and the EU’s policies towards organic farming? Are they consistent? Is it right that we are putting subsidy and support into getting farms to transfer to become certified by the Soil Association, and is it right that that association is recognised as the certification agency? There is a larger issue, which concerns everybody in relation to the complicated issues that face people in this country and on the planet generally. How is science being helped to improve the difficult situations that people face in world farming and in trying to feed everybody on the planet and to ensure that people are not poisoned but have safe food? Those are the two main issues that my hon. Friend has allowed us to debate today.

I shall not repeat my hon. Friend’s points about Rudolf Steiner and his bizarre beliefs about biodynamic agriculture and forces, except to slander him some more
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by reminding people that the man did join the Nazi party as well as holding those other strange beliefs. There is no doubt that when Lady Balfour set up the organic movement and the Soil Association, it was his ideas that she had in mind.

In a sense, that would be completely irrelevant if the organic farming movement now was following sensible, rational, evidence-based policies, but then we get to people such as Patrick Holden, who ran the Soil Association. He dismisses the possibility and even the sense of having scientific tests on the claims that are made by the organic farming movement and the Soil Association. It is a similar position to that taken by the homeopathic movement. Basically, he says that organic farming is holistic, integrated and joined-up; therefore, it is not subject to scientific testing. That is mumbo-jumbo; it is hokum.

Dr. Evan Harris: May I support the hon. Gentleman in what he is saying? I remember a debate at the Royal Institution to which Patrick Holden came. He said that there has to be room in public policy for an irrational approach and that a rational approach—a scientific approach—could not always be the way forward. I think that, when we are dealing with the livelihood of the competition to the Soil Association, the health and safety of food and, indeed, the future of our environment, we rely even more on a rational, science-based approach.

Graham Stringer: I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. Holden’s view is really an “Animal Farm” view of four legs good, two legs bad, because he clearly says that synthetic chemicals are bad and natural chemicals are good as though there is any difference. It is like the people who campaign against fluoride in tap water. People think that there is good fluoride, which is natural fluoride, and there is bad fluoride, which has come from an industrial process. They forget that all the fluoride atoms and ions were made 6 or 7 billion years ago in the centre of a dying nuclear star and they are exactly the same chemical. It is nonsense and leads to an irrational application of the principles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned bacillus thuringiensis—I apologise if I have not pronounced that accurately; I shall call it BT for the rest of the discussion—which is allowed under the Soil Association’s rules.

David Taylor: A number of speakers have referred to the importance of taking an evidence-based approach. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a pity that the FSA is not rather speedier in responding to evidence in areas such as food additives? Only under pressure from worried consumer groups did it acknowledge that certain E additives to food were likely to worsen the behaviour of children who, for instance, were subject to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The FSA, if it is the guardian of a science-based approach, is not always impeccable in what it does, is it?

Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend makes a point about timing, and we all wish for things to happen more quickly. I do not necessarily accept his point about the lack of objectivity of the FSA. It has a lot of information to gather and must get it right. I shall return to some of the FSA’s points.

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BT is a pesticide allowed by the Soil Association that contains 130 toxins when sprayed, but the Soil Association does not allow genetically modified plants such as maize or soya to be used if one gene has been removed from BT and placed in the plant, although that is more specific in repelling particular caterpillars and beetle larvae. The Soil Association rejects the less damaging process and allows the more damaging one. That is completely irrational, as is permitting the use of copper fungicides and not other pesticides.

Mr. David Drew: I do not agree with my hon. Friend about GMOs, as a rationalist view is emerging on the matter. On his point about science, we had an interesting session at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday to consider vaccination for bovine tuberculosis. The parallel is that we do not know whether we will find the answers. There is a pervasive view that science will always find the answers. If organic food, because it is unnecessary, is considered bad and GMOs good, some of us will reject that. It is far too simplistic, and the public are on to something when they themselves reject it.

Graham Stringer: I was really talking about the Soil Association’s inconsistent attitude. I do not think that the debate about GM foods is simple; there are many factors to be taken into account. I am arguing for a rational, evidence-based look at the issues, rather than one inspired by late 19th and early 20th-century mysticism.

