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Lord Kennet: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I hope that I may put a question to him. I have listened to his spirited speech with the greatest interest. My question concerns the so-called precautionary principle, which is something we all agree to on all sides of the argument but there does not happen to be any agreed version of what that principle is. Does the noble Lord accept the following version; namely, that the precautionary principle will be observed if one admits that absence of evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of absence of harm?

Lord Taverne: My Lords, unfortunately that is part of the principle on which some are proceeding; namely, that one has to prove a negative, one has to prove that food is safe. There is no way in which one can prove that it is safe. If that was a test applied, we would not be able to eat anything.

11.48 a.m.

Lord Lyell: My Lords, first of all I wish to thank my noble friend Lady Miller. Secondly, I might want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, after his spirited speech and say that perhaps over five years in Northern Ireland I was practising what I preached and overate to such an extent that I needed new clothes!

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller. I call her "hard work" Miller as I have been present in the Chamber most of this week. I have had the honour to sit on the Woolsack on four days and I am about to sit on it a fifth day. On those occasions the noble Baroness has spoken on employment, genetically modified foods, and I do not know what else. Certainly I think she has earned the title, similar to one that was awarded to me 22 years ago, of a multi-role combat Baroness; in other words five, 10, 15 minutes on any subject. Her speech this morning was a worthy lead in to her Bill.

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I am one of the least expert of the speakers in this debate today. I declare an interest in that I carry out farming operations in Angus in Scotland, both arable and stock. However, I am certainly no scientist as regards arable farming. Over the past year or so your Lordships and the public have been bombarded with information on genetically modified foods and with some incredible stories that even I could not have made up in my deepest imagination.

If I am in doubt, I tend to ask for good advice; I am no scientist. Some 45 years ago, the decision was taken at Eton College that I should not take science; instead I should learn German. That did not go down well with some German people; they thought "They all cannot be that dim". But at least I know where to look for advice; the Scottish Crop and Research Institute at Dundee--which is just down the road from the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill; I am pleased that he is with us today--and Dr Pusztai of the Royal Institute in Aberdeen, which is an equally famous scientific institute. I took the very best advice I could from the very best experts in Scotland--and I suspect in the United Kingdom--about this line of scientific inquiry, and particularly about crops. They have given me some very valuable advice.

Some of the information I have been given--which is relevant to my own neck of the woods and my own operation--concerns one particular kind of barley. We have been planting this barley for the past 32 years. This morning, an hour and a half ago, I spoke to my farm manager. He advised me that this kind of barley was planted in the north-east of Scotland before he started working for me in 1969 and that there is plenty of it around Angus and Kirriemuir. In 1986 it was mentioned to me by maltsters that the barley was particularly suitable for a certain kind of malting. Last week, distillers said to me "For goodness sake, please go on producing this kind of barley". Apparently it is considered in agricultural circles to be somewhat out of kilter and more or less mediaeval. Nevertheless, apparently distillers approve of this particular transgenic, mutated kind of barley--which only came to notice 40 years ago--as being of particular relevance to the malting and distilling industry. I should stress that what you see is what you drink.

As has been said by previous speakers, we must trust experts in the field of biotechnology to carry on their experiments and research and we must take their advice. So far as concerns the plant breeding aspect of biotechnology, the science of biotechnology has assisted considerably in the quantity of crops produced. My noble friend Lady Miller pointed out that yields have improved and continue to do so. I agree with the right reverend Prelate. He recalled his childhood. I remember the war years in Kirriemuir in Angus when everything was done with a horse and cart. I also remember that there were ration books and a great shortage of food. I hope that the right reverend Prelate and your Lordships will accept that not everything about biotechnology is totally evil.

Scientists working in biotechnology have also improved the quality of crops, and created novel, new crops which have been found to be environmentally helpful for the United Kingdom. The continuation of

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biotechnological research is of particular importance in achieving the environmental benefits of reducing the use of agrochemicals and disease. Both aims are widely approved and are something that plant breeders and farmers wish to pursue.

