Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that extremely helpful contribution. Of course, he speaks with considerable experience. We have received the Select Committee report which is extremely serious and helpful. We are considering our response and there will be a response within the due time. My initial reaction--although it is not yet the Government's formal reaction--is that the suggestion of an over-arching independent body is one of great interest.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Would the Minister tell the House why Dr. Pusztai of the Rowett research

16 Feb 1999 : Column 576

institute in Aberdeen was sacked following his claim that his research showed that rats fed with genetically modified--I wanted to say manipulated--potatoes had their immunity destroyed? Could he say whether the British Government had any part in that sacking and whether the treatment of this eminent researcher is to be reconsidered in view of the fact that 20 eminent researchers have since vindicated the analysis of his research?

Finally, does the Minister agree that there will be no confidence in anything that either the Government or any major vested interest, like Monsanto, say in reassurance if there is to be any suggestion that adverse findings are to be suppressed?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the Government have played no role in suppressing any research. Whatever took place was a matter for the Rowett Institute. We would encourage the person carrying out the research to publish his conclusions. We would also encourage the publication of the claimed support from 20 other colleagues. We are in the curious position of that research being leaked to the press, but it was not made available to us or to our advisory committee. As far as possible we would encourage them all to publish. Our wish is to receive the maximum respectable scientific advice in this area so that we can take what are difficult and complex decisions.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, any rational person who has read the excellent report of the Select Committee of this House and the powerful evidence given to the committee, such as that of Dr. Bainbridge and Professor Mark Williamson, must come to the conclusion that broadly speaking the Government's attitude on this subject is right. Does the Minister agree that while it is important that there should be strict monitoring and regulation of new products, the likelihood is that the potential benefits of genetically modified food will outweigh the potential risks? Will the Government continue to resist the rather anti-science overtones of the hysteria that has been whipped up by certain sections of the press--with the honourable exception of the Daily Telegraph--and by certain politicians who seem eager to jump on a populist bandwagon without proper research into the evidence?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for suggesting that we may be broadly right, as I believe to be the case, in taking a measured and balanced view. We do not wish to be an obstacle to scientific development. I entirely agree with him in speaking against the hysterical attitude of some of our tabloid journalism. It is regrettable that some politicians-- I think in another place--have tried to climb on that very wobbly bandwagon. We wish to encourage science, but not at any risk to public health or to the environment. We have to preserve that delicate balance and that is why we try to put in place the maximum regulatory and assessment procedures possible without bringing science to a halt. We need to be convinced that

16 Feb 1999 : Column 577

any genetically modified food products that come on to the market have passed the maximum tests and have scientific approval.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, is it not the case that much of the recent concern is over some perhaps informed and some perhaps ill-informed comments on work done by the Rowett Institute on genetically modified potatoes? In order to try to clear up the confusion, will my noble friend say whether the potatoes used in the experiment were genetically modified potatoes that were due to be put on the market for human consumption, or were they specially genetically modified by the researcher concerned to test the effects of some lectins on rats? It is important to know whether that was an experiment, simply as an experiment, or a check on a genetically modified food available for public consumption, or a food that is to be made available for public consumption. If a report is not published, on either side, people are free to speculate as to what research material exists and what it says. If there is a report in the hands of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, would it not be prudent to publish that as soon as possible and to go further and make funding available so that those experiments could be openly re-checked?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, my noble friend has put his finger on the heart of the issue. The potatoes being tested were not genetically modified potatoes. They were not potatoes that were being considered for submission to the novel foods committee or for marketing. They were potatoes of a particular kind, as I understand it--it was not government research--and they were considered appropriate to certain aspects of that research. It would help us all if those involved published the research so that it can be judged by peer groups and other scientists and so that other tests can be done in the normal scientific way. I am not aware of whether the Scottish Office has any report. I shall ask my noble friend.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, given the importance of the project, is the Minister not being rather complacent as far as Dr. Pusztai's work is concerned? Would it not be sensible to ask Dr. Pusztai and his colleagues to appear before the advisory committee? Unless they do, it will be impossible for any of us to reach a considered conclusion about the importance of that work. Will the Minister also accept that as 22 of the 33 boroughs in London, 14 county councils in England and even the restaurants in another place have banned genetically modified food this is not just scaremongering? There is widespread public unease and the Government will be out of step with that unease if they do not allow proper, open, transparent debate and accept the advice given to them earlier. There may well be, in the light of the previous difficulties over the BSE crisis, a reason to have a moratorium for at least a limited period while the issue can be properly considered.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we have no complacency on this issue whatsoever.

16 Feb 1999 : Column 578

As I have said, on the Rowett situation we have urged publication by all sides. If the advisory committee wishes to summon any of those witnesses that is its choice. It is an independent advisory committee. We do not control it. I accept that there is unease. It is totally understandable that in something as profound as this members of the public should be concerned. The activities of some scaremongerers are less responsible. They are stirring up the issue and attempting to frighten people. That is outrageous. I agree that we need transparency and, as I have said, the Government have made enormous progress towards introducing transparency in this research area.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point about reassurance. If he were able to offer reassurance on a particular point, that would go a long way to diminish some of the anxiety in the community. This morning on Radio 5, the Chief Scientific Officer was unable to give reassurance on a question posed by a lady from Ely in Cambridgeshire. The questioner asked what scientific work has been done and what database is available to reassure pregnant women and nursing mothers that there is no danger whatsoever from eating genetically modified foods.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I have some difficulty commenting on that because I did not hear the programme and I have not heard what the Chief Scientific Officer said. The question, "Is there absolutely no danger?", is the question, "Is it absolutely and totally safe?". There are serious problems in saying with total confidence that anything is totally safe. However, the criteria that we use--

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, what work is done?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Baroness on what work is done because, frankly, I do not know.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, following the intervention from the noble Baroness opposite, I thank the Government for the Statement. I also thank the Government's Chief Scientific Officer for the discussion on the "Today" programme this morning. It seemed to me that he at last had brought some clarity into the discussion, whereas, as the noble Lord has already said, there has been considerable confusion and some scaremongering. In order to ensure that the debate continues in a sensible way, may I urge the Government to respond as soon as possible--clearly, this Statement is not the time to do it--to the report from the Select Committee so that we can have a full debate on it because I believe that that will assist in clarifying matters further?

Can the Minister confirm or deny the information that I have received that the active material that was used by Dr. Pusztai was of the order of 5,000 times the normal level in potatoes? Can the Minister also confirm that the

16 Feb 1999 : Column 579

Select Committee report points out that if potatoes were introduced today, they would not be allowed through the normal screening process?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page