Meacher raises more questions in parliament
GM Public Debate
House of Commons
Debates text for Friday 4 Jul 2003
4 Jul 2003 : Column 724
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.
Mr. Michael Meacher [until recently the UK's Environment minister]: In the GM public debate which, to their credit, the Government have organised and which the Public Debate Steering Board has chaired extremely ably under the supervision of Professor Malcolm Grant, there are four central issues on which the Government need to give a response, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will do so today.
First, and most crucially, are the options available to the Government in reaching a decision about whether or not to commercialise GM crops in the UK. The decision must be taken on the basis of EU directive 2001/18 which, under article 16, allows for GM crops or a particular GM variety to be banned if it can be demonstrated that they would cause harm, either to the environment or to human health. There is another option, however, permitted under the relevant EU legislation and article 5 of the phytosanitary agreement. The Government can invoke the precautionary principle on the grounds that the necessary information needed to reach a sound scientific decision, properly based on the complete range of relevant scientific data, is not yet available. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are looking seriously at that option?
That leaves open the question whether the available scientific evidence is sufficient on both environmental and health grounds.
On the environmental side, the Government's chief scientific adviser is on record as saying that the ambit of the farm scale evaluation trials is extremely narrow in that it is confined to examining the biodiversity impacts of different herbicides. That is undoubtedly right.
The trials are carefully focused on testing environmental impacts under optimal conditions, and do not reflect how farmers would actually behave under the commercial pressures of the marketplace. They do not address the problems found abroad, such as the incidence of volunteers and multiple gene stacking. They exclude questions about soil residues, direct feeding trials for birds and extra herbicide use under market conditions where the focus is on maximising yields rather than protecting the environment. In addition, they do not take account of the fact that analysis of 100 isolated fields is an inadequate basis for predicting the very different results that would accrue from full-scale commercialisation.
On the human health front, the absence of the necessary evidence is even more stark. The constant refrain from Government and their scientific advisory committees, notably the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment-ACRE-is that there is no evidence of any greater risk from a GM product than from its non-GM counterpart. But, notoriously, there have been virtually no clinical tests to find out whether that is true. It is just assumed.
What the biotechnology companies do-it is their claims, not independent public empirical evidence, that is at issue here-is to look at the level of various nutrients, allergens and toxins, and if the GM plant has similar levels to the non-GM counterpart, they deem it to be safe in all respects. That is the notorious concept of substantial equivalence, which was originally a marketing term and has no scientific underpinning whatever. It does not involve testing the complete range of side effects, and the British public will not be impressed by it. What they want to know is not whether this GM food or ingredient is substantially equivalent to something else, but rather whether it itself, not something like it, is completely safe, and whether the gamut of tests has been carried out-tested, re-tested and tested again-until its safety can be established beyond any reasonable doubt. That has not happened.
Worse still, such systematic testing has not even begun to be carried out. Americans have been eating GM food since 1996-this is often said-but no monitoring of the long-term clinical or bio-chemical impacts has been carried out. However, there is some worrying circumstantial evidence. What is known is that, coinciding with the introduction of GMOs in the United States, food derived illnesses are believed by the official US centres for disease control to have doubled during the past seven years.
In those circumstances, I submit that there is only one responsible position for the Government to take in the face of such manifest lack of evidence and huge uncertainty about the long-term effects both on the environment and on human health, and that is to postpone any decision on commercialisation until all the relevant evidence is available. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is the Government's position?
The second key issue in the public debate is the question of how the future of the organic sector can not only be fully protected but, as the Government have made clear they intend, substantially enhanced. My hon. Friend-I am glad to say this-can take real credit for the launch of the organic action plan a year ago, which lays the foundations for a major expansion of the organic sector throughout the UK. I was pleased to continue that work when I succeeded as the chair of that group. We then established a Government target to increase the proportion of organic produce consumed in the UK that was grown in the UK from an average 30 per cent. at present to 70 per cent. by 2010. That is a Government commitment. The question that arises is how that is compatible with any decision to commercialise GM crops in the UK. Essentially this comes down to what would be the co-existence rules as between organic conventional on the one hand and GM on the other, if a decision were ever to be made in the UK to allow GM crops to be widely cultivated here.
