Seanad debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2004

5:00 pm

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann, in view of recent developments at European level in regard to genetically modified foods, requests the Government to initiate a national debate on the potential benefits and potential dangers of such foods, in order to underpin any position that Ireland takes with a full process of democratic consultation.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy O'Malley. I worded the motion specially so that it would not require an amendment. I am pleased an amendment has not been tabled and I hope it is not the intention to do so.

This topic was last debated here in February 1999. I was reminded of that because of two incidents recently. At a food marketing conference three years ago in Florence I met Hugh Grant, not the film star but the head of Monsanto, who had come from the United Stated. In debating with him the concerns of Europe I found a closed mind, a mind that was not listening and was not willing to accept anything other than the view Monsanto held. One may think I am travelling all the time but last week I was in Rome attending a food conference in the Hilton Hotel where there was a protest by Greenpeace. Its representatives climbed onto this huge hotel and tried to take down a big banner. It had approximately 20 protesters outside the hotel with a loud speaker to interrupt the conference. They argued against genetically modified foods. I found that they too had closed minds. To a certain extent what I suggest is that the Irish people keep an open mind on the issue of genetically modified organisms.

In 1999, we debated the issue of genetically modified foods in this House and the reason I am raising the issue again is the danger that it will slip below the threshold of public consciousness if we do not do so. If the public were to lose touch with this issue, it would be very bad for the country. Sooner or later we must take hard decisions; we have already made one or two decision on genetically modified foods and in my opinion the decisions should be taken out in the open with the full knowledge and full approval of an informed public.

Members will recall that genetically modified foods are a battleground that has put the EU and the US on different sides of the fence. The technology of GM foods was first developed approximately ten years ago in the United States, where it received what many people see as a hasty and ill-considered blanket approval from the Food and Drugs Administration of the time. Under the terms of that approval, genetically modified foods got what I would call a "blank cheque" and were treated on exactly the same basis as existing non-modified foods with virtually no restrictions on their growth and no mandatory requirements to label, even in America, any products as containing genetically modified ingredients. This encouraged certain chemical producers, mainly Monsanto, to promote genetically modified products very aggressively in the United States and particularly in American agriculture and they sought to expand the use on a global basis. The American Government became a partner in this operation in that it consistently supported Monsanto's export marketing and pressurised overseas governments to accept genetically modified foods. This ran into a brick wall in Europe, where governments, particularly driven by public opinion, united in opposition to the hasty introduction of this new technology. It is fair to say that the European reaction was influenced by our experience in the 1970s with thalidomide, an experience the Americans were very fortunate to escape. They escaped it because of the strength of feeling of one particular Canadian woman who was in charge of the Food and Drugs Administration section and refused to allow it. In addition, our more recent experience with BSE has added to the caution that Europe brings to bear on any new technology developments in food.

Overall the European approach has been driven by what I call the precautionary principle. Instead of rushing in and then discovering problems we have not anticipated, the precautionary principles encourages us to find out as much as we can before we do anything at all. This means researching the long-term effects and the side effects of any new technology, both on food safety and the environment. It also means separating genetically modified foods from the rest of the food chain so that full traceability would be in place, if anything happened to go wrong. It means clearly labelling all genetically modified ingredients so that customers can know exactly what they are buying and make informed decisions about them.

In support of the principle, the European Union imposed a moratorium for several years on the approval of genetically modified products. It was not a permanent ban, it was a moratorium and it was always intended to review it when more information became available. In the meantime, the United States has increased its pressure on Europe to lift this effective embargo on these products which the Americans see as simple protectionism. This year the European Union has taken two decisions in the area, one allowed the growth of a certain genetically modified grain and the other, which is a much more recent decision, maintained the existing ban on another product.

Both of these decisions were made in the relative obscurity of Community decision making, which means they virtually passed unnoticed in Ireland. In Europe, the people must make up their minds on genetically modified products. This is an issue that faces the European Union as a whole and Ireland in particular and we will have to make some of the most important decisions that will have far reaching consequence for the next generation. We stand at what I term a critical cross-roads and the path we choose may determine to a very large extent our economic future. That is the reason I argue that the public must become engaged with the issue. It should not just pass by without attention.

