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Lord Taverne: I shall make only one speech on the various amendments put forward today. The amendments have a common theme. I do not regard them as helpful, as they add to bureaucracy when present safeguards seem to be adequate. It is particularly worrying that they should be part of a world-wide trend towards over-regulation and increased bureaucracy, which is likely to prove harmful, and which is based on the fundamental fallacy that one should be concerned with a particular process rather than with the product.
There seems to be a requirement for ever more detailed regulation. I have just read a rather disturbing article in the May issue of Trends in Biotechnology, by a Mr Henry Miller from the Hoover Institute of Stanford university. He points out that international codes are being developed at the instigation of several European governments which require the establishment of new environmental bureaucracies, and demand a commitment of resources from impoverished developing countries if researchers in those countries wish to perform even small-scale field trials of crops of local economic value, such as cassava, potatoes, rice, wheat and ornamental flowers. He points out that they are founded on an unscientific process-based definition of what requires regulation that is wholly irrelevant to risk. They are based on what is irrational and counter-productive, because they tend to ignore organisms actually known to present a threat to biodiversity, while focusing on others for which only hypothetical analyses can be offered.
The trend is worrying, because it limits the ability of crop breeders to test a large number of new varieties readily and rapidly in field trials. Those field trials are essential. Regulation is also needed to assure the public that these products are not harmful. However, we already have a high degree of regulation. Much of the concern is driven by hostility to biotechnology rather than by concern for biodiversity. It is the product not the process that should be regulated.
After all, what is the process with which the amendments and Bill are so concerned? It is genetic modification or engineering; the DNA processes used to develop transgenic foods. But the process is exactly the same as that used to develop numerous pharmaceutical products; products for the use of humans and animals that are accepted and are highly beneficial. It is exactly the same technology. The problem is that what the supporters of this approach are doing is having an effect, as the article points out, throughout the world.
This is not the occasion to go into the issue in detail, but I wish that those concerned about biotechnology and, in particular, GM technology, would read Nature more often, in which there are frequent articles that examine such questions. I was struck by an article that I read the other day in the latest July issue of that leading scientific journal. Florence Wambugu, director
We do not need ever more bureaucratic regulation. It is self-defeating, harmful to the environment, unrealistic and is based on a disregard of scientific evidence and on scare stories in newspapers that do not pay much regard to the research that has been carried out.
The problem is that British and European consumers have been frightened by biotechnology, genetic modification and all the processes that are going on. Unfortunately, they do not read Science Today or Nature. They read the Sun and other newspapers, and watch food programmes on television but never see a scientist speaking about these issues. I have no doubt that technically what is being sought is laborious and will bring even more regulation on top of that which already exists, and which according to the scientific community is perfectly sufficient.
But this House does not talk only to the scientific community, but to the people of this country. That is why we are here. My noble friend Lord Taverne has expertise in science; mine is in representing the consumer and ensuring that they may be reassured. It has been said that we could save the world if we moved much faster and that the amendments will slow things down. I have heard of people saving the world before. Many countries can defend themselves against the power of multi-national companies only by the use of their regulatory authorities, which are rightly becoming more and more powerful.
The amendments may add another level of regulation, but we need to reassure the British people that what they are being offered to eat is subject to the protection of their country's government. I shall therefore support anything that slows down the process to a point at which the public can begin to feel more confident. If more scientists could speak to us, if they could lower their standards and write in the Sun instead of in scientific journals, we might not be quite so frightened by what is going on. That is important.
(c) a survey has been conducted over the area in which the genetically modified organisms are to be released, in order to gather ecological baseline data that pertain to the site prior to release," That process will take a considerable time. If the amendment's object is to delay almost indefinitely any field trials of genetically modified crops, all well and
It is of course true that some food safety fears are groundless. I am quite glad that there is fear about food safety because I believe that it has helped to put the brakes on the process. The development has been slowed down due to general public concern. I want to reassure the public about the food safety aspects, but I emphasise as strongly as possible to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and to the Committee in general that the environmental dangers of this kind of cultivation are simply unknowable until a great deal of research has taken place. That is bound to take time. I do not think that it matters that it takes time. I believe that most responsible people are prepared to wait.
The impact of genetically modified organisms will be on the biodiversity of our country, where agriculture and biodiversity have to co-exist. That point was made effectively at Second Reading. The situation is entirely different in the United States. People there are not particularly interested in the potential impact of genetically modified crops on biodiversity. That is why I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has in a sense "grown her own Bill", because at Second Reading it was a very brief document, an alarmingly brief document in fact. Its future looked rather uncertain because not enough was spelt out in it concerning the actual processes involved. I suspect that we shall come to some difficult questions of technicality under Amendment No. 5, in relation to defining when a new product must be treated in a new way. But I warmly support this amendment and I believe it is entirely in keeping with the precautionary principle which must obtain before we allow the commercial release of GM crops.
There is a valid question concerning how we control farm-scale trials, where they take place and within what limits. I am still glad to see the increasing care and degree of control set out in these amendments. At this stage, I speak to register my profound disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, which I hope he will not mind.
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