There is no doubt that organic food is becoming more popular. It is claimed that it tastes better, is healthier and safer and benefits the environment. I think that most people agree that fresh food tastes better, but when the Advertising Standards Authority considered the academic studies and did its own tests, it found no taste difference between organic food and food not labelled as organic. Obviously, in some cases organic food will taste better and in some cases it will not.

Is it healthier and safer? In January 2007, my noble Friend Lord Rooker said:

That is quite clear. One of the arguments given against the safety of non-organic food is that the use of pesticides is allowed. We have heard that pesticides may be used on organic food, but what is not usually mentioned in Soil Association propaganda is how much pesticide may or may not be present on organic and non-organic food. It is present in such small amounts that it is unlikely to do any harm. There is no evidence that it does any, and as Sir John Krebs from the Food Standards Agency said recently, coffee has many more naturally occurring residues than are present in food grown non-organically in this country.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Is not the hon. Gentleman’s last sentence the nub of the issue? Many plants in this world contain naturally occurring substances that are highly poisonous if taken to excess. If those substances had
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been invented by scientists rather than developing naturally in the plant world, they would almost certainly be banned.

Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman makes two pertinent points—one about the testing of natural or synthetic chemicals to know whether they are safe, and one about the dose. Those are the key issues, not some mysticism about where they come from.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said—and we would all agree—that we want an improved environment. One of the claims for organic farming is that it is good for the environment. An experiment called the Boarded Barns farm experiment was done in Ongar, Essex, comparing organic farming with integrated farm management and conventional farming. It found in virtually every case that integrated farm management was more productive, because 50 per cent. more land was often needed for organic farming—as well as more manure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said.

Rather surprisingly—the statistics are extremely difficult to obtain—it appears that integrated farm management, rather than organic farming, is better for biodiversity and bird life. One of the issues that the Soil Association and the organic farming movement often do not address is that organic farming requires an enormous amount of field ploughing, which destroys worms and makes it much more difficult for bird life to survive. In a parliamentary answer, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned

I ask the Government to look at the Boarded Barns farm experiment and consider whether they can sustain and justify that position. I do not believe that it is justifiable.

There is undoubtedly a great uneasiness out there about science. It has been caused, for instance, by BSE and the problems 40 years ago with thalidomide. Those two issues caused a lot of damage and death—we do not yet know the extent of the damage—but it would be a mistake to replace scientific assessment with something else. The fact that science does not always get it right is no excuse for moving away from the scientific method.

One of the so-called successes of the Soil Association and the more extreme parts of the green movement—well, less extreme, I suppose—was the more or less worldwide abolition of the use of DDT following the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, which was taken up by the Soil Association. It has been said that DDT causes cancer of the liver. “Silent Spring” said that it was responsible for the decline in this country of the osprey population, the decline of peregrine falcons and the thinning of eggshells. Latter inspection has showed that none of those claims is true, but DDT has been banned more or less around the world. Aid agencies will not support countries, such as Uganda, that continue to use DDT. Over time, that has led not to a relatively small number of deaths such as those from BSE nor—I would not want to minimise it—to the sort of damage done to a number of human beings by thalidomide but to millions and millions of deaths around the world, and especially in the third world. Nevertheless, banning the use of DDT is claimed to be one of the successes of the movement.

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The debate is therefore a plea for people to take a rational look at the huge problems that confront us. We seem to have got ourselves into a situation in which the Soil Association has taken over, with the Government putting its members on quangos and certifying certain things, but what lies behind it and what it is doing is essentially irrational. I believe that we have lost the public relations argument—that we have lost the battle of spin—and that, in the short term, the rationalists have lost to the irrationalists. If that continues—if we try to approach the huge problems of global warming in the same way—then we will make the wrong decisions. That will be costly, and only the populations of richer countries will be able to afford to eat.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject.

10.11 am

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It is a pleasure, Mrs. Humble, to speak under your chairmanship. I had not intended to speak but merely to support my good colleague, the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), on this important issue. He spoke with typical expertise, and I am sorry that I shall not be able to stay to hear the responses to the debate. However, a couple of fresh points need to be made about the role of lobbyists.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on his contribution. He was absolutely right. I am delighted that he drew attention to the disaster that was the attack on using DDT as an anti-malarial, even for indoor spraying. It was never implicated in the allegations over the impact of wider spraying in agriculture, which were proved to be false. It is a tragedy that, even today, some developing countries are still arguing that they should have the tool of affordable and effective anti-malarial mosquito treatments such as DDT. There are still questions on whether the position of the Department for International Development in supporting those countries’ using DDT for indoor spraying is ethical and appropriate.

