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House of Lords

Monday, 16th October 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Genetically Modified Maize: Chardon LL

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare my interest as an organic farmer.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government for what purpose a genetically modified variety of fodder maize, named Chardon LL, was produced; whether it has been authorised for public sale; and what tests for all aspects of safety have so far been carried out, both in this country and elsewhere.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, Chardon LL is a maize variety which has been modified to be herbicide resistant. It has all the necessary food and environmental safety approvals under European GM and novel foods legislation. However, it has not been authorised for general cultivation in the United Kingdom because it is not on our national list. Regardless of the outcome of the current listing application, agreement has been reached to ensure that there will be no commercialisation of GM varieties in the United Kingdom until the farm-scale evaluations of GM crops have been concluded. That will be in 2003 at the earliest.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Is not the real purpose of this new variety simply to sell greater quantities of herbicide? Can the Minister say what investigation has been or will be carried out into the long-term use of these herbicides, given that they are total ones and given that they may be used in the same ground year after year?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. It is important that we know more about the herbicide regime that goes with a genetically modified crop and the potential effects on biodiversity over and above the safety issues regarding human health, the environment and animal feed, all of which have been looked at. That is why the maize in question is part of farm-scale evaluations which are looking at exactly those issues. However, I would say that herbicide tolerance is not necessarily a negative issue in terms of pesticide usage or biodiversity. If one looks, for example, at sugar beet, the potential of having one application of a herbicide to which the crop is tolerant rather than five to keep the crop clean throughout the growing year has benefits. People should be aware of those factors as well as the potential risks.

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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the labelling regime for genetically modified fodder is adequate? There is a concern that, inadvertently, some organic farmers may be compromising their position because GM fodder is not well enough labelled. Can she explain to the House what the regime is and how she will ensure that it is properly carried out in the future?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that at the moment the labelling regime for animal feed is not satisfactory. It is an occupied area of European legislation. We have been working actively within Europe in order to get proper labelling of, yes, GM materials within animal feed, but also animal feed overall. The labelling regime has not been satisfactory in the past. We have made progress in terms of labelling requirements for human food. We are now moving on and there is progress within Europe in terms of achieving a regime that enables people to make appropriate choices. This is the important point. People, whether they are farmers or end-user consumers, should have information on which to base their own choices.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, if the Government do not intend to commercialise any GM crop growing until after the farm-scale evaluations have been concluded in 2003, why is an appeal currently taking place about the T25 maize in order to add it to the national seed list? I thought that the appeal was the final stage in a process which would then result, if the appeal was turned down, in the product being added to the list. Is a two-speed process going on here?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is a quite complicated process. National listing, which is currently being considered in regard to the T25 Chardon LL maize, is not an assessment of GM environmental or health safety. Nothing can be nationally list trialed unless it has a part B consent and nothing can be nationally listed unless it has a part C consent. National listing is essentially a consumer protection measure for farmers. On the basis of the trials that have taken place about whether the crop is distinct and has use for cultivation, Ministers recommended it for listing. At the moment a hearing is going on. That is not the end of the process because there is a potential for an appeal to a tribunal. But regardless of all that, there will be no commercialisation of the crop because of the agreement that has been reached with the companies, including the one which produces this maize.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may take the Minister a little further along the lines of the trials. As she indicated in her reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, it will not be possible to plant this crop commercially until 2003. We on these Benches support those trials. Has the recent court case involving Lord Melchett caused any additional difficulties regarding the government trials of GM crops?

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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the case did not set any precedent. It was decided by a jury on the facts of that particular case. The farmers involved in the trials to whom I have spoken are still anxious to participate because they see exactly the potential benefits to which I alluded when I answered the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. However, they are concerned about the degree of intimidation and vandalism that go on when people are indulging in a perfectly legitimate and legal activity about which it is in all our interests to find the scientific evidence. We are certainly looking at ways in which we can give additional support and protection to those farmers.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, perhaps I may welcome the Minister's extremely balanced reply to the original Question as regards GM crops and the impact on herbicides. Will the Government continue to be guided by reason? Furthermore, on the question of safety, are the Government aware that, at the close of the OECD conference in February--which was attended by over 400 world experts along with a strong representation from the various environmental pressure groups--the chairman asked whether anyone present had any evidence whatever of any damage or danger to health from GM crops? That question was greeted with absolute silence. Will the Government resist any influence coming from newspapers more concerned with sensationalist headlines or from pressure groups more concerned with publicity and its effect on membership numbers than with looking at evidence, reason or common sense?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we would all vote for evidence, reason and common sense. I can certainly give a commitment that the Government will continue to base their policies in this area on science and, as the noble Lord suggested, to point out that the safety assessments for GM foods in particular are far more rigorous and demand a far higher level of detail than is the case for many of the foods which all of us consume every day.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Government examine two particular risks related to the Chardon variety of maize fodder? The first concerns the transference of herbicide resistance via wild oats to other cereals. The second concerns the transference of the antibiotic factor via cows to milk for human consumption.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, those are exactly the kinds of issues that are of concern to the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment. It supervises the granting of release consents for any GM materials in this country before such products can be tested and put to trials. Furthermore, this particular product has been granted a marketing consent throughout Europe, which demonstrates that it has been subjected to a further level of trials. Those are precisely the kinds of issues that are rigorously assessed.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House whether any independent

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research has been undertaken into the time taken for the relevant herbicides to degrade in the soil or on the plants? The noble Baroness will know from the letter that I wrote to her that it has been found that organophosphates do not degrade as quickly as was first thought. I have asked specifically about independent research because I know that the research relied upon for licensing purposes is that undertaken by the manufacturers--research undertaken in a laboratory at standard temperatures rather than in the field.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, perhaps I may write to the noble Countess as regards the specific research material that is available. However, one wrinkle that I did not point out earlier in my explanation of the approval process--I thought that the procedure was already very complicated to explain--is that these crops need to be given specific pesticide approvals. Those approvals are separately regulated and thus provide another barrier and method of assessing any effects on the environment.

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