As it happens, the European Parliament voted two days ago to allow member states to determine separation distances if they so wished. This represents a complete abandonment by the Commission, under US pressure, no doubt, of any attempt to resolve the issue at EU level, which is clearly needed if there is not to be a patchwork of different and inconsistent regimes throughout Europe.
Given that the Commission and the European Parliament have now given up on establishing proper co-existence rules, how do the Government intend to exercise the option? Stretching back to 1998, the Government have been beholden to the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops - SCIMAC - the biotechnology industry representative body, in deciding what separation distances should be. Unsurprisingly, SCIMAC wants the minimum separation distances that it can get away with, and the organic sector wants considerably greater distances if its survival is to be assured.
Up to now, the Government have been wholly subservient to SCIMAC. Is that now to change? If not, how will the Government guarantee, in the face of cross-contamination from commercialised GM crops in the UK-if in the teeth of the available scientific evidence that were to happen-that their target of a greatly expanded organic sector by 2010 will be met?
My hon. Friend the Minister will know that the organic oilseed rape canola industry has been wiped out in Canada within only a few years as a result of cross-contamination from GM. Again, how do the Government propose to stop the same thing happening here?
There is a further important question about the protection of the organic sector in the UK. What legal rights for compensation would an organic or conventional farmer have if they were driven out of business, their crop having been contaminated by GM, or if it were perceived to be contaminated by their retail customers with the result that the farmer could no longer sell to his or her normal retail outlet because of the loss of organic accreditation?
At present, there is no liability provision in the UK, and there will be no provision for what the lawyers call, somewhat curiously, traditional damage, which means economic loss under the EU environmental liability directive, even if that directive is not-it is currently before Brussels-watered down over the next few years. The only alternative is the Victorian law of nuisance, but everyone agrees that that will not provide the protection required in the different circumstances of GM contamination, which it was never designed to meet. Will the Government give a commitment to introduce an adequate liability provision to give full protection to organic and other farmers before there is any question of commercialising GM in the UK?
Thirdly, there is the crucial and central question of whether GM is safe to eat. As I have already said, the systematic evidence needed to answer that question is not available. However, what little evidence exists is seriously worrying. In the year 2000, many US food products were accidentally contaminated with GM Starlink maize. It is now believed to have caused allergic reactions in more than 50 Americans, some serious. According to the Government adviser on the StarLink case, the reactions "varied from just abdominal pain and diarrhoea and skin rashes to some patients, a very small group, having very severe life-threatening reactions."
In this country, the York nutritional laboratory reports a 50 per cent. rise in soya allergies since imports of GM soya started.
It has also been claimed that GM material, when absorbed into the body, would not transfer to the bacteria in the human gut. However, in the only known trial of GM food on humans, which was carried out last year by the university of Newcastle, seven people were given a meal containing GM soya and it was found that in three of the people, the GM material had moved out of the food and entered their gut bacteria after only one meal. That is disturbing.
The scientific institutions have expressed their views. The Royal Society, in its report last year, stated that the potential health effects of GM foods should be rigorously investigated before they are allowed to be used in baby food or marketed to pregnant or breast-feeding women, elderly people or those with chronic disease. That was because GM "could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods".
The report stated that any baby food containing GM products could lead to a dramatic rise in allergies, and unexpected shifts in oestrogen levels in GM soya-based infant feed might affect sexual development in children. Infants, the report said, are very vulnerable because they have such a narrow diet. If there were any nutritional deficiencies in their food, such as fewer fatty acids, their health would suffer, especially the infant bowel function, since even small nutritional changes could cause bowel obstruction.
