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House of Lords

Friday, 18th June 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

Genetically Modified Crops Bill [H.L.]

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill now be read a second time.

The Bill is short and simple. Its effect is also short and simple, although I am afraid that the explanation of its background and the reasons for introducing it are a little longer. I hope that your Lordships will not feel that they are too long.

The Bill amends the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and incorporates a definition taken from the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. I stress those two dates--1990 and 1985. On 16th February, the Parliamentary Secretary for MAFF repeated to this House the Statement which had just been made in the other place. At that time I had the temerity to complain about the Government's failure to stick their head above the parapet, and give what I described as unequivocal guidance to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. In his response, the Minister accused me of having what he called, "some chutzpah", for daring to question the Government on that subject. He then launched into the usual tirade against the previous administration, whom he accused of having done practically nothing.

The two substantial Acts that I have just mentioned are part of the considerable "something" undertaken by the previous administration to protect the environment, as distinct from the mere 160 words of waffle contained in the Labour Party's manifesto. That states:

    "No responsible government can afford to take risks with the future; the cost is too high. So it is our duty to act now". This modest small Bill will oblige the Government to put their fine words into practice. At the same time it will provide them with the necessary legislative power.

Before I turn to the substance of the Bill itself, there is something else that I wish to clear up. This Bill is not about genetically modified foods. The production and incorporation of only three varieties into every-day products has been subject to stringent testing and licensing. There has been much authoritative scientific comment on the matter, not least from this House. The Bill does not deal with those products, nor does it interfere with their sale.

There is now certainly a demand for more specific labelling, so that members of the public do not have those products literally crammed down their throats without their knowledge. The fact that parts of the public wish to be able to make an informed choice is also beyond doubt. I am sure that appropriate labelling regulations, together with a voluntary code of practice among manufacturers and retailers, will receive universal support. The emotive language used by some

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sections of the press is no basis for an informed debate. The major supermarket chains and other food retailers, in response to what they see as their customers' demands, say that they are temporarily withdrawing genetically modified foods from their shelves. By that, they mean products containing genetically modified soya, tomato and maize. Here, "temporary" means, until they are sure beyond all doubt that those products are safe.

That brings me to the subject of this Bill. It concerns genetically modified crops, especially those in the current course of development and experiment. Every mouthful of food that your Lordships have ever eaten or will ever eat is derived from genetically modified crops or animals. Ever since the first nomadic caveman poked a hole in the ground with a stick and dropped a seed into it at least 9000 years ago, possibly even earlier, both deliberate and accidental cross-pollination, in addition to that occurring naturally, has taken place. Farmers have gradually improved their crops, meat and the milk-producing capability of their animals. Those of your Lordships who follow horseracing are well aware how the breeding and ancestry of each horse can make a tremendous difference to its value.

Then something happened to speed up the whole process of plant and animal breeding; something to reduce the time it takes to cross one plant with a relative, or to graft a plant with one desirable property onto another. In both cases, the growing time that this rather hit-and-miss method takes to produce a result was reduced. What happened was the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953. Their discovery answered one of nature's greatest puzzles; that is, how genetic information is passed from generation to generation. Watson and Crick deservedly received the Nobel prize for their work. The advances in biology generated by that discovery cannot be exaggerated; for example, our understanding of cancer, of genetic and infectious diseases. It has enabled scientists to design plants and animals; to eliminate undesirable traits; or to introduce desirable ones. That is where the need for careful regulation comes in.

Let us suppose a plant is designed which is resistant to a particular type of herbicide. It can then be sprayed without harm to it. But let us suppose that the resistant characteristic is passed to different plants in an adjacent field. We are then in danger of unwittingly creating a breed of "superweeds". For the purposes of testing and experimenting, a sanitary cordon is supposed to be created around the experimental crop. The controversy that has now arisen is over whether the current requirements are adequate or whether a wider sanitary cordon is required. The Government have received a certain amount of contradictory advice from various credible sources. That is perhaps a manifestation of Duggan's law.

To every expert there is an equal and opposite expert. English Nature, the Government's own specialised think tank, recommended considerable caution in the methodology of experiments in biotechnology and the licensing of the ultimate products. The Government's own Advisory Committee on Releases into the Atmosphere (ACRE), for example, recommends a gap

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of 200 metres around a particular type of maize. The National Pollen Research Unit in a report, admittedly commissioned by one of the environmental pressure groups, challenges that distance as being inadequate. It wants a cordon of five or six miles on the grounds that pollen can be carried that distance by birds, the wind or even by bees.

