HC Deb 05 May 2004 vol 420 cc1418-64

[Relevant documents: the second report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2003–04, on GM Foods—"Evaluating the Farm Scale Trials", HC90—and the fifth report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2003—04, on GM Foods—"Evaluating the Farm Scale Trials: the Government Response", HC564.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

I must inform the House that there is a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches in this debate.

5.1 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley)

Although I appreciate that the previous debate was very important and I do not dispute the right of hon. Members to raise such issues, I was a bit disappointed that it took so much time away from an opportunity for the House to discuss genetically modified crops—another very important issue. I will try to keep my comments brief, so that as many hon. Members as possible get the opportunity to participate in the debate.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am concerned by the fact that the Minister has suggested that there is limited time to debate this matter. Can you confirm that we still have the full three hours?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Yes, we have. In fact, the debate will conclude not later than 8.1 pm.

Mr. Morley

In that case, I was under a misunderstanding; I thought that the debate would finish at 7 o'clock. I am pleased about that; I may include a little more in my opening remarks. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information.

The whole issue of GM foods is clearly contentious, complicated and difficult. I have followed the issue closely, both before and since becoming a Minister in 1997 at the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. So I can claim a long involvement in the way that the general debate has been structured, in the Government response and, of course, in the various controversies that surround it.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Will the Minister please explain to the House why the Government decided to hold a consultation exercise, which we applauded, but ignored the strong advice from the British public that the Government were rushing and that all this was premature?

Mr. Morley

The public response has not been ignored; it has shaped our response. If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to "GM Nation?", it was always made very clear from the outset that it was not a referendum on GM foods. The whole point of that debate was to allow people to explore the issues and express their concerns, to hear both sides of the argument and to try to engage as many people as possible. It was very much an unusual public consultation exercise, but the public's participation and engagement was useful, and I certainly pay tribute to the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, which organised that consultation exercise.

I understand people's concerns about GM foods. From the very beginning, I have always had some concerns about the possible impact on the environment. I want to make it clear that the Government's whole approach to GM foods is one in which food safety and the environmental impacts are absolutely paramount, and I shall expand on that in a moment.

I am sure that I need not explain to the House that we are dealing with a range of opinions about GM. We are also dealing with extremes of opinion. At one extreme, there are people who are involved in the development and marketing of GM foods who do not believe that there is a need for traceability and labelling. They believe that the European Union is acting illegally, and that GM products should have open and unfettered access to our markets. That is not the Government's position. At the other extreme, there are people who, no matter what evidence is presented or how detailed it is, will never ever accept the principle of GM foods. The Government have to find a way through those conflicting positions.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)

Some people regard this as a free trade issue. The United States has launched an action against the European Union under World Trade Organisation rules. Have the Government taken a strong position in the European Union, and have they persuaded Ministers and others in European countries to defend the EU moratorium and to fight against sanctions?

Mr. Morley

We have always believed that the EU approach, which is science-based, judges each application on its merits and allows for measures on labelling and traceability, is absolutely right. The challenge in the WTO is based on a mistaken premise. As for the way in which the EU is trying to handle the issue of GM, that is open and transparent, and is not in any way an attempt to apply trade barriers. It reflects the concerns of consumers, both in the EU and other countries, and recognises that there must be a process in the EU, as there must be in the UK. We firmly support that position, and have no intention of moving from it.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

Given that the Minister has said that openness and transparency are pre-eminent in the conduct of this debate, does he regret that we are debating not a substantive motion, allowing all Members a vote, but an Adjournment motion on GM crops and foods, long after the Government have made their initial decision?

Mr. Morley

I would regret that if this were the first debate on GM in the House, but it is not. There has been a range of opportunities for Members to express their opinion.

Andrew George

Not in Government time.

Mr. Morley

It is certainly true that some of those opportunities arose in Adjournment debates secured by right hon. and hon. Members, but there have been discussions in various Committees, including European Standing Committees. Many questions have been asked about GM during Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions and, indeed, other departmental questions. There has therefore been a great deal of opportunity to discuss the issue. This is not an issue where, in relation to EU markets and EU trade, we can have a vote and take a different position from the rest of the EU. Our position must be shaped within EU structures, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and we must adopt a rigorous, thorough and logical approach. I believe that we have already done so, and we must take the same approach to future applications on GM foods and crops.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con)


Mr. Morley

I am anxious to make progress, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, as he chairs the Environmental Audit Committee.

Mr. Ainsworth

Is the Minister implying that, if the EU decided at some point that we had to grow commercial GM crops, we would have no option but to do so?

Mr. Morley

No, that is not the position at all, although there are complex trade issues, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. We ourselves have developed some of the processes that have been put in place, to respond to the needs of our country and reflect the views of the public, as expressed in "GM Nation?". We have also participated in shaping the EU structure, which must be in place in the single market, as there is an EU competence on food and trade. I believe that that structure is thorough and robust.

There is a range of players involved, of whom consumers are perhaps the most important. Food safety and environmental safety issues are paramount, but there are also issues of consumer choice. People should have a choice whether or not to buy GM produce. Farmers are another important group. There are farmers who are for GM crops, and others who are against them, and we must listen to both views. The organic sector is important, and we must listen to its views on GM crops and developments. There is the environmental view, which I take seriously, and the food industry view in relation to both the retail and the processing side and on consumer choice and demand.

Then there is the biotech industry. There are people who think that the biotech industry is all about GM, but I stress that it is much wider than that. It is worth stating that we have world-class institutions in this country and we can be proud of the science and innovation in the UK, which we strongly support. I make no apology for that. Finally, there is potential, and like anything else, that potential—the claims that are made must be rigorously examined and subject to due process. There may well be potential in GM crops, if not now, if not from this generation, then in future. I do not know whether that will be the case, but it is important for all of us to have an open mind and to examine the claims that are made on their individual merits.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

My hon. Friend is making the case that the biotech industry is extremely important to this country, that we all support it and that research into GM food and crops should continue, but is it not true that if we did not grow GM crops or have GM food in this country, it would not damage our science base?

Mr. Morley

It would not necessarily damage our science base, although if one took that position even if a product was demonstrated to be safe and met all the criteria, that might undermine confidence in science. As a general principle, however, I do not disagree with my hon. Friend who, I recognise, has taken a pragmatic and reasonable position.

I shall not deal in detail with the process that has been put in place, the public debate centred on "GM Nation?", a thorough scientific analysis of all the available information, or the scientific report which brought that together and which I found thorough and helpful. The review by the No. 10 strategy unit looked at the economic case for GM and was no apologist for the GM sector. Again, it was thorough and honest in its interpretation. The field-scale evaluations were the largest and most thorough trial of its kind anywhere in the world. All that has been going on since 1997, so no one can accuse us of rushing into this and of not putting in place a thorough, logical, step-by-step approach to evaluating GM crops.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

The Minister speaks about debate, but there is no point in debate unless it is reflected in policy. Is he aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), when speaking for the Government in European Standing Committee C on 26 April, spoke for a total of 42 minutes and mentioned "GM Nation?" only once, and that that was only when prompted by other hon. Members? Does that reflect the Government's attitude towards "GM Nation?" and public debate on this important issue?

Mr. Morley

That is a strange point. In a European Standing Committee, there is up to one hour of questions to the Minister, so it is no surprise to me that my hon. Friend spoke for 42 minutes. I have read the Official Report of the Committee, and I thought she answered the questions that were put to her in a detailed and thorough way. The questions reflected the concerns that emerged from "GM Nation?", which the Government acknowledge. That is why we have been so determined to approach the matter cautiously and pragmatically and on a case-by-case basis.

Much of the focus has been on the GM maize that was given the go-ahead. It always had approval, I remind the House. It was not given approval—it was given the go-ahead because of the voluntary moratorium. A point that is often ignored is that we are one of the few countries to have rejected GM crops after a thorough field-based evaluation that took into account the effect on biodiversity into account. I am not aware of other countries that have taken that significant step.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I am glad that the Minister has enough time to take interventions. His point is valid, and the Government should be congratulated on conducting field-scale evaluations, which have helped the debate. Does he accept that the unique point about GM technology is its irreversibility? Many changes in agricultural practice were mistakes—for example, grubbing up hedgerows, the movement to monoculture and the move away from some organic practices—but they will undoubtedly be corrected in the United Kingdom, particularly given the reform of the common agricultural policy.

GM technology releases novel genes that cannot he re-extracted from the environment, and it is right and proper to exercise extreme caution. Does the Minister think that more work should be done on the health impact of GM food? Following the field-scale evaluations of the environmental impact of GM crops, a little more work should be done on the health impact of GM food and the potential for genes to be retained within the human organism.

Mr. Morley

We should never take where we are for granted, or our current position as the definitive position. I talked today to the Food Standards Agency, which told me about its ongoing research into the effect of GM food on health. Its research relates not only to the current generation of GM products but, for example, to GM oils. The research is ongoing, and our scientific review identified the point, which we take seriously, that more information and more research are always needed. I therefore agree with part of the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Our scientific evaluations have looked for adverse effects of GM products on consumers and the environment. We have considered not only our own research but what is happening internationally, and we will continue to do so—we constantly examine whether our position is wrong and are not complacent. We actively seek further information, which might mean modifying our position, but there is no reputable evidence of adverse health effects from eating GM food. That is the current position, but we do not regard it as the final word and we will continue to research the matter and to monitor other work on the subject.

The time scale for the evaluation was driven by scientific requirements and not by external pressures, such as trade pressure or demands from the US. In all the time that I have been involved with the matter, I can honestly say that I have seen no evidence of external pressure on the UK evaluation.

Hon. Members will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced the results of the farm-scale evaluations to the House and how we will take the matter forward. We will implement co-existence measures on potential authorisation for growing GM crops and a potential liability scheme. Although the shape of the liability scheme is open to discussion, the Government believe that it should be financed by the biotech sector, which will produce the crops. The consultation on that matter will be made public before the House goes into recess, and it will continue throughout the summer until the autumn, when we will have an opportunity to evaluate the responses with a view to implementing measures for next year. With the withdrawal of the application for GM maize, no applications will take place in 2005—possibly not even in 2006—so there is plenty of time in which to implement the measures.

I accept what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) says about irreversible technology and recognise that it must be a consideration in what we do. I also accept that in considering its potential, one must apply the principle of proportionality. As he will be aware, GM maize is not native to the UK and has no wild relative, and its seeds will not survive a winter in the soil. In the case of that particular product, the technology is not irreversible, but we may of course have to consider the issue in deciding whether other products are to be approved. I am sure that our expert advisory bodies will take that into account.

Andrew George

Will the Minister clarify the position that the Government intend to take on liability? He has said, as did the Secretary of State in her statement, that he would like a liability scheme to be put in place. However, the Government have made it clear that they do not intend to fund it, and neither, according to its response, does the industry. Given that the industry is not prepared to consider such a scheme, is it merely desirable or absolutely mandatory in relation to any future planting of GM crops?

Mr. Morley

Our view is that we need a liability scheme to provide confidence, not least in the biotech sector itself. The hon. Gentleman is trying to get me to pre-empt the results of the consultation on the draft proposals. He will have an opportunity to comment on that if he so chooses, as will other hon. Members.

I want to deal with one more issue before I bring my remarks to a close. Although I may be wrong, I suspect that the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), may want to make a few comments in relation to the Government's response, and I want to take this opportunity to say a few words in advance. Hon. Members who serve on that Committee and on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will know that I regard them very highly and always take their reports seriously. Indeed, I always try to incorporate their recommendations in Government policy—I have been successful in doing that in the past and hope to be so in future.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

I am pleased to hear the Minister's comments, but if that is the case why did the Government publish their recommendation just four days after the Environmental Audit Committee published its report?

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman might have allowed me to expand my argument, as I intend to deal with that matter. It is certainly true that we made it clear in our response to the Committee that we did not agree with some of its specific criticisms; and today the Committee made it clear that it does not agree with some of our specific responses, as is its proper and democratic right. That was evident from what the hon. Member for East Surrey said on Radio 4.

As for the Government's going ahead with the announcement four days after the publication of the Committee's report, I can assure the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) that on the day the report came out I went through it thoroughly and asked my officials these key questions. Does it contain something new that we need to take into account? Does it contain evidence of which we were unaware? And does it contain something that we have not considered in relation to the approach that was outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? The answer to those questions was no. Everything in the Committee's report had been actively considered by DEFRA and by our expert advisory committees.

