Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Hacking moved Amendments Nos. 13 and 14:

Page 2, line 33, after ("court") insert ("or arbitral tribunal")
Page 2, line 37, after ("court") insert ("or arbitral tribunal")

On Question, amendments agreed to.

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 15:

Page 2, line 40, after ("conferred") insert ("on the court")

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 5 [Protection of promisor from double liability]:

Lord Hacking moved Amendment No. 16:

Page 3, line 36, after ("court") insert ("or arbitral tribunal")

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 7 [Supplementary provisions relating to third party]:

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 17:

Page 5, line 17, at end insert--
("( ) Where--
(a) a third party has a right under section 1 to enforce a term that disputes between himself and the promisor are to be submitted to arbitration, and
(b) the term is an agreement in writing for the purposes of Part I of the Arbitration Act 1996,
then, as regards any matter which the third party requires to be referred to arbitration in exercise of the right, Part I of the Arbitration Act 1996 has effect as if the right were under an arbitration agreement in writing (within the meaning of that Part of that Act) between the third party and the promisor.")

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 18 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 19:

Page 5, line 23, leave out subsection (2) and insert--
("(2) This Act comes into force on the day on which it is passed but, subject to subsection (2A), does not apply in relation to a contract entered into before the end of the period of six months beginning with that day.

27 May 1999 : Column 1061

(2A) The restriction in subsection (2) does not apply in relation to a contract which--
(a) is entered into on or after the day on which this Act is passed, and
(b) expressly provides for the application of this Act.")

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this amendment to the commencement provision in Clause 8 will allow contracting parties to provide expressly that the Bill's provisions can be applied from Royal Assent.

We have made this amendment following an approach from the London Investment Banking Association, which was concerned that, when the Data Protection Act 1998 comes into force later this year, it will allow transfers of data to third countries which do not have an adequate level of data protection only if alternative safeguards are provided.

One way of providing those alternative safeguards will be for contracts for data transmission to contain enforceable third party rights. The amendment will allow such contracts to be entered into from Royal Assent, and will therefore save the need for those contracts that are entered into during the six months after Royal Assent to be redrafted on commencement.

The requirement for the contracting parties expressly to opt out of the familiarisation period has two advantages. It will ensure that the six months' familiarisation period will still apply where the contracting parties want it to do so, and that there will be no risk of affecting any unwary parties who have assumed that the Act can have no application to contracts entered into during that familiarisation period. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Genetic Modification in Agriculture: ECC Report

12.36 p.m.

Lord Reay rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture (2nd Report, HL Paper 11).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to start by thanking the other members of Sub-Committee D for their participation in our inquiry into genetic modification in agriculture. They never wilted during nine months of inquiry, despite the complexities of this fascinating subject and the swirling gusts of controversy that constantly blew up around it. Their attendance never slackened, and they are collectively responsible for a report which, I believe, is both thorough and, despite everyone's starting-points and allegiances being different, nevertheless embodies a unanimous and coherent set of recommendations.

I am grateful also to our specialist adviser, Dr. Julian Kinderlerer of Sheffield University, whose compendious knowledge of the subject, experience of the regulatory system and hard work, together with the hard work of our young former Clerk, Andrew Mackersie, and of Tom Mohan, Clerk to the Select Committee, alone enabled the report to be completed. I am also extremely grateful to our present Clerk, Jake Vaughan, for picking

27 May 1999 : Column 1062

up the baton so adroitly from Andrew Mackersie. Finally, I should like to thank all our witnesses for their indispensable evidence, and especially those who came and gave us oral evidence.

Our inquiry began over a year ago and set out to examine the present regulatory system, in this country and in the European Union, for the agricultural and food use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), our point of departure being the Commission's proposed amendments to Directive 90/220 on deliberate releases of GMOs into the environment, which is currently going through the process of co-decision between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

In order to be able to assess the regulatory system, we first had to form a view about the science itself. We more or less confined ourselves to crops, because that is where science has made the greatest strides, although I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, may say something about some concerns that we had about fish.

We also did not directly confront the ethical issues. Those were under examination at the time by the Nuffield Council on Bio-Ethics, with which we held a very useful joint meeting and whose published report I was handed shortly before I entered the Chamber this morning.

We came to the view that this science, still in its infancy, has great potential benefits to offer to agriculture, industry, consumers and the environment. To agriculture it offers increased yields and reduced chemical inputs. The resulting cost savings explain why in North America commodity farmers have rushed to embrace the technology so that over 50 per cent of the soya beans, for example, grown in the United States this season are likely to be genetically modified, up from zero three years ago.

To industry, it offers all the potential of a revolutionary new science and one, incidentally, in which this country has from the very beginning, since the days of the original discoveries at Cambridge of Crick and Watson, had a widely recognised pre-eminence. For the consumer, there are eventually likely to be--and I emphasise the word "eventually", for little is as yet available on the world markets--foods that are cheaper, that taste better and that are healthier to eat.

For the benefit of the environment, GM bacteria are in use already for the clean-up of contaminated ground and beaches, and the opportunity for reducing the use of chemicals in agriculture has the potential to increase biodiversity, if only this can be harnessed without off-setting damage.

We do not exclude the likelihood of advantage for the developing world. Just as the previous revolution in crop yield saw, for example, India develop self-sufficiency in food production, so there is undoubtedly huge scope for improving seeds through genetic modification for the growing conditions prevailing in many other such countries.

We make some recommendations for ensuring that this happens to the benefit of those countries and their inhabitants. With the world population still rapidly increasing and arable areas in retreat, science must, over the long term, continue to produce increases in crop yields, if that world is to be fed and wilderness areas protected.

27 May 1999 : Column 1063

At the same time, we did consider that the science brought with it serious potential risks and hazards which needed to be addressed by proper regulation. So far as the safety of GM foods is concerned, we were impressed with the appropriateness and rigour of the current approvals processes and saw nothing to suggest that any foods approved were other than safe to eat. Indeed, as a result of the regulatory system today in place, more is learned about novel foods than is known about many of the ancient staples of our diet. We were even told by Dr. Janet Bainbridge, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Plants, that if approval were sought today to introduce the common potato, a well-known producer of toxic alkaloids that act as pesticides, on current criteria permission could not be given.

However, we join others in calling for antibiotic resistant marker genes, whose use in the GM process is well explained in the paper by Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert May published by the Government last week, to be phased out as soon as possible. I wish to ask the Minister what is happening there.

We were less happy with the current system for controlling threats to the environment. While we were content with the expert way in which individual applications for release into the environment were handled by ACRE (the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment) the lack of consideration of the cumulative effects of such decisions and also of the wider strategic implications of the technology gave us cause for concern, as it had earlier given the Royal Society cause for concern.

Accordingly, we recommended that the remit of ACRE should be extended to consider cumulative effects and that an additional committee should be established to look at the broader strategic issues that are concerning the public--effects on wildlife, the risk of creating a superweed and so on. I am pleased to say that the Government have since put both those recommendations into effect.

On the issue of a moratorium, we were opposed to setting a ban for a predetermined number of years across the whole technology. Once such a ban was in place, how would you ever decide there was sufficient reason to lift it? It seemed to all of us that the full environmental effects of growing GM crops could only be ascertained by trials on the appropriate scale and that the proper course was to hold specific trials on specific crops and then draw the appropriate conclusions from those trials on whether to proceed to further trials or to commercial release and, if so, on what conditions.

If the green light is given for commercial release, then we say that the monitoring of the conditions set for each release--and the amended directive makes provision for such conditions to be set--should be performed by an independent organisation, funded through levies on applicants. We called for a Community-wide audit of enforcement to ensure equality of monitoring standards across the Community. It was not clear to me from the Government's reply to our report what their view on the matter was. I would very much like to hear from the Minister whether the Government agree with us that an

27 May 1999 : Column 1064

independent organisation should do the monitoring in the event of commercial release or wish to leave it to the licence-holder.

As for the SCIMAC code of conduct for all those involved in the handling of GM products, which is currently under development and of which further details were published last week, we gave our support for the Government's backing of that code, while acknowledging that it might eventually need to be supported by regulation.

One issue of concern is the need for co-existence between the GM crop grower and the organic farmer. The reported recent demands of the Soil Association--the principal body responsible for the registration of organic farmers--for a six-mile radius of separation between organic and GM crops and apparently for zero contamination from pollen, even in situations where the pollen would not fertilise--are so impractical as to appear tantamount to an attempt to prevent the introduction of the technology, despite its call on the Government to uphold the right of choice.

It should be noted that organic farmers themselves are permitted a 5 per cent non-organic content in the produce they sell and a 20 per cent non-organic content in the animal feed they use. Could the Minister say what the Government's views are on the demands of the Soil Association?

We also considered the issue of public confidence. There is plainly widespread public distrust of GM foods. It would seem to be the case that consumers in this country have not, for the most part, seen or heard of products attractive enough for them to wish to disregard the risks they associate with the technology as a result of their daily reading and listening. In medicine it is a different story. In medicine, GM products are in widespread use and are welcomed by the public. But in food also--or on the borderline between food and medicine as, say, with foods whose allergenic properties have been modified out--products which are attractive to the consumer are one day likely to appear. Until they do, consumers must be given, through labelling, the choice so far as possible of whether or not to eat GM foods; And they must have confidence in the regulatory process.

We call for the compulsory labelling of all GM products, including additives, but with a de minimis threshold of, we propose, 2 per cent. This is something that must be agreed at European Union level, together with a list of exempted derivatives not requiring labelling. We were concerned that negotiations in the Council seemed to have stalled. Could the Minister tell the House where matters stand? Do the Government intend to issue interim guidelines as we suggest in our report?

Labelling in restaurants was not a matter on which we took evidence. I somewhat regret that now in view of the rather hasty action which the Government subsequently took, which will require from the autumn all restaurants to state on their menus which of their foods contain GM soya or maize. Incidentally, this is the one respect in which I am critical of the

27 May 1999 : Column 1065

Government's policy. For the rest, I think they have been admirably robust in resisting irresponsible calls for action.

But this will be extremely burdensome for restaurants and owing, among other things, to the current vacuum in labelling law, I do not see how they will be able to supply useful information. Furthermore, as my noble friend Lord Jopling managed to find out in a Written Answer he received to a Question recently, they will evidently be liable to prosecution, even if there are only minute quantities of GMOs present in a GMO-free product owing to the lack of a legal de minimis threshold. This is something which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, who has wide experience in the restaurant business, may be able to take a little further.