This is not a decision that can be made behind closed doors, as I think tended to happen in Europe. It is a matter that must be faced in the full light of day. Let me try to clarify my lack of position. I honestly do not know which direction we should take in this matter, but I am very certain that we cannot continue to avoid choosing one direction or the other. With past experience to guide us, it is unthinkable we would walk into a genetically modified future with our eyes closed to any potential downside, either in terms of food safety or our environment. I am not suggesting that anybody is proposing that. The real division comes between people who want to ban genetically modified goods completely and forever, and those who are prepared to admit them on the basis of very strict food safety and environmental guidelines and tight control. The people who argue for a total ban say that no controls can be really effective either in food safety or in the environment. There is a great deal of evidence already to back them up on this. Clearly it is easier to have a totally GM-free environment and food chain than it would be to police the environment or the food chain in which a certain penetration of genetically modified foods was tolerated. It is difficult to argue against the practical reality of that approach, but I cannot help having an uneasy feeling that in completely banning genetically modified products, we may be trying to hold back an inevitable wave of progress, a wave that may well revolutionise the shape of the world in the years to come and the shape of the world economy from which we may cut ourselves off at our peril.

The human genome has been mapped completely for the first time. This opens up entirely new possibilities for the human race, which reach far beyond the narrow issue of genetically modified foods. It may be that biotechnology will become as important or perhaps more important to the 21st century as digital technology proved to be in the 20th century. Take this example, if we could re-programme the human body to grow replacement organs, the way a lizard will grow a new tail, we would by that single act totally transform medical science as it is practised today. I am sure Senator Henry is not in favour of this. Children in the United States used to pull the tail off a lizard but the tail grew again because of a particular gene in the lizard. Suppose we were able to find that gene and transpose it safely to humans, so that when one lost a thumb, a finger or an arm, it would grow again. Think of the marvel of science such as that. This may sound out of this world, but it is not compared with other things that have happened. In Ireland we made the digital revolution our own and I am very conscious that the same people, the IDA, who identified digital technology as an area for Ireland to focus on in our economy, have made the same decision in regard to biotechnology. That is the reason biotechnology is one of the small number of fields into which we are pouring a great deal of money into research. I do not think we can have it both ways. We can hardly hope to make biotechnology a central part of our economic future while at the same time taking what would be regarded as a Luddite attitude to the part of the technology that applied to genetically modified foods. Taking an attitude that totally excludes genetically modified foods would fatally undermine the credibility of our desires to make Ireland a world centre of excellence in biotechnology. We are heading towards a dilemma quite fast. We cannot fudge our decision and have it both ways. We cannot put off the decision until we know all there is to know. Like all tough decisions this one must be taken in a situation of considerable uncertainty. Future generations would not thank us if we unleashed on them a catastrophe similar to that unleashed by thalidomide. Equally, they would not thank us if we closed off their opportunity to prosper in a new world economic order that we saw coming but on which we deliberately turned our backs. I do not know which way we should jump. Many others may share my indecisiveness. That is why we must start to discuss this issue in all the depth and seriousness it deserves. I hope this debate will begin the process. I commend the motion to the House.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I thank Senator Quinn for putting down this motion and for asking me to second it, which I do now. The definition of genetic modification produced by the US-based SCOPE research group is as follows:

The techniques of modern genetics have made possible the direct manipulation of the genetic makeup of organisms. In agriculture, genetic engineering allows simple genetic traits to be transferred to crop plants from wild relatives, other distantly related plants or virtually any other organism.

Recombinant DNA technology thus has brought a new precision to the process of crop development, which traditionally selects desired traits through crosses between crops and their wild relatives (a laborious and relatively imprecise method).

Genetic modification can be used in many ways to control a variety of traits of plants and the consequences of one manipulation may be completely different from another based on the traits modified.

Most of the debate in Ireland has focused on the modification of plants. I ate genetically modified food today: the Irish cheese I had for lunch contained vegetarian rennin made from a recombinant protein. I have heard no one on this island say we should go back to squeezing the rennin out of calves' stomachs to use in the food industry. That would provoke a great deal of distress, particularly after the terrible problems caused by BSE. Most cheeses in Europe are made using what is described as "vegetarian rennet" which probably goes down better with people — excuse the terrible pun — than describing it as "genetically modified rennet". We are all eating genetically modified products, even if we do not know it. As a pharmacist, the Minister of State knows that 50% of drugs taken in this country are genetically modified. For example, insulin, whose use is rising with the terrible increase in the number of diabetics here, and most vaccines, are made by genetic modification. This is already part of our life.