Your Lordships may have observed or even suffered themselves from this phenomenon in the past few days. Anybody travelling around what we call the "West End" will have seen dozens of people with streaming eyes and noses caused by hay fever. The West End is almost solid brick, concrete and asphalt, so where does the pollen that causes the hay fever come from in Central London? The nearest sources in the West End are Hyde Park and Regent's Park. So, maybe it even travels further, but it certainly appears to travel a lot further than a derisory 200 metres.

The Soil Association calls for a five to six-mile cordon, but my noble friend Lord Reay, in his excellent and instructive presentation of the Report of the EC Committee on 27th May told your Lordships that these demands

    "are so impractical as to appear to be tantamount to an attempt to prevent the introduction of the new technology".--[Official Report, 27/5/99; col. 1064.] Frankly, and as a layman, I find the arguments about whether the sanitary cordon should be 200 metres or seven miles totally baffling.

For these experiments we need to use the widest appropriate cordon. In what I freely admit is Nimbyism, I ask why these field trials cannot be carried out in the middle of Kansas, let us say, or some other wide open space where there will be no danger to an intensely farmed and populated environment, or to butterflies or whatever, if, contrary to expectations, the GM crops cause problems.

The Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, made certain recommendations in its comprehensive report presented last December. I do not wish to be accused of selective quotations, but I do not want to take too long. The Select Committee confirms that genetic modification can offer great benefit to agriculture, industry and the environment. But the committee drew attention to the need to assess the risks, including possible delayed risks, as well as the potential benefits, simultaneously.

The report stated that the risks can be controlled by a strict management process and that any novel crop should be subject to an oversight system. It considered that the only way that knowledge of how such crops would interact with the environment can only be acquired by large-scale trials, but unequivocally stated that it considered that an outright moratorium would be inappropriate.

Finally, the committee welcomed the ability to set specific conditions for commercial release and said that conditions and regulations should only be imposed where necessary, which of course comes back to the controversial question. In paragraph 182 the committee states--and this is worth stressing--that monitoring is

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not a substitute for risk assessment. The committee also calls for a regime of reports of unexpected events and the occurrence of predicted ones. That is what my Bill calls for.

The Royal Society, in its comprehensive and incredibly interesting report published last year, made 13 strong recommendations and asked for further research on four major topics. It is sufficient to say that the Royal Society recognises the importance of biotechnology on the quality of food and the development of crops as well as the need for clarity in labelling of the ultimate products. But it also recognises the concerns about the new and developing technology and calls for collaboration between industrialists, public sector scientists, the regulatory authorities and environmental organisations.

This Bill is no Luddite attempt to prevent what is undoubtedly considerable scientific progress which can be of substantial benefit to mankind. It is also no rejection of developments which will be of considerable commercial benefit to farmers as well as to the bio-technology industry.

I recognise that companies such as Monsanto or Diatech, who have both been denigrated in some parts of the press as though they were villains, or Zeneca, are entitled to exploit their considerable investment in research. However, on the other hand, I do not think it did their cause any good when a spokesman for Monsanto made the incredibly arrogant remark:

    "Consumer response is dictating the agenda when it should be science".

Last Monday I attended a presentation by SCIMAC (Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops). It says that it represents the entire farm supply chain from initial seed stock to harvested crop, and that its members are the British Society of Plant Breeders, the British Agrochemicals Association, the National Farmers Union, the UK Agricultural Supply Trade Association and the British Sugar Beet Seed Producers Association. I have troubled your Lordships with the impressive list of members of this group, which I shall not call a pressure group, even though it is not exactly independent or impartial in the present debate, because it has also produced two important codes of practice which I have no doubt the Minister will refer to when he replies.

I assume that the Government have been briefed on these in the extraordinarily huge number of meetings that they are reported to have had with the industry since they came to power. I believe that there have been 104 with MAFF, plus many more with officials and Ministers of other departments, quite apart from those conducted with the Prime Minister.

One of the codes of practice is on,

    "the introduction of genetically modified crops", and the other is called Guidelines for growing newly developed herbicide tolerant crops. The two codes, which SCIMAC calls "self-regulation for the industry", are as impressive as the presentation was seductive.

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    However, the effect was slightly marred by the statement on one of the slides that,

    "there is no scientific basis for GM crop moratorium and that the first GM crops will be available for planting in the year 2000". The year 2000 is less than 200 days away. The spokesman did say, when pressed, that they had no intention of providing the seed for commercial planting so soon. But I feel that unchallenged and without strict regulation, somebody may be tempted to jump the commercial gun.