The Committee's principal point was about atrazine, which had been raised in the House on several occasions. We specifically asked the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment to consider that, and members of the Committee will know that the scientists involved in the farm-scale evaluations produced their report in Nature the same day as the Committee's report was published. The scientists' report tackled some of the points in scientific terms.

We believed that the Environmental Audit Committee was mistaken in not inviting the scientists who conducted the farm-scale evaluations to appear before it to answer some of its specific concerns. It is not for me to tell the Committee whom it should invite; I merely make a comment. However, I note that the Royal Society echoed it in a press release that it issued today. I do not want to say too much about the Royal Society's comments to the EAC because they are a matter for the Committee.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con)

The Minister is perceptive—if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall indeed wish to deal with several points later. The Royal Society did not have the courtesy to send the Committee a copy of any press release today.

May I commend the Minister on his speed reading? He said that he read our report and considered it carefully on the day we issued it. Given that the Government and the Department experienced difficulty in replying to our previous reports in the usual agreed and allotted time, I commend the Minister on reading in a single day a report that stretches to 250 pages and responding to it with such alacrity.

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman may remember that the report was published on a Friday and I therefore read it over a weekend. It made for interesting reading. Of course there are sometimes time lags before responses appear. I am keen to respond to Select Committees as quickly as possible. However, it is not always possible to respond quickly, sometimes because the recommendations are genuinely complex. That was not the case with the EAC report, which contained nothing new that we had not already considered. That is why, after all the years of farm-scale evaluations and preparation, which went beyond the scope of FSEs, there was no case for holding up the announcement, especially as it was already behind schedule and many people were waiting for it. It was only right and proper that not only the House but the many other stakeholders heard the Government's response and the way in which we would deal with applications. We did not believe that there was anything to be gained from delaying the announcement.

I am sure that the hon. Member for East Surrey wants to make other points about the matter and I shall listen to him with interest. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality will pick them up in his reply. However, I emphasise that I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point on behalf of the Committee that the Government's response contains several wilful or careless misinterpretations of the report. People who know me know that we would not act in that way and that we try to take such matters seriously. I simply stress to the hon. Gentleman and other Committee members that sometimes we disagree. One cannot always produce a report and expect people to believe that it is absolutely correct, especially if it is not backed up in every case with scientific evidence to contradict the expert evidence that the Committee heard and the Government received.

All that is not to say that we dismiss the report. As I said, I have taken careful account of it. However, I do not accept the claim that the Government wilfully or carelessly misinterpreted it. We have some disagreements and we have spelt out where they arise.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD)

On the timing of the Government's announcement so soon after the report's publication, the Minister said that several people were waiting for it. I do not wish to be unkind to the Department, but it is not unusual for people to wait for information from it. Who are the people who needed the information so urgently, and why did the Government listen to their wishes as opposed to all the others who await answers from the Department?

Mr. Morley

This was a three-year process and it was also very public, given the way in which we actively encouraged ACRE to hold an open meeting when it evaluated the FSEs. I would like to pay tribute to ACRE, along with our expert advisory groups and the scientists, for their excellent job of evaluation and for the open and thorough way in which they have done it.

Although we can disagree on GM—I am sure that we shall hear some disagreements in this debate—I hope that Members on both sides recognise that we need a process for dealing with this issue.

Mr. Challen

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Morley

I am coming to a conclusion, if my hon. Friend does not mind.

We need a logical, thorough, science-based process that people can understand. We do not accept that there is a blanket case for GM. We have already rejected two licence applications, under the conditions on which they were submitted. The other side of the coin, however, is that there is no blanket case for rejecting all GM applications out of hand. We must adopt a science-based approach and consider each application on its individual merits. We must take into account food safety and the environment, and we must, on occasions, apply the precautionary principle. Where there is genuine doubt, an application might have to be rejected.

I believe that that represents the kind of thorough process that the House will support. It is certainly the kind of approach that found support, in principle, in the public consultations, even though I acknowledge that some people do not accept GM in any circumstances.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Morley

I was about to conclude, but I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in this matter, and I shall take this last intervention before I finish.

Ms Walley

My hon. Friend talks about the role and importance of science and, presumably, the independence of science. Will he tell us where science for the earth fits into all of this?

Mr. Morley

I am sorry. I did not quite catch that last bit.

Ms Walley

Science for the earth. My hon. Friend talks about the precautionary principle and about environmental issues. Where does he place those alongside the so-called independence of science?

Mr. Morley

Science has to evaluate the information that it has at any given moment, and it must be open to scrutiny. In regard to the approach that we have taken, all the main scientific studies have been independently peer-reviewed. Very few of the claims against GM have gone through that independent peer-review process, but that is the kind of evaluation that we expect. A scientific study is not necessarily the final word, and there must be some form of impartial, independent evaluation. That is also part of the process. I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend's point.

This is a difficult issue, and we are trying to find a pragmatic way through it. We are also sensitive to public opinion, which is why we have been so thorough, careful and cautious. In the end, however, if we are to use a logical, science-based process that can lead to applications being rejected—as some have been—we cannot argue against using the same procedures that could, on occasion, demonstrate that GM products might have certain advantages. We cannot argue that they should be automatically rejected.

5.33 pm
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con)

Let me begin by welcoming the fact that the Government have finally made time for this debate on genetically modified crops. It is regrettable that it has taken such a long time for it to be held. It is also a pity that the Secretary of State is not here for it. This is the second time in a week—

Mr. Morley

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently engaged at the very highest level with the US Administration on issues of climate change. I know how important those issues are to Members on both sides of the House. I have also heard concerns expressed repeatedly about the US's non-engagement in the Kyoto process, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will congratulate my right hon. Friend on going to the United States to encourage the Administration there to engage in it.

Mr. Whittingdale

Of course I accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation as to why the Secretary of State cannot be here. I would just point out that she has now been absent twice in the space of a week when we have been discussing major issues affecting her Department. This is not a one-off.

Gregory Barker

We have had to wait years for this debate—this is the first time this subject has been discussed on the Floor of the House in Government time. Given that this is such an important debate, is it not extraordinary that a window of opportunity could not have been found for it during one of the brief periods when the Secretary of State has dropped into the United Kingdom?

Mr. Whittingdale

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Clearly, the timing of last week's debate, which was on an Opposition day, was chosen by us. As he points out, however, this is a Government debate, which the business managers have been seeking to schedule for a long time. We welcome the fact that it has finally arrived, but it is a pity that they managed to schedule it at a time when, as must have been known for quite a long time, the Secretary of State could not attend.

It would have been better if the debate could have taken place much earlier, and if it could have taken place before the Government took their decision to allow the licensing of a particular GM crop. Instead, today's debate is taking place not just after the decision has been taken to allow GM maize, but after the decision of the seed manufacturer to abandon its plans to introduce GM maize into this country. As a result, there seems little likelihood of any commercial growing of GM crops for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Morley

I want to clarify this matter, on which I touched in my opening remarks, as there is sometimes confusion surrounding it. The Government did not give the approval to the GM maize. We lifted the moratorium. The approval for planting the GM maize was agreed in January 1997.

Mr. Whittingdale

I accept the distinction that the hon. Gentleman makes. The fact is that essentially the Government gave the green light—[Interruption.] He must accept that the Secretary of State came to the House a few months ago and essentially said that the Government were willing to accept an application for the commercial growing of GM maize.

Mr. Simon Thomas

Both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister are missing the important point. Although the approval may have been given back in 1997, everything about which the Minister has been talking for 20 minutes—the logical process, the science-based process and the evidence-based process—has happened since 1997. It is therefore vital that the House is clear that such decisions are being made on the basis of that process. It is neither here nor there whether or not the approval was given in 1997. It would have been very bad had the approval gone ahead in 1997, because all the logic that the Minister talked about would not have been in place. In a sense, therefore, the hon. Gentleman is right that we are discussing a decision that has been made now, following all the evidence-based research. We cannot dismiss that simply because an approval was given, almost on the off-chance, within the European Union.

Mr. Whittingdale

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is the case that there was a moratorium while the Government rightly conducted the farm-scale evaluations. We have always believed that the Government are right to proceed cautiously, but we still have concerns about the circumstances in which they decided to accept that the farm-scale evaluations showed that GM maize should be allowed to be introduced.

I want to step back a little and examine the question of GM, which causes profound concern to a large number of people in the country. There are strongly held views on both sides of the argument, and in each of our respective political parties, which I suspect may become apparent during the debate. Many people point out that genetic modification has been going on for hundreds of years. Man has always tried to improve the quality of crops and livestock by genetic manipulation. All that has changed in the last few years is that science has provided a faster and more reliable means of doing that. Such a technique has been established in many countries, and as a result, it is almost certainly the case that everyone in the Chamber has at some time eaten food with genetically modified ingredients, or is wearing clothes that are made from GM fibre. Most scientific opinion accepts that it is safe to do so. Certainly I accept that there is little evidence of serious risk to human health in countries that have allowed genetic modification of crops for a number of years, such as America, Canada and Argentina. I also accept that genetic modification potentially offers great benefits both to farmers who take advantage of it, and to consumers, particularly in the third world.

Nevertheless there are serious concerns, particularly about the effect of the introduction of GM crops on our environment and on wildlife. For that reason, we have always taken the view that we should proceed cautiously, on a case-by-case basis and only when there is clear scientific evidence that there is no risk. I think the Minister will agree that that is sensible. As I said earlier, that is why we supported the FSEs—on the basis that they would provide the scientific underpinning for any risk assessment preceding the commercial introduction of any particular crop.

At first sight, the results seemed to show clearly that the introduction of two of the four crops trialled had led to a reduction in biodiversity, while the introduction of one, GMHT forage maize, had led to an improvement. We still have no results for the fourth crop, winter-sown oilseed rape. In their response to the Environmental Audit Committee's report, the Government said that they were awaiting the results with interest.

Like the Committee, I am sorry that the results for all four crops were not published at the same time. While it is obviously right for us to examine each crop individually, there is no doubt that the public's attitude will be influenced by the overall results. A positive outcome for three out of four will be seen very differently from a half good, half bad result. I should be interested to learn when the Minister expects the Government to be able to release the results of the trials of the fourth crop.

The Minister referred to the criticism that the Government had reached their decision just a few days after the EAC had reported. In fact, it is worse than that. We know that the decision was actually made in Cabinet during the week before the publication of the report. Indeed, we know that the real decision was made about a month earlier, when the matter was put to the Cabinet Sub-Committee. We know because the minutes of the Sub-Committee were subsequently leaked. It was revealed that the Government had instructed their supporters to prepare the ground with key MPs, particularly those with an interest in science or food security".

While I sympathise with the Minister, who gave up his weekend to read the EAC's report in order to convince himself that nothing in it had not already been taken into account, we know that the decision had already been made before the report was even published. That shows a degree of contempt for the work of Select Committees. It seems that the Government are so uninterested in Select Committees' views that they cannot wait a while to hear the recommendations and take account of the evidence before reaching a decision.

Mr. Morley

It is true that the recommendations on the FSEs were put to SCI(BIO), a Cabinet Committee. That is part of the process of government, and part of the process of all Governments. It does not detract from the fact that the process relating to the announcement and the details was under way when the EAC's report was published. The process that I have described—that of trying to establish whether there is anything new—applies here as well.

As for the winter-sown oilseed, the papers are currently being peer-reviewed. After that the details will be made available, probably towards the end of the year. So that I do not inadvertently mislead the House, let me add that the GM maize approved in January 1997 was the Bt-176 version. The T25 maize was approved in August 1998.

Mr. Whittingdale

I am grateful to the Minister, particularly for his clarification on the fourth crop that was trialled, and for his other points. I accept that, obviously, any decision can be reversed until it is announced, and I suppose that it can even be reversed after that. The process goes on, as the Minister says, until the Secretary of State comes to the House. However, it is nevertheless the case that the key bodies that took the decision in this instance reached their conclusions before the Committee had published its report. That is simply a matter of fact.

In its report, the Environmental Audit Committee raised serious concerns about the validity of the trials and despite the Minister's words, those concerns still need to be addressed. He referred to the concern that in three quarters of the cases, the herbicide regime applied to the conventional crop being compared with GM maize involved the use of atrazine, a herbicide now recognised as devastating to biodiversity that is being banned in the EU from next year. Given that, it is perhaps unsurprising that the GMHT crop was seen to be advantageous to biodiversity, because it was being compared with a crop that had been treated with atrazine.