The Monsanto shareholders should tell Hugh Grant what to do after meeting and ignoring Senator Quinn who is such a successful retailer of food. I have never seen anything worse promoted than the genetic modification of soya, maize and wheat. These modifications were sold as being of benefit to Monsanto and perhaps to farmers because they could use less pesticide or herbicide and they need use only Monsanto's Roundup. One did not have to be too bright to realise this was the best of news for Monsanto and not particularly good news for others. Reports of the amount of herbicide and pesticide required if genetically modified grain seeds are used do not show much improvement on the traditional crops. The only triumph is that one must use Monsanto's Roundup. There was little increase in crop yield. The only success was a reduction in soil erosion because one had to harrow fewer weeds. Those who propose genetically modified crops as the solution to starvation in the Third World know little about what causes that starvation. It would not matter to the people of Darfur tomorrow what sort of grain they had to sow. They are being moved around the country so fast they would not have time to see it even start to germinate. This sort of argument for genetically modified food destroys the case and people should not use it. I have seen no evidence that plant protein is transformed in the body in any way that is deleterious to the human frame if genetically modified crops are used but people are entitled to refuse to eat them if they so wish.

That is why I welcome the paper which Mr. Byrne, the estimable Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, brought to the European Parliament on his proposal for the regulation of genetically modified food and feed. This is very important because it concerns not only human food but also animal feed. Past experience has shown us that animal feed, particularly with trace elements, especially iodine, can cause serious problems. Senators may have heard that in the United States there was a problem about the excess of iodine in animal feed. This went into the animal milk which was used in the manufacture of milk for babies who in turn received an excess dosage of iodine that was not good for them. Commissioner Byrne says quite rightly that there is no question of GM food being put on the market as safe or unsafe and labelled thus. If it is unsafe it will not be put on the market.

We urgently need labelling, particularly for people with allergies because even small traces of a brazil nut gene may cause problems for people with a nut allergy. While Commissioner Byrne allows for a 1% contamination level, we must be very sure this is present on labels if there is the possibility of a nut product being present in food because it can have a terrible effect on those with the allergy. Rennet has been a great success but Senator Quinn is right in saying we must consider genetic modification very slowly because there was a disaster in the early 1990s with bovine somatotrophin. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator Ulick Burke, may recall from his part of the country, there was a milk lake at the time. Bovine somatotrophin could make a cow that produced five gallons of milk produce eight gallons. I am not sure what we were to do with the remaining three gallons. It was not taken up here but was most enthusiastically adopted in North America. After some years the Canadians stopped using it because they found it caused mastitis problems in the cows which then had to be given antibiotics and their milk had to be withdrawn from sale, so it was not cost-effective. Animals kept on it for many years developed serious hind hoof problems because their udders were so heavy from this massive production. It is not used much anywhere now, even in the United States. The last time I heard of it was in Holstein herds which were kept indoors in North Dakota and were all slaughtered at four years, which seems a terrible thing to do to a nice cow. We must judge all these developments on a case-by-case basis because they will not all be successful.

The food debate has concentrated on genetic modification of crops and food. We must look more closely at other issues such as salt. It is very difficult to know from the way salt is labelled on products if one is taking a large amount of it. How does a certain number of grams per packet of crisps feature for a child? We must have top levels which are definitely safe. The Minister of State is well aware of the terrible dangers involved in the excess intake of salt. I refer to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, etc.

A similar position obtains in respect of sugar. As the Minister of State knows, approximately six months ago the sugar producers of North America tried to get the World Health Organisation to agree that 25% of the human diet could be consumed in the form of sugar. They threatened to withdraw US funding from the World Health Organisation if it did not agree to this. Mercifully, however, the WHO stuck to its guns and the level of 10% remains in place.

There is also a difficulty as regards food additives. It appears that the large number of flavourings and colourings put into foods are affecting children. As some people have been suggesting for a considerable period, such additives may be having a greater effect on them than originally thought. It would be sad if children's hyperactivity and the necessity for some of them to take Ritalin were caused by the fact that they were consuming products which were having an adverse effect on them. I suggest that the debate on food should not merely focus on genetic modification. Salt, sugar and additives — fat has always had a bad name — should also be considered in the equation because they are desperately important.

Mr. Patrick Wall, for whom I have great respect and who was head of the Food Safety Authority for a considerable period, some years ago stated that rich people are fat, poor people are thin and right-minded people worry about starvation. Nowadays, rich people are thin, poor people are fat and right-minded people worry about obesity.

Tim O'Malley (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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As Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, my primary concern is public health and the safety of food consumed by the public. I, therefore, welcome this debate on genetically modified foods and I intend to clarify the position taken by the Government in respect of GM foods.

Since taking office, the Government has attached great importance to the issue of food safety in general and to the concerns of consumers in particular. It recognises the need for uncompromised and independently verifiable assurances on food safety to ensure consumer confidence. This is particularly the case in the approach taken to GM foods.