I have had some very helpful comments from the British Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It has produced a very eminent paper in which it said that "science cannot provide all the answers". I am afraid I was lost by the third line of the page, but at least I know where to look. I believe that lay people such as ourselves know where to look for such advice.

I have with me a copy of the Sunday Post, the biggest selling organ of the press in Scotland--the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, may know of it--which is read throughout Scotland. The noble Baroness, who is not in her place, said to me, "We do not get the Sunday Post". I do not think she meant to be rude; she is probably heavily involved with the broadsheets in Scotland. However, I can tell her what she is missing. It does not consist of lurid stories and coloured pictures of pneumatic young ladies. What she and others who do not read the Sunday Post are missing is good, competent advice and helpful comment--what we in Scotland call "couthy" advice--from quiet, competent and mostly Scottish experts.

I have a copy dated 23rd May 1999 which says that, after a week of controversy and confusion, the "Prof"--a typical Scottish term for professor--will answer questions; and eight or nine questions are answered in a very down-to-earth and understandable way. That did not surprise me. Professor Howard Davies is one of the professors and experts currently working in biotechnology and plant research at the Scottish Crops Research Institute in Invergowrie. As I live only 17 miles from there, I salute and take my hat off to it.

I have also received through the Scottish Crops Research Institute a most valuable document called An Introduction to Genetic Engineering. It consists of five pages; however, I must confess that I was lost after the first paragraph. It contained, however, a fascinating headline--which I am sure will interest my noble friend Lady Miller--which read "Ballistic impregnation". When I discovered that it dealt with wheat and barley, I tried to read the paragraph. That term may be of relevance to plant breeders but it is also of considerable relevance to those of us seeking to produce first-rate grain crops in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, referred to the Royal Society report. I tend to be somewhat idle; I turn to the end and work backwards. I counted 17 recommendations. They were not all easy-going recommendations that the science and research should continue untrammelled; it contained considerable advice, caution and what I would term a braking effect. I believe that with advice of caution and good sense from the Royal Society, your Lordships and the public can be reassured. We can be reassured by following the recommendations; by following my noble friend and her Bill today; and by following the scientific and biotechnological industry, which seeks a proper and accepted regulation of this vital science.

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I thank my noble friend for bringing the Bill before us today. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

11.59 a.m.

Lord Annan: My Lords, a great deal of the wind was taken out of my sails by the admirable and well-balanced way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, introduced her Bill. I congratulate her on it. I was pleased, too, that she drew our attention to the fact that for centuries men have been genetically modifying things, such as our grafts on apple trees and on vines. Wisely in your Lordships' House, she also mentioned horse-racing. The way in which we have carried on is well known. The fantastic success after the war of the use of new varieties in India and the Far East--which saved the world from major famines--is an example of the genetic work that has taken place.

I am a little distressed that the noble Baroness ended on an ultra cautious note. I ask myself what Clause 4(a) of the Bill means. Research into the effect of the use of such organisms is open-ended; it never ends. One could deduce from the clause that because one can never be sure of the ultimate results of research there should be a ban on such tests for ever.

I also much agree with the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. Most of the wind that I had in my sails left after the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, had spoken, and it was totally evaporated by his speech. I agreed with every word that he said. He gave an extremely good exposition of the scientific problems facing us.

The media hype has been intolerable, and I hope that we do not give way to it. Every vegetable that we eat has carcinogens. The question is how many carcinogens. In this respect, I am reminded of the great French physiologist at the end of the 19th century, Claude Bernard, who said:

    "Tout est poison. Rien n'est poison". Everything depends on the dosage. That is the issue. How dangerous is it? I am glad that we have the Royal Society's evidence before us. Unless opponents of genetically modified plants can prove that they contain a dangerous level of poisonous material, they should be legalised.

12.1 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I welcome this debate, and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, for introducing the Bill. Normally debates clarify a subject but this morning's debate has served only to mystify us further. It shows why the public are so mystified and why the popular press--which could perhaps be berated for not acting responsibly all the time--has been right to point out some of the difficulties, secrecy and hypocrisy that have been involved.

I wonder how much this Bill is a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted. There are four steps along the road to planting genetically modified crops.

