§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the safety of genetically modified food.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)
The Government are fully committed to ensuring the safety of food. All genetically modified foods and food ingredients go through a process of very thorough scrutiny by a committee of experts, known as the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. The committee advises the Government and has a remit to examine all novel foods—genetically modified and otherwise. Such foods are also scrutinised by equivalent bodies in all other member states, to ensure that no food comes on to the market unless it is safe.
The committee, which was established in 1988, has members from universities and research institutes who are experts in their fields and are fully up to date with the latest scientific thinking. There are two lay members whose respective roles are to advise on ethical issues and the consumer aspect, and to see that the scientific experts pay attention to the concerns of the wider public. Since May 1997 the committee has been taking steps to become increasingly open, and now publishes all its agendas, minutes and a note of the outcome of each meeting.
The products that have been authorised—which was some time ago—have all been through that rigorous process.
We are also committed to the principle of consumer choice. The Government are determined that all foods containing GM material should be clearly labelled. We are now leading the way in Europe in this regard by also requiring the provision of information in catering establishments. We are taking steps to ensure that local authorities have all the necessary powers to enforce those requirements. In addition, we are pressing the European Commission to introduce proposals for the labelling of animal feeds as quickly as possible.
Choice also means having access to alternatives. That is why the Government have published a list of 59 companies from which food manufacturers can obtain non-GM soya. That list was published almost 12 months ago.
We believe that all that adds up to a system in which consumers can have confidence.
Much of the recent debate inside and outside the House has unhelpfully confused the two issues of food safety and protection of the environment. There have been many attempts to generalise from findings in laboratories at the experimental stages.
Genetic modification is a development that has huge potential to benefit society in various ways—not least the possibility that it might eventually prevent us from having to pour thousands of tonnes of chemicals on to our foods as we grow them. However, it is important that the end products be put on the market only after the most careful scrutiny of their effects on human health.
We believe that we have a robust and open system for ensuring that the consumer is fully protected, but that those who so wish can choose whether to purchase those 732 products. Above all, it is the Government's first priority to ensure that the safety of consumers is fully protected, and that will remain the case.
§ Mr. Yeo
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, and only sorry that he is not supported in the Chamber by the Minister of Agriculture or by a single member of the Cabinet.
Does the Minister understand that public confidence in the safety of food that contains genetically modified ingredients is being damaged every day by the Government's mishandling of the issue? Is he aware that there are real anxieties about the environmental impact of commercial planting of genetically modified crops in a small country such as Britain, whose topography is so different from that of the United States?
Why will not the Government take the advice of English Nature—that the current research into the environmental effects of GM crops should be completed before approval is given for their commercial release? Does he accept that that will take at least three or four years?
Will the Minister explain why the Minister for the Environment, who is not present, told the Sunday Herald last weekend that no commercial planting would take place until next year, although the Minister told the House only two weeks ago that planting might start this year? Will the Minister announce today that there will be a three-year delay before herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops can be commercially planted?
Will the Minister explain what the Government are doing in response to health fears about the use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes? Does he understand that a Government who get their friends to suppress the publication of inconvenient research findings, who accept sponsorship from companies involved in promoting the commercial growth of genetically modified crops, and who refuse to publish the advice that they receive on this sensitive issue do not deserve the public's trust?
Why will not the Prime Minister tell us whether he is under pressure from President Clinton, who is known to be close to Monsanto on this subject? Do the Government realise that, although better labelling is an urgent and top priority—I welcome the Minister's reference to it—its value is inevitably limited because of the failure to segregate genetically modified from conventional crops?
Does the Minister understand that the Conservative party fully supports the current research programme into genetically modified crops, including the field-scale trials? We want that research programme to be completed. Does he share our view that the only way to restore public confidence in foods which may be safe and technology which may be beneficial is to recognise the environmental and the health worries, and ensure that future policy decisions are taken in a more open way by Ministers whose independence and integrity can be relied on?
§ Mr. Rooker
I shall do my best to answer the hon. Gentleman's points. He started by saying that there is a lack of public confidence in genetically modified food and then touched on environmental issues. I want to explain: the only foods on sale that are genetically modified are a tomato paste, which was approved in September 1994; soya beans, which were approved in February 1995; 733 and maize, which was first approved in 1996—plus four further varieties, which were approved in January and February 1997.