We regarded segregation as desirable but considered that it should be market-led, as it is increasingly likely to be with the appearance on the market of foods engineered to have particular properties answering to market demands.

As to confidence in the regulatory system, we saw that much had already been done to make the approvals processes open and to allow for participation on the committees from outside the realms of science, from consumers and other interests.

The Government are to take this process further in the two new commissions that they have established, and we welcome that. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that the advisory committees, and also the new commissions, will remain firmly science-based. In this country we are fortunate to have as many scientists of the quality and integrity that we have, ready for arduous public service. I believe that 60 are involved in regulatory work here and in Europe, many of them spending much of their time also in communicating with the public. I am thinking here of such outstanding public servants as Professor Derek Burke and Professor John Berenger, among many others. The Government rely greatly on them, and for their part the Government must take care to give them the conditions and the support that they need to function effectively. In this context we were concerned at the loss of knowledge that would result from the decision, in the wake of the Nolan rules, to rotate at the same time 10 of the existing members of ACRE. We asked the Government to reconsider this decision. Perhaps the Minister can explain the Government's re-considered position.

A major concern of industry, and of our committee, has been the slowness and unpredictability of the timetable for approvals within the EU. At present it takes seven months on average to obtain growing approval in the US and upwards of two years, if it can be obtained at all, within the EU. As a result there are currently some 30 million hectares of GM crops under commercial cultivation in the US and an infinitesimal amount within the EU. Proper scientific procedures must be followed, but both the Commission, and the member states under an obligation to issue consents at the end of the approvals process, have been responsible for inordinate delays. If the revised directive, once in force, does not lead to improvements, we suggest that

27 May 1999 : Column 1066

member states should be free to disallow commercial growing within their own sovereign territory of crops approved for general release throughout the EU in order to remove an incentive for more reluctant member states to hold up the rest of the Community.

We end our report with an appeal to remember Europe's competitive position. Do we want Europe's agriculture to become technologically backward? Do we want to abdicate from the technology and leave the US with a virtual monopoly? Do we want to find, when consumers start to notice the attractions of new GM foods, that all of them must be imported? On the contrary, we say that the science of genetic modification, which has produced food eaten by hundreds of millions without any single manifested ill-effect and which we as much as any other nation in the world, the USA apart, are in a position to exploit--a science of huge potential--must be allowed the chance to demonstrate this potential, under proper regulation and control. That is something which we are confident we should be able fully to achieve.

Moved, that this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture (2nd Report, HL Paper 11).--(Lord Reay.)

12.53 p.m.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I am not an uncritical reader of Select Committee reports, but I unreservedly congratulate the noble Lord and his colleagues for this report on a very difficult and contentious subject. It was admirably lucid, as was his speech. The report was also very balanced in its assessment of the risks and the potential great benefits of developments in genetically modified foodstuffs and crops. The report comes at a time when undoubtedly there is very substantial public disquiet and interest in the whole subject. To have an impartial, responsible report from people who have really studied the subject and drawn upon external expertise is of great value not just to this House but to the nation.

That is a pretty fulsome tribute which is given genuinely and unreservedly. However, I have some other things to say which will not be so friendly. I am very much concerned about a matter that goes almost to the heart of public disquiet; namely, the effective regulation and control of genetically modified foodstuffs and crops. Although the Select Committee has made a very helpful suggestion about opting out, to which I shall return in a few minutes, the present situation in Brussels is a scandal. If anyone who has worries about allaying public disquiet reads this report and digests what it says about the present manner in which decisions are made in Brussels he will be horrified. I shall return to that matter in a few moments.

First, I tick off those items that I regard as very valuable. Incidentally, in this debate we have the benefit of a government response. Towards the end I shall turn to how adequate or otherwise is that response. Moreover, last Friday we had the Government's Statement in a deserted House of Commons from the Minister Jack Cunningham which carried forward our

27 May 1999 : Column 1067

knowledge and the Government's response. I wholly agree with what is said about a threshold level for the labelling of genetically modified products. I entirely accept what is said about the need for a new committee with wider, almost deeper, terms of reference, although the present advisory committee has done a very good job. I also wholly approve of the approach to risk assessment and risk management. Further, I agree with the committee that it is a jolly good idea to have a food standards agency, as is foreshadowed and promised by the Government.

In the past few weeks and months I have looked in on the House of Commons. I keep an eye on my old stamping ground. I do not see why there is not room for a substantially larger legislative programme than has been put through. It is extraordinary how quickly the House disperses and how foreshortened are the attendances, even in respect of the forthcoming Recess. We need a food standards agency, which is pledged by the Government. It is perfectly within the ability, timespan and commitment of Parliament to effect that at very short notice. The last matter on which I agree with the committee's recommendations is the very sensible proposal for a time limit for decisions. A one-month or three-month limit is a very good discipline on the European Community and ourselves in coming to conclusions.

Public confidence is at the heart of this matter, as the noble Lord who opened the debate said. The recommendations of the committee and the Government's response to them will undoubtedly go some way to help. For people who take the matter seriously there will be considerable reassurance particularly in the establishment of the two new commissions and the additional new commission which is being discussed and was foreshadowed in Dr. Cunningham's Statement in the Commons last Friday. All of that will help. But there is a real problem in my view in terms of the decision-making process.

Perhaps I may remind the House of the present procedure. The decision-making process in Brussels comes under the broad heading of comitology. Those who know something about Europe will realise that that is a vast network of largely anonymous bodies which make decisions in the names of the Ministers of member states. This is how decisions are made on whether to approve Union-wide the acceptance, use and so on of genetically modified crops and foodstuffs. The report states:

    "The Commission is required to submit its draft implementing measures to the [comitology] committee". The background and qualifications of the one representative from each country we do not know. But the Commission has to submit a proposal. The report continues:

    "If a qualified majority of the national representatives approves the draft measures, the Commission will proceed to adopt them". Qualified majority voting on a matter of this kind! If it is not agreed, the matter goes to the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers again will make a decision by a qualified majority vote. A minor change is suggested by the committee. I do not think that it goes

27 May 1999 : Column 1068

    far enough. The move from the IIIa to IIIb regulatory committee procedures does not meet the fundamental point that it is not a matter for qualified majority voting.

We are on the eve of a surge of approvals and introductions of genetically modified foodstuffs throughout the European Union and indeed in this country as we know. Therefore it is important to get it right from the start. There have not been many cases so far of the procedure being used. However, I should like the Minister to answer this question if he is able to do so, and I understand that without notice he may find that very difficult. An application by the chemical drug firm CibaGeigy came via the French Government initially but went to the Commission and through the comitology procedure. Was that an issue of which our own scientific advisers disapproved? The Minister needs notice of that question. The decision is reported at page 13 of the May 1998 report of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. I put that matter to one side. It is an illustration of the kind of problems which can arise if my information is correct.

The committee addressed itself excellently to this issue. It is to be congratulated on making the recommendation that it did, although I do not believe that it goes far enough. At paragraph 199 of its report it states:

    "Domestic pressures, ecological and agricultural conditions vary across the Community. We consider that Member States should have the right to opt-out of growing certain GM crops for domestic or environmental reasons. The products of such crops, food or other, should however be available throughout the Community". That is not a problem in particular member states. It is a very proper recommendation. It is what we should insist upon. If a novel food or crop is approved of in general, let it circulate in those countries which have given their approval. It makes sense to have Community-wide consideration of that. But if a country does not want it, and if it does not have a great deal of faith in Brussels decisions (which may not be entirely unexpected as a result of recent events), it is absolutely right that the nation state concerned and its government should have the right to opt out. I warmly applaud the Select Committee for making that recommendation.

I turn to the government response. Instead of saying, "Excellent and well done", the Government say this:

    "The statutory procedures under Directive" --whatever the European number is--

    "and the managed developed arrangements with ecological monitoring, should ensure that this is the case for GM crops grown in the UK. Provided that no problems arise, the Government sees no reason for Member States to impose additional restrictions, and agrees that the market will decide which crops are grown". That addendum does not help. Of course we want the market to decide in the sense of consumers having the choice. That must be so. But the Government have turned down the major recommendation which would give confidence to the British people who have a considerable, but much weakened, confidence in the judgment of their own elected representatives, their own Government, advised by the best scientific and expert opinion that we have--and we have a lot available.

27 May 1999 : Column 1069

I find the government response frankly disappointing and indeed reprehensible. In their feeble justification they then state,

    "The legality of allowing a Member State to restrict growing of a product which could be imported from another Member State would need careful consideration". Good heavens, my Lords, do the Government never read the European treaties? For once the European treaty in this context got it right. If the Government read the Treaty of Rome and considered what is now Article 30 in the re-ordered clauses (it was previously Article 36 and has been in existence to the best of my knowledge since 1957) they would have read this:

    "Quantitative restrictions on imports" --including genetically modified foods and no doubt plants, crops and seeds--

    "and all measures having equivalent effect, shall be prohibited between Member States". It continues most sensibly to say:

    "The provisions...shall not preclude prohibitions or restrictions on"-- and it gives a range of circumstances including,

    "the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants". There it is on the face of the treaty. Yet for reasons which frankly at times appal me, our Government are so anxious to appear to be at the heart of Europe and good Europeans that they cannot even make use of a treaty clause which was put there precisely to give that confidence to member states where they feel that their own populations are greatly disturbed and worried about specific issues that may affect the health of themselves, their animals and their plants. I ask the Government to reconsider this; to do it urgently, to do it using the powers of the treaty and to act in the interests of the British people.

1.10 p.m.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, it has been difficult to write an up-to-date speech because, since the committee published its report, the subject has become a moving target. Indeed, articles in this week's press have forced me to change some of the questions I wished to ask.

I believe that the committee produced a quality report. The Government have adopted many of its recommendations, including the setting up of two regulatory committees. The committee was not made up of scientists and its view was balanced. Although the benefits of GMOs can be seen, and the committee believed that work on them would progress, the risks were being assessed. Although they are measured to be extremely small, if the dangers are realised there could be a substantial impact on the environment. I believe that that is what guided the committee.

Many areas were examined. I shall touch on only a few because, as 10 members of the committee are speaking today, many of the areas will be discussed in greater detail by them. First, there is confusion in the press about a case for a moratorium. We on these Benches call for a moratorium on commercial release because the field tests have not yet been completed. It

27 May 1999 : Column 1070

is outrageous that commercial releases should be considered before the completion of field tests, expected at the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003.