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The first was taken under the Conservative government in 1993. It seems strange that a Bill like this was not introduced then and that we did not have such a debate then. Most of the public were not even aware of what was happening. At that time restricted field trials were allowed. The full extent was certainly not realised by the public. On 15th June 1999, the shadow spokesman for the Labour Party, Michael Meacher, said:

    "Over several years, there have been several hundred - I think 600 to 700 - small trial plantings of GM crops in this country".--[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/93; col. 147.]

The second step was barely restricted trial planting. As table three of the report published yesterday by the John Innes Foundation, commissioned by MAFF, makes clear, various plants have been subject to trials since 1993, from poplars to eucalyptus, apples, barley and tomatoes. Where did we find any information from the previous government about that or about how those trials went?

Today's Bill makes us think that this is something new, but it is clearly not. That may be why the public are so concerned. They feel that weasel words are being used. I am thinking of phrases such as "releases into the environment". Ever since experiments have been conducted on genetically modified crops, there have been releases into the environment. Even at agricultural shows, trial patches are available.

I accept that there is a point in conducting trials and in considering the outcomes. There is also a point in knowing what the dangers are for the environment, but any possible benefits have not been well served by the sort of hypocrisy that has recently been apparent. The public are unhappy with progress by stealth. There has still not been any clarification of whether this is a natural process. Several noble Lords have commented that genetic modification, in one form or another, has been going on for thousands of years. I agree with that, but today's technology is different.

I am not a scientist, and I am not qualified to explain the exact differences, but even someone with A-level biology would understand the difference between natural breeding and crossing a fish, say, with a plant. Until the dangers of what I would term unnatural crossing have been made clear, those who do not understand the technology, including me, will continue to question whether it is safe.

Do we need to grow these crops? On 15th June, the reply given by Mr. Meacher was again informative. He said:

    "The honest answer is that we do not need GM foods".--[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/1999; col. 148.] He added that companies like genetically modified foods because they can extend shelf life and withstand saline or dry conditions.

After the war we needed increased yields, but we now have vast areas of set-aside. Thus the argument that these crops can produce vastly increased yields in this country is a bit thin. The argument in the case of the developing world has also yet to be proved.

What will trialling crops in this country tell the industry? Will it say anything about how those crops will react when grown in Africa? Perhaps we could

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learn from the experience of the United States in growing these crops. How has biodiversity been affected there? Unfortunately, the United States' experience will not tell us much about how biodiversity in our country will be affected. First, biodiversity in the agricultural swathes of the United States of America is virtually non-existent. Secondly, we are as a country very different. We have a much richer biodiversity than the United States even though our biodiversity has been affected in recent years by very intensive farming.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was right to say that we need to operate the precautionary principle carefully. We have environmentally sensitive areas and sites of special scientific interest. We are still pretty rich in biodiversity, and we do not know how much that will be threatened by genetically modified crops.

This debate is particularly timely because until now the Government have denied organic growers' fears that genetically modified crops pose a threat to their produce. Yesterday's report from the John Innes Foundation, commissioned by MAFF, gives much useful and detailed information on pollen distances. Its conclusions are pretty chilling for the organic sector. Paragraph 8.11 points out that the need for acceptable levels of contamination of organic crops should be decided, along with the need for easy and reliable methods of identifying and quantifying genetically modified contamination, which is in practice very difficult to achieve.

The report concludes that initially the releases of genetically modified crops will involve a limited range of modifications which will make testing for contamination and consideration of the consequences easier. But if the technology takes off in the United Kingdom, as it is already doing in other countries such as North America, Argentina and China, the range of modifications could increase dramatically. We may have to make a choice between growing genetically modified food and having a pure organic system. I would not to stray far into the area of the Prince of Wales's opinion on this matter or whether he should have had an opinion, but he is in the vanguard of organic food production. As an organic food producer and one who has consistently promoted that area, he is entitled to an opinion.