I do not denigrate the efforts that the industry is making to ensure safety. On the contrary, its self-imposed regulations are, if I may say so without sounding patronising, entirely commendable. However, it does have commercial interests and what it offers by way of self-regulation is at least in part self-serving.

In a case where public health is at stake, and where there are grave environmental and ecological dangers, it is not for the industry itself to tell us what is right and what is wrong; or what is and is not needed. It is not for the industry to tell us what it will and will not do by way of precautions. It is the Government's responsibility and indeed their duty to take control and to place the public interest over commercial interest. It is not for the Government to accept without question the industry's assurances. It may be right and there may be no real dangers. But the Government have to pay regard to the public anxieties and the public suspicions. They may turn out to be ill-founded and even what the Prime Minister in an intervention called "hysterical", but the Government cannot simply dismiss them out of hand.

The Government have received a great deal of persuasive advice and unfortunately that advice goes in both directions. Until those differences are resolved--not absolutely because I admit that that is not possible, but beyond reasonable doubt--the Government must err on the side of caution; on the side of ultra-caution. The sum total of the scientific advice and pressure group statements, often, as I have said, conflicting in their conclusions about the need for or the desirability of GM crops, all seem to have one factor in common; that is, that there is a need for careful evaluation and even more for careful monitoring.

As the Government said in the passage in their manifesto that I have already quoted,

    "no Government can afford to take risks with the future". I find it difficult to understand how the Government, who rushed into banning beef-on-the-bone on the basis of an ultra-cautious statement that there was the remotest possibility, almost impossible to measure, of there being a problem, can selectively ignore the pieces of advice they are receiving in this public debate.

Statements by the Prime Minister seem to indicate that the Government are ready to go ahead with larger-scale field trials almost immediately. As I have said, almost daily there are articles and reports arguing one side or another of the debate. The Government themselves have commissioned yet another new report.

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The research from what the Independent yesterday called the,

    "highly respected John Innes Centre", provided convincing conclusions based on its research that genetically modified plants can cross-pollinate. I understand that as a result of that the Government are going to reopen consultations with the industry and with farmers, including organic farmers and I hope with environmental bodies to reassess the guidelines.

Perhaps we can look at a few other developments that have taken place in the past few days. It has been revealed that 309 trials of various sizes that were taking place last year are now reduced to 148 this year. Most of them were cancelled quietly, but one farm trial was cancelled last week in a great blaze of publicity. But before that another seven farm-size trials had been cancelled. In Norfolk alone the trials are down from 40 to 17. I have to ask, with this vastly reduced level of trials, what is the validity of any current research and what reliance can be placed on it? Are we now nearly back to the drawing board?

The unanswered question about the tests is this. Suppose they reveal that some crops cause some form of ecological damage, contaminate the surrounding area and wildlife and produce undesirable mutations in nearby fauna. How is anybody going to redress that? We cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. Suppose the trials are successful. With all the public disquiet that has been caused and with the major supermarkets displaying notices saying how they are removing GM crops from the shelves, how will the public be persuaded to buy the stuff?

I say the "stuff" as a direct quote from the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who was interviewed on the "Today" programme on the radio on 9th June. He was being asked about the decision of the company he chairs--Northern Foods--to cease using GM products and supplying them, as "own brands" to various supermarkets. He said he wished he had never heard of the "stuff".

Only yesterday, in a written reply to the honourable Member for Lewisham Deptford, the Minister said,

    "The Government welcomes the European Commission's plan to develop harmonised guidelines for GMO risk assessments for cosmetic products and will push in Europe for their adoption".--[Official Report, Commons, 1/6/99; col. WA 200.] That included some of the issues about which we have been talking. Can the Minister assure us, first, that no consents will be given in the United Kingdom until that agreement is made in Europe? Secondly, will he confirm that the European regulations will be no less stringent than those which we want here? The Government and the producers threaten us that if we do not press forward with research, we will fall behind the rest of Europe and lose our place in a great, new, profitable industry. That assumes that the Germans and the French--two great agricultural economies--are prepared to take bigger risks with their environment than we are. Do we believe that?

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My Bill does not call for a ban, just more research; more tests; the laying down of guidelines in which the public can be confident; and the chance for Parliament to make an informed decision on behalf of the public. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Baroness Miller of Hendon.)

11.27 a.m.

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