I wish to preface my comments by setting out that the independent scientific advice made available to my Department provides no evidence that the GM foods authorised within the EU pose a risk to human health. It must be stressed that no product consisting of, containing or derived from GMOs can be authorised for marketing without first having undergone appropriate safety assessment. Under new EU legislation, this safety assessment is carried out by the European Food Safety Authority. In addition, measures to allow post-release monitoring of GM foods are provided for in the legislation. Consequently, I am satisfied that appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure the safety of authorised GM foods or foods containing GM ingredients placed on the market in Ireland.

Government policy on biotechnology is positive but precautionary in accordance with the recommendations of the report of the interdepartmental group on modern biotechnology which was published in October 2000. One of the inputs to this report was the public consultation process carried out by the then Department of the Environment and Local Government in 1999 in respect of GMOs and the environment. Consumer safety and consumer choice are paramount in the approach taken to GM foods, as reflected in the extent of the legislation developed to deal with this sensitive area. Government policy on GM foods is based on the advice that no credible evidence has yet been provided to show that GM foods pose a risk to human health.

Genetically modified organisms can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material, DNA, has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The technology is often called modem biotechnology or gene technology. It is sometimes also known as recombinant DNA technology or genetic engineering. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another and also between non-related species. Genetic modification techniques have opened up new possibilities for growth in sectors such as agriculture and industry and have made a significant contribution to modern health care. Genetic modification techniques are widely used in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, including the production of valuable medicines such as human insulin for use by diabetics. Genetic modification is also central to the development of new gene therapy treatments to combat serious disease and disability. The benefits from these developments, particularly in the medical area, are well documented and widely accepted as a significant benefit for those requiring such treatment.

I am aware of public concerns and media reports regarding the issue of genetically modified food. This is a complex issue involving, inter alia, technical, scientific, ethical and economic aspects. Within the scientific aspect there are ecological, environmental, nutritional, human health and veterinary concerns. Due to the recent emergence of this technology, we must approach the issues it raises in a thorough, comprehensive and balanced manner. The technology has the potential to be of great benefit. However, the Government is aware of its responsibility to be alert not only to potential benefits but also to any potential risks.

Given the wide range of issues to be considered in respect of genetic modification, several Departments have responsibility for different aspects thereof, including responsibility for different EU legislative instruments. The Department of Health and Children has responsibility for food safety and consumer protection. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has responsibility for developments in the biotechnology industry. The Department of Agriculture and Food has responsibility for EU legislation on genetically modified animal feed and seed. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is responsible for legislation relating to the deliberate release into the environment of GMOs. The EPA is the national competent authority in this area.

As the motion specifically addresses genetically modified foods, I will restrict my comments to that area. For generations, plant and livestock breeders have been breeding crops and animals to improve yields for disease resistance and for composition. The crops and livestock we consume today bear little resemblance to those our forefathers consumed in that plants and animals have been selectively bred to produce certain desirable traits. For example, we now have high-yield cereals, fruit and vegetables, faster maturing poultry, hens that lay more eggs, cows that give more milk, pigs with leaner meat and a range of cattle varieties selectively bred for beef production.

Scientists are now capable of identifying the genes responsible for some of these desired traits and are able to manipulate them. This technique is known as genetic engineering or genetic modification and a number of foods have been produced using this method. A wide variety of such foods are already on the market in the USA but in Europe there are only a small number of genetically engineered food ingredients on the shelves, mostly those derived from maize and soya. Consumers have, however, expressed concerns about GM food products. These concerns cover a wide range of issues and are best addressed by providing a strict regulatory framework to provide controls which ensure that consumer protection is paramount.

Ireland, in common with other member states and as required by European Union rules, applies EU legislation on GM foods. Such legislation comes in the form of EU regulations which are directly applicable to and binding on each member state. My Department is currently working on introducing measures into national legislation which will allow for enforcement measures, including penalties in the case of non-compliance.

Under EU rules, only products from 17 authorised GM foods or foods containing ingredients thereof can be imported and placed on the market. These include soya, maize and oil derived from oilseed rape, cottonseeds, maize and soya. These are produced from GM crops which have been engineered to be resistant to certain herbicides and-or resist attack by certain pests. GM foods have been consumed in some countries for approximately a decade and no credible evidence is available to suggest that any GM food has ever caused harm to human health. Should any problems arise out of the consumption of GM foods, EU legislation provides for the immediate removal from the market of the suspected product pending a full investigation. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is the competent authority for the enforcement of EU legislation regarding genetic modification of foodstuffs. The FSAI is an independent science-based consumer protection body that utilises the expertise of the best scientific advice available in the country. It is involved on the international scene with CODEX Alimentarius and OECD task forces in developing guidelines for risk analysis and food safety assessments of food derived from biotechnology. The FSAI does not give blanket approval to genetically modified, GM foods, but individually evaluates, on its own merits, each application to place a new GM food on the EU market. The FSAI is satisfied that, based on the best scientific evidence available, all of the GM foods and ingredients currently on the EU market are as safe as those derived from their non-GM counterparts. The FSAI carries out checks on the marketplace for compliance with GM legislation.