We should not stumble from one intensive agricultural system, which has done so much harm to our wildlife and biodiversity, possibly into another that has not been proved to be either more beneficial or to offer benefits to this country as a whole until that research has been carried out. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, said, there are only 200 days before more widespread planting will be allowed. On these Benches we have consistently called for a moratorium on the commercial growing of genetically modified crops until at least 2003, in line with English Nature's recommendations to the Government. We particularly hope that the research will tell us more about the effects on the soil and on non-GM and organic crops, and what levels of pesticides may be used compared with non-genetically modified crops. There is a misconception that using genetically modified crops

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will enable much less herbicide to be used. In fact, as they are herbicide tolerant, the fact that much less needs to be used has not been finally proved.

Finally, I feel that the most important point is the cumulative and long-lasting environmental impact of growing GM crops on all wildlife, including birds, insects and invertebrates. In a previous debate I mentioned the fact that it took people a long time to learn the lessons of DDT and that effects on the food chain take years to show up. To think that by the year 2003 we will have learnt all the effects of planting a wide range of GM crops over vast tracts of this country is fairly optimistic.

12.12 p.m.

Lord Luke: My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon said, this is a short and simple Bill. It seeks to amend the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and incorporates a definition taken from the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. It does not concern GM foods but GM crops. The object of the Bill is to ensure that the Government have the proper legislative power to restrain the marketing of genetically modified seeds and plants until all possible research has been done to ascertain the safety of these organisms and their effect on the environment.

We on these Benches have been clear in our response to these matters. We believe that the Government should proceed slowly and cautiously. Food safety is paramount and that must always be the first consideration. However, today we are dealing with the effect of these experiments on the environment. Whatever happens to the various experiments which are being carried out, at the end of the day the Government have to exercise judgment, common sense and caution in their approach. As several noble Lords have said today, nothing will ever be absolutely certainly safe, as in life as a whole.

It is clear that a great deal more research is required. That is happening at the moment, and as far as possible we believe that the research should be carried out by independent bodies if at the end of the day the general public is to be convinced. After all, the use of genetic modification in medicine is becoming commonplace. The general public has not needed to be reassured as to the safety of that. It is just assumed to be safe.

Environmental considerations must centre on whether genetic modification is likely to spread naturally to other species, and perhaps cause the balance of nature to be upset. While the case of the butterflies in the United States, which received so much publicity, may not be apposite, it is possible that something similar could occur here. It is to be hoped that if in the course of experiments which are being carried out such a disaster were to occur involving one of our native species, it would be recognised.

As my noble friend has shown, there are wide discrepancies in the various expert views as to the amount of barrier needed to prevent such natural spreading. In fact I like my noble friend's idea that all testing should be done in, presumably, the deserts of Kansas. It occurred to me that the desert is a good place because it is difficult to get anything to grow there.

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However, I seem to remember that sandstorms have brought sand all the way from Morocco to this country, so again the barriers might have to be rather wide. One cannot be absolutely certain of the course of the wind and how it may pick up pollen and transport it a great distance, and of course there are the peripatetic bees, which can travel great distances.

As I have said, depending on the tests all proving negative, at the end of the day the Government must take decisions and exercise judgment in the national interest. The object of this Bill is that such decisions should be made only after all possible tests have been carried out, and after a report has been brought to Parliament. Full exploration of any possible risks to the environment must be made before any commercial planting is allowed to proceed.

The fears of organic farmers, one of the fastest growing sections of British agriculture, must be fully taken into account and any trials which take place within effective reach--whether by bees, wind and so on--should also be especially closely monitored. A report in The Times recently suggested that contamination of some organic crops had already taken place. That is worrying if it is true. Research may prove new doubts and problems and show that at least five years may be needed before commercial planting might take place. Analysis of the results of research should be on a continuous basis, keeping the public informed and making policy at appropriate moments on the basis of sound science.

The main concern on these Benches is that commercial planting of herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops might be permitted before research into the environmental consequences had been properly completed, evaluated and reported on. This Bill effectively and succinctly sets out to ensure that this extremely exciting new technology is introduced gradually and with all due caution. After all, at the end of the day it may turn out to be one of the most important developments of the 21st century. It is vital that we get it right. The Bill seeks to ensure that it will be approached in the best possible way and the general public's legitimate and natural worries are assuaged. We support the Bill.