That goes to the heart of one of the problems with GMOs. There is an enormous pressure to race to market with the products. Obviously, the multinationals and plant companies which are developing the products wish to recoup the money they are spending on investment. However, the way in which they are pushing forward and taking risks in the process is causing concern. I wish to emphasise the risk of antibiotic markers, which I believe should have been used only in the laboratory and never allowed to go anywhere near field trials.

The second issue is segregation. I believe that there is a growing need for regulation in this area which cannot be done on a voluntary basis. Segregation is linked to consumer confidence. A great deal has appeared in the press about segregation in field trials and how pollen can move from trial plots into the surrounding environment and into the local wildlife and other crops. The Soil Association has called for a six-mile limit between GMO crops and others. That seems high, but before too long regulation must be introduced along those lines.

Another area of segregation relates to transportation. The committee examined the problem in detail. Although crops can be segregated at production, transportation means that almost no crops coming from the United States can be guaranteed not to have been mixed with GMO products. One of the few countries in which that is not a problem is Brazil, which is a source for many companies wishing to use non-GMO products.

Labelling is another matter covered in great detail. I believe that the committee's recommendation of 2 per cent is insufficient. I take that view because of the many questions raised by my friends. Although 2 per cent is low, people who wish to avoid GMOs completely will be denied that right. I speak specifically because I was given the task of buying food for a group of archaeologists, a number of whom were vegans. I had to search each packet for any trace of animal products and I believe that before too long consumers will make the same search for traces of GMOs. It may mean a proliferation of GMO warnings on products, as the Government mentioned in their reply, but that is a price which must be paid. I believe that GMOs will be successful only if consumers have confidence in them.

When the report was first published, it was met by the press with a degree of hostility. My name was published in the Guardian report as being a member of the committee. It is one of the few instances when I have been sought out by people who, having read the report, wanted to ask me for information and to give their views. There seems to be a surfeit of information in the press, but, interestingly, there seems to be little scientific information which the average consumer can take on board in order to make up his or her mind. One of the main complaints about GMOs is a lack of information on which consumers can make up their minds. That goes back to labelling. Consumers will have to be given a choice. Without that, I believe that their current fragile acceptance of them will be shattered.

27 May 1999 : Column 1071

Another issue which will have huge consequences on the development of GMOs is the impact in emerging countries. I find distressing the fact that the multinationals are looking to produce seed with terminator or suicide genes. The implication is that in the third world subsistence farmers will be forced to buy seed year after year rather than saving it and redeveloping it. I know that many multinationals say that that is not the case at present. However, with the mergers resulting in fewer seed production companies, that must be seen as a real risk.

I have moved my position dramatically. I believe that there will be a real case for calling for the ending of patents on specific plants. I wish to ask the Minister one question in relation to that aspect of the report. Are the Government considering appointing a Minister from the Department for International Development to the Cabinet ministerial group on biotechnology and modification?

The environmental impact of GMOs has been examined extremely carefully in the press. Although no environmental disasters have been registered in relation to anything that has been released, there is a real risk which was highlighted by the implications for the monarch butterfly. Indeed, one of the major difficulties is the difference in attitude between Europe and the United States. In Europe, there has been a small amount of planting, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Reay, pointed out, in the United States already more than 30 million acres have been planted. If there are environmental implications, planting on such a scale without the necessary trials--and I do not believe that there were trials on butterfly populations--could mean the rapid extinction of a whole species.

The environmental issues form the basis of the risk assessment of the report. The possibility of chemical toxicity to certain species from GMOs cannot be overlooked. That is why I believe field trials should be expanded. This is a major area that should be considered. In the United States there is a great deal of divide between the wildlife agencies and the agricultural agencies. However, in the US there is a far larger amount of wilderness area. Therefore, its wildlife would not be as affected to the same extent as the wildlife in this country.

I turn to an issue which I believe will be the cause of much concern in the coming years. If Europe suffers serious doubts about the environmental or health implications of GMOs and wants to impose restrictions, we are looking at a trade war with the United States that will make the current banana war seem slightly inconsequential. I believe this is an area which will be expanded upon.

Perhaps I may conclude by asking a question. I am not being provocative. The question has been asked of me by a number of organisations. It goes to the heart of what the debate is about; that is, consumer confidence. Did the Labour Party receive any donations from Monsanto, Novartis or any other organisations, before the 1997 elections, and, if so, how much? I have been asked that question so many times I felt it important to raise it.

27 May 1999 : Column 1072

1.21 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to thank the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for the excellent way in which he chaired our committee. He kindly thanked the members of the committee, but none of what we did would have been possible without his splendid chairmanship. He led us through what he described as "the intricacies of this subject" and enabled us to come to a unanimous decision from various points of view represented on the committee. I thank him and congratulate him on the splendid way in which he did that.

Perhaps I may comment on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Shore. He referred, as he generally does, to the weaknesses of the European system. However, I have to say that I would support him in some of the comments that he made. We met with some of those within the European Commission responsible for the directives. I personally came away very disappointed with both the arrogant and misjudged way in which they dealt with these issues. It does not bode well for the future if they continue to have more and more control over such matters.

Our committee was set up to look at the impact of genetic modification in agriculture. It is from the agricultural and food point of view that I intend to make most of my remarks. I was enormously impressed by the level of scientific evidence that we received. We had a splendid scientific adviser in Dr. Kinderlerer, whose wide knowledge of the subject was extremely helpful. The scientists who gave evidence to us, and obviously take leading roles in directly advising consumers, industry and the Government, are of an enormously high calibre. I was impressed with the attitude towards their responsibilities. I should like to endorse the point made in our report that we believe very much in their integrity and the way in which they deal with their responsibilities.

I was persuaded that all food products now in the marketplace are safe to eat. I am pleased that the Government were recently able to endorse that view. I believe that Part 1 of our report should be read by anybody who intends to comment on this issue. It gives a clear understanding of the science, history and the regulatory processes now in place which should be more than sufficient to give everybody the confidence they need to be able to eat, without any doubts whatever, those products now in the marketplace.

The history of agriculture is one of continuous technological change. Throughout my lifetime in farming I can remember many new technologies that have been key to allowing the increased food production and efficiency which is now so important. The demand for food has increased throughout the world and will be an ever-increasing demand. Such demand has been met by improving technology.

Without the present farming systems and improved output, we would need twice the land area to grow the same volume of food as in the 1950s, and food production has increased dramatically from the 1950s to the present day. The steady increase in demand will not stop; it will accelerate.

27 May 1999 : Column 1073

To meet the environmental aspirations of today in Europe, our technology for food production must become even more efficient and productive and not less so. New technology provides for consumers food of the highest quality, the greatest range and the lowest price that Europeans have ever seen. At each stage the technology that has made that possible has been criticised by somebody. I remember that leading people were critical of pasteurisation. They said that it would bring all kinds of dangers, allow the development of unknown diseases and kill off more people than it would save. What a lot of nonsense that turned out to be.

In the 1950s, artificial insemination was heavily criticised by many leading people. They said that it would interfere with the natural breeding mechanisms; that we did not know what might happen and that there were all kinds of problems with it. However, without it, we would not have had any of the major breeding advancements which have brought so many benefits to both industry and consumers.

I have no doubt that from the point of view of the agricultural and food industry, and from that of food consumers, biotechnology in all its various forms through history, as it has changed and developed, has brought and will always continue to bring, benefits.

It is interesting to note that people talk about genetic modification as if it was something unknown. It has been the basis of breeding changes since biology began. We have used it in all kinds of different industries. Gene movement and gene transfer from one species to another have been the key to improving our plants, animals and processes. However, this technology is more precise, more controlled, much more effective and much quicker. It brings opportunities which, under conventional breeding, were limited.

As has been explained, it is now possible to make use of natural resistance in one crop and put it into another. By such means we can develop a whole range of resistances to problems of heat, cold, changing weather conditions, as well as fungicides and pests. People talk about agriculture as if it is a wonderfully easy business. To me it has been a business to strive at. One is constantly up against the enemies of weather, change and products that are never as one would want them to be. Anything that will aid development is important both to the industry and consumer.

We can improve the shelf life of products. How many people now suffer from the fact that they have bought products and not stored them properly? Such products are liable to develop bacteria and cause all kind of upsets. We can now deal with those problems in a way that we never imagined possible. In large areas of the world, rice is the staple diet. It is a well-known fact that people from those areas suffer from all kinds of deficiencies, including that of vitamin A. We can now put the necessary extra vitamins into rice and improve the health of those areas tremendously. Genetically modified bananas are now used to produce hepatitis vaccine much more effectively and efficiently than other methods of producing it.

GM, being a new technology, has become a closely regulated and monitored development. The crops from genetically modified changes that are now in the market

27 May 1999 : Column 1074

are no doubt much safer, more closely controlled and we have a much greater knowledge of them than those conventional crops that have been in the market for so long.

I repeat again that the scientific evidence that we had in the committee was clear and positive, with many proven experiments to hand to prove that genetically modified foods are safe. In the USA the FDA is the most respected food regulatory body in the world. It has approved all GM products that are in the market-place. The issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, referred, on which we had a great deal of information in the committee, is one of philosophy rather than scientific fact. Science is confident in this technology, but many people are frightened just as they are frightened of many new technologies because of the uncertainty they present.

Many people gave evidence to us who were concerned about the environmental impacts of this technology. But not one produced any evidence of where that had actually taken place. There were fears of the possible, but no indication of anything that had actually happened. In a way, that attitude indicates that there are two philosophical approaches to change, newness and new technology. I am one of those who believe strongly that it is through new technology and innovation that we create the wealth that makes it possible for so many more people in the world to derive the benefits that many of us who sit in this place already have.

Poverty is the main contributor to environmental degradation and not new technology. So as science finds new and improved technologies to develop, we must consider the philosophical attitude which needs us to explain and understand what the issues are going to be. Clearly this technology is one of many that will come forward over the coming years. It will bring many advantages to the world. But it would be wrong if we allowed those who are worried about it without any evidence to hold back what will be important for many people. This report, which gives such a balanced view of the benefits on the one hand, and those issues that need to be addressed in terms of regulation and monitoring on the other, creates the balance which will be essential between explaining the technology to help more people understand it, and providing the choice.