Trace levels of GM ingredients can and do occur in non-GM food due to mixing during cultivation, harvest, transport and processing and this phenomenon is not particular to GM foods. Against this background, the EU objective is to ensure legal certainty and establish certain thresholds above which conventional foods have to be labelled as consisting of, or containing, or being produced from a genetically modified organism. With regard to future implications for the domestic food chain and the food industry in general, it must be noted that any further authorisations of GM foods will only occur following full independent safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and will also be subject to the latest European regulations with regard to traceability and labelling.

The EU has, following the recent adoption of new legislation, one of the most rigorous regimes for the assessment of GMOs as well as food and feed derived from GMOs. In this regard, only GM foods which satisfy the highest standards of safety are allowed on the market. This is combined with comprehensive safeguard measures on traceability and labelling. EU legislation on GMOs has been in place since the late 1980s and has within the last year been considerably reinforced to increase consumer protection and consumer choice. These updated regulations were introduced as it was acknowledged that previous Community legislation on GMOs was fragmented and that this was making it difficult to adopt cohesive provisions and to apply unequivocal Community rules. This situation, in conjunction with concerns about the ability to monitor the rapid developments in biotechnology and the production of GMOs and their products, led to reservations and to a de facto moratorium. During the so-called moratorium, no new GM applications, be they food, feed or the deliberate release of crops, were approved within the EU.

The new EU regulations establish a harmonised Community system to trace GMOs, introduce the labelling of GM feed, reinforce the current labelling rules on GM food and establish a streamlined authorisation procedure for GMOs in food and feed. New regulations on deliberate release into the environment were introduced in 2001. These regulations address the legitimate concerns of citizens, consumer organisations and economic operators. A strict safety assessment of GMOs will continue to ensure the highest level of health and environmental protection, while the labelling of all GM food and feed products will allow consumers and farmers to decide if they want to buy food or feed produced from a GMO.

For consumers, clear labelling is a key issue. Since 18 April 2004, obligations are placed on suppliers to forward the information to purchasers that a food is, consists of or is produced from a genetically modified organism and must give the unique identifiers for the GMOs. Also, the label must state, "This product contains genetically modified organisms" or "produced from genetically modified (name of organism)". For example, a biscuit containing soya flour derived from GM soya must be labelled "contains soya flour from genetically modified soya " and vegetable oils containing rapeseed oil produced from genetically modified rape must be labelled "contains rapeseed oil from genetically modified oilseed rape". Consequently, the labelling provided on a product will make it possible for consumers to make informed choices. The purpose of the specific labelling measures introduced by these regulations for GMOs and their derivatives is to give consumers clear, honest, neutral and scientifically sound information on products derived from a genetically modified source.

No food or drink can ever be guaranteed as 100% risk free. With this in mind, while the technology of genetic modification-engineering used in food production may not be inherently dangerous to human health, what is intended and achieved with the technology will always require close scrutiny. For example, the FSAI is keeping a watching brief on research and development of crops that are being engineered to produce non-nutritional products such as vaccines, pharmaceuticals and other products not necessary for human nutrition. While this bio-pharming may present many benefits for the industry and consumers in the future, the potential for the contamination of the general food supply by these "pharma crops" is a cause for some concern as large scale food crops like maize and rice are being targeted. Additionally, genetic engineering of certain food animals and fish is being progressed at research level in a number of countries and will bring a potentially new dimension to the food supply. The FSAI is watching developments closely.

The controls within the legislation provide protection to consumers and I wish to assure the House that I am keeping the matter under review to ensure this continues to be the case. To assist my Department in this area, the FSAI's scientific committee has set up a GMO sub-committee which advises my Department on GM issues. This sub-committee also affords a forum for the exchange of expert scientific opinion and advice on this new technology and its application to food. In addition, this sub-committee assesses each application for approval of a new GM food and provides my Department, on a case by case basis, with its opinion in terms of the human health aspects, particularly toxicity and allergenicity.