In their response to the Committee's report, the Government say that that does not invalidate the trial because it is the herbicide management of conventional maize that is changing, not that of GM maize. However, surely the whole basis of the trials was to compare the effect on biodiversity of the GM crop and its conventional equivalent, and it is that comparison that is now wholly undermined because the comparator will no longer be available in this country. The decision by Bayer CropScience to withdraw its application for seed listing of its GM maize creates an opportunity to look at that matter a little further. I ask the Government to do that, and perhaps to use a comparison crop and herbicide regime that is in current usage today, so that a proper and fair comparison can be made.

The Committee also, rightly, drew attention to the experience in North America, where there is evidence that the use of GM herbicide-tolerant crops has led to herbicide-resistant volunteers in the following year's crops and that, over time, that has caused the increased, not the decreased, use of herbicides. The Minister has acknowledged that concerns arising from the experience in Canada are important and should be taken into account, but there have been other reports, too. Recently it was reported in Argentina that the use of Roundup Ready soya had led to growing numbers of resistant volunteers, with the result that herbicide use had doubled since the crops were first planted seven years ago. In the breathing space that we have been given, I hope that the Government will look much more carefully at the results of research into the experience of other countries around the world.

Mr. Morley

I am certainly happy to give that assurance: we do need to look at experience around the world. However, this is a double-edged argument. With Bt cotton, pesticide use has gone down, much to the benefit of the agricultural workers who work with it. We have to take the hon. Gentleman's point into account, however.

The issue of atrazine was carefully examined by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, and it concluded that the trials were still valid. Atrazine is being phased out not because of its detrimental impact on biodiversity but because it is a very persistent herbicide and because of its effect on ground water. It was also a pre-emergent spray, and it is likely that it will be replaced by another pre-emergent spray, which has a bearing on this matter. Hon. Members will also recall that one of the conditions of the maize trial was that there would be further evaluation in relation to nonatrazine herbicides, even though that was not necessarily required on the scientific advice. A belt-and-braces approach was taken, and we will continue that research.

Mr. Whittingdale

I accept what the Minister says on the reasons why atrazine has been withdrawn, and I welcome the fact that further evaluations will take place and his assurance that the Government are willing to look at experience round the world. I am not in the business of prejudging the results, any more than he is. We maintain an open mind, in the same way as he is trying to persuade us he does, but it is important that all the relevant research should be carefully examined before we progress further. Our concern, highlighted in the Select Committee report, is that important research has not been properly evaluated before decisions have been reached.

I do not want to repeat every concern expressed by the Select Committee about the validity of the farm-scale trials, but I am concerned that the Government have not only ignored the findings in reaching their decision but, as has happened again today, have been quick to dismiss them.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

I commend my hon. Friend's thoughtful and cautious approach, but I am a little concerned about where his argument will take us. He knows that I think it would be to the disadvantage of British agriculture and consumers and our environment to write off for ever the possibility of introducing GM crops commercially. I hope that he will recognise that this debate is dominated by the Select Committee aficionados and that there will almost certainly not be time for many people to speak who do not share their view. I hope that his policy will not be blown off course by a single Select Committee report and that he will maintain a careful and cautious view in the long term.

Mr. Whittingdale

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. He and I have discussed these matters before, and I know that there are differences of opinion on both sides. Our intention is to proceed cautiously, but certainly with an open mind. I hope that he will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate later. I will leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) to go into more detail on the Committee's specific recommendations.

Supporters and opponents of GM crops alike recognise that before commercial cultivation can take place in this country there must be a clear legal framework, and I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of that. The dangers of cross-pollination, contaminating conventional crops, are well known. Many farmers will wish to market their produce as non-GM. Organic farmers, in particular, have invested large sums in acquiring organic status and risk their livelihoods if their crops are contaminated. Organic farming has enjoyed steady growth over the past 10 years, but it is still not sufficient to meet domestic demand. We need a clear set of rules on co-existence before any GM crops are introduced. In particular, the issues of separation distances and liability for contamination must be resolved.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con)

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I, too, serve on the Environmental Audit Committee, and he will know that my colleague on the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), introduced a private Member's Bill to try to resolve exactly that grey area. Is it not very unfortunate, given that uncertainty, that the Labour party killed it?

Mr. Whittingdale

Indeed, that was exactly the point I was about to come to. That Bill would have provided a perfect opportunity to tackle these very important questions. I know, having talked to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), that he discussed it with the Minister, who told him that he would listen carefully to his arguments and judge the Bill accordingly. I [...] therefore share my colleagues' astonishment at the fact that he did not turn up for the Second Reading debate, and that the Bill was killed off by one of his stooges about 13 minutes after the debate had begun. He owes my hon. Friend and the House an explanation for the Government's actions, because we and the industry have been left with no real idea of the legal framework for the regulations that are a prerequisite for any commercial planting.

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of what happened on that day in relation to the collapse of business, but he may not know that, although the House was inquorate, Labour Members joined Opposition Members in the Lobby. If the Bill was so important, one might have thought that the Opposition would have got enough Members in to support it.

Mr. Whittingdale

As the Minister was not present that day, he is perhaps unaware that one of his colleagues was directly responsible for what happened. It was one of his colleagues who moved the motion that the House do sit in private, which often results in the business being lost. The Minister has told us of the many opportunities to debate GM in recent months, and he mentioned such debates taking place in Standing Committees and in Westminster Hall. But on the one occasion on which this issue reached the Floor of the House of Commons, the debate lasted just 13 minutes because one of his colleagues killed the Bill off.

Gregory Barker

I should make it absolutely clear that my Bill was killed off through the direct connivance of Labour Whips, who whispered in the ear of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and got him to do their dirty business. Far more than 40 Members were present in the House that day. One or two very honourable exceptions defied the Labour Whips and entered the Lobby, but the others sat on their hands at the direction of the Labour Whips. That is a matter of record.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. The record has now been made clear; perhaps we can proceed with the debate before the House.

Mr. Whittingdale

I entirely accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. But the point is an important one, because the issue at stake—liability and compensation—is absolutely central to whether GM cultivation takes place in this country.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

At the risk of vexing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, does my hon. Friend agree that, although the Minister was not present when the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) was killed off, it is inconceivable that the Government Whips acted as they did without first consulting the Minister?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already ruled on this matter. I see the relevance of the hon. Gentleman's point, but we have well and truly aired this subject.

Mr. Whittingdale

I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, tempting though it is to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) down that path.

I want to say a little more about the important issue of liability. As has already been pointed out, in her statement to the House the Secretary of State made it clear that the Government are not willing to accept liability or to pay compensation for any contamination of conventional crops by GM. Indeed, the industry has made it clear that it, too, is unwilling to accept liability. A survey last year of principal underwriters in the UK found that neither farmers considering growing GM crops nor non-GM farmers seeking to protect their businesses from contamination by GM crops would be able to find anyone willing to give them insurance. So as the Select Committee says in its response to the Government, it appears that the Government is happy to leave conventional and organic farmers exposed to the possibility of severe financial losses and the GM industry free from mandatory inclusion in any scheme to establish proper liability". That failure is enough on its own to prevent commercial cultivation from taking place. So in effect, having given a green light to planting, the Government have immediately erected a road-block to any further progress.

There is one other obstacle to the introduction of GM that is perhaps even more insurmountable: public opinion. All the polls continue to show a clear majority who say that they would refuse to eat GM food, and almost all the major retailers regard assuring their customers that their products are GM-free as a marketing necessity.

In her statement to the House, the Secretary of State was refreshingly honest. She admitted that the "GM Nation?" debate showed widespread opposition to the commercialisation of GM crops. What is more, as people learned more about it, their hostility deepened. The truth is that, as with other safety issues—the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine; nuclear power stations; mobile telephones—people do not trust the assurances that they are given. Until that changes, there is little likelihood of there being a market in this country for GM foods.

Mr. Challen

A certain degree of party-political disputatiousness—if there is such a word—has crept into the debate. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but I have not been able to determine from what he said his party's exact position on GM. It seems to reflect a desire for more scientific discovery of the quality or otherwise of GM, but will he say clearly—so that no one can accuse his party of being populist by saying in its manifesto before the next election that it is against GM, when that may not actually be the case—what exactly he is calling for? Is he, for example, calling for an extended moratorium on GM?

Mr. Whittingdale

I would hate to be accused of disputatiousness and I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman. I think that I have already made it clear that we keep an open mind, but wish to proceed cautiously on a case-by-case basis and having regard to clear scientific evidence. My concern—it is also the concern of many—is that the scientific evidence is not clear and that there has been no proper assessment of some of the serious concerns expressed about farm-scale evaluations. It is also important to take account of the experience of other countries that have had a much longer history of GM cultivation. Until such evaluations have taken place, we would not support the introduction of commercial cultivation in this country.

Andrew George

In the spirit of wanting to avoid unnecessary political disputatiousness and while he is talking about the public desire for GM on the shop shelves, will the hon. Gentleman clarify for the record what market assessments were undertaken by the previous Conservative Government when they gave the necessary approvals for GM soya and tomato puree?

Mr. Whittingdale

There is a distinct difference between approving the sale of GM products where concerns were expressed about health but where the scientific evidence is pretty clear, and approving GM cultivation where the concerns are primarily environmental. It is those concerns that we believe have not yet been adequately addressed.

However much the scientific evidence suggests that people should feel able to buy GM products, it is clear at the moment that people are not persuaded of the case. We believe strongly that people should have the necessary information to enable them to make a choice. People want assurances that the food that they buy really is GM free, and the EU labelling requirements certainly go some way towards achieving that, but some concerns remain on that front, too. Some people fear that, despite their best efforts, they may fall foul of the new regulations.

One particular example cited over the last few days is that of beekeepers, who obviously cannot tell their bees where they can and cannot go. If GM crops are introduced into this country, there is a real possibility of the bees foraging on them. Beekeepers will then he faced with the choice of either testing their honey at considerable expense in order to demonstrate that there is no GM content, or labelling it as possibly containing GM. At the moment, that would almost certainly spell commercial death.

There remain real concerns about the knock-on effects to industry as a whole and the possible costs that many businesses might incur as a result of the introduction of GM. As I say, however, Conservative Members are not opposed to GM crops in principle. We recognise the benefits to our farmers and consumers that such crops could bring, but many questions remain to be answered before the Government proceed. I have to tell the House that, despite the Government statement last week and despite the Minister's comments this afternoon, the Government have still not provided satisfactory answers to those questions.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches in this debate.

6.4 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

When I spoke to a colleague about this debate and my opposition to GM, she simply shrugged and said, "But it's progress, and you can't stop progress." I do not accept that the commercialisation of GM crops is progress. I believe that it is a reckless experiment with our natural environment and human health—an experiment conducted by a handful of companies that have consistently made false claims for their products, evaded public scrutiny and resisted every attempt to regulate their behaviour.

GM technology was not introduced to deal with problems in this country or the developing world. It was developed by companies seeking to control agricultural practices that would boost their profits—

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

And their pesticides.

Joan Ruddock

And their pesticides, as my hon. Friend notes from a sedentary position.

The apparently simple genetic modifications made to GM crops to ensure tolerance to their brand chemicals or the expression of insect toxins are quite unlike conventional breeding, contrary to what the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said in his opening remarks. The constructs that create genetically modified organisms are designed to cross species barriers. They introduce foreign DNA, parts of bacteria and viruses, and often carry antibiotic resistance markers. They are inherently unstable, and are expressed in every part of the plant without the control mechanisms that affect the plant's natural genome.

Yet, despite the obvious differences, the biotech industry has based its safety case on the concept of substantial equivalence—that is, that the GM product is substantially equivalent to the non-GM product. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment spoke about the peer review process, but there is no question of peer review in the substantial equivalence dossiers, as they are produced by the companies involved in GM.

I shall give an example. Last week, the Government voted in the EU Agriculture Council for a marketing consent to be given to GM sweetcorn Btll on the basis of substantial equivalence. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), last month told European Standing Committee C that the sweetcorn had undergone rigorous safety tests. However, Government scientists had not seen the complete scientific dossier—supplied, of course, by the biotech company—and there is no public access to the data provided.