I should not like to see our proposals being watered down any more. I do not agree with a moratorium; a moratorium prevents the development of technology here and does not prevent it starting in any other part of the world. Clearly this is a competitive and highly important aspect of our own environment, our technology and our wealth creation. We must not do anything which prevents the input of people into it or the opportunity for new businesses to develop it. I am delighted that it received the support that it has from the Government, and trust that it will continue to be supported by everybody in the country so that we can develop what will be a new and exciting possibility for the way in which we live and for our future.

27 May 1999 : Column 1075

1.33 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I am grateful for this timely debate on a matter of great public concern. I speak in it with the utmost diffidence because I am one of the few speakers who is not actually a member of Sub-Committee D, and my contribution will be very much that of a layman in these highly technical and specialised areas.

The Select Committee report on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture and the Government's response are in many ways very encouraging. There is much in both that is to be welcomed. I want to return later to some matters of detail, but I hope, first, that your Lordships will welcome an attempt to tease out some of the ethical and philosophical aspects of this highly contentious matter. Of course, I have not had the benefit of reading the Nuffield Council report, and look forward to doing that.

In the wake of BSE, salmonella and E.coli, there is widespread public concern about genetic modification in relation to the fact that it is "unnatural". There is an instinctive, intuitive sense that these procedures are at best risky and may even be, in a profound sense, wrong. Of course we need to recognise the potential benefits of genetic modification--benefits in terms of productivity in a world where hunger is an ever-present threat, though not at the moment in overall global terms a reality; benefits in terms of profitability in a farming industry going through a difficult time economically; and even perhaps benefits in terms of environmental gain in the sense that genetically modified crops could result--I say "could"; we do not know--in a lower use of pesticides and less damage to the environment than is caused by conventional farming. We must recognise those potential benefits while we look carefully at the risks.

I turn to the philosophical, ethical and theological issues which are briefly touched on in paragraphs 126 and 127 of the Select Committee report, though of course the Polkinghorne and Banner reports are now considerably out of date in an area which is moving extremely fast. What actually constitutes "unnatural behaviour"? To what extent is it morally acceptable to do what is "unnatural"? Is the production of genetically modified food an example of hubris, of "playing God" as some people have claimed? Certainly genetic modification would not happen at all without direct human manipulation of the natural world, intervention in natural processes. However, it is true--the noble Lord, Lord Wade, made this point--that our present agricultural practices, our livestock and our arable crops are the result of centuries of manipulation.

Much technology and most medicine is based on human intervention in natural processes. Human invention and discovery can properly be seen as the exercise by human beings of their God-given powers of mind and reason--part of what it means when we say that human beings are created "in the image of God" and, in a modest sense, are co-creators with God.

The fundamental question is whether genetic modification is actually a continuation of the process of husbanding creation and working with it, enlightened as

27 May 1999 : Column 1076

that process has been in recent years by the insights of the environmental movement so that we see the role of humanity now in terms of stewardship rather than of dominion; or is this a radically new departure, marking a fundamental discontinuity with what has gone before and which, until now, has worked with the grain of the natural world? I would challenge the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and say that I feel that it raises new issues and is not simply to be seen in terms of the traditional way in which farmers improve their livestock and their crops.

If genetic modification is radically different, can it nevertheless be acceptable? I believe it is breaking new ground; it is crossing an ethical frontier. It can be done. But not everything that can be done, should be done. The test must be whether it positively enhances the creative order. Is the new power that we have acquired, which has been bestowed on us by a continuing quest for knowledge, something which we can legitimately exercise? That is the point at which we need not merely a rational and scientific mind, but wisdom--the special gift of the religious traditions--to add to knowledge and to control our exercise of power.

I judge, and believe this opinion to be widely shared in the Churches, that although genetic modification is in a sense unnatural, discontinuous with previous science and agricultural practice, it may nevertheless be ethically acceptable provided it is introduced with great caution; with all the wisdom we can muster; and with careful account being taken of all discoverable risks.

If the introduction of genetic modification is simply the result of an unholy alliance between science and industrial agri-business, profit driven, with no regard for the consequences, it is certainly wrong. But some of the most stringent and extreme environmentalist opposition to it may equally be wrong. Because this is a particularly emotive subject; because it lends itself to journalistic exaggeration and over-simplification--even hysteria-- it is very difficult to bring true wisdom to bear on it.

Just to complicate the matter further, we need to recognise the concept of balance of risk. If a need is desperate, desperate remedies may be appropriate. If a patient is suffering from cancer, invasive and unnatural measures like chemotherapy may be acceptable. If the world were on the brink of starvation and genetically modified crops offered the prospect of a quick fix in terms of increased crop yields, it might be right to introduce them without the long-term safeguards that would otherwise be desirable. As we are not in that desperate plight--or, if we appear to be, it is only in fact because of war or poor husbandry--wisdom dictates that we proceed with the greatest possible care: sustained, controlled experiments are essential, over a long enough term, to dispel any reasonable doubt.

So what are the risks? Principally they concern food safety and environmental damage, especially in terms of a reduction in biodiversity. On the first count, there is already substantial evidence to show that genetically modified foods so far available do not damage human health. I accept the Government's conclusions and assurances on that matter. But the environmental risks are much greater and very much more difficult to

27 May 1999 : Column 1077

quantify and assess. There are some alarming indications--notably, of course, the famous case of the monarch butterfly whose larva was seriously damaged by feeding on leaves dusted with pollen from genetically modified maize.

The implications of GM crops for biodiversity and on organic farming are potentially very serious indeed--they cannot be known until sustained farm-scale trials have taken place. I welcome the Government's commitment to four-year trials, but I question whether that is long enough and whether voluntary agreement is really an adequate way of ensuring compliance. I also share the concern, noted by the RSPB, that no baseline survey of pre-existing biodiversity will be conducted before the sowing of genetically modified oil-seed rape. I find that quite extraordinary. That baseline survey seems to be an essential prerequisite of any scientifically valid trial. I hope that the Government will be able to give us some reassurances in that respect.

I must mention another matter in connection with biodiversity--another worrying aspect of the debate. Of course it is true that intensive farming methods have had a very damaging impact on biodiversity, but that is no reason for not taking very seriously the further damage that might be inflicted by the introduction of GM crops. It is positively alarming to see that no less an authority than Professor John Beringer, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE), has said:

    "The Government must come to grips with the fundamental problem that GM crops are not the issue: it is our pathetic inability to face existing problems arising from the intensification of agriculture". We have been pathetic in our response to the consequences for biodiversity of intensive agriculture--that is to say, heavy use of pesticides, almost universal autumn sowing with no winter fallows and no over-wintering stubble--but to say that GM crops "are not the issue" is irresponsible; they are a very significant new issue. The possibility of cumulative impact over a long period is one that must be taken seriously. It is mentioned in Recommendations 176 and 197, and I warmly welcome the emphasis on delayed and cumulative effects. I am only sorry that the time-scale for the proposed trials does not appear to be consistent with those concerns. I am mindful of the very long time that it took, many years ago, for us to become aware of the build-up of persistent pesticides in the food chain before we did anything about it.

I also welcome Recommendation 184 about antibiotic-resistance marker genes, but I regret that this issue--like that of the effects of intensive agricultural methods--has led some people to observe that we are already, by our misuse or overuse of antibiotics, contributing to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans; and that, therefore, the addition of a GM element in this process will make no great difference. Once again, it is a very strange argument which says that as we are already doing something foolish by one means, it does not matter if we also do it by another means. I am glad that the Select Committee is very firm and clear on that point and that the Government agree.

27 May 1999 : Column 1078

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for picking up the point about the possible impact of GM crops on developing countries. I should like to mention a few words which appear in Recommendation 194 of the report. When talking about licensing, it says:

    "Provided that the farmer can afford any extra costs". Those are dangerous words and they seem to me to be consistent with the rather cavalier tone of the report, which does not take deeply seriously the fact that many farmers will not be able to afford the extra costs involved. That does not apply only to farmers in developing countries; it also applies to many of our smaller farmers. I fear that the introduction of GM crops will increase the preferential treatment afforded to bigger farmers and the difficulties which smaller farmers face. I am sorry that the Select Committee did not seem to take that point on board.

There is just one more issue which worries me as regards the recommendations. I have in mind the role of the market. It is spelt out in Recommendations 188 and 199. The market--that is to say, consumers in general, farmers as purchasers of GM seed and the public as consumers of GM food--may simply not know enough to make an informed judgment. People may be too fearful, without good cause or too confident or, indeed, too greedy. At present, the market, in the form of public opinion, is taking a very cautious line about GM in principle. But the market can also be fickle, as well as uninformed. It worries me that the Select Committee places such reliance on the market and that the Government's comments, though cautious on Recommendation 199, do not seriously question this over-confident reliance on market forces in an area of such novelty, complexity and uncertainty. I recognise that the Government's intention is that market forces should come into play only when regulation for safety purposes is in place, but I still remain concerned about this emphasis.

We are in new and difficult territory: we face important ethical and practical decisions. I should say, again, that I am, in general, reassured by the Select Committee's report and the Government's response to it. But I hope very much that some of the concerns that I have raised will be taken seriously by the Government as we move cautiously forward, not denying ourselves the potential benefits of genetic modification but recognising very clearly the potential dangers and establishing appropriate timescales for the very thorough trials which are essential.

1.47 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am now a member of the Select Committee which produced this report, but I was not a member of it at the time the report went through. Therefore, I have read the document as a lay person. I have to say that I found it to be very fair, balanced, and, indeed, informative. Within this debate about genetically modified organisms, I believe that a very dangerous polarisation has taken place between those who wish to see the science proceed with the minimum of hindrance and those who are thoroughly opposed to it in any form and

27 May 1999 : Column 1079

at any price. However, I regret the fact that the people who question some of the progress are automatically labelled as alarmists, Luddites and scaremongers.

As I said, I found the report very balanced and informative. However, the fact that I have to address what is perhaps the most negative area of it--namely, the environmental aspect--will perhaps make me seem to fall within the more Luddite tendency. I believe that the public are correct to be concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Wade, mentioned some of the benefits of history, but I believe that the public have learnt different lessons from history. They have been told time after time that something is safe unless it is proved to be unsafe or dangerous. I think that they are fed up with being given such advice. They want something to be proved to be safe first. Indeed, in environmental terms, that view has come through very strongly from all the public discussions that have taken place on the subject.

A good example of public concern in this area concerns the lessons that have been learnt from the DDT episode which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford mentioned. The public were told that DDT was useful and quite safe. It took Rachel Carson years of painstaking and ridiculed work to prove that DDT had far-reaching effects on the food chain that had never been envisaged by the people who invented it. In fact it wiped out whole eco-systems in the United States. However, its effects were reversible.