Following the adoption and introduction of the new EU rules on authorisation, labelling and traceability of GM food and feed, the European Commission recently approved the placing on the market of GM sweetcorn known as Bt-11. This decision has caused concerns in terms of the approval itself and the procedures under which the decision was taken. Therefore I would like to give Members some background on this decision.

On 11 February 1999, a request was submitted under Article 4 of the Novel Food Regulation (EC) No. 258/97 to the competent authorities of The Netherlands for placing sweet maize-corn from GM maize line Bt-11, referred to as Bt-11 sweetcorn, on the market as a novel food or as a novel food ingredient. A novel food is defined as any food or food ingredient that does not have a significant history of consumption within the European Community prior to May 1997.

During the assessment process by member states, objections to the marketing of the product within the EU were raised. Consequently, a Community decision requiring the support of a qualified majority was necessary to approve the application. The EU Scientific Committee on Food delivered an opinion in April 2002 stating that the Bt-11 sweetcorn was as safe for human food use as its conventional counterparts.

In order to grant Community authorisation, a draft Commission decision was submitted for vote to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health on 8 December 2003. This is a regulatory committee comprised of representatives of each of the member states which assists the European Commission in the development of food safety measures at all stages of the food chain in a process known as comitology. As the necessary qualified majority was not achieved, under comitology rules it was then necessary for the Commission to put forward a proposal to Council for a vote on the application. The Commission put forward the necessary proposal at the end of January 2004. If Council were to fail to come to a decision or fail to act on the proposal before 30 April 2004, that is, within three months of having received it, the proposal would then revert back to the Commission for a decision. The proposal was put on the agenda of the Agriculture Council on 26 April to allow the Council to meet its obligation to act before 30 April 2004. The Agriculture Council did not achieve a qualified majority either for or against the proposal, with most member states maintaining the positions adopted at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health.

Authority for the adoption of the proposal reverted to the Commission. On 19 May, the Commission duly authorised the placing on the market of sweetcorn from GM maize line Bt-11. This decision is valid for ten years. The granting of an approval in this case has ended an almost six year de facto moratorium. Irish representation at the aforementioned Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health was by the Department of Health and Children, while representation at the Council on 26 April was by the Department of Agriculture and Food. Ireland supported this proposal following consultation with the FSAI and based on the scientific risk assessment undertaken on this product, initially by The Netherlands' food assessment body and subsequently by the EU Scientific Committee on Food, which concluded that Bt-11 sweet maize is as safe for human food use as conventional sweet maize. There are currently applications for eight GM foods awaiting decision upon authorisation in the EU, including one soya bean, one sugar beet and six maize lines.

The FSAI has published a leaflet entitled, Food Safety and Genetically Modified Foods, which is currently being updated to take account of new legislation. In addition, the FSAI, in conjunction with Departments and industry organisations, is currently formulating a guidance note for industry which will highlight the legislation with regard to GMOs. The public has access to unbiased information on GM foods from the FSAI and can also access information from the Departments of Health and Children, Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on any aspects of GMOs within their remits. This has resulted in requests for information from concerned individuals and groups, either directly or through their local representatives in the Dáil.

The GM food issue is debated with intensity, both by those in favour and those against genetically modified food, and the public can become confused and fearful with the claims and counter-claims being made. There is an onus on us to ensure the matter is evaluated in a calm and reasonable way. I am aware consumers wish to be in a position where they can decide whether they want to consume products containing GMOs or those produced using genetic modification techniques. I assure the House that I will continue to urge for maximum transparency on this issue.

I am satisfied proper safeguards are in place and the labelling requirements provide a satisfactory and acceptable means to allow consumers become fully informed of the content of the food they are purchasing. In this context, I reassure the House that I am keeping the matter of genetic modification of foodstuffs under continuing review and I am determined to ensure public health and the rights of consumers are fully protected in this regard. I welcome this discussion as the start of what will probably be a long debate and thank Members for their contributions to it.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and I agree with him that we need to take a calm and reasonable approach to this issue. I am satisfied with the line taken by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which is an independent scientific consumer protection body. It does not give blanket approval to GM foods but assesses individual foods and carries out checks to ensure compliance with GM legislation.

When I visited the European Parliament six years ago there was a debate on GM foods. It was a unique day, as many Green Party members from all over Europe marched into the Parliament dressed as pirates. They were totally opposed to GM foodstuffs. Some MEPs were furious because they had spent many years debating the rights and wrongs of the subject and they believed they were taking a pragmatic approach. The debate that day was screened live on television and was covered in newspapers all over Europe. The subject got attention but for the wrong reasons. As a result, people's awareness of the issue was heightened but the debate was dismissed. Politicians must take a calm and reasonable approach to this matter, as we are doing in this instance.