Crucially, the testing of the Bt toxin was based on the natural bacteria and not the GM plant itself, even though unconnected insect trials have shown no adverse affects from Bt bacteria, but serious damage from Bt plant toxin. Furthermore, no details could be provided on allergenicity, despite increasing evidence of allergic reactions to GM products.

For example, in the US, a Bt maize called Starlink, which was designed for animal feed, got into the human food chain. Fifty people reported allergies, some of which were serious, and the company lost $1 billion in recalled food. In Germany, a pro-GM farmer fed his cattle Bt maize. Some of the cattle fell sick, and 12 died. Again, the company paid compensation, but denied liability.

Do the Government propose to continue to support the marketing of new GM foods in the face of such evidence, on the basis of substantial equivalence? My hon. Friend the Minister said that there is ongoing independent research into food safety. If so, why are approvals being given before we see the results of those ongoing experiments? I shall table a parliamentary question asking him to prepare a list of all the experiments that he says—and I believe him—are taking place.

Has there been any follow-up to the one study—at Newcastle university—in which human volunteers ate GM, and in which the GM material entered the gut bacteria of at least three people after only one meal? It is vital that we know what the follow-up experiments were. Frankly, I want to know what the Food Standards Agency is up to, because I am not convinced that it has carried out its public duty to protect public health in that respect. If it is carrying out further independent research, why did it say that the dossier provided under the novel food regulation for sweetcorn Bt 11 was satisfactory?

I turn to the environmental issues that are the direct responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister. I give him credit for responding to the many concerns that we have raised with him and I give his Department credit for initiating the field-scale evaluations. Of course the trials have value in themselves, but the Environmental Audit Committee pointed out that the scope of the trials was very narrow and the results cannot be regarded as adequate grounds for a decision to be taken in favour of commercialisation". I could not agree more.

The experience of commercial growing of GM crops in north America and Argentina reinforces that statement. Argentina's experiment with GM is proving a disaster. That was highlighted when a toxic cloud, caused by farmers using a cocktail of powerful chemicals in a desperate bid to control the weeds in their GM soya, enveloped a rural village. It is worth repeating what the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said—that throughout Argentina GM farmers are now using twice the level of chemicals that conventional soya farmers are using. GM farmers are also resorting to the pernicious pesticides paraquat and atrazine to control herbicide-resistant weeds.

A similar pattern of increasing chemical usage has emerged in Canada with GM canola—or oilseed rape, as we know it. Contamination of non-GM crops has wiped out the organic canola industry and 95 per cent. of conventional canola seed is now contaminated by GM.

The lessons for the UK are clear. Experience to date indicates that GM crops do not fulfil the promises of less chemical use or consistently higher yields, and contamination of non-GM and organic crops and seeds is the norm. The Minister mentioned cotton and the reduced chemical use, but that has been the pattern of all other GM crops—an initial reduction in chemicals used, then year-on-year increases. There have also been spectacular failures of GM cotton crops in some developing countries. GM cotton does not have a clean bill of health.

The challenge for the Government, in the face of their willingness to permit the growing of even one GM crop in this country, is how to guarantee consumer choice. Can the Minister guarantee that Britain's growing organic industry will not only be protected, but expanded? Can he guarantee the purity of seed stocks? The key issues are liability and co-existence. Rules must be enshrined in statute, as the Agriculture and Environment and Biotechnology Commission has made clear, because voluntary agreements will not work.

Most importantly, who will be liable when non-GM or organic products are contaminated with GM? The biotech companies have said that they will not pay, and the insurance companies have said that they will not insure. How will the Government's commitment to sustainable farming and the organic action plan survive if GM crops are planted commercially? The Minister said that maize will be safe because it does not cross-pollinate and its seeds do not survive the winter. But we know that contamination occurs through farm machinery, in transport and in other ways. Nothing is safe unless we have adequate separation distances and a proper liability regime.

Are the Government deaf to the wishes of consumers, 86 per cent. of whom have said that they are not happy with the idea of eating GM food? How can we ensure choice? GM can be detected at the level of 0.1 per cent. and that is the current benchmark used by supermarkets for their GM-free products. To guarantee future production to that level, seed purity must be maintained. Do the Government intend to support the EU proposal for 0.3–0.5 per cent. seed purity, which would jeopardise all future attempts to meet the standard 0.1 per cent. that is now accepted for the end product?

In only a few minutes, it is impossible to do justice either to this subject or to the comprehensive briefing materials that have been supplied by Friends of the Earth, Five Year Freeze, the Soil Association, Gene Watch UK and the Consumers Association. The Government have had the benefit of a huge amount of advice from their many experts, but none of it is conclusive. The science remains uncertain, the economics unproven and the public hostile, and the myth that GM will save the starving is well on the way to being exploded, yet Ministers constantly vote in European Councils for marketing consents for new GM foods to be sold in this country and were rescued from their desperate decision on the commercialisation of GM maize only by the company's decision to pull out of the UK.

I appeal to my colleagues to think again, to use the time that is now available for truly independent research on GM, to support the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) and to establish a statutory framework for co-existence and liability that will guarantee consumer choice and a future for sustainable farming and safe food.

6.16 pm
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

It is always an honour to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). She has taken a consistent approach and always asks responsible questions on this subject. Debates on GM in the Chamber are always richer for her contribution.

As the Minister rightly said in his opening remarks, the GM debate has been characterised by extremes, although they are not represented in the Chamber; neither the scientific cavaliers nor the blinkered Luddites have appeared in any GM debate in which I have been involved in this place, although there may be different perspectives on how sound the science should be before decisions should be taken. That is very much the nub of the issue that we are debating. Some people may be less cautious about progress on the issue, but no Member who has taken part in the debate has taken either a blinkered or a cavalier approach, which is encouraging.

Beyond A-levels, I make no great claim to have significant scientific qualifications that would enable me to pontificate on the subject, so I speak as a nonscientist. In the context of the decisions that have to be made, the scientific focus seems to be on the environmental consequences rather than those for human health, although questions have been put about the human health aspects.

We might consider the US population as a pilot study for the impact of GM on human health. There are many Cornish émigrés in the USA and I have many family connections there. I love the place and the people tremendously, although I do not share their life style or their political view of the world. We must assume that their current political viewpoints are not the result of eating GM food, so we need other evidence to prove the risks to human health.

We already know about the possible environmental risks due to the release of GM, so it is appropriate that there should be robust scientific evidence to prove that a GM product would not have an adverse affect on biodiversity or the wider environment. The Government have largely accepted that approach.

The Minister knows that I remain extremely unhappy with the way in which the Government have handled such debates in this, the pre-eminent debating and scrutiny Chamber in the United Kingdom. I have put my views on record on many occasions, and the cross-party motion that I sponsored—motion 25 on today's Order Paper—certainly emphasises the point that hon. Members in all parties wish the Government to be a little more transparent and open in engaging with such debates in the Chamber.

We suggest that the Government table a substantive motion, with a vote, for debate on the Floor of the House, so that all hon. Members can take part and express their views about the Government's approach not just to GM crops and GM foods, but to the whole GM issue, as it affects this country and the decisions that the Government—or at least Government agencies, such as the Food Standards Agency—have to make on our behalf. Such a debate would allow us to give the Minister evidence of the Government's inconsistent approach to GM.

I have raised the issue at business questions, but on 29 January the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford received the following answer from the Leader of the House: as soon as we are in a position to do so we are committed to having a debate. I am sure that there will be no question of proceeding with any decision until the debate has occurred."—[Official Report, 29 January 2004; Vol. 417, c. 398.] That clearly indicates that we were due to have the debate before the decision was made, not after the statement to the House on 9 March, and I protested about that to the Secretary of State.

Although I am sure that the Minister is tired of hearing me say this, I must emphasise that, on that issue and that of the statement on single farm payments, it is simply not good enough for DEFRA Ministers to come to the House to treat the Chamber as a notice board, rather than a debating chamber. Some of us largely support the approach that the Government are taking in both respects, and they would find the debate far better and more consensual if they were able to bring such issues to the House, engage with it and allow open scrutiny, rather than treating the House as a notice board for an hour during a statement.

Despite what the Minister told me earlier, the statement is the only time that the Government have given to the issue. All the Adjournment debates, all the scrutiny in the Select Committees and all the European Standing Committee debates on the issue have resulted from other Committees and Back Benchers bringing these matters to the Government's attention. I am sorry to labour that point, but I hope that I am driving it home, so that the Minister and Department take it on board and do not make the same mistake again.

A number of issues were raised in the statement, and the Minister has dealt with some of them to an extent. The Government have decided to accept that Chardon LL maize can be grown in the United Kingdom. They expected that it would be grown from the spring of next year, but the Secretary of State said in her statement of 9 March that Bayer would need to submit fresh evidence if it wanted to renew the licence from October 2006. At the time, I asked—I do not think that the Minister has answered this—why it would be acceptable to grow that maize in the spring of 2005, but not in 2007. There was a further question about the weight of evidence. Given that new evidence will be required for Chardon LL GM maize to be grown in the UK from October 2006, will new evidence be required for other types of GM maize and, if so, what evidence? I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation, but do the Government believe that, although the industry has made it clear that it is not prepared to fund a liability scheme, one should nevertheless be put in place? The Government are not prepared to fund such a scheme, and I doubt whether the farming industry is prepared to do so across the board, so there is a logjam. If the issue remains unresolved, does that mean that there can be no commercialisation of GM in this country?

Mr. Morley

I am happy to clarify the position as far as I can at this stage in the process. The Government have made it clear that there should be a liability scheme, just as there should be a co-existence scheme, and I have outlined to the House the steps being taken to put them in place. If, after consultation, a liability scheme is put in place and if it is determined that it should be based on an industry contribution, it is up to the biotech industry to decide whether it wants to operate under those conditions—that is the choice that it must make.

Andrew George

I am grateful to the Minister, but clearly some farmers and growers will suffer unintended consequences as a result of the decision on the commercial growing of GM and may be put out of business. It is therefore important to reassure people who want to retain their edge in the marketplace as non-GM organic growers that they will not be undermined, and that there is a liability scheme to which they can appeal if they are affected. I am grateful for the Minister's assurance, and I look forward to the Government's publication of the consultation documents on the liability and co-existence schemes, both of which are fundamental to the future of the industry.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) mentioned beekeepers. The Minister raises his eyebrows, but perhaps he will clarify the position.

Mr. Morley

I am grateful for an opportunity to do so. Under the thresholds agreed by the EU, food is deemed to be GM only if its GM content is over 0.9 per cent. Honey could not exceed that level, so it could not be labelled as GM.

Andrew George

I am sure that the beekeepers of the UK will be reassured by that explanation. They would not want the GM content of any of their products to exceed 0.1 per cent.—the organic standard that some people believe should be the absolute threshold—so I am sure that the Minister will receive further correspondence from them.

For regions and localities that wish to maintain their market edge the establishment of GM-free zones mentioned by the Secretary of State in her statement on 9 March will be extremely important. There are many places, including my own area of west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where the majority of growers want to take full advantage of being able to promote their product as GM free. What statutory support will be available for them? The Secretary of State suggested that the matter would be kept under review and that she would consult EU colleagues about the introduction of more robust measures. That is extremely important.

If the Government intend to introduce measures to protect farmers, or at least to ensure that growers and farmers have the option of trying to dissuade other growers who may be considering growing GM in their vicinity, it would be interesting to hear what mechanisms might be put in place to allow that to happen. Because a few farmers and growers want to remain GM-free, we should not take the view that no GM should be grown in the UK, but when all the assurances have been given and the Government have made a proper decision based on sound science, there should still be the opportunity for local measures to be taken to protect growers and to enable them to maintain clear market advantage.

Mr. Drew

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I tabled an early-day motion on the possibility of introducing buffer zones for pesticide use. I know he had some difficulties with aspects of that early-day motion. I spoke to the National Farmers Union, which thought it would be impractical to operate buffer zones for pesticides in this country because land space is so tight. If it is impossible for pesticides, how does the hon. Gentleman think such a measure would operate for GM?

Andrew George

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. I am not a spokesman for the NFU or any agricultural body. Establishing buffer zones for pesticides should be a great deal easier, given that they would not be wind blown, one hopes, whereas pollen seeds could he carried very long distances. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should put his question to others.

