Meacher raises more questions in parliament (9/7/2003)

Jean Saunders (GM-ACT) comments: Meacher raises some really important questions with Morley.  A must to read and why I have included it in full! 
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.
2.32 pm
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 happen

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