All that information is not secret; it was known. I remind the House that every hon. Member recently received from me a brochure on the work of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, setting out the dates. Those foods went through that regulatory process. In my initial answer, I explained what we have done to toughen that process up: publishing the minutes and the agendas of that committee will let everyone know that it has decided not to approve a food. Decisions are no longer taken behind closed doors.
I also said that there had been a change of policy regarding labelling. The policy that we inherited was to oppose the labelling of these three foods. We were on our own in Brussels—the only country out of 15 members that was trying to negotiate not to label those foods. The policy was changed, then announced on 7 June 1997.
I agree that it took a while to reach agreement in Europe, but since September last year, it has been a legal requirement to have those foods labelled. I accept that we cannot enforce penalties because, at the moment, we do not have the appropriate British legislation, but we have spent three months consulting on that and an extra month consulting on the catering industry's involvement. That is not a European Union requirement, but we think that catering should be included.
With all that said, and given the fact that sources of non-GM foods are also available, I genuinely believe that the public should have confidence in the foods that are on sale—and that were allowed to be placed on sale by Ministers in the previous Government.
The hon. Gentleman asked about matters that are outside the remit of the food regulatory system. However, I am happy to answer his questions. The regulatory system is split, and rightly so. It would be wrong if one Ministry were making all the decisions. Environmental research and field-scale trials must continue. At the moment, the trials are small, but larger trials will begin this year.
There is a self-imposed three-year moratorium on pesticide-resistant crops. I accept that the industry cannot get the products ready for two years anyway, but the moratorium is nevertheless in place. No commercially grown GM-crops will be planted this year. Planting was always intended to take place at the turn of the year or early next year because of the seasons. There are no approvals for those crops to be grown commercially, and we shall assess the position after we have the latest information on the current trials and on those that are to take place.
There is a moratorium on a free-for-all. There will be no free-for-all in the commercial planting of these crops. Farmers will not be allowed to have access to the seeds and to plant them field after field in farm after farm. They will suffer penalties if they break the rules. They will lose access to the technology, and there will be an independent audit of the crops and seeds when and if they come on the market.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the repression of research. I honestly do not know to which research he is referring. We have not repressed any research. No research findings have been repressed, and I challenge anyone to say what research has been repressed and how 734 we have repressed it. Umpteen research experiments—probably dozens—are being carried out up and down the country in public and private sector institutions, some of which are sponsored by the Government and others by industry. The Government have not repressed any research results, and I challenge anyone to show otherwise.
§ Mr. Rooker
The advice on eating raw potatoes is exactly the same as it is on eating raw chicken—do not do it; cook it first. That is the official scientific advice that was given to the House of Lords Select Committee, which spent six months investigating the issue. It does not matter whether the potatoes are genetically modified or not, that advice remains the same. For the avoidance of doubt, no GM potatoes are being trialed or marketed in this country.
We publish the advice we receive, and we are opening up food policy in a way that was unheard of three or four years ago. I hope that I have satisfied hon. Members on labelling. We shall publish the statutory instrument by the end of the consultation period next week. I am not a business manager, but we have no problem about debating that legislation on the Floor of the House to show what we have achieved on labelling since we came to power.
The hon. Gentleman's last point was about the failure to segregate. I accept that that is a difficulty; it causes a problem. When we came to office, companies complained to me about the failure to obtain segregated soya produce from America because it had been mixed up. We considered the legal position, which is that we cannot, either as a country or as a member of the European Union, force segregation under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, because we do not have a medical reason for it.
However, we did not rely on that, because we wanted a consumer-choice reason for segregation. We called in all the leading players in the industry—large and small manufacturers—to ask what the Government could do to assist in getting non-GM supplies. The result of our inquiries was a list of 59 non-GM suppliers. We were told by those companies that we had missed the boat on segregation by about 18 months. They told me that in January 1998, and I plead guilty to missing the boat 18 months before that date.
I do not know—because I have no access to the papers—whether the last Government tried to press or negotiate for the segregation of such crops at the same time as they approved their sale in this country.
§ Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members are suffering from late-night reading of John Grisham novels? Is he prepared to convince the House that scientists in Norwich who are working in the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Sainsbury laboratory will be able to conduct their researches into viral resistance using such crops and nutritious foods, which is their aim?