12.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, on her stamina and versatility during the course of the past few days. It makes us shudder a little on the Government Benches when we see on what new piece of legislation she is leading for the Opposition. I congratulate her also on the way in which she introduced the Bill today and all noble Lords on the tone in which they have conducted the debate, which has been rather better than some of the discussion outside this place.

As the right reverend Prelate indicated, this issue has raised a wide range of concerns, has led to deep scientific and moral divisions, and has raised

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understandable concerns among the public and those who comment. We are dealing with an issue that is complex and emotive, and it is difficult to resolve entirely the differences between the various sides. That said, I must indicate that I shall not deal with all those great issues today. I shall attempt to concentrate on the Bill that is before the House and take up one or two of the points that were made towards the end of the debate.

To respond generally, although we accept many of the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, the noble Lord, Lord Luke and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, and although we would be considerably more cautious at the other end of the argument than the noble Lords, Lord Taverne and Lord Annan, indicated themselves to be in approaching this whole subject, we agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that the Bill is not necessary in terms of the regulatory framework. The Government are absolutely committed to operating a safe and transparent regulatory system. However, we believe that the current regulations achieve that. We therefore do not believe that the Bill adds anything to the transparency or safety of the current regime.

It is important that we get a feel for the scale of what is currently going on in this country as regards different genetically modified crops. The current regulations came into force in February 1993. Since that date there have been 166 research applications to release genetically modified organisms. Some of those cover different locations, but that is the total number. In the vast majority of those cases, the research is finished. We are talking about 54 small-scale research activities which are currently allowed and are on-going. In none of those has there been any incidence of damage to the environment. That in itself is a strong testimony to the effectiveness of the safety regime.

At present we are moving on to larger-scale tests, because we have to understand the wider environmental and biodiversity effects of these crops. Therefore, as of today, six farm-scale trials are already under way and we envisage next year moving to a total of 60 such sites, 20 of each of the main crops, autumn and spring rape and maize. Those will all be carefully controlled farm-scale trials to test the effect of biodiversity about which a large number of concerns have been expressed both in this debate and more widely. After the planting of those crops, the normal rotation of the fields will need to be reverted to, so that a proper assessment can be made over the subsequent two years of the full effects. That is what is presently in the pipeline. I thought it important to set the context so that people understand that we are dealing with a relatively small number, even next year, of carefully controlled experiments. They are experiments about which there are a large number of uncertainties, and we are proceeding with extreme caution.

It is also necessary to explain to the House how the current regulatory system operates. The regulatory process is governed by EC Directive 90/220, which is given effect in the UK by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Consents for release for research or any other

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purpose are issued by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in England; the Scottish executive; and now the Welsh Assembly.

For cases encompassing environmental and agricultural matters, the Secretary of State acts jointly with the Minister of Agriculture. Separate legislation applies in Northern Ireland, but the effect is the same. Applications to market GMO products would pass through the same procedure; but they must also be submitted through the competent authority of the EC member state where the product is intended first to be marketed, and then be cleared at Community level before a consent is granted.

The purpose of those controls at UK and EU level is to prevent or minimise any potential damage to human health and to the environment that may arise from the release of GMOs. The release regulations require any person wishing to release or market GMOs to conduct an environmental risk assessment and to provide comprehensive information on the planned release. The consent holder must be constantly aware of any risk or damage to the environment and must notify the Secretary of State if there is any information that would indicate a change in the level of risk. Requirements are now being introduced in the context of the revision of the EC directive which establishes the principle for risk assessment and post-marketing monitoring provisions. That is intended further to reinforce the safety of the regime.

The Secretary of State relies on independent scientific evidence that has been provided by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. There has been much comment on that committee. I am pleased to inform the House that my colleague, Michael Meacher, will later today announce the future membership of that ACRE committee.