I turn to the role of those lobbying for organic food. I put my position on record. I enjoy eating organic food as an option. The choice should be available. I know that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is strongly in favour of consumer choice, and from our perspective no one is talking of restricting it. I recognise the efforts of organic farmers to make provision for animal welfare, which is important. I also recognise that organic farming is one form of less intensive agriculture, and that when the environment is under pressure or in danger from over-intensive agriculture, it can be a solution to environmental blight.

There is a question about whether—in practice and not in theory, because if we did things differently we would have enough food for the world—the world could afford to cope with the reduced yields that would be consequent upon a mass switch from intensive to less intensive farming, particularly those on the margins who might not get the food that they need.

I recognise the environmental benefits that could flow from organic farming as an example of a less extensive form of farming. However, as the hon. Member
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for Bolton, South-East stated, it is a multi-billion pound industry. The same questions, the same scepticism and the same rigour must be applied to lobbyists and industry trade associations for that industry as we rightly apply to lobbyists and trade associations for other multi-billion pound industries. I think of the pharmaceutical industry, which is “guilty” of producing drugs that cure people of their illnesses, not merely providing dietary choice. I believe that we do not provide that degree of oversight and scepticism about the organisations that lobby in the direct financial interests of their members—in this case, for organic farmers. The Soil Association is very effective at doing so. That is its job. However, it is not independent, let alone a scientific advisory group, but an industry trade body with a vested financial interest.

That is why we are right to ask why its view is given credence, unsubstantiated by recognition of what always happens in agriculture—for example, that there should be an impractical limit on the amount of coexistence of genetically modified products in low quantities in crops from organic farms. The European Union has a reasonable and practical limit and there has always been an adventitious co-mixing of different types of crop in agriculture, yet the Soil Association goes for a limit that is 10 times lower, which is almost impossible to meet and has never been applied in agriculture in other areas. It does so because it wants to do down competition from other forms of less intensive agriculture, such as the use of GM technology. The association has a right to its view, and it has no problems in expressing it, but the House and the media should apply due scepticism because of its vested financial interests.

I shall not repeat the remarks of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley about the association’s approach to science, but I take the opportunity to defend the Food Standards Agency against the allegation that it has been non-scientific in its approach to organic food or food additives. Based on science, the FSA has taken exactly the right approach in response to recent research on food additives. Indeed, the detail shows that there simply is not enough information to argue for bans on specific products.

Similarly, when Sir John Krebs, the chairman of the FSA and a constituent of mine, rightly pointed out that there was no good scientific evidence for a health benefit of organic food he was roundly criticised. Despite the fact that he is the independent, academic chairman of an independent agency that was rightly set up by the Government to give the public confidence, he was attacked for showing bias in pointing out what is now recognised—that there is no evidence base for health benefits from organic food. It has been alleged that the FSA had caved in to lobbying from non-scientific consumer organisations with various vested interests; I applaud the fact that the agency has taken that view.

As for vested interests, it is important to mention Prince Charles, as far as is permitted by the rules of the House. He is the heir to the throne, and he therefore does not allow himself to be questioned by Members of Parliament or the media, as is expected of every other player. For instance, Ministers have to be interviewed on the “Today” programme.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Too often.

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Dr. Harris: From a sedentary position, the Minister says too often, but I can go in his place if he wishes.

Ministers and others have to defend their arguments and they come before Select Committees to put their point of view, but Prince Charles does not because of his role. However, he has a financial interest in promoting organic farming, and he promotes organic food in his speeches and writings. That is fair enough—at least it is open. What concerns me is that the heir to the throne should seek to use his influence behind the scenes, in personal and private communications with Ministers that are not revealed under the freedom of information legislation. It cannot be right for someone to behave like that when they are in such a position—with a financial interest because of the work of their estate. As far as I am able, I question whether that can be right, and I urge those who advise the prince to bear in mind the issues that I have mentioned.

I conclude by once again thanking the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East for bringing the subject matter of the debate before the House. It is about time that we were able to put arguments for, as it were, the other side, and I apologise once again for not staying to hear the closing remarks.

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