Those scientists have always collaborated with the agencies mentioned by my hon. Friend, and they should be encouraged to do so. Good science will produce the answers to some of the questions—as will the honesty and openness shown by this Government, which contrasts 735 with the Conservative Government's attitude to the problems of BSE. People died because of their incompetence; no one has yet died because of genetically modified food.
§ Mr. Rooker
We are attempting to operate on the basis of the best science, but we go beyond that. Our doors are still open to receive the views of scientists who might be described as being outside the loop.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
Surely the core issue is not whether there is a conflict of interests in the case of one Minister, but whether there has been a complete lack of interest on the part of a succession of Ministers over the past decade or so.
The Minister asked what happened under the Conservative regime when the issue of segregation arose. I think that I can tell him, because I asked his Conservative predecessor, the then food Minister, what the Government were doing about the segregation of genetically modified organisms in soya and other crops. The answer was that the Government had washed their hands of it: they felt that it was not worth bothering about. I put it to the Minister's predecessor that the horse had bolted, and that it would now be incredibly difficult to ensure that there was accurate labelling so that our constituents, the consumers, could make an informed choice, because the Tory Government—whom these folks on the neighbouring Benches still apparently represent—had failed in their public duties to those consumers.
On 3 February 1997, the then Minister told me specifically:The UK Government believe that genetic technology has the potential for widespread benefit".—[Official Report, 3 February 1997; Vol. 289, c. 515.]I ask the present Minister to ignore the humbug of Conservative Members—but two wrongs do not make a right. I am sure the Minister will agree that there is widespread concern about the issue; does he also agree that the science of surveillance is not keeping up with the science of development? Does he agree that, in particular, the issue of labelling is becoming incredibly difficult to manage? When I met representatives of the Food Safety Agency in Brussels yesterday, it was clear that they too were dissatisfied with the progress being made. Does the Minister agree that, in view of the widespread concern, it is time for a new statement of Government policy to reassure the public?
§ Mr. Rooker
I hope that I have been able to go some way down that road this afternoon. With regard to Brussels, it is true that there are gaps in the labelling proposals, but we expect a European Union proposal shortly to deal with additives and flavourings that are not covered by the current regulations, and we expect a de minimis level to be negotiable from March this year. We need to close the gap. I hope that, by the time we have introduced the statutory instrument to cover labelling—which will include the catering industry, in relation to which we are going beyond the EU directive—we shall be able to show that we are taking the matter seriously.
736 As for segregation, as I said the other day, proper, effective labelling with a claim that can be tested in laboratories, and the availability of alternatives, will enable consumers to vote with their feet. Ultimately, market forces will prevail.
§ Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)
Many people will be very concerned about what happened to Dr. Pusztai at the Rowett research institute in Aberdeen. Within days of giving a television interview about his work he was forced to retire, with a gagging clause. Given that it is a Government-funded research institute, will the Minister use our influence to remove that gagging clause, so that Dr. Pusztai can explain exactly what his work proved, or demonstrated in his mind, and his own anxieties? In that way, rather than being perhaps shifted to one side, his work can be thoroughly researched, with 10 times the resources being devoted to finding out if there are any problems with GM foods.
§ Mr. Rooker
I remember that example being raised last August. The fact is that we cannot check on the result of the research because it has not been published. There has been no peer-group review of the research. I understand that, as I stand here, the audit of Dr. Pusztai's work and the comments on that audit are being made available by the Rowett research institute, which has asked the Royal Society in London and Edinburgh to conduct a review; but no one can do a review until the scientists publish their research, so that other scientists can try to repeat the experiments.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)
Does the Minister accept that the only danger from genetically modified foods that are on the market at the moment is that they seem to turn some politicians, scientists and journalists into headless chickens? Can he try to continue what he has done from the Dispatch Box: to get some common sense into the issue?
Of course some genetically modified foods were approved under the last Conservative Government. As the former Minister for Science and Technology, I am proud that they were. Of course, we had talks with companies such as Monsanto and Zeneca. It was of interest to the then Government to know what those companies were doing. Of course we encouraged them to talk to the research institutes. We have spent years trying to get industry to open its research to research institutes. It is foolish now to start pointing them out as case studies of the opposite direction.