Directive 92/220 is currently being amended. The noble Baroness asked for an indication of our attitude within the European negotiations. Those amendments will give us the opportunity to clarify and extend a number of key provisions. The objective of the directive, which the Government fully support, is that of protecting human health and the environment. The Government wish the scope of the directive to be more clearly defined than at present and the risk assessment to cover direct and indirect, immediate and delayed effects. We must make sure that the conclusions of the risk assessment are confirmed through effective monitoring by competent authorities. We want to make sure that the regime is transparent and that the public are given information about the activities governed by the directive. Of key importance is a change in the committee procedures for resolving objections lodged by one or more member states. We want to see a greater and fairer weighting of the views in these procedures. We believe that our attitude as regards that will be successful at the European level and indicates that we are constantly striving to improve the regulatory regime at that level. That is the background against which this Bill is proposed.

I respect the views of the noble Baroness in bringing the Bill forward. However, it does not seem to add anything either to the exhaustive scientific study of

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every dossier which is carried out by the DETR, advised by its scientific experts on ACRE, or to the overarching framework of bio-safety which exists in the UK and the EU.

There are four key points in the Bill. The first proposes an amendment calling for,

    "research on the effect of the use of", GMOs before any release may take place. The term "use" presumably refers to use in the research programme; at a further stage it would be covered by other regulations.

Such an assessment is already carried out under the current regime before any consent is issued. Such amendment is therefore unnecessary. The environmental risk assessment required by the current regulations must consider in detail the effects of the use of a GMO, including direct and indirect, immediate and delayed effects.

ACRE's remit was recently extended to take account of the indirect and cumulative effects of GMO releases on biodiversity in particular. It has been further strengthened by the agreement reached by Environment Ministers in December. While the revision of the directive continues, new principles for risk assessment and monitoring will be introduced. The UK is therefore asking applicants for consent to release or market GMOs to apply a modified procedure of risk assessment. Although it is quite similar to the current regime, it will be better. Holders of consents to market GMOs will also be required to monitor the performance of their product and verify that the assumptions in the risk assessment supporting the application are borne out in practice. Therefore, I do not think that the first main provision of the Bill is necessary.

The Bill's second point concerns the preparation of guidelines for each GMO release. Each individual consent now lays down very clear conditions on which the GMO may be released. That includes a requirement of post-release monitoring. On top of that, crops grown in the farm-scale evaluations will be subject to the SCIMAC guidelines. Those lay down strict requirements, for example, to ensure traceability, separation distances and good agricultural practice. The guidelines will now be enforced by legally binding contracts, penalties for non-compliance and independent audit. This shows that the proposed requirement for guidelines is already covered by the existing regime which lays down clear conditions.

The two remaining central points in the Bill relate to parliamentary approval. This would take us into new territory for parliamentary activity in such fields. The Government do not believe that it would be appropriate for Parliament to consider each individual application for the release of GMOs. Once the regulations that govern the release and the criteria for applying the rules have been set, the grant of consents must be an operational matter for the relevant Secretary of State. The Government believe that the regulatory framework secures protection of human health and the environment, and Parliament has been extensively involved in scrutinising and approving the legislation.

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This House in particular has had a number of debates on the whole area, and no doubt will continue to do so in terms of broad policy. It does not seem to the Government that to bring individual applications for consent to Parliament is the appropriate way to deal with this very difficult, and often highly technical, issue. That is, therefore, our view on the Bill. While we commend the noble Baroness on a number of the concerns that she has expressed, some of which we are taking on board in our efforts to improve the regulations at EU and UK level, I am afraid that we cannot support the necessity for the Bill.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford raised the question of the need for baseline surveys and ecological studies. The baselines for these studies are paired comparisons between GM crops and non-GM crops. That is how we establish any difference that GM crops may make to the wider environment. English Nature, the RSPB and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology are all involved in those assessments. The right reverend Prelate also questioned whether voluntary guidelines were enough. The SCIMAC guidelines go over and above the existing EU legislation that I have outlined. We are backing that up by the measures that I have outlined. While they are industry-based voluntary guidelines, they are rigorous and the back-up in the regulatory mechanism is there.

