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Genetically Modified Food: Research

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 February 1999

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3.21 p.m.

Whether they consider that current research on genetically modified food is adequate.

My Lords, I look back on the squirrels with nostalgia! There is a considerable amount of research being conducted on genetic modification worldwide. All genetically modified foods and food ingredients go through a very thorough scrutiny process by a committee of independent experts, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which keeps fully up to date with the latest scientific thinking.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Will he tell his noble friend Lord Sainsbury that noble Lords in this corner of the House are not clamouring for his resignation because, to all intents and purposes, he has behaved in the best tradition with regard to upholding professional standards in public life?

I have two concerns. First, I refer to the fact that the public are concerned about genetically modified foods. Is not now the time to have an informed debate on the matter? Should we not err on the side of caution, and would not a moratorium on such research allow that to happen? Secondly, with regard to the environment, does the noble Lord recognise the need for long-term safeguards and adequate evaluation of the effect of GM crops? No one would forgive us if we ruined the flora and fauna of this country.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he said about my noble friend Lord Sainsbury. I agree absolutely. My noble friend is a man of total honour and integrity. He has met all the rules. I find absolutely ludicrous the idea that someone who knows something about a subject should therefore be disqualified from involvement in it.

I agree with the noble Lord's wider points. We as a government have from the beginning been concerned about the long-term implications of genetic modification.

With regard to foods, there is a rigorous system for approval. Existing GM foods were approved under the previous administration. On the environmental side, in agreement with the industry we have established that there will be managed trials to assess and analyse the implications of growing such crops. There is no arrangement for their commercial development. There has been no U-turn from that to a different arrangement. There will be field trials. When we have evidence from those trials, we shall judge whether it is safe for such crops to be commercially developed. I think that that is a proper and responsible approach. I agree with the noble Lord that we need a measured and balanced discussion of this and not the scaremongering and hysteria that have been prevalent—and not only in the tabloid press.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is desirable that a substantial part of the research in this area in this country should be conducted by government scientists and that too much of it should not be left to commercial firms which clearly have as their first interest the making of a profit?

My Lords, research is conducted both publicly and by private firms. It is conducted internationally, in Europe and in this country. Where such research is conducted by commercial firms, it is then subject to proper scientific peer scrutiny by the Government's advisory bodies. The Government conduct research themselves. We have an extensive programme, with nine projects currently under way on the safety of genetically modified foods. We are also conducting three projects on the environmental side. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions also sponsors many more projects in that area.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many noble Lords, on all sides of the House, will welcome what has been said about the probity of my noble friend Lord Sainsbury? Will my noble friend the Minister indicate what ideas the Government have about creating the machinery for a sensible, rational, comprehensive and comprehensible debate about this very vexed issue, as there can be no doubt that many members of the public are very sceptical about such developments?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for what he said about my noble friend Lord Sainsbury. We are very much in favour of having a proper debate on this matter, with the maximum input. A wide range of specialisms are involved in our advisory bodies, as are members of the general public as consumers. We can also have debates in Parliament. Perhaps I may refer to the excellent report by your Lordships' Select Committee on which we shall certainly have a debate. I advise both the media and certain political dimensions to read that report and the evidence that was given to the Select Committee, because that is the basis for the beginning of an excellent and balanced discussion.

My Lords, can the Minister please tell us, first, on what grounds the Government have rejected the recommendations of English Nature and, secondly, why they have suppressed the report from the DETR? Will the noble Lord agree to that report being published so that there can be maximum discussion?

My Lords, on the second question, I do not know on what information the noble Baroness is suggesting that we have suppressed the report. We have not suppressed any report. If the noble Baroness based what she said on reports in the tabloid press, I advise her to remember her own experience in government and to double-check. That report has been made available and is under discussion. In fact, it was discussed today. The report, and the reactions to it, will be published at an appropriate time.

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that nothing will be done by the Government to prevent the development of genetic crops, rigorously tested, which can do a great deal to reduce reliance on chemicals and pesticides?

My Lords, if the noble Lord reads the evidence and the report of the Select Committee, he will see that the case is made there—it is a strong case—for properly regulated and scrutinised scientific development. Our first priorities are public health and the health of the environment. We shall attempt to balance those two priorities. That is exactly what we are doing.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister give some consideration to ensuring that any government information produced by this Government is translated into languages other than English, given the complexity of the issues before us?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. She makes an excellent point. I do not know in how many languages statements are printed. However, I shall certainly suggest to the department that we take seriously what she has proposed.

My Lords, given that, rightly or wrongly, there is grave concern, and indeed possible loss of confidence in genetically modified foods, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government will accept the suggestion of his right honourable friend Michael Meacher that there should be set up an independent, ethical commission to regulate the development of genetically modified foods, rather in the way of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority?

My Lords, if that was proposed by the right honourable Member who has been mentioned, I am sure that it will be taken seriously by the Government of which he is a member.