Dáil Éireann - Volume 616 - 08 March, 2006

Priority Questions. - Genetically Modified Organisms.

[518]   5. Mr. Connolly asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the Government’s policy in relation to experimentation in the growth of genetically modified or engineered crops, particularly in view of the five year trial cultivation of genetically modified potatoes in Summerhill, County Meath, commencing in March 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9609/06]

  Mr. Roche: The conclusions of the interdepartmental group on modern biotechnology, which were endorsed by the Government, said we should acknowledge the potential benefits of genetic engineering while maintaining a fundamental commitment to safety and environmental sustainability, based on scientific risk assessment and management. The Government continues to apply this precautionary principle.

The Government’s policy must also take account of the EU legislative framework in regard to genetically modified organisms, which is legally binding on all member states. This includes Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms, Regulation 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed, Regulation 1830/2003 on traceability and labelling of genetically modified products and Regulation 1946/2003 on transboundary movement.

The undertaking of field trials of genetically modified crops is subject to Part B of Directive 2001/18/EC which is transposed into Irish law by the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2003. Adjudication of applications for field trials is a function assigned to the independent Environmental Protection Agency, as the Irish competent authority for the purposes of the directive. My Department and I are legally and specifically precluded from exercising any influence on this independent function.

  Mr. Connolly: Will the Minister agree that genetically modified crops is another way of tampering with nature? The argument which is advanced regularly is that it is about increasing our ability to grow food for the poor and about food production. That argument is advanced quite regularly but in Brazil, which is the world’s fourth largest food supplier why do 46 million people go to bed hungry every night? The issue of genetic engineering of food has more to do with multinationals and the profits they might make. I doubt BASF is coming to County Meath because it has a social conscience.

Does the Minister agree genetic engineering of food and fibre products is dangerous and unpredictable for humans, animals and the environment and for future sustainable and organic agriculture? Is he concerned to learn that in 1989, a genetically modified brand, L-tryptophan, a [519] dietary supplement, killed 37 Americans and permanently disabled 5,000 others before it was taken off the market? Is that something about which we should be concerned? Is the Minister also concerned to learn that in 1999 in Britain, GM potatoes were poisonous to mammals damaging the vital organs, stomach linings and immune systems of laboratory rats? Laboratory rats are regularly used to test the effects products will have on human beings.

Does the Minister agree the window of opportunity given to people to object to these trials in County Meath was brief and that at least 100 separate objections were made? Does he agree it is a matter of concern that 32,000 farmers nationally object to the growing of and experimentation with GM crops in County Meath?

Does the Minister agree there are other difficulties, such as cross-contamination of crops? Growing GM and non-GM crops side by side cannot happen because of cross pollenation caused by animals, birds and insects carrying seeds to other plants. Does he agree this is a serious issue, that we should call a halt and take on board the objections from these groups which are well-founded?

  Mr. Roche: I might well agree with several of the statements the Deputy made but I will not be able to go through them all individually. The Deputy illustrated why it is necessary that a precautionary element is adopted. Our policy is that we must comprehend the need to ensure risks are avoided in areas such as field to field tests. That is informed policy.

There has been, and will continue to be, a controversy in this area. I disagree with the Deputy’s suggestion about public information. Advertisement of this trial was placed on 26 January and we could differ as to whether that is a sufficient period of time. The trial has also been reported in a number of national newspapers, so there has been quite a degree of discussion. The Deputy asked if I would agree there is much controversy in this area. It would be strange to try to suggest there is not controversy in this area.

Under EU legislation, it is not possible for a member state to inhibit, restrict or impede the placing on the market of certain GMOs. However, the biggest issue here is one of public awareness. The public will make its own decision if it is kept aware.

  Mr. Connolly: It is not a matter for us to determine the type of food we grow. It is now a matter for the EU as to whether we grow GM crops. Are the objections of all these groups being taken on board? We talk of a precautionary element but what about nature? We cannot prevent birds transmitting seeds to native crops. The Minister did not respond to the question about the 37 deaths and the 5,000 injuries in the US?

[520]   Mr. Roche: I did not because it does not arise in this context.

We have closely followed the line a group, which studied the whole issue of modern bio-technology, proposed to Government. That would be the case of whoever stands on this side. I also made the reasoned point that any policy which any Government operates must be within the context of the EU legislative framework. It is not possible to kick over the traces on those, whatever our personal views in this area.

The precautionary principle is the best way forward in terms of public policy. There is also the other side of the debate, that is, the argument that there are certain advantages too. The most important thing we can do is have an informed debate on this issue so the public can make its own choices when it comes to foodstuffs about which the Deputy asked. It is important the public has pointers.

  Mr. Connolly: It is about multinationals and profit.