Will the Minister please make it clear to the public that there is no such thing as safe food, or completely clear scientific evidence? There is always an element of risk. If more politicians, journalists and scientists put what their findings are at any given moment on some sliding scale of risk, so that the public could understand, we would not have ludicrous scare stories such as have appeared in the past few days.
§ Mr. Rooker
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who as the former Minister for Science and Technology speaks with some experience. He is right. Some of the stories have been pure scaremongering. A headline yesterday said:Safety fears at 70 sites testing GM crops.737 The reality is that 70 sites were being used to test GM crops, four were found to be a problem, and, with two, there is a prosecution tomorrow. There were thus no safety fears at 70 sites testing GM crops; so information is always useful to put across the case.
We will do our best to harness the best of science. We are leaders in Europe in this sector, but we will not take risks with public safety. The foods that are on sale are as safe as the non-GM equivalents. Everyone who has examined them is satisfied that those foods already on the market are as safe as equivalent foods. There is no equivocation about that, notwithstanding the degrees of risk that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Nothing is safe: even crossing the road is not safe. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)
Before any more Opposition Front Benchers slip away in embarrassment, may I urge the Minister not to take any moral lectures from an Opposition party that, when in government, placed the dogma of deregulation before the duty to public health? I thank him for publishing the list of non-GM crops, which he and I have been talking about since he came to office, but will he address some of the concerns that scientists have recently been trying to flag up?
The first concern is that current benchmarks for the conduct of good scientific research are simply inadequate to deal with the wider issues, which are beginning to be raised by hon. Members on both sides the House. Will my hon. Friend consider strengthening the scientific criteria against which laboratory-based research is conducted, and examine the relevant new issues about when wider releases become an unacceptable risk? However, before doing that, will he ensure that the public are able to exercise more widely their right to decide when it is safe to consume products? Currently, with the best will in the world, we do not have adequate answers to those questions on safety.
§ Mr. Rooker
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. First, however, as I should have said when initially answering the private notice question, I apologise for the absence today of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture—who is in Brussels for important bilateral meetings with representatives of other member states, in preparation for probably the most important Agriculture Council in recent years, to be held next week, on reform of the common agricultural policy.
Scientists will always have queries on benchmarks, as science is always moving and will never stay still. GM products are assessed using the method of substantial equivalence. We adhere to that method, which has not only been approved by the World Health Organisation but is used across the European Union.
The Government are served by more than one advisory committee—one of which is the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. However, to ensure that we have the right regulatory process, at the very first meeting of the new Cabinet Committee on Biotechnology in December, we agreed to a Whitehall review of the strengths and weaknesses of the current regulatory process, to determine whether any of the relevant committees should be merged or abolished, or whether a new regulatory system should be imposed. On 17 December 1998, we published the press release announcing the review.
738 The Government are therefore not simply accepting received policy but are moving on a number of fronts to strengthen policy, in the interests of consumers and of Britain's science base.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
Does the Minister accept that it does not really matter whether those decisions were taken in the 1980s or 1990s, and that the point—whether we are dealing with BSE, human genetic engineering or GM foods—is that consumers will best be served only if we do not leave such matters exclusively, as has increasingly happened, to scientists rather than to politicians and others who have a right, on behalf of their electorate, to participate in the exercise?
Does the Minister not think, therefore, that the suggestion that I made before the previous general election—that there should be an ad hoc Select Committee to examine these issues—remains valid; that it was disgraceful that the Select Committee on Science and Technology sat on that occasion for only one day; that there should now be encouragement for the Select Committee to draw together the various issues—over which there is much confusion, both political and scientific—so that we can get to the bottom of the matter; and that the House, on behalf of consumers and the electorate, should play its part and not simply pass the buck to the scientists?
§ Mr. Rooker
I can honestly say that I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman has just uttered. I do not think that these matters should be left exclusively to scientists—which is why, since 1997, lay people have been appointed to sit on every single scientific committee, of which there are about seven or eight, dealing with foods.
Furthermore, lay people are not on the committees to serve as tokens. We encourage them—and the ethicists on committees—to network with each other. The other day, we counted up the numbers, and there were no fewer than 12 ethics specialists serving on the biotechnology committees serving the Government. A non-scientist lay person has been appointed ' to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and is not there as a token, either. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and realise that the Select Committee on Science and Technology will conduct an inquiry—of which I wholly approve, and in which the Government will fully co-operate.
