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European Standing Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Gary Streeter
Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)
Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Heyes, David (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (South Thanet) (Lab)
Laxton, Mr. Bob (Derby, North) (Lab)
Norris, Dan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Spellar, Mr. John (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Ed Waller, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Committee A

Tuesday 16 June 2009

[Mr. Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Genetically Modified Maize
4.30 pm
The Chairman: I call the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) to make a brief explanatory statement.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): It will indeed be a brief statement, but before I make it may I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in Committee this afternoon, Mr. Streeter?
It may help the Committee if I explain some of the background to the documents and the reasons why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended them for debate. As Committee members may know, Community legislation on genetically modified crops delegates approvals to the Commission in the first instance, but where it cannot obtain sufficient support in a so-called regulatory committee the matter must be referred to the Council.
The two unnumbered documents before the Committee this afternoon have arisen following the rejection by the regulatory committee on 25 February of proposals to approve the cultivation in the Community of two maize lines that have been genetically modified to be resistant to certain insects. The two genetically modified lines in question are already authorised for feed and food use, and if there is agreement by the Council their cultivation will have to be permitted in all member states.
The United Kingdom’s statutory advisory committee, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, approved the applications, and its views are reflected in the opinion submitted by the UK, following which the UK voted in favour of the proposals in February. However, on that occasion, a majority of other member states took a different view, and it is now necessary for the matter to be put to the Council.
The Government, for their part, say that the proposed course of action is in line with their genetic modification policy. However, the Scottish Executive were unable to support that. Although the Welsh Assembly Government agreed in the two instances in question, their policy is to take the most restrictive possible approach to GM crop cultivation. Apart from that difference of view between the various Administrations, the documents raise several issues. They involve the cultivation of a GM crop within the Community, whereas other recent applications of the kind have related to the use of imported GM material in food or feed. Another issue is the extent of the overall preparedness of the UK if the consent should finally be approved.
For those reasons the European Scrutiny Committee took the view that the documents should be debated in the European Committee this afternoon.
The Chairman: I now call the Minister, whose first Committee outing this is in his new role.
4.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Streeter.
The draft Commission decisions that we are discussing today propose that two types of genetically modified maize with insect resistance should be authorised for marketing and commercial cultivation in the EU. Both are already authorised for food and feed use under the relevant EU legislation. The legislation requires that a detailed assessment of any possible risk to human health and the environment should be carried out before any proposed commercial release of the new GM crop. That involves careful scrutiny of the scientific evidence by independent scientists throughout the EU.
The procedures for assessing applications, including the timetable for the different stages, are mandatory requirements specified in the EU legislation. The process includes two periods of public consultation organised by the Commission. The first of those occurs when an application is initially made. The second occurs when the scientific assessment has been completed by the member state leading on the application and a favourable safety opinion is forwarded for collective EU scrutiny and decision-making. To support the two rounds of public consultation the Commission puts appropriate information about the application and the lead member state assessment report on its website.
The notification with respect to cultivation of the GM maize known as Bt11 was made by the company Syngenta to the French competent authority, which conducted the initial assessment of the application. It submitted its positive assessment to the Commission in July 2003. The notification with respect to cultivation of the GM maize known as 1507 was made by Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Mycogen Seeds to the Spanish competent authority, which conducted the initial assessment of the application. It submitted its positive assessment to the Commission in August 2003.
The next stage in the EU process was for the other member states to consider and comment on the initial assessment reports from France and Spain respectively on Bt11 and 1507. In response to a comment made by several member states, including the UK, the company submitted revised post-market monitoring plans, which have to be implemented to check for any unforeseen environmental effects that might arise from the growing of the GM crop. Our own independent expert group, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, was content with the revised monitoring plans, which require the marketing companies to extend their surveillance of the GM maize crops on so-called non-target organisms—insects other than the specific pest species the GM crops are resistant to.
Other comments from member states on the safety assessment of the two maize lines were considered by the GMO panel of the independent European Food Safety Authority. It concluded in 2005 that there was no evidence to indicate that Bt11 and 1507 maize and harvested products are likely to cause adverse effects on human health, animal health or the environment in the context of their proposed use.
At the EU regulatory committee in February 2009 there was a no-qualified majority vote in favour of or against approving the release of either maize crop for cultivation. In line with the clear scientific opinion of EFSA and ACRE, the UK voted in favour of approving those consents.