A recent British Medical Association report noted that "any conclusion upon the safety of introducing GM materials into the UK is premature as there is insufficient evidence to inform the decision-making process at the moment".
In its report to the Scottish Parliament six months ago, the BMA stated that "there has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effect of GM foodstuffs on human health . . . In the UK not enough is known to enable us to give an accurate risk assessment of the health impact of GM crops on the health of local communities".
Finally, I quote a recent report from the General Medical Council which stated that GM could switch on "silent" genes, as they are called, whose effects we know little about or know to be toxic.
In the light of all that uncertainty, will my hon. Friend confirm that there will be no commercialisation of GM crops in the UK until all the relevant health checks have been systematically carried out and all the evidence made fully available to the public?
The last issue that I want to raise is how the Government propose to guarantee to any member of the public who wants to eat GM-free food that he or she will be able to do so. The Government state that they are pro-consumer choice. How will that be delivered if GM were to be commercialised in the UK? The EU labelling and traceability rules that have just been agreed by the European Parliament in Brussels will require that all foods must be labelled if they contain more than 0.9 per cent. GM, so if the consumer finds a food on the supermarket shelf that is not labelled, he or she will not know whether it contains zero GM or up to nearly 1 per cent. GM.
That clearly does not provide the shopper who wants to eat exclusively GM-free food with the opportunity to do so. I repeat my question: if the Government are genuinely committed, as they say, to consumer choice-I hope they are-how exactly will they deliver the option to the very large number of people, possibly a majority in this country, who want to eat GM-free food and only GM-free food?
I have asked four clear and specific questions. I would like my hon. Friend, for whom I have great respect, to answer each of them today, but if he cannot or does not have time, I insist that the Government have a duty to answer all four questions before the public debate concludes, so that the electorate has the information on which it can make up its own mind on this critical matter now before the country.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) on the very detailed questions that he has asked. I know that he has had a very long interest in the issue of GMs, and that concerns and questions of the sort that he has raised are perfectly reasonable and relevant in the debate that is currently taking place. As he rightly stated, that debate has been encouraged by the Government and by him in his former ministerial role. Of course, some of the questions that he asked are part of that debate and evaluation, and they will feature in relation to the Government's ultimate response.
I shall try to answer the questions that I have written down, but I apologise to my right hon. Friend in advance: if I have missed any of the points that he made, I will certainly go through Hansard and ensure that he receives a detailed written response. If, when I have finished my speech, he feels that I have missed something, I encourage him to remind me so that I may address it either now or in writing.
First, my right hon. Friend asked whether the Government were committed to the application of the precautionary principle. I can certainly confirm that the Government's approach is based on the precautionary principle. Decisions are taken on the basis of a comprehensive risk assessment in respect of each application and on a case-by-case basis. He is very familiar with the procedure, but it might be useful to explain some it for the record, as it relates to some of the points that he made.
Where insufficient information is available to enable us to take a decision, we will say so. Indeed, we have said so on a number of occasions. For example, the farm-scale evaluations were designed specifically to address an information gap. It has also been said on a number of occasions that if the evaluations are inconclusive or demonstrate that there are potential problems that require further investigation, that will be undertaken. That is a quite proper and precautionary approach in that regard. That is being built in, and the whole approach must take into account the evidence with regard to the two points that my right hon. Friend mentioned-the effect on people's health and on the environment.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that the current farm-scale evaluations are focused on environmental impact. That is absolutely right and I do not dispute it for a moment. It is fair to say, however, that issues such as gene stacking-a very important issue-are taken into consideration. I know that there are certain circumstances, in relation to hybrid maize in particular, in which there is a risk of gene stacking, but we do not have those conditions in this country at the present time. It is important that we learn from the experiences of other countries that have had such problems to ensure that we do not get them here. That must be part of the evaluation and the consideration.
