GM Crops

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 30th January 2003.

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Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 11:30 am, 30th January 2003

If she will make a statement on the commercial planting of GM crops.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No GM crop currently has all the regulatory approvals needed for commercial growing in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I am looking to the future. May I refer her to the report recently published by the Health and Community Care Committee of the Scottish Parliament, which states that

"allowing GM crop trials to continue does contravenes the precautionary principle"?

In any future discussions that she has at a European level—of course, that is where decisions are now taken on commercial planting of GM crops—will she undertake to ensure that no planting of such crops will take place in Wales or Scotland without the express permission of the devolved Administrations in those countries?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Obviously, what happens in Wales and Scotland is an issue for the devolved Administrations and not just the United Kingdom Government. I am not entirely sure whether I am familiar with the specific report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but it has always seemed to me, just as it did to my predecessors, that the right way of proceeding is to examine the evidence and conduct proper trials. That is what the Government are endeavouring to do.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

Further to those points, is my right hon. Friend aware of the position of the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly in saying that the field trial results should be available before the public consultation on which she is embarking is carried out? The steering group of the GM public debate board has said that it finds it extremely difficult to envisage effective consultation without common timing throughout the UK. Will she take those points into consideration and understand that we, the public, feel very strongly that the results of the trials should be available to inform that public debate?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Of course, I always take seriously the views and concerns of the steering group, but it is not entirely clear to me that the public feel quite so passionately about the precise timing and conduct of the debate. As we are beginning to embark on the inquiry process, what I most want to know is what questions the public wish to have answered. I want to know what information the public want, as opposed—I say this with great respect to all those who are engaged in the dialogue—to what everybody is telling us that they want. I want to hear from the public themselves what they want to know, so that we can do as much as we can to give them the information that they seek in order to allow them to form their own views and judgments.

I cannot remember my hon. Friend's precise words, but I am not sure whether she represents entirely accurately the views of the Scottish and Welsh Administrations, although they have certainly taken more of a view that the issue should be bound up with the crop trials. My worry has always been that, if we were to make the crop trials themselves the main feature of the dialogue and debate, we would be accused of not having a proper debate, but merely one about paving the way for decisions. That is not the case.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

May I encourage the Secretary of State to be far more robust and proactive and to put far more time and resources into the public debate about GM crops and genetic modification in general? Will she ensure that the argument is not allowed to rest solely in the hands of the self-serving scaremongers who apparently represent a lot of views in this country? The vast majority of my constituents are hungry for knowledge, keen to make sensible judgments and, where progress can be made and benefits from GM shown to exist, they are ready to embrace them.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman clearly expresses one of the many strands of dialogue and debate on this matter. I note yet another plea for more expenditure from the Conservative Benches, but I fear that the £300,000 or thereabouts that we are prepared to put in seems a large sum. We are certainly very anxious to encourage informed dialogue on the issues.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If the Government really want to reconnect with farmers, as is stated in their farming strategy, which was published last month, why are some elements of the Government so keen to push GM technology on farmers when consumers are at best showing no interest and at worst advancing good arguments as to why farmers should remain GM-free? Whose interests would be served by pushing GM crops on farmers? The Prime Minister seems keen on the issue and Lord Haskins is also keen to lock farmers into contracts, but if the farmers want to reconnect with consumers, they would be best advised to leave well alone.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am not aware that anybody is trying to push GM crops on farmers. Certainly, no one in the Government is doing so. I remind the hon. Gentleman that a perfectly proper legal process is under way whereby an application was made to conduct a process of assessing the possibility of commercially growing some of the crops in this country. It was decided by my predecessors that a proper trial should be conducted of the effects of growing such crops on the immediate environment. It is being conducted and that seems an entirely sensible way of behaving.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

In introducing crop trials into this country, has the Secretary of State taken note of the experience in America, where the Organic Soil Association reports that in one Canadian province the whole organic rape sector was lost owing to the carrying out of such trials? Will she carefully consider the experience in America before introducing trials of any great magnitude in this country?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am aware of the report that the hon. Gentleman cites. He will be aware that there are a plethora of such reports, which do not all say quite the same thing. The question focuses on crops that are being trialled in this country, which are not necessarily comparable. For example, one of the problems identified in the Canadian studies was that of gene stacking. That can occur only with crops that can cross-pollinate each other, which is not the case with those that are being trialled in this country.