As Sub-Committee D points out in paragraph 44 onwards, the United States adopts a "Why not?" attitude, whereas Europeans adopt more of a "Why?" attitude. I believe that is quite correct. We do not want to fall into the same trap as the United States fell into with regard to DDT. It may fall into the same trap with regard to the issue we are discussing. We need to be given clear answers. Environmentalists are worried that it will not just be a case of a silent spring, but also of silent summer, silent autumn and silent winter.

This morning the Nuffield Foundation reported its view that genetically modified crops will bring untold benefits and few problems. However, the problem is that we just do not know who to believe. The information that is available changes every week with bewildering rapidity. As other noble Lords have said, the volume of information being produced is difficult to deal with. If I were a member of the public relying mainly on the press for my information I would find the position even more difficult. Even organisations of reputable standing such as the BMA, the Royal Society and the Nuffield Foundation present views that sometimes seem to conflict.

What do we know? We know that sometimes damage done to the environment is immediately apparent, as seems to be the case with the monarch butterfly and maize pollen, as already mentioned. However, we also know that sometimes an adverse effect can take years and years to become apparent. We could wreck the biodiversity of what is after all a small country while thinking that we are simply allowing some restricted commercial planting to take place.

27 May 1999 : Column 1080

I was particularly struck by the evidence presented to the committee by English Nature on the subject of research that is currently being undertaken and that which still needs to be undertaken. On page 70 of the evidence English Nature lists topics for future research. Some of that research has not even begun. Among the research are such basic topics as,

    "to investigate the differences between conventional and GM crops in the relative abundance and diversity of invertebrate and weed populations. To make judgments concerning relative conservation 'value'".

English Nature's written evidence to the committee emphasises the paucity of research in key areas of concern. I do not believe that we can proceed with what the Government referred to last week as "restricted commercial planting" when so much of the basic research has not been undertaken to convince us one way or the other.

An important principle outlined on page 15 of the report highlights the philosophy which I believe we should adopt in considering matters such as this. It points out that the,

    "1992 Rio declaration on environment and development (Principle 15) states, 'In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation'." That precautionary principle is a good one to follow as we proceed in this area. However, we have reached no conclusion in this country as to whether we face an issue that threatens serious or irreversible damage to our environment.

On 24th March the right honourable Michael Meacher said that,

    "it can take many years before we have sufficient evidence to be sure we are making a sound judgment". That is exactly the case. That is why I was surprised to hear in the statement issued last week that restricted commercial planting will be allowed. That statement was made in your Lordships' House on Wednesday last week. By Friday--only two days later--the NFU was reporting that a monitored and managed approach to the first commercial plantings of GM crops had been agreed. Yet we have come to no conclusion as regards effects on our wildlife. We barely have an idea of the scale of the research that we should expect to be undertaken.

The Government state in their response to your Lordships' report that they,

    "fully recognise that there are potential risks. No GMO may be released into the environment unless an environmental risk assessment has been carried out and reviewed, and a consent issued by the Secretary of State". I find that slightly confusing when it appears that crops will be planted not just in restricted field trials but in restricted commercial plantings. As has been mentioned, the Government and SCIMAC (the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops) have agreed a package of measures which will ensure that proper care is taken when these crops are grown on farms. The organic movement's demand for a six-mile limit has been criticised as being excessive. It is estimated that a

27 May 1999 : Column 1081

    bee can fly about two miles. Therefore one might say that a two-mile radius in this respect is fine. However, on one day a bee may fly west for two miles and may collect pollen from GM crops. The next day it may leave its hive and fly east for two miles. Therefore it has travelled four miles. In an island the size of Britain I am not sure how we can ensure a sufficient "safe area" around GM crops. I do not have the answers to this issue and I shall not try to produce them. However, the new advisory body, the Agriculture and Environmental Biotechnology Commission, has been set up to advise on issues such as these. I hope that no further planting will take place until that body has had a chance to examine the trials, their locations and the framework in which they operate. These appear to have been agreed already. Therefore what can the new advisory commission do in regard to a process that has already progressed so far? It must assess the situation quickly and it must be given the powers to change those aspects which it feels need to be changed.

In conclusion, it is quite right to say that the timescale that is envisaged is too short. We must allow the necessary research to be undertaken. A five-year moratorium on commercial growing is certainly needed to allow proper research and evaluation to be undertaken. Environmental considerations must be given due weight in global terms. The World Trade Organisation should be required to apportion due weight to such matters. The 1992 convention on biological diversity covered many of these international concerns. However, the US has not signed up to that and it has nothing like the authority of the World Trade Organisation. What we have is a philosophy that promotes trade above every other consideration and does not allow environmental considerations to carry the kind of authority that they should. The European Union regulations must allow member states to opt out of growing certain crops that have been approved at European Union level. There are differences in the ecology and size of EU countries. The environmental conditions pertaining in each country are of prime concern.

1.58 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, this report comes at a time of much sensitivity to genetic modification in agriculture. The House should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Reay and his committee for what everyone has described as a balanced, wide-ranging analysis of the subject, what it implies, the regulation of it and the risk assessment to human health and the environment. It carries the message that genetic modification in agriculture has great potential benefits for the future. I agree with that assessment.

The report concludes with a recommendation,

    "that the proposed revisions to the EC regulation of genetic modification in agriculture raise important questions to which the attention of the House should be drawn ... for debate". I believe that the debate which has moved from different positions on the issue of genetic modification of crops will be of great interest to the reader both in this House and elsewhere.

27 May 1999 : Column 1082

The report deals with issues which I believe are vital to the future of agriculture both in this country and particularly to agriculture in the developing world. I say that as someone who has had experience of the developing world and who has still a strong interest in it.

We cannot escape the fact that the world's population will dramatically increase in the next 50 years from the present population of 5.8 billion; growing to 8 billion by 2020; 9.5 billion by 2050; and possibly stabilising at 10 billion by 2100. Just as the food requirements of today cannot be met by 1940s technology, current food production practices cannot provide for the increased human population of the world. New approaches to crop and animal production systems are absolutely essential.

As has been mentioned, there are 5.8 million square miles of farming land available in the world today. In order to supply food for the next growing generations of humans, it is estimated that 15 million square miles will be necessary. But that land is not available. As we find in paragraph 66 of the report, the amount of cultivable land is decreasing, not increasing.

The estimates of food needs take no note of the dietary upgrading that occurs in developing countries as they increase their national wealth. The demand for movement from a diet of cereals to include meat and from a diet of white meat to red meat is now quite common in parts of the developing world. For example, in China there has been a 10 per cent annual increase in meat production over the past 10 years. That indicates that new types of food production must be addressed.

It is often said that there is no need to enhance food production in the world, that there are many surpluses at present and that the basic problem lies in distribution or the ability to pay for the food. An alternative view, if it be true, is that a major redistribution of wealth in the world would be necessary to provide for that redistribution of food. Even that would not cope with the future demands of the world.

Agriculture in this country, in Europe and in the developed world is known for its high outputs. That is achieved by high inputs in the form of nitrogenous fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides, all of which have an effect on the environment. That has been a concern for many years, long before GM crops were on the horizon. One of the potentials of GM crops is that the high inputs which cause such concern about the environment may well be no longer necessary when there are new plants which are able to cope with soil, water and sunshine in a more effective way than at present.

In addition, many crops--particularly in the developing world--are lost through weeds, insects, and diseases of various kinds; in storage they are lost through insects, rodents and fungi. It is estimated that only 60 per cent of the food produced eventually gets to the consumer. Prior to genetic modification of maize and soya bean, for example, 10 per cent of each crop was destroyed by the borer beetle. To counter this, maize and soya bean have had inserted into them genes from the bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterial organism that produces a toxin, so that when the borers penetrate the plant they are killed. The alternative is to spray

27 May 1999 : Column 1083

plants with insecticides. Organophosphates are normally used for this purpose. The concerns and problems caused by organophosphates have been debated in the House on more than one occasion. Therefore we might be faced with having either organophosphate contaminated food or genetically modified food grown without insecticides.

The developing world will benefit enormously from the introduction of genetically modified crops and genetically adapted animals--although the report does not deal with the animal side--which will increase production with lower inputs. That view appears to be shared by the recent Nuffield report, which I understand has been published today. I have not had the opportunity to read it, although on the radio today it was commented upon.

The report is about EC regulations. It may be asked: what has third world development and population to do with European Union regulations? The immediate answer is to recognise the increasing need on the part of the developed world to prepare for action to alleviate the anticipated food shortages. It will be countries such as the United Kingdom, those in the European Union and those elsewhere in the developed world which will progress research to meet that problem. Our regulatory system should not be such that it prevents our carrying that research forward.

There is also the issue of scientific competition in agriculture and food biotechnology in the United Kingdom. As stated in paragraph 171 on competitiveness in agriculture and food, use of biotechnology is already well established in other major countries such as the US, Canada, Argentina and China. Any undue delay in Europe could be a costly burden on our scientific development in this area; it will affect our manufacture and retail industries and hence employment.

As we have heard today and elsewhere in the press, impediments to biotechnology and genetic foods are generally borne of a mistrust of genetic engineering; the science is thought by its detractors to be new and unproven. But genetically modified organisms have been widely used for several years in the brewing industry and in cheese production. Their use in the food sector is commonplace and increasing. We have been consuming the products of genetically modified organisms for some time, albeit in an unlabelled manner. In general, I agree with labelling, but care must be taken as to whether we should label the process or the product of genetically modified organisms. For example, would it be realistic to label beer as a genetically modified product because a genetically modified yeast has been used in its production? The committee's conclusions on food labelling are well made.

The question has been posed as to whether genetically modified foods are safe. That is a difficult point to answer. It is difficult to reach a final decision about not only genetically modified foods but about foods that are not genetically modified. But there is no evidence at present that they are unsafe. Genetically modified foods have been consumed by millions of people in certain countries without any such evidence. Nevertheless, it is necessary that there be regulatory procedures. I believe

27 May 1999 : Column 1084

that the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes in this country is doing an excellent regulatory job and should be allowed to continue.

Mention has been made today of antibiotic resistance markers in genetically modified crops. Recent newspaper articles have been somewhat inflammatory about antibiotic resistance in genetically modified crops presenting a danger, for example in regard to childhood meningitis. As we know from a science and technology sub-committee in this House, antibiotic resistance is a major problem. Although the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford would say that we do not add one difficulty to another, the problem of antibiotic resistance is so great through use in animal and human food that the potential for GM resistance transferring antibiotic resistance into the human or animal field is, I believe, minuscule.

