Genetically Modified Foods

Oral Answers to Questions — Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 21st July 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West 1:52 pm, 21st July 1999

What endorsement the Government have sought from the National Consumer Council with regard to its policy on genetically modified foods. [90871]

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

Ministers discuss the development of Government policies with a large number of groups that have an interest in genetically modified foods, including the National Consumer Council.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

I suspected that the Minister would not go further than that. Does he agree that the leaked minute of the biotechnology presentation group on 10 May has been of great interest to a number of parties? It has funded an enormous number of questions, not least to the right hon. Gentleman. In the interests of open government, modernisation and the new politics, will he undertake to publish the minutes of that group to ensure that we continue to enjoy them in this way? Have independent spokesmen been placed on the "Today" programme, as the minute suggested?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

I always welcome contributions to debates on this and other subjects from independently minded people on any programme, let alone "Today".

The hon. Gentleman said that the leaking of the minute had generated a great deal of interest. It certainly seems to have motivated him as we had exactly the same exchange of views in the Chamber a month ago and the answer was exactly the same: no.

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford

What steps are being taken to protect field trials of genetically modified crops from vandalism? If such trials do not take place, there will be no basis for judgment of the environmental impact of GM crops, and a major biotechnological opportunity for Britain may be lost.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

This is a serious and difficult situation. It is deplorable that, while some environmental groups are calling for trials precisely so that we can gauge and examine the potential impact of genetically modified crops on biodiversity, other groups are trashing the experiments, wrecking the crops and preventing us securing the very evidence that we need in order to make an assessment and to make properly informed decisions. Disorder and criminal damage to property are, of course, matters for the police rather than for Ministers, but the police have a very difficult job trying to safeguard the trials.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Can the Government explain why they are allowing animal feed with genetically modified ingredients to be sold unlabelled, with no indication to farmers and consumers that such ingredients are present? Do not farmers and consumers have a right to know what they are buying?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

The explanation is that we inherited that situation. We decided to appoint an advisory committee on animal feedstuffs, which is being set up now. The previous Government received a recommendation suggesting that they should set up a committee but did not act on it. We are also considering the labelling issue.

Photo of Derek Wyatt Derek Wyatt Labour, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

What point has the discussion on genetically modified food reached in the European Union? I am thinking especially of the changes that are due for agriculture beyond 2000. Is that discussion on the G8 agenda?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

Given the current state of affairs, few agendas do not include an item referring to biosciences or to genetically modified food or crops. I assure my hon. Friend that there are continuing discussions in the European Union on labelling and other matters such as the implications for biodiversity. As he will recall, the Cologne summit decided to ask the scientific committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to examine all these issues on an international basis, and we shall make a positive contribution to that examination.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise just how limp his reply was on the subject of vandalism against genetically modified crops? Does he realise that that vandalism is being committed against field trials? We will shortly be moving to whole-farm trials. How does he imagine that they will be protected from vandalism? Do the Government propose simply to stand by and wring their hands, or do they think that they must do something to protect the information that comes from the growing of genetically modified crops?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman did not hear me properly. I said that such actions were deplorable, and I emphasise that yet again.

The right hon. Gentleman asks what we are going to do. The present policy position is that the grid references of all the trial sites are in the public domain. It is therefore very easy for those who want to engage in activities that the right hon. Gentleman rightly describes as unlawful to identify the locations and to destroy the crops. We are considering all the issues very carefully but, as the right hon. Gentleman must know, this too is a situation that we inherited from the previous Administration. We never anticipated that people who purport to act in the interests of the environment would wilfully wreck experiments that are intended to help us to a better understanding of the environmental issues involved.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

Further to the exchanges that have just taken place, does my right hon. Friend recognise that some of the acts of vandalism, which are completely deplorable, are being carried out in the name of national and otherwise reputable organisations such as Greenpeace? They purport to be advancing arguments that are based on rational and scientific debate, but if, in their name, people are destroying the evidence on which that debate is to take place, perhaps Ministers need to talk to those organisations to ensure that their supporters are discouraged from undertaking such vandalism.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am not sure that it is accurate to ascribe those activities to Greenpeace. Nevertheless, my hope is—I express it again today—that all organisations and groups that are interested in the health and well-being of people and the environment would want to participate in an open, well-informed, scientifically accurate debate about the issues, rather than seek to involve themselves in destroying the very evidence that will help us to take the policies forward.