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Agriculture: Genetically Modified Crops

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 18 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their reaction to the recent decision of the European Commission to approve a genetically modified Amflora potato variety for cultivation in Europe.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has been calling for the operation of the EU process to be improved for some time, because it has been unnecessarily slow. We are therefore encouraged by the European Commission’s recent decision on the Amflora potato. The product will not be marketed or grown in the United Kingdom, but we supported its approval in line with the science-based risk assessment.

I apologise—I am a bit hoarse from last night’s concert. I am glad to hear the noble Lord’s Answer. Do the Government regard this as a welcome first step to unblocking what has hitherto been the entrenched opposition to GM crops in the European Union? Do the Government accept that Europe is the only continent in the world to take this position and that the products from GM crops are widely available from almost all other parts of the world? Do the Government realise that such products can make a major contribution in the future to feeding the world’s 9 billion population?

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked me a plethora of questions. The Government are in agreement with the sentiments behind all of them. We have been concerned that the processes have been unnecessarily slow in Europe and it is quite clear that the new commissioner, Commissioner Dalli, is interested in ensuring that they are improved. All this is against the background of the risk-based assessment of the science involved.

My Lords, we on these Benches thank the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for highlighting this interesting, controversial first announcement of this kind of matter. Is this more akin to an industrial-chemical product rather than anything to do with food ingestion directly by both humans and animals? Is he confident that cross- contamination into non-GM and also organic products will not be allowed anywhere?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question as it clarifies one important dimension of this decision: the potato is not designed for food. It is designed to produce industrial starch for processes in industry and the most meticulous steps are to be taken to ensure that the potato has no relationship when it is grown to any potatoes concerned with foodstuffs. This is an advance of GM technology with regard to industrial processes, not food.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a potato grower. I note the cautious welcome from the Minister. Are there other genome-enhanced products in the pipeline for approval? Can he tell the House the whereabouts of the Government’s proposals on co-existence measures, such as separation distances, liability, et cetera, four years on from their consultation on them?

My Lords, we are concerned to advance the issues that the noble Lord raises; in fact the Government chief scientist is charged with taking a very specific interest in this matter. There is no doubt—as will be widely appreciated in the House—that there is at the moment considerable public doubt about GM. This is shown in that supermarkets are not prepared to stock many of the products, and of course supermarkets are reflecting the fact that they do not think they will make many sales. At present, GM products are all restricted either to the one that I have just identified, or for feedstuffs for animals. The rest of the world—outside Europe—has moved on and 25 countries are involved in GM food production.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no scientific evidence whatever that a potato grown for human consumption which is protected against blight by genetic modification constitutes any harm to human beings? Is it not true that every national academy of sciences throughout the world has studied this matter and come to the conclusion that there is not a jot of evidence that GM crops are harmful either to health or indeed to the environment?

My Lords, because of that evidence, the House will appreciate that a very great deal is produced and consumed in north America. Apart from the United States and Canada, 23 other countries are convinced of the advantages that derive from GM technology. Meanwhile, it is the case that Europe—significantly, if not entirely uniquely—has been reluctant to embrace those potential benefits. There is a great deal of work to be done and, as I indicated in my earlier response to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, we are encouraged by that decision. We intend to carry on our work to ensure that the British public are fully aware of the risks and benefits from GM technology.

Is my noble friend aware that Sub-Committee D of this House’s European Union Select Committee is shortly to produce a report on climate change and agriculture? One of its strong recommendations will be that if we are to deal with the risk that arises on food, particularly that coming from climate change over the next years, we will need to use all of the opportunities available to ease the problems with food and, in particular, to try to get a better debate running on GM. We need stronger leadership, not just in this country but throughout the whole of Europe, to get that debate under way and convince the public that this is one of the major solutions available to us for the problems arising in the future.

My Lords, I am grateful for that information from my noble friend and look forward to the report from the committee. There is no doubt that having the circumstances where we are faced with the issues of climate change, in its relationship to food production, and—I emphasise this, lest I cause anxiety to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson—that of having a 9 billion population to be fed by 2050, it means that we have to increase very significantly the productive capacities of the world’s agriculture. There is no doubt that GM technology points helpfully in a direction.

My Lords, why has there been a four-year delay? Is it in fact because the trials have not been completed, or is it just that the Government cannot make up their mind?

My Lords, it is not a question of the Government not making up their mind. The important thing is to take public opinion with us, and therefore we have to be absolutely clear about the cases which we are involved with. There is no doubt that there is a growing understanding among the public of the issues that my noble friend has just raised regarding the Select Committee. Those are all processes of important education for the wider community. Noble Lords will recognise that the present reluctance of supermarkets to stock GM food reflects the present state of public opinion. There is a great deal of work to be done.

My Lords, only three countries will be growing this potato, because they have the industries which are interested in the starch that it produces: Sweden, the Czech Republic and Germany. We do not have that industry and are therefore not too interested in the production of the starch.

My Lords, since we are continually advised that we should take note of scientific opinion, and since the motto of the Royal Agricultural Society of England is, “Practice with Science”, after we get the report of Sub-Committee D—which I am sure will be interesting in itself—would it not be good if we set aside considerable time in this House for a full debate on this whole issue, so that people can be better aware and fully understand the implications, and then take advice from the science that is available?

My Lords, it is difficult for me to speak on behalf of the usual channels, but I am sure that the Government would very much welcome having that debate in the House. Whether we can squeeze that in before any intended general election, I have room for doubt.