Environmental issues figure strongly in the debates on GM crops and plants. One concern is the transfer of GM plant material and herbicide resistance. Of course, herbicide resistance has been bred into crops since long before genetic modification came along. The Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, ACRE, does an excellent job in this area. I do not accept that a new committee is necessary, although that committee's remit might well be widened.

Mention has also been made of the effect of GM crops on insects and the subsequent food chain, and in particular the monarch butterfly. It would be unusual if a genetically modified crop designed to kill off the maggot or larval stage of an insect did not have other effects. But it should be welcomed that this effect seems to be specific rather than generic. In fact, other insects, such as lacewings, ladybirds and damsel bugs, are not affected by the genetically modified pollen in question. Bumble bees and honey bees also are not affected by the pollen, although, as has been said, they can transfer it elsewhere.

No one would wish to allow the development and release of GM plants or other organisms into the environment without the appropriate evaluation and testing, but this must be done in a responsible and proper scientific manner. I believe that this is being done effectively in this country.

Furthermore, genetic modification has the potential to provide positive environmental effects and correct the adverse aspects now associated with intensive farming methods. I believe that we are on the threshold of a new and very promising era of the use of genetic modification in crops and animals which will be of great benefit to mankind. There is enormous potential for producing medicines and vaccines from plants--such as a hepatitis B vaccine in potatoes and a rabies vaccine in spinach--as well as other niche market products and designer foods.

This country is a leader in such biotechnology, and our lead should not be squandered by unnecessary restrictive approaches. I am happy that the Government's response to the report is so robust and so much in defence of that biotechnology.

27 May 1999 : Column 1085

2.14 p.m.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, sadly, there are some very ill-informed views on genetically modified foods, views fed by the tabloid newspapers, which see in creating a scare a means of increasing their sales. Talk of Frankenstein foods has done massive damage to a technology with the potential to achieve dramatic improvements in food and in other fields for the human race.

The EC Committee heard evidence from a wide number of sources, ranging from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to Monsanto, which is in the forefront of the technology. The views ranged from those who were against any form of GM on principle to those who saw a huge potential benefit in GM and safety in the technology, subject to proper safeguards.

GM is an easy subject for the tabloids to exploit, with their talk of Frankenstein foods, regardless of any justification. A spokesman for the US Department of Agriculture has said that, if properly regulated, these products offer a significant benefit in the form of reduced chemical use, improved yields, lower production costs and enhanced quality for the consumer.

Recently there has been concern about the yellow and black butterfly being killed by GM corn pollen. Maybe feeding the insect in the laboratory on a concentrated diet of GM-produced pollen is harmful, although that pollen did not affect other insects, which in the same experiment seemed to thrive. By the same token, I understand that white bread fed on its own can kill humans.

GM corn can only kill its own predator. Non-GM corn must be sprayed with insecticide, and then every insect dies, including the yellow and black butterfly. We must weigh the £750 million annual loss from the corn borer and the total loss of all insects from the insecticides against the possible damage caused by the pollen to the black and yellow butterfly.

Pollen can drift quite some distance, but the likelihood of transgenic fertilisation is very low. It is only if the permitted rate is set at positively zero that there is a risk. Even then, if there is cross-pollination to some genetically allied weed that weed could be dealt with by other herbicides.

Should GM animals ever be seriously developed, they can be subjected to regulations and controls until such time as the authorities are certain that the improvement has no downside factor. Should that transpire, the animals could be slaughtered.

There is an endless succession of committees manned by eminent and expert scientists to watch and control every process of the development of GM foods and crops and to ensure that nothing is grown on a large scale, or still less presented to the public, before rigorous monitoring and testing. But now even the word "expert" is being paraded as a dirty word by the press. I have heard it said that an expert is a has-been drip under pressure. In fact, the experts concerned are all scientists who are very well informed in their subjects, either working in the field or with enough scientific knowledge not to be bamboozled by those who do work

27 May 1999 : Column 1086

in it. Some, such as Professor Bainbridge, who has already been mentioned, have their own families to feed and have a direct interest in food safety.

The danger lies in those countries which have no rules or no means of enforcing any rules that they may have. An unscrupulous company could experiment in those countries without any regulation and grow any GM product.

The most frightening scenario is the prospect of the voracious GM fish that could escape and cross-breed with other fish. Once released to the sea, clearly they would be totally out of control. This probably will happen with the modified high-growth salmon, which will inevitably escape sooner or later.

It is essential that there should be international standards, so that disaster cannot emerge from some country and sweep around the world, however remote that scenario might be. Imports such as the grey squirrel into the UK and the rabbit into Australia have shown us how disasters can happen.

There are risks involved in any technology, but no ill-effects have been noted from GM products. Crops go through a long and rigorous testing under very strict rules, so they are thoroughly tested before being allowed to be put on the market.

The hard cheese that we eat nowadays is made from genetically modified yeast instead of rennet, which used to be scraped from the lining of calves' stomachs. Many people would perhaps baulk at the old, non-GM product if they realised the source of the rennet.

A great number of our foods contain soya and as it is shipped in bulk from the United States, the conventional and the GM are both mixed up. The possible risk of eating GM crops must also be compared with the risk of eating conventional crops--for example, conventional fruit could carry the residue of pesticides. But then anything has a risk factor, the highest being probably from smoking or from driving a car. Statistically, the kitchen is a very dangerous place for accidents. A surfeit of lampreys killed King John and recently a girl died from drinking too much water.

The worry seems to be about dangers that can be dreamed up without a shred of evidence or likelihood. This worry must not be allowed to bring progress to a halt. It surprises me that while not a single danger from GM has been identified, it is feared by the public, who at the same time will buy foods containing all kinds of chemicals of which they have no idea of the meaning. People will happily eat foods with preservatives, known to be harmful, or drink luridly coloured drinks full of colouring, preservatives, chemicals and artificial flavourings, some of which, again, are known to be harmful. Equally, they will take medicine the composition of which they know even less, and sometimes discover that those same medicines have various harmful side effects. One thinks of the organophosphates and thalidomide. Yet GM food with no suspicion of harm is feared.

GM has some fascinating possibilities. It may well be the most important field since the introduction of computers. For example, work is going on to make crops more frost tolerant through the insertion of genes

27 May 1999 : Column 1087

from fish. It might one day be possible to cross a fish with an oak tree to make the latter grow and thrive in a cold climate. But the possibilities are exciting and endless with many spin-offs for environmental benefit. With an increasing world population and a decreasing farming area, GM is probably the only hope of avoiding world famine in the future and could transform agriculture in the third world.

Of course many of the improvements of GM could be achieved by natural selection and breeding. Wheat is no natural plant, but has been developed over millennia. But the time-scale will be very long, and it would not be possible to breed desirable characteristics into the crop without attracting undesirable ones at the same time. GM can target precisely the good characteristics.

I believe that the supermarkets that refuse to stock GM are misleading their customers. First, soya is mixed in bulk so that there is no guarantee of GM content in mixed foods. Secondly, they are pandering to and trading on their customers' fears of the unknown when they should be investigating the facts of GM and then reassuring their customers. They should study the excellent report. Yet the benefits of GM are proven, given such products as insulin since 1980 and tomatoes since 1995, all without any ill-effects.

The Government have declared GM foods to be safe. Governments are inherently cautious--and how we saw that with BSE. They must stand by their decision and continue to lead in the debate. It would be too easy for them to give way to the popular and ill-informed demand to ban GM foods for the sake of a few votes. Most of the problem is lack of understanding, and public explanation and debate would be most helpful. The Government must have the guts to continue to lead in this matter and, subject to all the vast safeguards that are in place, give full encouragement to the GM technology.

2.23 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, as many of your Lordships have already stressed during the course of the debate, there is an overriding need for public confidence to be established in this area. The Select Committee concluded that GM foods already on the market are safe, but when bodies such as the BMA enter the fray powerful new concerns are being expressed.

In its report, the BMA Board of Science and Education makes a strong point about the impact of GMOs being potentially greater than medicines which currently seek licences. The advisory and regulatory framework adopted is therefore of crucial significance. In this context the Government should of course bring forward the food standards agency as a matter of urgency. But by itself this will not solve the need for public confidence. Underlying the approach to GM food, there must be a robust assertion of the precautionary principle. I welcome the Select Committee's call for greater understanding of this aspect. We must be cautious, particularly when public worry is stoked up by phrases such as "Frankenstein food" and references to "the mad forces of genetic darkness" in the press.

27 May 1999 : Column 1088

From recent opinion surveys it is clear that the British public do not have overwhelming confidence in scientists and government to make decisions in this area. In fact, family practitioners are held in greater regard. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, is not in his place to hear that. As part of the assessment process, however, both scientists and politicians need a definition of "safe" which has public understanding and acceptance. It is not good enough simply to expect the media and public to change their view of GM foods simply by repeating assertions that they are safe. The public have rightly, for instance, come to expect high standards of aviation safety while nevertheless understanding that air travel cannot be absolutely 100 per cent safe.

Are the public clear about what standard of safety they are being offered with GM foods? Why cannot we make it clear? The Government are rather defeatist in this respect. In reply to a Starred Question from myself, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said that he did not believe that it will be possible to have an absolute and reliable definition of "risk" or food safety. In contrast, in the light of the BSE crisis, the former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, devoted a considerable amount of space in a number of his annual reviews of public health policy to discussing the communication of risk. We really should learn the lessons of BSE and GM foods. It is quiet clear that, as the former Chief Medical Officer suggested, we need to settle the ground rules to make sure that the public have confidence in what is being communicated.

The report of the Chief Medical Officer in 1995 categorised the different elements of risk, which was an extremely helpful process. He was able to range from negligible, through minimal, moderate, to unknown. It would be helpful to have that kind of scale of risk explained clearly by the Government. Will the Government follow up that extremely useful preliminary work? The public in particular need to be educated on how risk is, and should be, assessed. The current test used by the novel foods committee, the ACNFP, on whether a GM food product is not novel is that of "substantial equivalence". That concept was developed by the World Health Organisation and the OECD. But as commentators have pointed out, it does not account for gene interaction of unexpected kinds which may take place in GM foods which on the face of it may appear equivalent to existing foods.