§ Audrey Wise (Preston)
It was good to hear my hon. Friend expose the hypocrisy of Opposition Members. However, will he also accept that there are genuine fears about this type of technology? May I remind him that all the changes in agriculture over the past 20, 30 or more years have been made in the name of progress—all to feed the hungry; all for progress—but have left behind deserts and polluted land and water?
I thank my hon. Friend for his commitment to openness. I urge him to preserve a healthy scepticism. In some cases, by the time that we discover that something is harmful it is too late and we cannot undo the damage.
§ Mr. Rooker
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She has identified one reason why there will be no free-for-all on commercial growing. We have to get 739 the agreement of the industry. We do not yet have final approval. The industry's guidelines will stand much better if they have the Government's support. We shall not give our support until we are satisfied. My noble Friend Lord Donoughue and I have sent the guidelines back to the industry four times in0 the past 12 months because we want them toughened. We are not yet satisfied. We understand that the final version will meet our demands.
My hon. Friend talks about changing agricultural practices. We shall do everything that we can to preserve diversity in agricultural practices. In the next financial year, we shall double the aid available for farmers to convert to organic production. We desperately need more home-produced organic food.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
The press has told us this week that there is a possibility of an outbreak of lung cancer as a result of medication delivered before 1961. Is it not important to be careful about going ahead with certain things without verification? Will the gagging order that we understand has been placed on a certain scientist be lifted so that others can weigh up the issues? We must learn from our mistakes and remember that if a Minister giving his children a hamburger failed to assuage the public's fears in the past, the Prime Minister advocating genetically modified food now will not necessarily assuage current fears.
§ Mr. Rooker
I have heard about the gagging order only in the press. It is not a gagging order from the Government—indeed, I do not know whether it is a gagging order at all. As I have already said, as I rose to speak today the Rowett research institute was publishing an audit of the work together with comments on the audit, and asking the Royal Society in London and Edinburgh to conduct a review and inquiry.
The research in question has not been published. The Government are not stopping publication. We want the research to be published because we can be confident about the results only if the experiments are repeated by other scientists, as is the norm. No one will be more pleased than me when that happens.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
I assure my hon. Friend that I shall happily eat any genetically modified food that gets through the tough UK regulatory system. Does he agree that it is important to increase public 740 confidence, in view of the hysteria in the press over the past few weeks? Is not the best way to do that to insist on rigorous labelling of foods? Does he find it extraordinary, as I do, that the Conservatives opposed the labelling of food when they were in government, yet they are now responsible for whipping up hysteria?
§ Mr. Rooker
I have spoken about the history of the issue. When we came to office, this country was following the American policy on GM crops, products and foods. We changed that.
§ Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)
The Minister generously said that he had no problem with the issue being debated on the Floor of the House. He may remember that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) initiated a debate on it on Wednesday of the week before last. Presumably she has been sent out of the Chamber for being off-message. When he was answering that debate only two weeks ago, why did he not make the forthright statement that he made this afternoon, particularly the assurances about labelling? Is it not because my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) focused attention on the issue when he questioned the Prime Minister, who clearly knew nothing about it?
Has the Minister seen the Minister for the Cabinet Office giving assurances on television that no member of the Government has any financial interest in this process whatever? Would he think it prudent to advise him not to give such assurances on the Floor of the Chamber, in view of the various family trusts and blind trusts from which Lord Sainsbury benefits and which are closely connected to the supply of genetic food to supermarkets?
§ Mr. Rooker
The debate to which the right hon. Gentleman refers took place on 3 February. I invite any hon. Member or observer of these proceedings to read columns 862–64 of Hansard—my ten-minute winding-up speech in that debate—and point to any issue that I have not mentioned today. In fact, I was tempted to repeat that speech word for word in answer to the PNQ today, but I thought that would take too long.
I respect profoundly the stand that the right hon. Gentleman has taken on many issues, but what he has said today is totally and utterly wrong. I have said nothing different today from what I said in answer to that debate. I have also had the opportunity to answer some parliamentary questions. I do not accept his attack on Lord Sainsbury; the facts do not bear it out.