In 1999, the Government finally agreed to have a debate in the Dáil on the genetic engineering of foodstuffs. Due to the labelling of products, consumers have a sense that GM foods are being imposed on them. I am delighted a new labelling system was introduced. However, I remain concerned that levels of GM ingredients below 1% do not have to appear on labels. Since 18 April 2004, an obligation has been placed on suppliers to forward information on the presence of GM ingredients. Will the Minister of State clarify the position, as we have some difficulty with the presence of small quantities of GM produce not being indicated? All information regarding ingredients should be included on labels, even if it is less than 1%.

A great deal of scare mongering took place in the United Kingdom and the public there voted by 9:1 against the introduction of GM foods. The Irish Commissioner, Mr. David Byrne, has stated that GM foods are now legal in EU law, as long as they comply with the laws of each state. Darina Allen made the point that in the past when people got tumours there was no way of proving if they came from the consumption of GM foods because they were unlabelled. For that reason I welcome the new labelling laws.

I accept there are benefits to GM, such as the production of insulin, blood clotting proteins and various vaccines. My late father was a diabetic and the quality of his life was improved by the use of insulin. We must weigh up the advantages as well as the disadvantages of any issue. From my limited knowledge of genetic modification, the benefits have been tremendous in the experience of my family. Future genetic modification could help in the fight against cancer, cardiovascular disease, cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, HIV-AIDS and Alzheimer's among other diseases.

Fine Gael is not opposed to the importation of products containing GM ingredients into Ireland. However, all such products must be properly labelled. Greater public debate is required on this issue. We must decide if we want GM foods and are willing to cultivate such crops on Irish farmland. Fine Gael's policy on the importation of GM foods is that each product must be investigated on a case by case basis. The current EU strategy is a sensible and reasonable approach.

6:00 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. I thank Senators Quinn, Henry, O'Toole, Ross and Norris for tabling this motion. At our party meeting I was anxious that no amendment would be proposed to the motion and I am pleased the Minister of State is in agreement. This matter affects everybody and is not a political issue in the sense of party politics, but it could have a significant effect on the economy. I have always tried to achieve agreement on such motions.

In this case, Senator Quinn is both a consumer and a distributor and is very knowledgeable about food production and traceability. In my experience as a former trade Minister, I am aware of his credibility in this matter. His company was ahead of its time in dealing with any problems associated with products. Senator Henry has the technical information which is very helpful to the debate. Senator Feighan is the Fine Gael spokesman and has been very responsible in this regard.

Genetically modified foods and farming are viewed with great suspicion due to the lack of clarity about the impact on humans and the environment. However, recent studies have shown GM foods to have rather more positive than negative effects. Those opponents of GM foods argue that not enough studies have been undertaken to guarantee their safety and I agree. The Government has taken a positive but cautionary approach to GM foods, which I regard as reasonable. The Minister of State is a chemist and has experience in this regard. He would be very careful to ascertain the traceability of these products. It has been claimed that foods containing GM elements which are not labelled as GM are available in Ireland. The proposal for the introduction into Ireland of sweetcorn produced from genetically modified maize has caused considerable controversy.

The EU Agriculture Council failed to agree on this issue at its meeting on 26 April 2004. The decision was then passed on to the European Commission which, on 19 May, chose to allow the new varieties to be put on the market. Some argue that the European Commission should not have the power to make this decision, that it should be a political decision and not one taken by an unelected body. The further development of GM technology cannot be avoided. The Commission has listed 23 GM products awaiting approval for release on the European markets and more will follow.

I proposed at a committee meeting that all GM foods should be labelled and even the smallest percentage of GM ingredients should be listed. The consumer should be informed whether a product contains a GM element. Concern has been expressed at the involvement of major companies. This is a globalisation issue and it is clear that there is modification.

My greatest concern is that GM foods contain genes not only from plants but from animal species. Food has always evolved naturally and farmers have always experimented with different breeding techniques to improve the quality of food. The introduction of an animal species into a plant species is a cause for most concern. As the motion states, this requires comprehensive debate and analysis both in this country and throughout Europe.

Ireland has a tradition of producing quality food. I have an organic farm which is managed by my wife. She is a fully qualified and registered organic farmer. We would be very concerned at any production of GM crops close to our farm. The transmission of seeds cannot be controlled, simply because of the wind and birds. As a trade Minister I was selling beef to Iran during times of scares. I could always say that they should come to Irish farms to see how the beef is produced. The same transparency and reputation would not exist if GM crops were being grown in neighbouring farms. Genetically modified crops and food have been allowed in different places.