The recent report of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser also confirms this. It states:

    "The fact that a GM food may be substantially equivalent to a conventional one, does not mean however that it is safe. Nor does it remove the need for a thorough assessment to be carried out to ensure that this is so before it can be allowed onto the market". The Select Committee report is therefore disappointing in its assessment of the regulatory process in that it does not examine this issue in detail. Clearly, therefore, any test used in risk assessment needs to go much wider than just "substantial equivalence". It needs to look at both direct and indirect and immediate and delayed effects.

27 May 1999 : Column 1089

A few years ago we had no concept at all of the problems associated with pthalates. Now we do know, and many PVC products have been withdrawn as a result. Tracking in particular needs to be carried out to assess health risks. A clearly understood process of health impact assessment needs to be carried out for GM foods. The recent report of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser are helpful in this respect, particularly in advocating tracking research and the suggestion of a national surveillance unit. With these measures in place and the right kind of risk language, I believe that we could build confidence in the regulatory system. Without such a public understanding of risk and risk assessment, we will find inevitably that there is less and less public acceptance of scientific advance with all that that entails.

2.30 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Reay for his exemplary chairmanship of our sub-committee. The enquiry was long and, to me at least, complex, and it became increasingly controversial as we progressed. Our chairman and our Clerk did exceptionally well to keep us, the spear-carriers, focused on the scope of the report during 17 sessions of oral evidence and a back-up library of more than 40 written submissions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, noted, when the report was published in January it made waves, not ripples, in the newspapers. It was criticised by some for its content, by others for its conclusions, and by yet others for the perceived bias of the witnesses we called. If that was not enough, why not take a swipe at the committee's membership, which included representatives from that environmental criminal class, the farmer?

Naturally enough, the critics quickest out of the blocks were those who were not handicapped by actually having read the report, closely followed by those who had read the report but who had skipped the bits that did not fit with their prejudices. They were reinforced by the report appearing during a period in which the press, with a few honourable exceptions, fell victim to an attack of unmodified hysteria, encouraged--I have to say--by special interest pressure groups who depend upon a high profile to keep their membership subscriptions flowing. When newspapers run stories implying that genetically modified organisms will kill every form of wildlife on the planet, or that they cause meningitis, or damage the immune system, is it surprising that we should start running scared? Just about the only thing that genetic modification did not make you believe is that you can believe everything that you read in the Daily Mail.

It is time for a counterblast. After all, what are the facts? Perhaps we should begin by reminding ourselves that risk is never zero. With that in mind, we can say that genetically modified organisms are at the very low end of the risk spectrum. The wilder, unsubstantiated scientific scare stories have been comprehensively demolished when subjected to peer review. No one has yet suffered any harm at all from genetically modified

27 May 1999 : Column 1090

organisms. There has never been an accident of any kind involving genetically modified organisms, either in the laboratory or in the field.

Of course I accept that risks and hazards, as was clearly stated in our report, exist and need to be properly evaluated and regulated. The report makes a number of specific recommendations, many of which have been broadly accepted by the Government, to make better what is already good. There remain, however, several points outstanding, which have already been raised, and to which I hope the Minister will reply.

But the fact is that genetically modified organisms are subject to more rigorous scrutiny than any conventional foodstuffs. As our chairman pointed out, the common potato would not have passed through the regulatory sieve. Yesterday, I tried to remind myself what that sieve consisted of. There are several advisory committees: the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, the Committee on Toxicology, the Food Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification. Those are but five of the most prominent bodies. Contrary to popular myth, they are not stuffed with tame scientists who are in the pockets of the major drug companies.

The Food Advisory Committee, which in February gave a strong vote of confidence in the approval system for genetically modified foods, has representatives from consumer interests, local authorities and food companies as well as what I would call, ignorantly, pure scientists. The Government have also recently announced the formation of two new advisory bodies: the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Agriculture and Environmental Biotechnology Commission. There is also a Cabinet committee on biotechnology and several special advisers are also on tap, such as Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert May, who have recently published their own report confirming their confidence in the rigour of current procedures.

We can also be encouraged by the recent formation of the curiously named SCIMAC, which sounds rather like a genetically modified hamburger. However, it turns out to be the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops--a framework for the development of genetically modified crops which will identify closely with public concern about the technology and its effects.

We can therefore say that the development of genetically modified organisms is underpinned by a regime of belt and braces. There will be, as the Government have said, no free-for-all. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, to note one regrettable lapse, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Reay, in the Government's otherwise robust attitude to scare technology. I refer to the regulations introduced in February, requiring shops, cafes and restaurants to label food which contains, or may contain genetically modified organisms. As labelling is one of the more difficult and contentious issues relating to genetically modified organisms, it seems harsh indeed to burden these small businesses with the responsibility of deciding something that has not yet been properly agreed by anybody. These regulations were introduced

27 May 1999 : Column 1091

only one day after being laid, with the excuse of supreme urgency, even though the businesses concerned were then given six months to sort out their SCIMACs from their GMOs. The explanation, of course, is simple. This ill-thought out measure, by-passing Parliament, was brought to us by the same team who brought us the much admired beef-on-the-bone regulations. At least Ministers will have the consolation, I imagine, of having to report on compliance from the front line of The Ivy and The River Cafe. There is an old African saying: The man with a full belly has many problems; the man with an empty belly has but one problem. We should bear that in mind when assessing the benefits, or otherwise, of genetic modification.

2.35 p.m.

Lord Rathcavan: My Lords, I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for introducing this debate, and giving such clarity to this complex and wide-ranging subject. I also thank him for the firm and fair way in which he chaired our committee.

I shall concentrate on the question of public confidence in genetic modification to crops and food, and to the labelling issue, which is the effective interface between genetically modified products and the public.

When we set out on the report, at the beginning of last year, genetic modification in agriculture was not a subject much discussed in the public domain, although the development of GM technology and the world production of genetically modified crops were proceeding at a hectic pace.

Last summer, one of the principal life science, or bio-science, companies, Monsanto--which has invested billions of dollars and which has staked much of its future on genetically modified crops and foods, and which detected resistance and delay to GM development in Europe--began a huge advertising campaign to promote GM technology. Never can an advertising campaign have been so badly judged. Rather than soothing the latent public disquiet about genetically modified food, it succeeded in raising public concern, and generating hostile opposition. It sparked off environmental groups and some newspapers to mount campaigns against genetically modified food and technology.

The Prince of Wales made a well-structured case against genetically modified crops in The Daily Telegraph, although he did not help his argument--as others have also sought to do--by invoking the support of God. Later in the year, the now infamous Dr. Puztai, poured oil on the flames with his unguarded, if not wild comments about feeding a toxic, raw genetically modified laboratory potato to rats, in what the Royal Society last week called a flawed experiment.

Although we are discussing our report of last January, today's debate is well-timed following last week's Government announcements and the recent publication of much well-informed scientific opinion and research, capped today by the report of the Nuffield Council on Bio-Ethics, covering social and ethical issues.

27 May 1999 : Column 1092

After our first six months of taking evidence from many distinguished scientists, the members of our sub-committee began to consider that we had become fairly sophisticated GM experts. That may not have been the case, but at least we were expert enough to assess the flood of disinformation on GM technology, flawed comment, and sometimes pure rubbish being peddled by some newspapers and by so-called experts on the subject. The scare stories, with which your Lordships are familiar, ranged from super weeds which would overrun the countryside to antibiotic resistance, the transfer of allergies, fish genes in fruit and this week I heard a commentator on the radio claiming that a gene from a rat had been put into a potato. That is a total confusion of Dr. Puztai's experiment.

It is no wonder that consumers are running scared and confused when Friends of the Earth display a symbol which embraces a fish and a tomato. That refers to a failed laboratory experiment in California 10 years ago to transfer a gene from an arctic fish in an attempt to engineer a frost-proof tomato plant. The more recent GM tomato paste or puree which is on the market, or was until recently, in this country, uses a tomato in which that ripening gene which makes a ripe tomato soft has been switched off or made inactive. The result is a firmer, more robust and riper tomato which makes a tomato puree with 40 per cent less waste and which costs less. There are no green or rotten tomatoes which can make the product discoloured or bitter or both.

GM tomato paste has been the only whole and real GM product available on the UK market and has currently been withdrawn from the shelves by neurotic retailers who are not doing us any service. That product allowed the consumer to make a fair judgment and tasting of GM versus non-GM product. To confirm to your Lordships that we did our homework thoroughly, I can report that the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and I supped one evening on a blind tasting of pasta with GM tomato paste and old-fashioned tomato paste.

One of the obstacles to public acceptance of GM foods is the lack of the whole GM product which can demonstrate a real benefit in quality or value which is what the tomato paste was able to do. We are told that some way down the line is a GM potato which makes a low-fat and crispy chip which absorbs less fat. Low fat and low cholesterol foods will win more public acceptance.

Instead, the major bio-science companies have concentrated on commercial development of commodity crops associated with herbicide and pest resistance, grown mainly in the prairies of America where the public is less concerned about the potential environmental hazards. It is only when those crops come to Europe, albeit on trials, where so much farming is over the garden hedge that real environmental concerns are generated. It is only when GM soya and maize products permeated an estimated 60 per cent of the shopping basket of processed foods that real consumer concerns arise. That emotive statistic of 60 per cent of the shopping basket containing GM has been the cause of much adverse public reaction, and not surprisingly, and it is at the core of the labelling issue too. We recommended that GM labelling should be restricted to

27 May 1999 : Column 1093

a threshold of 2 per cent of GM material. In fact, the vast majority of processed foods contain only very small, if not infinitesimal, amounts of soya, such as most breads which contain less than 1 per cent of soya flour. Where GM soya is highly processed, as in the soya oil, the DNA or protein is degraded or disappears and it cannot be scientifically detected. The question arises about whether such undetectable GM content should be labelled, if it is over the threshold.

Distillers and brewers have been concerned about public reaction to GM yeast or a potential GM malted grain. We saw experiments on a GM malted barley when we visited the John Innes Institute in Norwich. But if it ever comes to the market with great benefits to cost, the GM DNA will not be detectable in the whisky or beer.

If this 2 per cent threshold for labelling is accepted in the revised European regulation, the amount of processed food products which would have to carry a GM label would be very small, certainly much less than 5 per cent compared with the alarming figure of 60 per cent.

Without the labelling regulations, the Government's recent proposals that restaurants will have to identify any dish containing GM material is extremely demanding in present circumstances as suppliers try to identify sources of non-GM soya which is not always clearly segregated, but which undoubtedly will be as the market increasingly demands it.

