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Gm Crops

Volume 407: debated on Thursday 19 June 2003

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4.

What recent assessment she has made of the potential advantages of GM crops. [120187]

Advocates of genetically modified crops argue that they offer a wide range of potential benefits if they are developed and used wisely. We have commissioned a study of both the costs and benefits as part of the national GM dialogue. This will be published next month. As part of our commitment the public will have the opportunity to consider both sides of this issue.

I welcome the Minister to his new post and congratulate him on his promotion. I hope that he will find GM crops a little more comfortable than fishing. Is he aware of the work of Bengali scientists to develop a protein-rich potato that could improve the diets of 6 million children who are currently malnourished? Does he agree that that is a good reason why we should not throw the whole idea of GM out of the window and that GM crops have potential advantages that must be exploited?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and know of her expertise in the subject. I am aware of that research work. It shows why it is important that we consider each case on its merits. We consider very carefully the potential benefits of GM crops and, indeed, benefits are claimed for that potato. It is also important, however, to consider the arguments in the round. For example, increasing the amount of pulses may result in more protein improvement in India than modified potatoes. We have to weigh up such considerations. My hon. Friend puts her finger on how important it is to look at the arguments fairly and not to take a polarised position on one side or the other.

May I warmly welcome the Minister to his new role and urge him to maintain scientific objectivity before the Government come to a conclusion? In the light of the extraordinary question from his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), to the Prime Minister yesterday, does he agree that GM foods are the most trialled and tested ever in the history of mankind? Given that many millions of people have been eating those foods for the best part of a decade with not one single case of an adverse reaction, does he really think that human feeding trials are the answer? Even if the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton were to volunteer, would it be ethical?

It is important that we question science and look at it carefully. In that respect, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) is right to apply precautionary principles. It is a privilege to follow him in the role that he carried out with such distinction over many years. However, I come back to the point that we must approach the issue on the basis of good science. We need to examine the claims and consider GM foods on a case-by-case basis. The effects on people must also be taken into account.

The matter has been considered by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. It was also examined in the detailed Food and Agriculture Organisation study in 2000. In addition, our Food Standards Agency takes into account the potential effects of toxins and allergies. We cannot ignore those issues. They do not necessarily rule out GM foods, but we cannot ignore them.

May I strongly support my hon. Friend, my successor, in what he said about the need to follow good science? However, since the science indicates that there is still far too much uncertainty about the long-term impacts of GM, as there was in the case of BSE; since science has not yet devised co-existence rules that can fully protect organics against cross-contamination; since there have been no scientific trials of the long-term health or biochemical impacts on human beings of eating GM-free food; and since neither science nor EU labelling rules have yet found a way to guarantee consumers' rights to eat GM-free food for those who wish to, is it not clear that on scientific grounds—I emphasise on scientific grounds—it is not safe, necessary or desirable to commercialise GM crops at this stage in this country until far more testing has been carried out?

I quite agree with my right hon. Friend that more work needs to be done. There are unknowns and more research needs to be put in place. He is right about labelling because whatever the future of GM foods, it is important that consumers have information and choice. He is also right about the need to look at the implications of GM foods in every sense. We need mechanisms in relation to control, potential liability and certainly in terms of co-existence, but those are not yet in place.

First, may I welcome the Minister of State to his new and promoted responsibilities? I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), to the Department's team. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). The Opposition did not always agree with him when he spoke in a ministerial capacity, but his commitment to the environment was undoubted and his courtesy was unfailing in all Commons exchanges. We certainly appreciated that.

Will the Minister now acknowledge both that the Government's great debate on GM crops has amounted so far to six meetings within the space of 10 days, none of which have been held in the main arable areas of England or Scotland, and that the debate will have concluded months before the publication of the Government's own crop trials? Will he give an undertaking that, before the Government announce whether they will give approval to the commercial growing of GM crops, they will not only publish the results of their crop trials but subject those conclusions to widespread debate, criticism and discussion?

That is the whole idea of the dialogue. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is dismissive of the fact that the debate has been set up by an independent group with an independent chair. The fact that we are talking about it now demonstrates that it has been successful in promoting discussion in this country about the pros and cons of GM foods, which is the intention. I was a bit surprised by what the hon. Gentleman said about arable areas—the issue of GM foods goes far beyond simply farming, and is an issue for consumers, the environment and the wider community. It is quite right that debate on that is as wide and accessible as possible. All the information that we have will, of course, be put into the public domain and will be made available in a transparent process. Whatever the outcome, there is no intention whatever to give blanket approval to commercial planting—every application must be treated on its individual merits.

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Is he concerned about the possible transmission of GM spores on farm vehicles, following research in France on the contamination of organic production and the reliability of food labelling on foods which claim to be GM-free at a time when consumers increasingly want to consume organic food and are reluctant to take the plunge on GM, perhaps with good reason?

The need to ensure that organic farmers are not subject to cross-contamination from GM crops is a serious issue, and we are giving a great deal of thought to it. It is an important consideration in the coexistence rules that have to be developed. My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the potential spread of GM seeds and pollen. That applies to any kind of seed and pollen, but the issue has to be taken into account in the evaluation and, indeed, the current debate.

May I congratulate the Minister on swapping one poisoned chalice for another? Will he not admit that the Government, although perhaps not him or his distinguished predecessor, made up their mind in favour of GM years ago, and the public debate is merely window-dressing? In 1999, the DTI invested public funds

"to improve … the take-up of biotechnology applications"
across the country. The sum that was invested was 26 times greater than the amount of money being spent on the public debate. Why does the Minister not admit that, although consumers do not want the stuff, although it could give biotech companies a stranglehold on the whole food chain, and although we need to base decisions on sound science rather than quick science, the Government, but perhaps not him, are already in the pocket of the GM lobby?

I absolutely reject that claim. I have been involved in the discussion of GM on and off since 1997, when I was a Minister in the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have always expressed the need for caution. I repeat that we should not rule out new developments on the basis of prejudice. We must evaluate the scientific arguments for and against, and look at each case on its individual merits. We should not take a polarised position which, I have to say, is unusual for the hon. Gentleman.