I know that my right hon. Friend has taken a particular interest in the health issue. He will know that the procedures for assessing the health effects of GM foods are clearly separated from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for very good reasons, as he was part of the campaign to set up an independent Food Standards Agency, as I was. That independent agency, which is accountable to the Department of Health, is the principal body that advises the Government on any health issue relating to such products. Such issues are also examined under the processes carried out by ACRE, as he knows, and by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, so there are detailed examinations.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the claims that are made, particularly in the US, about effects on people who have eaten genetically modified maize. I am sure that that issue will be taken into account, although one of his examples of the alleged health effects of maize concerned a variety that was not approved for human consumption. Such matters must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I agree that any decisions must be based on an examination of the evidence, and that we should not authorise commercial release until all that evidence has been properly taken into account and considered by the relevant bodies and committees.
As things stand, we are not in a position to give commercial approval for GM crops because we are in the middle of the process: the farm-scale evaluations are still being considered. I hope that the analysis of the FSEs will be in the public domain-I feel positive in that regard-so that people can see exactly what the outcome of the trials has been and look at the scientific evidence. I understand that ACRE is considering holding a public event where stakeholder groups can come along, look at the FSE process, and make a submission if they have any concerns. I am keen to ensure that the system is open and transparent and that interested parties and stakeholder groups have the opportunity to see the evidence and to comment on it.
As my right hon. Friend knows, several crops are being considered in other EU countries as part of the EU approval process. To offer him some reassurance, ACRE, which comments on other countries' approval processes, has asked for more information on some cases because it does not feel that it has enough to take a decision. That is right and proper, because one cannot take proper decisions until one has all the relevant information.
I, too, welcome the recent agreement on labelling between the European Parliament and the Commission. My right hon. Friend mentioned consumer choice. Like him, I believe that consumer choice as regards GM is absolutely essential, particularly as GMOs, although not approved for commercial release in our country, have been in use in other countries for a long time. I was startled to read that 17 per cent. of the global agriculture area is being used to grow GM crops. That poses a dilemma. Because such vast quantities of GM crops are being produced, sold, transported and put into food, it is very likely that trace elements will get into a wide range of foods. That is why the general approach to labelling is to apply a threshold in the form of a maximum level of about 0.9 per cent. In the case of some genetically modified products, it is almost impossible to trace the level that they contain. Those will be dealt with under EU regulations in terms of traceability through records. There is a genuine attempt to ensure that, as far as possible, people have the choice.
I understand my right hon. Friend's argument that it will be difficult in some circumstances to guarantee that foods that are not labelled as GM do not contain the slightest trace of GMOs. However, that is the point about thresholds. My right hon. Friend knows that the principle also applies to the organic sector, in which it is not possible to guarantee no trace of chemicals. There is therefore a chemicals threshold. The principle is similar. However, as far as possible, we must ensure choice and separation.
Like my right hon. Friend, I agree that the co-existence rules need to be carefully considered. We must consider the most appropriate separation distances on the basis of good, scientific advice. I do not believe that the Government are subservient to the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops-SCIMAC. Again, there is an element of precaution through separation and I do not want the organic sector or its viability to be threatened. We must consider that carefully.
Let us consider liability. There may be some current legal possibilities, but they are not designed to deal with deliberate or inadvertent contamination by a GM crop of a non-GM crop. We must examine that more carefully. We have asked for advice from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. That will help us to formulate our response.
Mr. Meacher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to respond briefly. I appreciate his effort to answer the questions.
I was not considering the precautionary principle exclusively in terms of assessing a specific GM product or variety, but in terms of its application under directive 2001/18 on commercialisation of crops. That is a third option. Will the Government consider it?
Secondly, my hon. Friend said today and on other occasions that there was other evidence of direct health trials. He mentioned France and the United States. Could he give me-or preferably Hansard-the evidence from those trials?
Thirdly, on consumer choice-
The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned at two minutes past Three o'clock.
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