Ms Walley

In the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments about commercial growers and the ways in which organic commercial growers could maintain their integrity, what does he have to say about people who grow organically for the sheer joy of it? There are hundreds of thousands of farmers who grow commercially, but just as many people who grow in their own gardens. What about people who belong to organic associations and want to carry on growing organic produce in their gardens?

Andrew George

That is a good point. I am not saying that commercial growers are the only people who should have a say. All those who are engaged in growing and have an interest of one type or another—not merely a commercial interest—should have a say in the way in which policy is developed in the locality. I hope the Government will take that on board when they introduce measures to support the establishment of GM-free zones.

On 9 March the Secretary of State said that Chardon LL maize could be grown only if it is managed as in the trials, or under such conditions as will not result in adverse effects on the environment."—[0fficial Report, 9 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1382.] Although that has been put off as a result of the decision of a commercial company, so we are told, what conditions other than those in the trials would be deemed not to result in adverse effects on the environment, and who will take that decision?

The Government will find themselves under a great deal of pressure following last week's announcement from the US Administration challenging the moratorium in the EU and threatening to impose a £1 billion fine on the EU for the moratorium. On 28 April 2004, an article in the Daily Mail—not my regular read—stated: America opposes full labelling because it is concerned that once consumers know a product contains GM ingredients they will boycott it, so harming U.S. exports. The UK Government have an opportunity to show leadership both in Europe and in the US, and the criticisms that they have behaved like a poodle with regard to the US are possibly unfair. GM offers an admirable opportunity for the UK to use its strong and special relationship with the US to show not only that the UK is proceeding on the grounds of sound science and an appropriate moratorium, but that proper choice for consumers in purchasing or consuming any food product is of fundamental importance, and I hope that the Government argue strongly on that front.

We cannot take future decisions at a speed that precludes a responsible and cautious approach. Decisions must clearly be based on sound science, and consumers must be presented with an informed choice. The Government must be congratulated on consulting the public and undertaking field-scale trials and scientific and commercial reviews.

Gregory Barker

Why must the Government be congratulated on consulting the public when they patently ignore what the public says? What is the point of such a consultation?

Andrew George

I am doing my very best to sugar the pill that I am offering the Minister on this issue. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have criticised the Government for mistiming the public consultation, which was concluded before the publication of essential science on which there should have been a public debate. I take his point that it is absurd to consult the public before the farm-scale trial evaluations report and before the commercial and scientific reports are produced. However, the Government have gone further than many of us expected, given that elements within the Government are more pro-science than the Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Gregory Barker


Andrew George

I am sorry. I meant pro-GM.

The Government must take it on board that in future they must gather the evidence and then consult not only the public but this House.

6.38 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)

I begin by declaring an interest in an organic retail firm. I also pay tribute to the Environmental Audit Committee report, which was thoughtful—not being a speed reader, I thought that it deserved more than one day's contemplation and that it should have been taken into account before decisions were made.

Having listened to the debate, the central question is why the Government are so anxious to support GM in the face of all the pressures to the contrary. First, as has been repeatedly pointed out, the public do not want GM. If the Government want to restore trust, it does not help to have a nationwide consultation, find out that 85 per cent. of people do not want GM crops in this country and then proceed in the other direction. Secondly, the supermarkets will not stock it because there is no market in it.

Thirdly, even the biotech companies are pulling out. I am referring not only to the withdrawal of Bayer CropScience from the Chardon LL application, but to other biotech companies pulling out even from research trials, which have slumped from 140 two years ago to 42 last year and just one this year.

Fourthly, even farmers' initial enthusiasm has begun to wane. The claim that yields would increase and pesticide use would decrease has turned to dust—literally so in the case of the Argentine pampas to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) referred. That area, which contains a quarter of global GM production, now faces ecological catastrophe as a result of soil erosion. Charles Benbrook, the former head of the agricultural division of the US National Academy of Sciences—I would regard that as a very reliable authority—has found that over the past eight years pesticide use has increased by 50 million lb in the US, where two thirds of the world's GM crops are grown. I would say to my hon. Friend the Minister that that is despite what has happened in relation to herbicide-tolerant maize, and it is caused by volunteers, super-weeds and increasing resistance from new strains of weeds.

Fifthly, even the Government's wider policies are incompatible with GM. In my view, their central agricultural policy, apart from getting rid of the common agricultural policy, is to generate sustainable agriculture in this country—they are absolutely right to do so—and to implement the excellent Curry report. That is not consistent with promoting GM, not least because of the high and increasing use of chemical pesticides. Moreover, the Government—including, notably, the Prime Minister—have repeatedly made it clear that they support a major extension of organic crops and have pledged themselves to more than double by 2010 the percentage of organic food that is consumed and has been cultivated in this country. That, too, is incompatible with GM, because cross-contamination by GM crops will wipe out the organic sector. There is no doubt that within the small confines of farming in this country that will happen, as it has on the Canadian prairies.

Given all that, why are the Government still so hellbent on GM, apart from the well known fact that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are so keen on it? The only answer appears to be—

Mr. Drew

My right hon. Friend did valuable work on this when he was Environment Minister. Does he agree that the most worrying aspect is that the companies are in a win-win situation, because as they supply the pesticides, they have a monopoly not only on the seeds but on the support that goes with them?

Mr. Meacher

I am entirely aware of why the companies are in favour of GM. If one can monopolise the supply of seeds every year, as well as the pesticides that the seed is genetically engineered to resist, one has made it and the potential for an unprecedented bonanza opens up. However, I am talking about a completely different matter, namely the Government.

The only answer to my question appears to be this: Ministers say that under EU law they cannot reject a crop unless it can be shown that it constitutes a risk to the environment or to human health, and the line is that that has not been demonstrated. In my view, that is the heart of the current contention over GM policy. Relatively little evidence is available to promote the conclusions because it has deliberately not been sought. However, even the little that exists is damning.

The farm-scale evaluations, even with their narrow remit, for which I do not apologise, show that GM oilseed rape and beet are worse for the environment. I submit that the same would probably be true of maize if a less toxic herbicide than atrazine had been used on conventional maize. That will have to happen in future because of the EU ban. Of course, we now have the time—because GM crops will not be planted in this country for several years—to find out by replicating the trials.

It is known from the chief scientific adviser's review panel report that, after GM crops have been sown, soil pollution can persist for up to 16 years before it is safe to plant conventional or organic crops. It is known that super-weeds and gene stacking generate huge and potentially long-term insuperable problems in north America. It is known that if farmers sought to maximise commercial yields, which they do in the real world by spraying more often or using stronger mixes, it would be bound to create substantial harm to the environment. Let us be frank: it is known that co-existence is impossible because no one can state a separation distance that guarantees the protection of conventional or organic crops from cross-contamination.

If the Government were genuinely so minded, there is no doubt, at least in my mind, that the reasons that I have outlined are sufficient and consistent with EU and international law to reject GM crops because of their proven adverse impact on the environment. Those arguments could also be used in the case of the World Trade Organisation.

The evidence for the impact on human health is slowly accumulating. In my view, there is already more than sufficient to argue the case on the precautionary principle, which is written into EU food law, that GM food should not be allowed to enter the human food chain until significant further research is done. My hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said that there was no evidence of adverse effects on human health from eating GM foods. The reason for that is that no one has looked for them. I repeat the well known phrase that the absence of evidence does not represent evidence of absence. It is incredible but true that no peer-reviewed publications of clinical studies exist on the human health effects of GM food.

However, we know that DNA recombination technology is inherently unstable and leads to substantial scrambling of foreign and host DNA at the sites of integration, with attendant unpredictable risks. We know that the much used cauliflower mosaic virus CaMV 35S promoter was widely incorporated into GM crops before its unsafe properties became known. It not only possesses a recombination hot spot, but it is promiscuously active in making genes over-express in species throughout the living world, including human cells.

It is clear that the doctrine of substantial equivalence, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford eloquently referred and which was based on a highly prejudicial decision by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1994 and used thereafter as a device to circumvent direct trials of the effects of GM foods on human health, is—I do not mince my words—a scam. It should be dropped if any public trust in the process is to be secured.

We also know that in the very few cases involving human or animal tests in which the results were seriously disturbing, the research was closed down and no further action was taken. My hon. Friend referred to some of those cases. In the Newcastle study, in which a sample was fed a single meal of GM soya, the GM DNA survived almost intact and transferred to the gut bacteria, which could compromise antibiotic resistance. The Pusztai study found that GM potatoes with snowdrop lectin damaged every organ system of rats, resulting especially in a thickening of the stomach lining, which could be—I say only "could be"—a precursor of cancer. My hon. Friend also referred to the case in which a dozen dairy cows died on a farm in Hesse in north Germany after eating Syngenta's Bt 176 maize. Syngenta paid the farmer compensation, which might be taken as admitting liability.

The most worrying thing is that, in all those cases, the results were simply rubbished by the scientific establishment as flawed, and none was ever followed up—as normally happens in the scientific world—with further tests to confirm or refute the original findings. In other words, there was a preference for personality vilification rather than genuine scientific inquiry, and I greatly deplore that. All that that succeeds in doing is giving the impression that there is something to hide. I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government have given that impression through their handling of the Chardon LL maize research at Reading university.

What we do know is that GM maize from the FSE trials was removed secretly at night two years ago, to be used as cattle feed and to test the effects on the cows. We were told at the time that the results would be published, peer reviewed and presented to the regulatory authorities. Two years on, none of that has happened. Why? The strong suspicion is that the results were so unpalatable to the GM industry that they were suppressed. When are the Government going to give us the results of those tests and get them peer reviewed—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's time is up. I call Mr. Peter Ainsworth.

6.52 pm
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) Con)

It is a great privilege and a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), who knows more about these things than anyone in the House. He was good enough to give evidence to our Select Committee and he was, of course, intimately involved in setting up the farm-scale trials in the first place.

The Minister was very interested in the report of the Environmental Audit Committee—not only the one that we published in March but the one that we attached to the Government's response to that report—and he spoke at length about it. I hope that the House will forgive me if I risk creating a rather anoraky and dislocated debate by replying to some of the points that he raised, and by focusing on the Committee's work, rather than dealing with some of the other very important issues, such as those raised by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on human health. I want to do that not because I am interested in rehearsing old arguments; I want to make new arguments. I should make it clear, however, that I stand by every word of the Committee's report.

I want to engage in this debate because I believe that the dispute—and it is a dispute—that our Select Committee has with the Government over this issue sheds some interesting light on the Government's whole approach to GM crops. Their attitude towards this issue is very curious, even perverse. It has already been pointed out today that the statement made by the Secretary of State on 9 March about GM maize flew in the face of public opinion. It was contentious and unpopular. I am all in favour of the Government making contentious and unpopular statements, and they are getting rather experienced at doing so, but I do not understand a Secretary of State making such a statement when there is no need to do so. As the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton said, there is no market for these GM crops, and there was no need to make that statement at the time that it was made. The subsequent action by Bayer CropScience suggested that that was certainly the case. So we now have a ludicrous situation in which the Government appear to be more keen on GM crops than the GM industry itself. It is a preposterous state of affairs.

I accept that the Government went to great lengths to set up a rational process for evaluating the benefits or otherwise of GM crops. I commend them on that. The farm-scale evaluations were just one of a series of measures to which the Minister referred earlier, including the science review, the cost-benefit review, the report on co-existence and liability, and the "GM Nation?" debate. The problem is that the science review highlighted gaps in the science and public concerns about the technology, the cost-benefit review indicated no significant economic benefit to UK agriculture, the co-existence and liability review did not resolve the issues of co-existence and liability, as we have heard this afternoon, and the "GM Nation?" debate resulted in an overwhelmingly negative response from the British people. The farm-scale trials were, in the opinion of the Environmental Audit Committee, equivocal and flawed in their outcome and very narrow in their scope.

The Minister seemed to be implying this afternoon that the Committee was hostile to the science. We are not hostile to the science or critical of the work that the scientists did. We merely differ from the Government in interpreting the results of that science. Put simply, as a result of the problems with atrazine, we still do not know whether GMHT maize, if grown commercially in the UK, would be better or worse for biodiversity than conventional maize. That is the situation in a nutshell.

Gregory Barker

Does my hon. Friend also agree that the benchmark against which such GM crops were judged was conventional farming, which over recent years has been bad for biodiversity? We ought to be aiming for a much higher benchmark of biodiversity in the British countryside than the low level to which it has fallen in recent years.

Mr. Ainsworth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he will find that I am coming to exactly that point.