I spoke last week to the Savoy's great chef, Anton Edelmann, who said that he was now seeking a commitment from all his suppliers to declare on the invoices that a product does not contain any GM material. That may pass the buck down the line and will not be reliable. It will be nearly impossible to regulate or detect that a particular dish or sauce contains 1 per cent or even 2 per cent of soya flour or oil that may or may not involve GM DNA. It is important that a threshold should also apply to restaurants. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an assurance as to where and when the labelling threshold will be applied and whether there will be any interim guidelines, which are endlessly awaited, in a revised European regulation. The catering industry and food manufacturers urgently need to know where they stand on the labelling issue.

I hope the Minister will give us an assurance also that restaurants will not be prosecuted so long as they exercise due diligence and take whatever steps are presently available to identify GM material.

It is essential to gain public confidence in that remarkable new technology in which the United Kingdom is a world leader. I trust that the Government's new regulatory body, as announced last week, will establish a framework in which further development is strictly monitored and controlled on a case-by-case basis. I hope that development can and will continue.

The report from the Nuffield Council on Biotechnology, published this morning, proposes some tighter regulations for both monitoring and controls. I hope the Government will take careful note of what that new report, prepared by some of our leading brains on these issue, recommends.

27 May 1999 : Column 1094

If we are to continue to be among the world leaders in the industry, where the prizes are huge and the opportunities as big, we must first put our own house in order. We must gain consumer confidence and, as soon as possible, give the consumer a choice through sensible and intelligible labelling. We must allow new GM crops, when they have passed all the scientific scrutiny from the environmental and food safety points of view, to go into production. The Government must make their regulatory process and framework work and be seen to work. As the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said so eloquently, the Government must also get the European decision-making process to work more effectively, fairly and quickly.

2.48 p.m.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I rise with some degree of trepidation to join your Lordships in this debate because I do not purport to have a great deal of knowledge on the subject, certainly not as much knowledge as some of your Lordships have shown. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Reay and all members of the committee on producing the report, which is a balanced report, no doubt.

However, as a member of the listening public, I think I can be forgiven if I continue to have considerable concerns about the whole question of GMOs, particularly in the countryside. Some of the pieces written in the media and some of the items we have heard on the radio recently emanating from people for whom one must have a very great regard in those matters should display to all of us that there are still many issues to be resolved before we can take forward the new revolution positively and confidently.

The ability to modify arable crops genetically to protect them from insect pests, weeds and diseases represents an enormous advance in the technology to protect crops from such attacks. Man has had to protect crops from the earliest days. As early as 1669, white arsenic was used to control ants. The countryside has always experienced change. It is a dynamic place. Undoubtedly, what we are now witnessing is a rapid change at an unprecedented rate and a technology that may be used over vast acreages of the British countryside.

Much public debate has addressed the likely impact of GM crops on food safety, public health and the environment. I am bound to say that I have much more confidence in the human aspect than I do in the environmental aspect. There is clearly no evidence to date to show that GM crops are having an adverse effect on the health of human beings. It is the environmental matters on which I wish to concentrate my remarks. As chairman of the Game Conservancy Trust, I am able to draw upon the trust's long history of research on farmland--research that first drew attention to the impact of farming technology on wildlife and the part played by pesticides, changing rotations and farming policy on declining species of plants, insects and birds.

There are grave concerns regarding the environment and wildlife following the use of GM crops in the countryside. My noble friend Lord Wade robustly

27 May 1999 : Column 1095

defended the findings of the Select Committee, and I admired the way in which he did so. He gave clear examples of technology which, although heavily criticised at the time, has proved to be an enormous help to mankind in general. I accept that.

But there is always a flip-side to every coin. We must be very wary in these matters. We must look carefully at the instances where technology has not served us well and where we have seen damaging effects on the countryside from various industries through lack of proper environmental consultation and research.

I can give three examples. The use of pyrethroid sheep dips and its effect on aquatic insects, and indeed the tragic effect it has had on certain human beings, has been mentioned. I am sure that had we known the effects from the outset, there would have been far greater controls. There is also the effect of broad spectrum insecticides on beneficial insects. We have seen large areas of the countryside devastated by the use of such insecticidal sprays. And one of the greatest examples is the effect of farmed salmon on wild salmon. Again, I am sure that had we known in advance what that method would produce, far greater care would have been taken.

Recently, the chairman of the RSNC, Simon Lister, said on Radio 4 that it would be quite wrong for us to compare the effects of GM crops in the United States with what will happen in the British countryside. The areas where the majority of crops are grown in the US are huge prairie-lands where the word "biodiversity" has long since gone out of the dictionary. In this country we still have a diverse countryside. We still have the infrastructure for positive gain. It is dangerous to start comparing the United States with Great Britain in that respect.

Perhaps I may try to identify some of the practical problems that are likely to arise if GM crops are to be grown in the British countryside. The introduction of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops, to which my noble friend Lord Reay made reference in his opening remarks, could herald a move towards totally weed-free fields or totally monoculture crops. The herbicides that are used in modified crops are broad spectrum. They can only be used when plants are actively growing. These sprays will remove all autumn and spring germinating weeds, including some rare arable species, and the host plant of the chick food insects eaten by farmland birds. So they have enormous significance. The advent of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops could make a very serious situation even worse unless remedial action is taken. I do not believe that it is right to take the status quo as the level of comparison. We should be trying to enhance the British countryside. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when taking decisions on this important subject.

Changes in the pattern of herbicide drift could also increase ecological damage. Such herbicides used in GM manipulation are applied when weeds are actively growing, and thus preclude their use in winter when crops are growing close to the ground and herbicide drift is at its minimum. In other words, the height of the

27 May 1999 : Column 1096

boom spray will depend on the height of the crops, because the crops in the summer are at a much higher level.

Using such herbicides in summer could harm hedgerow plants, both in the fields being sprayed and indeed the adjacent fields as well. The result could be seriously to undermine MAFF's responsibility towards the biodiversity action plan for cereal field margins.

I very much welcome the Government's attitude towards the dangers of the interface between GM crops and organic farming, as stated in their response to the Select Committee report. But surely it is equally important that the ministry should have regard to the interface between areas next to those where GM crops are grown and where there are environmental schemes in progress. There could well be a number of different government-sponsored schemes which are there to promote the countryside. The effects of the sprays could be extremely detrimental. If I had a farm where I was deliberately trying to enhance wildlife and found myself next to a farm that was being used for GM cropping, with all the dangers that I have identified and without the necessary precautions, I should be extremely angry and concerned.

Another potential problem relates to pollen from GM crops, as already identified through the monarch butterfly in America. The destination of pollen carried in the wind is even less predictable than the problems of drift to which I referred. Insects, too, will carry the pollen. So very careful assessments will need to be done in order to judge any impact that is likely to occur. Furthermore, what concentration of such pollen is toxic? And over what distance and what timescale? Those are important questions. I do not know whether or not this requires a moratorium, but I cannot believe that the answers will be found quickly. I suspect that it will be a long time before we can provide satisfactory answers.

Perhaps I may also highlight the potential dangers of herbicide resistant crops appearing as "volunteers"--a legacy from previous years' cropping. That could lead to considerable agronomic difficulties and increased herbicide use in the following years. Alternatively, autumn cultivations, which are not good for wildlife, could increase an attempt to control herbicide resistant volunteer weeds. It would render great damage to populations of beneficial insects.

Then there is the problem of hybridisation; in other words, the possible genetic mixing of crop plants and wild species. Movement of pollen by bees will cover considerable distances as well as on the wind. Clearly, monitoring such potential impacts will be both difficult and absolutely crucial if we are to get the correct answers.

There is one final point on the dangers of GMO crops to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention. I refer to the potential problems concerning crop rotation. That is sometimes overlooked. This method of farming has long been used for weed control, especially by those involved in mixed arable and livestock farming enterprises. As the Game Conservancy has shown, such farms tend to be the most valuable for wildlife, both in terms of birds and, as we discovered on our trial farm

27 May 1999 : Column 1097

at Loddington, for hares. Yet genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops may well further reduce the need to rotate crops and thus deprive the countryside of its patchwork quilt of fields that both look attractive and, as I said, provide an important wildlife source.

Having identified some of the practical problems, I would not wish to be labelled a complete prophet of doom and I certainly would not wish to be described as a Luddite. Of course, I accept the huge importance we have derived over the years from modern technology. So much good has been done to mankind and I accept that the advent of GMOs could have its benefits, particularly on the human front.

Returning to the environment, I feel we should welcome initiatives that could not only reduce pesticide use per se, but could also reduce the impact of pesticide use on wildlife. Making a crop immune to insect attack, following genetic modification using bacterial insecticides, could dramatically reduce the use of conventional sprays of crops. Of course I would welcome that.

However, whereas I believe that this is already happening with maize and cotton, as I understand it science is some way from developing such techniques in other crops, particularly cereal crops. I should be interested if, when my noble friend replies, he can give an indication as to whether that is the case.

One further possible gain that might accrue is that by providing farmers with a weed control technique that is extremely efficient they may be more willing to leave weeds in crops in other parts of the rotation or on set-aside or on land designed for wildlife, almost as a quid pro quo. However, I acknowledge that this would be risky and almost certainly have to be accompanied by some attractive environmental schemes to provide the necessary incentive.

I believe there are great dangers, as my noble friend made clear in his introductory speech. I accept that. But as to the future, I welcome the Government's commitment to openness and the investment provided by MAFF and the DETR in the impact studies of GMO crops on wildlife. I also welcome the establishment of a commission that will oversee all work on GM crops.

In the past there has been a tendency for matters affecting wildlife and the environment to be bounced between several committees without anyone taking responsibility for the issue. What is paramount in this hugely important issue is good science. The risks must be thoroughly assessed before adapting a technology that could impose devastating consequences on the countryside of Great Britain.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it could be too late. The Government have a huge responsibility of which I know the Minister is well aware. So has English Nature. I look forward very much to hearing what the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has to say on the matter. I am aware of her deep concern and that of the members of her council. I hope that the Government will at all times take careful note of what they have to say.

27 May 1999 : Column 1098

Finally, I hope that the Government will not be forced into using GMO crops simply by free trade agreements and international or EU rules. This matter is far too important to be regarded simply as an issue of trade. We are talking about the welfare of the British countryside and that is something we should all treasure and be wary about.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page