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Genetically Modified Food

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 February 1999

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3.14 p.m.

What steps they are taking to improve public understanding of gene technology applied to food.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the Government are committed to providing consumers with the information they need to be able to make an informed choice about genetically modified food. This is being achieved by various means, including publishing information on the MAFF website; up-dating and producing new explanatory booklets and brochures on biotechnology and the safety assessment of GM foods; and co-funding a mobile exhibition on food biotechnology organised by the Science Museum.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that, despite the valiant efforts of Mr. Jeff Rooker and the Prime Minister, the Government seem to be losing the battle against the scaremongering which has been whipped up about genetically modified food by some sections of the press? Will the Government perhaps encourage the Royal Society, and all those who care about science, to face head on the often unscrupulous propaganda of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, whose increasingly anti-science bias and blanket condemnation of biotechnology, rather than judging each case on its merits, is likely to do more harm than good to the causes of health and the environment?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he has said about my colleague in another place. I do not believe that we are losing the battle. It is not an easy battle. To modify an old aphorism, in the newspaper circulation war the first casualty is truth. We shall continue to put the arguments in favour of genetic science; we shall also bear in mind the genuine public concerns. We have in place a regulatory mechanism which will support that, but we are currently looking to see whether it is necessary to strengthen it further.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we need to differentiate between the gene transfer within the species, which is the natural process of evolution, and the gene transfer across the species, which negates the presently accepted Darwinian theory of evolution and must therefore be of extreme danger to the natural world?

My Lords, I have taken a decision not to be drawn down any scientific paths such as that. Unlike the noble Earl, I do not feel myself to be a master of them. I am aware of the distinction and we obviously share his concern.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that notice is being taken of the clear, scientifically-based evidence which is beginning to emerge from organisations such as English Nature of the environmental implications of genetically modified crops? I declare an interest in that I chair English Nature. Can the Minister further assure us that the very real, scientifically-based evidence of the impact of genetically modified crops on the wider environment will also be clearly explained to the public?

Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance. We share those concerns. We welcome the advice we have received from English Nature and others. No genetically modified crops are currently under commercial development. Field trials are taking place and we shall assess what they tell us. We are certainly conscious of the environmental implications of these developments, and we wish to be reassured on that issue before full-scale commercial development is allowed to take place.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of the problems he faces do not stem from the wickedness of the newspapers and scare stories but from the memories which many of us have of assurances on Thalidomide? We had assurances on Thalidomide, and we now see people walking around with little hands sticking out of their shoulders. There was the rather patronising attitude towards my noble friend Lady Mar when she began to suggest that there were problems with the use of organophosphates, which were regarded as total nonsense; and we have seen the pictures of Mr. Gummer ramming hamburgers down his child's throat—no doubt on expert advice—to demonstrate that no danger at all arose of the transfer of mad cow disease. Does the Minister believe that, while it is important that we get the truth one cannot take for granted, given the experience of many cases over a period of years, everyone will accept expert advice without question, rather like the noble Lord who has taken up the cause of battering Greenpeace?

My Lords, it is true that we operate against the historical background of all of the episodes which the noble Lord described. Above all, the BSE experience is one which understandably has led the public to be very suspicious of developments in these fields and to be reluctant to accept reassurances from industry that benefits commercially or from scientists. Well, I must assure the noble Lord that Ministers come to this job with that background. It is why in this House I have always listened carefully to the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Ministers have children too. We are aware of the dangers but we can proceed only on the basis of rational evidence. The noble Lord referred to the newspapers. They are exploiting those genuine fears and are scaremongering, which is unhelpful to all.

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether there is yet a statutory obligation on those who are selling food in the marketplace to indicate that there are genetically modified ingredients in the food they are selling? If that is not the case, would it not be logical for the public to be offered a choice?

My Lords, the position on information is that we pressed for and secured in the European Union the new regulation of last Autumn which makes compulsory the labelling of genetically modified foods on sale. That still requires backing by regulation, which we expect to be introduced quite soon, having carried out consultation. We are also looking to extend it to catering establishments, including schools and day-care premises.