When the Environmental Audit Committee published its report on the farm-scale evaluations on 5 March, we asked the Government—politely, I hope—to consider it carefully before using the trials as a basis for allowing commercial growing of GM crops. The Secretary of State's answer to that request was to make her statement four days later, as we have heard. The Government then justified ignoring our advice on the grounds that our report contained nothing new. They repeated that claim in their response to the Committee's report published today, and the Minister repeated it again in the Chamber. That is the first of many specious and misleading claims made by the Government about that report.

The report and its contents were only not new in the sense that hardly any Select Committee reports contain new information. We set out not to create new science, as the Minister seems to want to imply, but to analyse existing science, to take evidence from those who had been involved in that work, to draw conclusions, and to make recommendations as a Select Committee. Our recommendations were new, of course, and it was discourteous to the House that the Government brushed them aside with such haste. That raises much bigger questions about the relationship between the Government and Select Committees, but now is not the time to debate that.

I must also say, although the Minister rejected the claim earlier, that the Government have been guilty in their response to the report of either wilfully or carelessly misinterpreting the advice offered by my Committee. I will give him some examples. In their response, the Government seek to imply that we recommended that the benchmark for better biodiversity, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) just mentioned, should be set higher for GM crops than for conventional crops. We did not. What we said was that if we are to halt the years of disastrous decline in biodiversity in this country, the benchmark for all agriculture should be higher.

The Government go on to say that we failed to take oral evidence from the research consortium that did the groundwork on the trials, and that that constitutes a "serious weakness". First, the consortium could have submitted more than one and a half sides of unilluminating A4 material in written evidence; secondly, the research consortium was not in charge of the design of the trials—the scientific steering committee was. Of course we took evidence from its chairman, and based some of our conclusions on that evidence. Later, incidentally, we learned from an article in The Guardian that the chairman of the scientific steering committee was a passionate proponent of GM technology. That might raise questions in some people's minds about his appropriateness for the job, and about the independence that he brought to it.

Next, the Government take us to task for taking evidence from the Canadian National Farmers Union, because it has such a small membership. That is a trivial point, given that the ecological problems caused by GM crops in north America are so well documented and so well known. We have heard this afternoon about the problems caused by super-weeds, extra herbicide applications and so forth.

The Government then assert that the high proportion of GM maize and rape grown in north America, relative to conventional maize and rape growing, suggests that there are commercial benefits. I suggest that it might mean something completely different. It might reflect the fact that, as the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton and others have pointed out, this technology gets everywhere. It might reflect the fact that it is no longer possible to grow some organic crops in this environment because the GM technology has got out of control.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ainsworth

I do not have enough time.

In any case, we were not concerned with commercial benefits at that stage of our discussions. We were concerned with the ecological damage that was being witnessed in north America. Either deliberately or otherwise, the Government missed the point of that argument. I hope that the House is beginning to understand what I meant when I used the phrase "wilfully or carelessly misinterpreting".

There are also sins of omission. The Committee was particularly anxious for a robust regime to be established to cover liability. The Government's response ignores that altogether. I know that the Minister has said things about it today, but why did he not take the opportunity, when responding to our report, to make the Government's position clear? He did not refer to it at all.

The present situation is this: the industry has said that it will not pay, and the Government have said that they will not finance compensation if things go wrong. Organic and conventional farmers, and distributors and food manufacturers, will be left completely exposed if the technology is commercialised and if anything goes wrong with it. Fortunately, because of the delay—because the industry has temporarily thrown in the towel—there is still time to put this right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle has suggested.

It is true that I am personally disappointed that what I hope can be seen as a thoughtful and serious report, running to 250 pages, has been met by a nine-page wonder of tendentious denial and evasion: but I am not motivated by sour grapes, or by a sense of hurt pride on behalf of the EAC. I have raised these criticisms and concerns, and will continue to do so, because I believe that the curious Government response to the GM debate is symptomatic of a wider attitude in some powerful quarters of the scientific establishment, which—alas—appears to include the Royal Society. That attitude is unscientifically based on the ruling hypothesis that GM crops are an unequivocal benefit to mankind. The Minister may not believe that, but it seems to me that people in government in very senior positions are approaching the debate from that angle.

There is no evidence that that hypothesis is correct. Significant doubts remain. Much more work needs to be done. The public are not satisfied. The debate will go on, however hard the Government try to close it down and however many genetically modified raspberries they, the Royal Society or anyone else may blow at public opinion.

7.4 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab)

It is a delight to be back in the bear garden with my right hon. and hon. Friends to discuss this issue. I do not know how many times we have discussed it, but it certainly does not go away. Nothing will take away the euphoria that I feel today, not only because of the Government's attitude to this thorny problem but because Norwich City has reached premier status again and will stay there. That makes me feel good.

We have in Norwich the John lnnes institute, a world-class centre not only for GM technology but for conventional plant breeding. I should declare an interest, although I have not worked in the GM field, because I worked with those technologies in the cancer field. Of course we collaborated and talked about technologies, and I knew of the institute's good work in developing vaccines in plants and its studies in the rice genome, which I think will help plant breeding in the developing world. I should also declare that I am a nonremunerated—not even in GM carrots—board member of the Institute of Food Research, which does excellent work in examining the effects on people's health and on food.

The point has often been made here that genetically modified crops are being grown extensively in north and south America and in China, although not in Europe. They have in a sense become part of the normal diet in those places, if not in Europe, where there is still contention, despite the fact that 300 million US citizens continue to eat GM soya without any ill effects in a very litigious society, and many Europeans, including people here, have eaten it while in the US, with no adverse consequences.

Joan Ruddock

I wonder how my hon. Friend thinks it would be possible for Americans to know whether they had a health problem related to GM food, when GM and non-GM foods are completely mixed and those people are not conscious of what they are eating.

Dr. Gibson

The epidemiology studies carried out in every major centre, including universities in the United States and elsewhere, into the effects of the food, and some experiments in that field, have shown no effects whatever that correlate with the food—although I understand how difficult that is to prove. I do not think that it is incumbent on me to prove that GM food is safe; the people who say that it is unsafe have to prove that. The benefits that GM has given to people, such as the provision of cheap GM soya, have been to the great advantage of the food industry and the people who live in those countries.

Our Government, too, have done study after study, with chief scientific advisers and others examining the issue. The scientific, social and ethical issues have also been examined by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which has said that there is an ethical obligation to explore these potential benefits responsibly, in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty and to improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries. That council says that GM food might not be the entire answer—it does not pretend that it is—but that it cannot be ruled out as part and parcel of our support for a developing world in which people are starving, and need food and help with their agricultural development.

The British Medical Association, too, has made robust submissions that there is no evidence that the foods are unsafe. It seems to me that the evidence is piling up to say that the food is, indeed, safe. I should like to see the real evidence from the other side. Although I do not have the time to do so now, I am quite prepared to take my right hon. and hon. Friends for a GM-free lunch to discuss the evidence that they put forward. I think that I can decimate it. I think that I can make arguments against every single, little experiment that they put forward and give another explanation, although I agree that more work needs to be done.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made it quite clear: There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all the uses of GM", but Equally, there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM."—[Official Report, 9 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1383.] Recognising that people believe that the use of genetic modification should be approached with caution, the Government want regulation and monitoring. Some people want a framework of rules for the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops, and many want a clear regime of traceability and labelling so that they can make their own choices. The Minister offered us all that earlier today, which would seem to meet the demands of the public. Even while the Minister and the Secretary of State were saying that, The Mail on Sunday was publishing an article under the headline, "How I proved that GM crops poisoned an entire village", in which a so-called leading expert in GM crops, Professor Traavik, warned of potential catastrophe if GM crops are used in Britain and claimed an entire village in the Philippines was poisoned by American GM crops. My hon. Friends will know that that has been seriously disputed.

Let us consider some of the other things that the media have said throughout this tortuous debate—nearly every newspaper has made some comment. Headlines include, "Are we at risk from mutant makeup?", "GM crops linked to meningitis", "Lifting the lid on the horror of GM foods", "Mutant porkies on the menu", "GM risk in daily food of millions", "GM food 'threatens the planet'", "Meat may be tainted by Frankenstein food", "M&S sells genetically modified Frankenpants"—that was from that classic newspaper, The Independent on Sunday—"Is GM the new thalidomide?", and so on. There has been a concerted media campaign to convey such a view of GM foods, and it obviously has an effect on people.

Mention has been made of Professor Pusztai, who gave evidence to the Select Committee that I now chair and of which I was a member of in the previous Parliament. He told us that feeding rats with genetically modified potatoes caused them damage. His work eventually appeared in a peer review journal, which is fine, but it first appeared in newspapers and television shows. There is no evidence that his results can be repeated. I can cite times and places where people have tried to repeat the experiments and have not had the same results. The essence of science is to be able to repeat experiments in different labs at different times, perhaps under different conditions, and get the same results.

The scientific community is almost unanimous in support, but the public debate reflects uncertainty. We must ask why the British public are sceptical. I do not want to go into all the questionnaires and so on. Even for someone who is a member of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science and has worked with the Royal Society and others, it is very difficult to find out what the public, or different publics, really think. In fact, the activism has not been public-led; it has been provoked by newspapers, and people have responded by becoming sceptical. People take a precautionary approach because it is the easiest route to take when there are suspicions around.

The scientists have not been brilliant; their arrogance sometimes shines through. I have no support for the arrogance of establishment scientists. We must admit it when we are wrong or when we do not know, and we must consider what we need to do to find out. It is ironic that, over 50 or 60 years, plant breeders have used chemical and radiation mutagenesis to create new varieties, with new modifications and genes leaping about and joining together, with no protest. We must ask why there was no protest then, but there is protest now.

Mr. Roger Williams

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the plant varieties that have been bred are varieties used by organic farmers?

Dr. Gibson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but it is not true that those varieties are all used by organic farmers. There are other problems with organic crops in terms of some of the chemicals that are used on them, but that has been well documented.

The public and scientists have a different concept of risk. The public react to risk in very unpredictable ways—smoking is an example—and the scientists sometimes demonstrate arrogance and are too assured about new technologies. That must sometimes be challenged, and it is challenged by the scientific community, but less so by the public.

People also worry about what is natural. It is often said that something is "not natural", "not right", "not the way it should be". His Royal Highness—I think I can say this without risk—objected to taking into the realm of man what rightly belongs in the realm of God". For him and others, genetic modification is seen as unnatural, articulating a romantic view of nature that sees everything natural as good and anything tampered with by humans as bad. Many people's views do not reflect that view. Scientists do not regard GM as unnatural, but some practices are certainly unethical. Of course, not everything that is possible should be done, although we might disagree on where the line should be drawn. We have to think through the issues and explain how awe, wonder and understanding are part of a scientific reaction to the world around us. But as stewards of the planet, we also have a responsibility to recognise that change is necessary if we are to feed a bourgeoning world population, for example.

The media have a huge effect on people's views, but pressure groups also have a responsibility in this regard. I do not want to talk about my ex-friend Lord Melchett and some of the irresponsible things that he did in Norfolk, such as trampling fields of GM crops. He was taken to court but got away with it on the basis that he was defending the planet. Various arguments can be advanced on that issue.

We need to think about scientists' responsibilities, and although pressure groups have every right to object to GM crops, they, too, must consider their responsibilities. When they lose an argument, they must not jump from issue to issue simply in order to win the day. We all have a responsibility to work together. Scientists need to come out of their ivory towers and talk to religious groups and others. We need to form communities who ask questions, but not in the spirit of confrontation and polarisation that, sadly, marks the current debate. Debate must be truly effective, and we must share ideas. By all means let us disagree, but if we are to make progress we must ask the necessary questions and carry out the necessary experiments.

If anything, the Government have been too soft on this issue; that is the only reason to admonish them. They should have taken a much harder line, rather than listening to 0.00035 per cent. of the population. The science is on their side, and they should go with it.

7.16 pm
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

The last time that I discussed this subject in the Chamber, I had my parliamentary legs shot away by the hard men of the Labour Whips Office. I hope that they will be a little kinder to me this afternoon.

Today, the Environmental Audit Committee published an excellent rebuttal of the Government's response to our own report. In that regard, I pay particular tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who pulled out all the stops.

