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Genetically Modified Crops

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 26 June 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in seeking to reform the regulations regarding the commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops.

My Lords, the EU has robust and comprehensive regulations governing GM crops. These regulations were designed to provide fair and predictable market access for products that have undergone a rigorous, case-by-case safety assessment. In practice, polarised views across EU member states mean that the scientific evidence is often ignored and crops remain stuck in the system. It is therefore difficult to make progress on this issue.

I should declare an interest as founder of the charity, Sense About Science. Over 14 years ago, several reports from the Royal Society, supported by every single national academy of sciences in the world, concluded that GM crops were no danger and caused no harm to human health or the environment. Since then, the enormous expansion in the cultivation of GM crops outside Europe and especially in emerging countries has strongly reinforced that conclusion. Will my noble friend convey to the Secretary of State congratulations on basing policy on evidence? Will he assure us that the Government will stand firm against the scaremongering of the Daily Mail, our leading anti-science paper, and recognise that its attacks on GM crops have no more evidence to support them than its disgraceful and scandalous campaign against MMR vaccines?

My Lords, first, let me say that my noble friend has a great deal of knowledge in the area of science and GM specifically. His science-based approach is very welcome. I agree with what he says. That is why, despite the difficulties, we will work to unblock the situation. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State says, we are going to need all the tools in the box to feed the rapidly growing world population. As he also says, we want the United Kingdom to have a leading role in feeding the world and increasing the resilience of global food supplies, and not to stand by watching others take the lead and forge ahead. The UK is the natural home for scientific research. We want companies and research providers to know that the UK is the best place for them to carry out their work.

My Lords, I am sure that it will not have escaped the Minister’s attention that a number of Members of your Lordships’ House are genetically modified. When it comes to plants, does he not agree that there is colossal evidence that, given the shortage of water in the world and of food in many countries, the need for genetically modified plants is ever increasing and that this is an important technology to help many people who are starving?

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has said, there is no shred of scientific evidence to suggest that GM foods carry any risk to human health. All talk in the media of “Frankenstein foods” is nonsense. Many GM crops have been cultivated with improvement in the quality of the crops and in their yields in many countries across the world. Is it not now perverse and misguided for the European Union, for instance, to have imposed a ban on the cultivation of GM crops? Can we do better?

The noble Lord makes a really important point. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed this issue with Commissioner Borg in order to emphasise the importance of finding a solution that gets the current system working. The commissioner has signalled that he wants to try to resolve the problems at European level and we look forward to further discussions on this issue.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain why, for 20 years, a group of environmental activists has been allowed to deny the British consumer choice in this matter: the choice to buy GM crops if they prefer them because they think they are good for human health and the environment?

My noble friend is quite right that there are groups—interests—that have been successful in creating controversy around GM which has devalued the public debate and means that people have not been able to reach a balanced view of the pros and cons. We will strive to change that.

My Lords, will the Minister undertake to express to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State the strength of support in this House for the science and evidence-based approach that he is advocating and wish him luck in the European Union in taking that forward? Would it not be truly irresponsible, given the need, as he has said, to cope with a rapidly expanding and often malnourished and starving population, not to take the opportunities offered by GM and by the independent scientific expertise in this country to move forward and save lives, as GM cotton manufacture has saved the lives of agricultural workers across the world?

I agree with the noble Baroness. I am extremely grateful to her and other noble Lords who have spoken positively today, and I will certainly take her words and the words of other noble Lords back to my right honourable friend.

My Lords, in all this euphoria about GM crops—and I think it is wonderful that at last we have some positive news—let us not forget that there are areas in the world that are going to be badly affected by this because the plants do not produce seeds on the same basis as current crops. I suggest that in all discussions that go on about this, particularly with the European Union, steps should be taken to ensure that the people who are going to make a lot of money out of these GM crops, such as seed merchants, do something to help those people in other areas in the world who will not be able to do the usual agriculture they have at the moment. We just cannot lose sight of that. I would like him to make sure that that will happen.

My noble friend raises an issue that is known as “terminator technology”; that is, the concept that seeds may not reproduce. Terminator technology is a concept rather than something that is being applied in practice. There are no GM crops in existence, to my knowledge, that produce sterile seed and no plans to market such crops.