I am concerned about the number of Departments dealing with this issue. I suggest the Department of Health and Children should be the sole Department dealing with it. It would be the most appropriate Department rather than the Department of Agriculture and Food as it deals with the health of the population.

I am deeply concerned about the control of GM foods. Senator Quinn has spoken of his contacts with different companies abroad who are committed to the production of GM foods. Those who control the GM crop control the seed and costs will spiral. At present seeds are produced organically at local level. This is an ongoing debate and I hope the House will return to this subject. I am a sceptic because I believe that when one modifies food, one cannot foretell the end result. There has been an unfortunate increase in cancer and other diseases throughout the world and something must cause it. When people ate food that was simply and organically produced without the use of chemicals, they were much healthier. I suggest we step back to examine the issue. Weeds have become strong as a result of modification. We have no idea what the effect of modifying a product will be. No one can say what will happen. I am pleased the Minister of State has an input because he is a man with knowledge in this field. His Department has been excellent in this regard. I commend this motion to the House and fully support it.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I thank all those who have spoken. I commend Senator Henry's knowledge, Senator Feighan's experience and the experience and deeply thought out words of Senator Leyden. I am impressed at the amount of work the Minister of State and his team invested in the reply to the motion and I learned more about the subject from it. One important aspect was made very clear by the Minister of State. This is not actually a food safety problem. There is no evidence from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that this is a food safety issue. As the Minister of State said, there is no danger of something being produced because of the regulations which exist. It is much more likely, as Senator Leyden stated, to be an environmental problem. Foot and mouth disease was not a food safety problem. Other than the health and safety of the animals who might be slaughtered, it did not pose a health problem for humans. On the other hand, it had an economic dimension, which is the reason we faced it in the manner we did.

Let me address the environmental case. I am not sure my description is accurate — Senator Leyden also referred to this matter — but an animal gene, I understand it belonged to a pig, was introduced to salmon to make them grow. It is believed some of the salmon may have escaped into the ocean from a net. If that is the case, these giant salmon will influence all salmon in the years ahead by virtue of their size. Once they have escaped into the environment, it is too late.

We know similar circumstances have arisen in other areas. The Americans, for example, are concerned about butterflies and similar matters. Genetically modified foods, therefore, are not necessarily a food safety or health issue but clearly an environmental concern. Technology will deliver major benefits, some of which Senator Feighan described, and we must turn our back on it.

I will take another example unrelated to food. A grass seed was developed which changed colour in proximity to metal. One could ask what is the benefit of this development. The benefit was evident in places around the world where mines had been laid during wars. Within a few weeks of sprinkling the grass seed, it was possible to identify the location of mines by means of the different colour of grass. This was a very interesting and simple development which had major benefits.

Let us consider the considerable benefits arising from the development by Dr. Ricardo Wolf of super wheat and super rice in the 1950s. Senator Henry stated there is no evidence genetically modified food will solve the world's problems. For the rest of his life, Dr. Wolf could look back in the knowledge that he solved the problem of famine in many areas of the world. He did this not by means of genetic modification but simply by using technology to develop a better product. It is said that if someone invented a new mouse trap, people would beat a path to his door. We should consider the benefits of developing a product similar to those developed in the 1950s. Let us not turn our back on that prospect.

Senators raised concerns about labelling. The labelling requirement for products containing more than 0.9% of genetically modified product is acceptable. The danger of applying a lower level is that practically every food product on the grocery shelf contains soya, usually as a stabiliser. Lowering the level would require that almost every product on supermarket shelves be labelled because almost all of them contain some soya. If every product had a label stating it contained genetically modified ingredients, we would not be able to identify products made substantially from genetically modified ingredients. The labelling requirement in the legislation is well thought out and makes sense.

Senator Henry made a point about nut allergies. We must face up to these sort of challenges. The main point of this debate is that genetically modified foods will bring benefits to producers and consumers. We must tread carefully and that is what we are doing. Let us ensure we debate this matter openly. The Minister of State discussed the steps taken with regard to genetically modified sweetcorn and maize. If we watch developments closely, we will be able to protect ourselves from the perspective of health, which I do not believe to be a problem and, more important, from the environmental and agricultural perspectives.

I welcome the contributions of the Minister of State and Senators to this debate. This is the start rather than the end of a debate, which must be open, transparent and vigorous in order that we are aware of the direction we take in future.

Question put and declared carried.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.