Much concern has been expressed here and elsewhere about the implications for organic farming. The Government take this seriously and recognise the concern about evidence of long-distance pollen transfer which comes from government-funded work. Pollen can travel long distances, but in normal agriculture it is also true that most plants are pollinated by those near them. The frequency of cross-pollination decreases rapidly with distance. The SCIMAC guidelines include separation distances based on those which already successfully protect the integrity of ordinary commercial agricultural crops. Nevertheless, we recognise that there are concerns in this area. For example, we shall consider the John Innes report to which reference has already been made. In particular, we recognise that the organic sector has a serious concern about avoiding contamination of air produced by GMOs. MAFF is in discussion with representatives of organic farming and will carefully take their views into account, together with further scientific information, in any further measures that are needed.

Today, we have been debating a regulatory framework which deals with living genetically modified crops rather than the food end. Reference has also been made to cosmetics and medicines, but I shall not deal with those matters today. The Government have indicated their desire to ensure that there is a safe regulatory framework. I refute the allegation that the Government have been driven by particular commercial concerns. We shall continue to attempt to achieve, and will achieve, a balanced view of the considerations. Since the noble Baroness mentioned it, I refer to the furore reflected in the "Today" programme yesterday about the alleged hundreds of meetings between Ministers and representatives of GM companies. That is

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grossly exaggerated. I can speak in detail only about my own department. My colleague Michael Meacher has had precisely three meetings with representatives of GM companies and probably a dozen or so meetings to deal with industry bodies and international aspects of this problem. Ministers and officials have also had a significant number of meetings with the environmental groups that take a different view.

I do not believe that the fact that we have some contacts with GM companies should be regarded as in any sense sinister. We need to have such meetings. I hope that government, the scientific community and those who draw up regulations and enforce them will continue to recognise the need to work closely with industry but also the deep concerns in the agricultural community, among consumers and public opinion generally in this area. However, we believe that the present regulatory framework and the improvements in the pipeline make this Bill unnecessary. I hope that the noble Baroness will take that into account.

12.35 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have participated in this morning's debate. Most noble Lords, with slight reservations, have supported the Bill, even though the Government do not believe that it is necessary. In thanking the Minister for his very good reply, I am sorry to learn that when Ministers see me opposite them--I shall carefully read Hansard tomorrow in case I did not correctly understand him--they have a slight shudder. That bothers me immensely. I always try to be extraordinarily helpful to the Government.

I also thank all noble Lords and my noble friend for their kinds remarks. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Annan, who spoke in the gap, for recognising that my Bill and my speech sought to be well balanced. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, generally welcomed the Bill, although he wanted to ensure that it was well balanced. He said that I had made reference to "grave concerns" and so forth. I went on to say that the assurances of industry might turn out to be right and there are no real dangers, but the point is that we do not know for sure.

The Bill does not discuss whether or not GM crops are safe; it is much more to do with public perception and concern and to try to settle their fears once and for all. The Bill is about not being bounced into full field trials. The Minister will understand that many of the smaller farm trials have been abandoned. Some of them have been abandoned noisily and some we have not heard about at all. The Bill is also about not being bounced into commercial exploitation of these products until agreement has been reached that the individuals products, one by one, are safe beyond reasonable doubt. I certainly do not suggest that it should be proved 100 per cent beyond doubt, which we cannot have. Therefore, when the Government give a product a licence all the facts will have been openly debated and transparent. Those facts will be put before Parliament, which will give its approval on behalf of the people. However, I understand the Minister's comment that that would entail going into a new area.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and I share the same name and sometimes tend to be confused. However, I believe that on this issue we are very much at one. If one went back just a year, hardly anyone was concerned about this matter. This is a new matter with which the public have a problem. Anything that we can do to help in that process will be good in the long run and will deal with all the matters that we want to deal with.

I make one point to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. I do not believe that this is a political matter at all. I said that this was a matter for government because it will be the responsibility of government to take whatever action is necessary to calm people's fears.

I shall not return to what the Prince of Wales did or did not say. I am certain that he did not make a comment in a political way. The comments made about it being constitutionally improper are inappropriate. I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, state that those on the Liberal Democrat Benches did not feel that anything he said was out of order.

In thanking noble Lords again, I express the hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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