In determining the UK position, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs considered the views of the devolved Administrations. Both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Executive signalled their support for a positive UK vote. In line with their general policy of opposing the cultivation of GM crops, the Scottish Government made clear their preference for the UK to vote against approval, despite the clear scientific evidence. As there was no qualified majority at regulatory committee, the dossiers will now be referred to the Council for a decision. At this stage it is not clear when the Council might vote on the matter.
The two maize crops are resistant to the corn borer, which is a severe pest problem in the maize-growing areas of southern Europe and the USA. The corn borer is not a problem in the UK, so that type of maize would offer no benefit to our farmers. Therefore, we do not expect Bt11 or 1507 maize to be marketed or grown in the UK under current climatic conditions.
To cover the possibility that other GM crops might be grown here in the future, we are planning to introduce pragmatic co-existence rules for farmers in England. Those will ensure that unwanted GM cross-contamination is minimised so that GM and non-GM crops can be segregated and people can chose between them. As the legal basis for distinguishing GM from other products, the EU agreed in 2003 that products do not need to carry a GM label if they have an accidental or unavoidable content of approved GM material below 0.9 per cent.
The Chairman: We now have until half-past 5 for questions to the Minister, which I remind Members must be brief. Members may ask related supplementary questions together, subject to my discretion.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I add my welcome to the Minister—I welcomed him last night in the Chamber, but this is the first time he has served in Committee—and thank him for his introduction. There are several issues I would like to raise.
First, on the issue of safety, the Minister rightly said that it is currently unlikely that those two varieties of maize would be grown in Britain because we tend to grow forage maize, rather than grain maize, in this country. However, we might well start to grow more grain maize because of climate change, and a certain amount of grain maize is already grown in the south of England. Would he tell us about the environmental tests? The Government have in the past approved the growing of GM varieties of maize for field-scale evaluation. There is great concern, as we know, about the impact of GM crops on the environment. When and in which countries were the field-scale assessments done, and who evaluated them and over what period? We want an idea whether the environmental assessment is up the standard that we would expect.
Dan Norris: I do not have that information to hand. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to get it from my officials and comment in a moment. I have been assured that the standards are of the highest, that they are robust and are thorough, but I shall give more detail later.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): I welcome you, Mr. Streeter, to the Chair, and I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his new post.
It appears from my hon. Friend’s statement that the science is clear: the product is healthy and safe and does not have a negative environmental impact. Did the Scottish Government or any other members of the flat earth society do any work to indicate what the negative health impact would be of having to use pesticides on non-genetically modified products to stop the pest from destroying those crops? Did they take that into account when they made their rather silly decision to impose some sort of blanket ban on GM products?
Dan Norris: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I understand that they have not gone very far in addressing the concerns that he raises. Their position therefore seems to be one of principle rather than science. I shall leave it at that.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I apologise to you, Mr. Streeter, and to the Committee for my late arrival, but I was in the Chamber for a statement.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was right to say that it is grain maize. If it is imported into this country for human or animal feed, what identification and labelling would be appropriate to alert the farmers or consumers who might buy it that it was GM foodstuff?
Dan Norris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do not know what specifics would meet his requirements. However, I know that we have time to get it right. I am sure that there will be thorough consultation to ensure that errors cannot be made and that people will be clear exactly what they are dealing with. Whether or not one believes in science, one thing is sure: we should all be able to make informed decisions on matters as important as labelling. As I said, it will be some time before we face that challenge, but we therefore need to discuss the matter to ensure that we get something clear, in order to reduce error to an absolute minimum.
Mr. Paice: I am astonished that the Minister could not answer my first question because he had not been given the information. It seems pretty fundamental that the House should be told where the trials were done before ACRE decided that there was no risk to the environment. It seems a fundamental point, and I am almost tempted to suggest that the Committee should not consider the matter further until we have that information.
I ask the Minister a related question. He repeated the absurd statement that we have plenty of time. It is several years since the Government first consulted on crop separation distances. Indeed, the European Scrutiny Committee report said at paragraph 1.11 that
“we noted that the UK was one of the relatively small number of member states which had not introduced legislation in this area”.
It seems daft that the Government, having put out a consultation, have done nothing. Why have they not made progress? It was clear what they proposed. The question of crop separation is fundamental to food labelling and the safety of growing GM crops, given the potential for cross-contamination to conventional and organic crops. When does the Minister expect the Government to introduce regulations on the rules for crop separation? We could have another set of proposals from another plant breeding company for a totally different crop, which could be grown very quickly. I disagree with his assertion that we have plenty of time.
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