I want to focus, my remarks on the twin issues of contamination and liability. They were at the heart of the ill-fated private Member's Bill that I endeavoured to introduce recently, but which will be read again on 12 May. I shall preface my remarks by echoing the points made by the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). Many of my own constituents constantly ask me the very questions that he raised. Why are the Government so determined to rush ahead with the promotion of GM crops before they have had the chance fully to evaluate the science and the real longterm impact—not the three-year impact—of this new technology on public health and biodiversity? Why the rush? Why the extraordinary zeal to promote the interests of GM producers? Why the determination to consider only the science that seems to favour their own predetermined ideas? This agenda is undoubtedly being driven by No. 10 Downing street—perhaps the Minister will tell us today what super-Blairite thinking lies behind this boundless enthusiasm for GM crops. I look forward to being enlightened.

Why the reluctance to listen to the general public's concerns about GM technology? This is not just a rural or farming issue; it has gained traction with a broad section of the electorate throughout the country. There is a great deal of interest in this issue in rural Sussex constituencies such as mine, but also in constituencies such as Brighton, Pavilion. Mike Weatherley, the Conservative candidate for that constituency, has been campaigning hard against this Government's drive to force GM crops on to British consumers. He speaks for ordinary consumers, but whatever view one takes—

Mr. Morley

I really do not know why the hon. Gentleman keeps claiming that the Government are promoting GM crops and forcing them on consumers. For goodness' sake, we have had years and years of evaluation and research, which ended with two applications being rejected and one being approved only with conditions—it was on a time limit and has subsequently been withdrawn. It is the present Government who put in place and supported measures for consumer choice. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that when the Conservative Government approved GM soya, they did nothing about labelling and traceability, which were introduced only in 1999 under the present Administration.

Gregory Barker

First, may I say how delighted I am to see the Minister here today? I am only sorry that he was not here when I last spoke in connection with my Bill. I am glad that he has taken the opportunity to speak today. There is no rush and no haste. Why not wait for the fourth trial to be completed and for the atrazine trials to be restarted? Public opinion is seriously puzzled by the agenda that emanates from we know not where.

Mr. Morley

indicated dissent.

Gregory Barker

Whatever side of the GM argument hon. Members are on, the whole House should be able to agree on two principles. The first is that people should be free to choose whether they wish to take the risk of using or consuming new products or new technologies, such as GM crops and GM ingredients. The second is that the manufacturers and producers introducing the new technology should be held responsible and be required to pay damages if their GM products prove harmful to the environment or cause damage to the health or livelihoods of others. Those are basic principles, and I do not believe that there is a real division among us about them.

On the first principle of allowing people to choose to avoid GM, although we already have some GM labelling to assist people, as other hon. Members have highlighted, there are flaws in the system. Even if it were made perfect, there would be a limit on what could be achieved through labelling alone. The problem is that all crop seeds have the potential to mix with other varieties, and GM crops are no different. Cross-pollination can arise easily in many ways—either deliberately or inadvertently by humans or animals carrying the seeds. The problem is that if GM and non-GM crops mix, it may not be possible for consumers who wish to avoid GM to buy GM-free products.

There are many such consumers. The Government's "GM Nation?" debate found that 86 per cent. of respondents did not want to eat GM products. British retailers have, of course, long recognised that. None of the major supermarkets today willingly stock GM food, but on that issue, the Government seem determined to ignore what the market has made abundantly clear. Right or wrong, whatever the evidence, the British consumer does not want to eat GM food. To preserve the choice that so many of our constituents clearly want, we must prevent the contamination of non-GM crops with GM traits. That requires GM crops being planted according to stringent rules governing separation distances and planting intervals, and strict hygiene regulations.

We can always debate the detail of such rules, but the basic principle should be that they are decided on a scientific basis to prevent contamination. When I say "scientific basis", I do not mean something done on the back of one paper or another; I mean making the rules after a considered and impartial judgment of all the relevant science in the area and scrutinising the rules rigorously.

Having met the Minister to discuss my Bill, I know that the Government pretty much share my analysis so far. However, I have been alarmed at the fact that they have been strangely reluctant to take the next logical step in the argument, which is recognition that appropriate rules must be in place before any more GM crops are planted. After all, there is little point in putting rules in place after they are planted—horses and stable doors spring to mind. I shall return to the Government's position after outlining the second of the two important principles—that of liability.

If GM crops lead to problems or cause harm to a person or to the environment, we must have confidence that damages can be reclaimed from the people who have developed the products. At present, if a farmer found that his crop contained GM plants mixed in among the non-GM crop that he planted, it is likely that the person he planned to sell it to would refuse to buy it. With no major food retailers selling GM food, there is unlikely to be much of a market for a contaminated crop. Indeed, the farmer would himself be liable. He would therefore be left seriously out of pocket, and possibly faced with going bust—even more so if he were an organic farmer. Such a producer must be entitled to recompense from the person who caused his crop to become worthless, yet current UK law offers little hope that he would win redress.

Current options for claiming damages rely on case law and nuisance. To secure compensation, the victims of economic harm caused by GMOs would have to prove which of their neighbours was responsible. If there are several local plantings of GM crops, proving the source may be well nigh impossible.

I understand that the Minister broadly agrees with me, and I am sorry that he is not really listening. When he wrote to me, he said that he would listen.

I am also pleased that the Government have ruled out one solution to this problem: that the taxpayer should pay compensation. Even the Government accept that that is a no-no. However, as with the first principle, there is a difference between the Minister's position and mine, and it comes down to timing. It is unacceptable to allow GM crops to be planted before liability rules are in place. Again, there has been hesitancy on the part of the Government to agree.

I shall explain that in more detail. In both February and March, I tabled parliamentary questions asking the Secretary of State if she would make it her policy to ensure that liability and contamination rules were in place before any GM crops were planted. On both occasions, I was told that the Government were considering the report that they had received from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, and that they would make an announcement in due course.

When the GM policy statement was made earlier this month, I studied both it and the subsequent debate carefully. The Secretary of State was asked several times about the timing of liability and coexistence rules, and about when rules would be put in place to prevent GM crops adversely affecting organic and other conventional, non-GM farmers. On each occasion, she said that she "anticipated" that the rules would be in place before any planting happened.

The word "anticipated" appeared to have been very carefully chosen.

Mr. Roger Williams

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that co-existence rules would have to be different for each variety of plant? Beet is a biennial crop that is harvested in its first year, so it never comes to flower and does not contaminate other plants. Also, very few organic growers grow forage maize.

Gregory Barker

That is a fair point. The rules must be different for every variety, but it is possible that some varieties can co-exist in the UK without damaging the environment.

I tabled yet another parliamentary question after the statement. I was pleased to see that the language in the response had toughened up slightly. The Minister for the Environment told me that he now "intended" that rules would be in place first.

It can sometimes seem very much like nit-picking when one digs deep into the words used by Ministers, but it is important to do so. In my experience, Ministers and civil servants usually choose their words carefully and speak precisely. The fact that the words "anticipate" and "intend" fall well short of the word "guarantee"—the one that I was after—seriously worries me. However, even if we give the Minister the benefit of the doubt, we must ask how the rules would be introduced.

I understand that the Minister believes that regulations made under various existing pieces of environmental legislation will cover planting rules, but what level of security and amendment is likely to be given to regulations made under an Act that certainly was not written to cover the many problems specific to GM crops? How, will our constituents have their concerns voiced in the debates on these crucial matters?

On liability, the position is even less clear. I understand that there is no power to make the necessary regulations to determine a liability regime, so when will we see legislation? I appreciate that the Minister will direct me to the consultation on these matters that the Government have announced. Responses to that will no doubt assist Ministers in drawing up the detail of rules, but legislation must be scrutinised here, on the Floor of the House of Commons, and in the devolved Assemblies. The process must guarantee that that happens before GM crops are planted.

My private Member's Bill would guarantee that legal, enforceable rifles to prevent contamination and to determine liability were fully debated and approved by elected politicians, and were in place before any GM crops were planted. It does not specify the rules, or in any way interfere with or pre-empt the Minister's planned consultation. Even a Minister starting out with every intention to put rules in place before further planting will find those intentions strained, if drawing up the rules proves difficult—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the Minister for the Environment has chosen to leave the Front Bench and go and chat to the civil servants. That is extraordinary and unfortunate, given the exchanges that we have had.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

Don't be childish!

Gregory Barker

I am also sorry about the extraordinary remarks from the other Minister, because we were trying to have a sensible debate.

The pressure to allow planting will build up again, and Ministers—perhaps not this Minister for the Environment, but his successor—may be tempted to allow planting under the voluntary codes that governed the crop trials, in the hope that nothing goes wrong and the gap in the liability regime is not exposed. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

The Minister far the Environment was not present, for whatever reason, when my GM Bill received its First Reading last month. However, he is here today and I hope that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environment Quality, when he winds up, will respond to my arguments and specifically inform us whether the Government will oppose my Bill when it returns to the House on 12 May. There is an opportunity here to build a consensus—

Mr. Morley

Not with you, there isn't.

Gregory Barker

The Minister scoffs at that suggestion, and that is genuinely sad. There is some willingness on both sides of the House to try to find some common ground on the issues of liability and contamination, I am sorry that the Minister does not appear interested in taking up that offer.

7.31 pm
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

Just under a week ago, I was privileged to chair a seminar in Westminster Hall that sought to address the question of whether GM crops are safe for the environment or for animal or human consumption. We had a distinguished panel of speakers that morning, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). Most of the other contributors had already conducted detailed research into genetic engineering.

The seminar was driven by scientists and was pro-science. The purpose was to raise a series of scientific questions that required society to engage with the revolutionary nature of the technology with which we have been confronted. I suspect that many of those scientists would endorse some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) about the character of the debate so far. My hon. Friend was right to say that at times it has descended into caricature.

We need to remember, however, that at the start we were not invited to take part in a debate at all. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton, a former Minister for the Environment, will know better than most that the pressure from the biotech corporations was for no labelling, no debate, no field or farm trials and no constraints on the instant issuing of the consents that they sought.

The claims that were presented to Parliament fell into the same category of criticism that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North set out. We were presented with some dreadfully fraudulent arguments for the rapid approval of GM crop planting. We were first offered the absurd doctrine of substantial equivalence, which was an insult to science. GM crops were presented as little more than novel cake decorations. Whatever else one may think of GM crops, the science behind them offers a revolutionary breakthrough. It allows science to cross species barriers on a scale and in nays that we have never been able to do before. However, the least that we owe society is to place the science of scrutiny alongside the science of possibility, and that is what we have not so far done.

The scientists who spoke to Members who turned up at the seminar last week made the case for a Government lead in defining a new science of scrutiny, and the whole House should take that message seriously. I invite the Minister to listen to it and to give the scientific lead for which they were asking.

Many of those scientists were much more enthusiastic about what they saw as the second generation of biotechnology, which will involve the ability to alter existing gene sequences—to make alterations within a given gene sequence—rather than to play fast and loose by taking genes from one sequence and inserting them in another. They told us that the current science of genetic engineering is either flawed or unexplored and that we need new constraints on what we are willing to tolerate outside strict laboratory conditions.

The scientists effectively abolished the other big fib that was foisted on Parliament: the notion that even if we do not like GM food—if the public do not want to buy it, the supermarkets do not want to sell it and the insurance companies will not insure the crops—we ought to license GM crops because they will feed the developing world.

A series of reports from Third World Network showed how country after country in the developing world is finding that GM is a complete scam. They are offered a short-term boost in production in exchange for the surrender of their right to save seed. The consequences for the environment are long-term devastation, while those for human health are unknown. The voices of the poor are asking us to enforce the precautionary principle. Many of them are saying, "Give us other choices about the crops we grow and the ability to use the resources that nature provides us with and we won't need that technology." And nor do we in this country.

We are not faced with food shortages that require us to take that enormous leap of faith. What we face is the requirement to engage with the problem and set the grounds for a different basis for the science of scrutiny. The urgency is beginning to percolate through. Last year, scientists in France undertook a re-evaluation of five of the GM crops that had received approval. They found that the inserted genes had changed their character. The genes were occurring in a different place in the Bt crop and they had changed their character. The instability of those inserted and constructed genes gave rise to enormous concern among French scientists.

The French scientists asked for fresh, rigorous trials, as was the case in the problem of the cows that died in Germany. Some of my hon. Friends have pointed out that Syngenta paid compensation in that case, but the scientists were asking for new rigorous trials into the cause of death of those cows. Only one cow was examined, yet 12 had died—from whatever cause—and more had to be slaughtered owing to unexplained illnesses. The scientists wanted rigorous testing of all those animals to find the cause of death. Instead, the company withdrew the Bt 176 maize from use.

Mr. Morley

I may be able to help my hon. Friend. We asked the German authorities for their opinion on the incident and they told us that the death of the cows was not linked to Bt maize and that a similar number of cows died in almost identical circumstances in the following year, when Bt forage was no longer being used. The German authorities concluded that the cause of death was botulism.

Alan Simpson

The Spanish authorities reviewed that evidence and made an appraisal of their consents for Bt 176 maize, which had received commercial consent in Spain, and they have now withdrawn that consent. I cite that example in respect of the death of the cows in Germany not because I was looking for an opinion but because I was looking for a scientific appraisal based on more than one bloody cow. That is not a decent basis for scientific scrutiny; it is not good science, and that is the platform on which we must insist that the Government and this country proceed.

Members have mentioned the problems of the villagers in the Philippines, 100 of whom became seriously ill with debilitating illnesses in the midst of the GM maize area. The research conducted by Professor Traavik identified that 39 of those villagers carried in their blood antibodies to the Bt biopesticide in the GM maize. I am not asking that we necessarily accept such things; I am saying that we must insist on the replication of tests where concerns arise, but we have not had that. All the mention of the Pusztai experiments has not resulted in a replication of the studies that he conducted; nor of those conducted by the authorities in Egypt that found similar problems with gastrointestinal infections in the mice that ate GM potatoes.

I am not saying, "Shock, horror! We must ban it!" or that we should vilify the scientists who have raised those concerns. All I am saying is that good science proceeds on the basis of replicating the research and subjecting it to rigorous study. We have to demand more tests. There is no demand for consents. Our starting position is that we must say, "No, we can't proceed on a case-by-case basis because we don't have the science to make the decisions." We have to move beyond the benchmarking of substantial equivalence to the testing of transgenes and their toxins.

One of the scientists told me that substantial equivalence is really daft. If two cows are standing side by side—one has BSE and the other has not—it could be said that they are substantially equivalent. How would we know that they are different? We would conduct tests on the cow with BSE. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who suggested that we should test the genetic modifications, rather than the things with genetic modifications. We should move to direct scrutiny, rather than indirect reference pointing.

On the liability regime, I do not believe that co-existence will be possible. In truth, I have never understood the concept of being a little bit pregnant. A little bit of contamination will make a product contaminated and unsaleable, and it will threaten to destroy the basis of our organic farming and the non-GM products that fetch a premium in the marketplace because they are what consumers want. What will separate out those things is making the producers of the crops liable for the contamination or the damage that they may cause. That is why the industry is running from that process.

How do we fund independent research? It is straightforward; we tell companies, "Fine, you seek approvals and produce the GM crops that you want, and then we as a Government will institute independent scientific scrutiny and we'll send you the bill." The costs would be fully recovered from the companies that wanted the consents, but the science would not be dependent on the evidence that the companies chose to release.

The reality is that the GM issue has never been about feeding the world, but about who owns the food chain. The companies that are pushing GM through are down to their last card: contaminate or bust—in fact, contaminate or they go bust—and we will see quite unscrupulous efforts to compromise the food chain and our environmental systems, so that people can throw up their hands and say, "You may have been right, but it is out there now: the damage is done and we must make the best of it." We are still able to make a choice: we can still say no, and the best way to say no is for the Government to give a lead in defining a different base on which we can establish the science of good scrutiny.

7.45 pm
Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD)

I am glad to have been called in this debate, rather than the one earlier this afternoon. I add my support for the report produced by the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I serve, and for the comments of our Chairman, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). We need to take a wider view of the science—it is not a question of being pro or anti-science. Generally, I am against GM, but in deciding whether it is right or wrong, people should not jump to conclusions. We need to know much more. I am worried about the risks, and science should identify what they are.

I congratulate the Government on the fact that they carried out those trials—it would be wrong not to give them credit for the care that they took over them. The Committee rightly made criticisms of the trials, but our Government have gone much further than other Governments. We believe that lessons were learned from that experience but, in a supportive manner, we believe that there is more that we need to look at. The trials were a step on the road and not, unfortunately, an end in themselves. There has been endless procrastination, with one test after another, and we need to understand why the Government are so uncertain about the technology. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) spoke eloquently about his research and the reason why he was so uncertain about the technology. We are not saying, "We are agin science." We are not. One of the major companies in the field is based in my constituency, which is also home to a leading technological university that does wonderful science. Whenever I visit, I never fail to be impressed by the quality of its work and the things that it invents and discovers.

The problem is what we do with those inventions and developments and how we use them. I support the precautionary principle and do not believe that we should let the genie out of the bottle until we have a clearer view of the technology. Part of our debate has focused on the trials at Reading university, in which cattle were fed on Chardon LL maize. The mortality rate of chickens that were subsequently fed on GM maize was twice that of the control group. We need to know more about the effects of GM and its impact on the food chain as a whole. It is not a question of someone asking, "If I eat GM maize, do I get a cold next week?" We need to consider what will happen to our children. At my age, I will almost certainly not have any more children, but we must consider the impact on future generations. In America, people are not yet in a position to see the impact of GM on their descendants, but we already have enough information to see what is happening in other species, and to consider whether those developments were intentional. Are we managing the consequences and do we understand the risks, or are unexpected events occurring? Are we testing for a frequent incidence of such events?

Science should increase our understanding of the issue. It is valid for people to ask whether we could use GM to improve and increase food stocks. There is a commercial benefit in the technology, which is why people are investing in it. But for what purposes should we use it? In our report, we were concerned that crops in the trials were not grown for maximum yield. Any self-respecting farmer, particularly in the current economic climate, grows crops for maximum yield and uses maximum product, but in the trials, farmers were told that they should not aim to achieve maximum yields and should not use herbicide as often as they would like. The technology was not tested in the context in which it would be used.

We have heard many reasons why people would like to take the technology further. We should take up the points made in the debate today and consider what else we could do instead of using GM crops, particularly internationally, to improve food production and to invest in peace. Better trading conditions would produce many benefits in terms of food. There must be much wider scientific testing of the impact of all the aspects that we have heard about today.

I shall close my remarks by expressing the hope that before we go further in the real world, the Government will take on board the fact that we have undertaken only half or perhaps only a quarter of the tests on GM products that are needed.

7.50 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

Like the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), I believe that in a debate such as this it is the responsibility of the House to consider the public interest, to examine the evidence and to inform public opinion as well as other hon. Members. Perhaps there is more agreement than has been suggested in the course of the debate, as hon. Members try to be careful and precautionary.

I understand that the House is naturally concerned that the Government might go too far or that decisions might be taken from which it is difficult to come back. However, there has been more agreement among hon. Members in this debate than in some previous debates on the issue. Most of today's debate has been mature and reasonable in tone, although not all the opinions expressed have been as carefully rooted in the evidence and in the science as the opening speech from my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and the robust but fair contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

It was disappointing that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) seemed to visit us briefly from another planet to talk childishly about rush and hassle, when my hon. Friend the Minister made it clear in his introduction that we have no intention of rushing and that we have taken a precautionary approach in these matters. My hon. Friend stressed in his introduction that we have looked deliberately for adverse health effects. While keeping an open mind, we cannot ignore the lack of negative evidence. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House would share my respect for the integrity that my hon. Friend brings to bear on his portfolio in general, and on this issue in particular.

We need to keep a sense of proportion. We should remember that a limited number of GM foods were authorised under the European Union arrangements in 1996, when the Conservatives were in office. In the interests of balance, I should mention that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) gave UK support for three separate EU authorisations in 1998 for different types of GM maize. That is why the views that he expressed with such passion in the Chamber today seem a little tendentious to Ministers who are trying to deal with these issues now.

After a little introductory knock-about the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) made two important points about the need to take a science-based approach and to recognise that modification of crops and foodstuffs is not new. I agree with him on that point. We ought to take an objective science-based approach to the subject of GM foods, as to every issue that the public expect the House to deal with responsibly and carefully. I do not think that the public are too surprised if there is an extreme style of debate in the tabloids, for instance, but they expect better from Members of Parliament. Respect for the House is not necessarily helped when an august and expert organisation such as the Royal Society rightly demands that misleading criticisms, not from a tabloid newspaper, but from a Committee of the House, be withdrawn.

In the light of the comments of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, I was surprised that he did not make more reference to the views of the Royal Society that were set out today. Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, said: I have expressed my disappointment to the Committee that they have still not publicly withdrawn their misleading criticism of the journal papers about GM farm trials. The Committee's statement, about 'significant doubt as to the robustness, validity and relevance' of the results of the farm scale evaluations, was both inaccurate and damaging. The papers describing the results of the trials were subjected to a rigorous independent peer review before publication in the journal.

Lord May also said: The Committee did not place enough weight on scientific information that has been subjected to peer review.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael

Not at this time.

Mr. Ainsworth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is reading out a press release issued by Lord May, which was not sent to me, and, without giving way, seems to expect me to reply to it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

The Chair is not responsible for the content of hon. Members' speeches, and I suspect that this is more a matter of debate than a matter of order.

Alun Michael

The matter will be debated in due course.

I want to balance the comments made by the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee with the Royal Society's devastating criticism of the Committee's report. I am sure that those points will be debated at length on another occasion, and I am content to leave the matter there.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford emphasised the science-based approach and referred to changes that have already taken place. We must remember that man has manipulated plants to produce better crops and food for hundreds of years. Indeed, many traditional changes have not been subject to the same scrutiny and questioning as the GM approach. GM may be considered as an extension to a long-term process, as all main food crops are genetically different from the wild crops from which they derive.

It is possible to do things with GM that one cannot do with conventional breeding, such as combining unrelated species, but that is why we need a vigorous regime carefully to examine possible risks from proposed GM crops to health or to the environment. By the same token, however, GM may offer benefits that conventional breeding cannot deliver, and it would be foolish to overlook that potential, especially over the long term. As with any technology, GM could be used for good or ill, and the right approach is to examine each proposed application case by case according to the evidence, which the Government are doing.

On a similar point, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) analysed a number of arguments on the use of GM crops that he finds less than convincing. He also made the valid point that the wish to feed the world should not lead us to relax on the science and the evidence. Without going into the detail of some of the cases that I find less compelling than him, I agree with him on that point of principle. Again, it is a question of examining the evidence on a case-by-case basis.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) discussed GM-free zones, and, although I am not sure about the practicality of such an idea, which is certainly not an appropriate basis for legislation, voluntary approaches might be different, and his contribution raised some important issues.

Perfectly fairly, the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) asked what has been done and considered the examination of evidence as a journey. In effect, she said that we must go down that road, but that we must travel with care and take a precautionary approach.

I want to underline the key messages in the Government's approach. Our policy on GM crops is precautionary, evidence-based and sensitive to public concerns—we are not in a rush. We have implemented comprehensive and transparent processes, such as the public debate, the science review, the cost and benefit study and the crop trials, to ensure that we reach a position from which we can make informed decisions. We take public concern seriously, and we have weighed public opinion alongside the scientific evidence. Our policy seeks to address the people's concerns, but, as both Government and Opposition Members have said, careful analysis of the lessons from the science must be the primary consideration.

Our priority is safety, so safeguarding human health and the environment is our overriding concern, which is why we have implemented a strict regulatory regime. Each proposed release of a GM product is subject to a detailed risk assessment, which involves careful scrutiny by independent scientists based not only here, but throughout the European Union. We will agree to the commercial cultivation of a GM crop only if we are satisfied that it is safe.

Finally, there is the issue of choice. Tough new labelling rules will ensure that consumers can choose between GM and non-GM products. We intend to put in place co-existence measures before any commercial cultivation takes place. Ultimately, it will be for farmers and consumers to decide whether they want GM crops and food. The Government's responsibility is to try to get a coherent policy that examines the evidence, bases decisions carefully on the evidence, and advises and informs the public.

When we debate an issue that is as divisive as GM—I could mention others that call for an equally balanced and proportionate approach—Members on both sides of the House must try to inform the public by taking a clinical and scientific approach. I acknowledge that that is what Opposition Front Benchers have done today. In so doing, we will help to clarify the way in which we should go forward on the important issue of the future of GM foods.

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, pursuant to Order [27 April].