GM Free Cymru

Welsh Assembly policy on GM crops (2009)

Here is the official record of the Minister's Statement and Debate on GM Crops in the Assembly on 24th Feb 2009.

It sets the scene for the draft Coexistence Legislation, which will go out for three months' consultation in the near future. Current Welsh policy on GM crops is effectively summarised here by Elin Jones and elucidated in response to the supportive comments from the other party representatives; only one dissenting voice was heard in the debate (Alun Davies) -- and while arguing for more GM research, on behalf of the biotech industry in Wales, even his comments were broadly supportive. So there is virtually 100% support in the Assembly for the very restrictive stance being taken by the Assembly Government. The other expression of Welsh GM policy will be in the ELD Regulations shortly due to be announced by Jane Davidson, the Environment Minister. Those have already been through the consultation process, and are much more radical than those adopted in England. See our report here:

These Regulations are already deemed to be in force, as of the end of 2008.


Datganiad am Gnydau GM Statement on GM Crops

Welsh Assembly Plenary 24 February 2009 Official transcript

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Elin Jones): The Welsh Assembly Government’s precautionary approach to genetically modified crop commercialisation is underlined through our ‘One Wales’ commitment to maximise restrictions on GM crops in Wales. This position has been supported by a long-standing consensus across all parties in the National Assembly. Members will be familiar with the fact that we have no powers to ban GM crops and that our position has been to adopt the most restrictive policy compatible with our legal obligations.

A report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development published in April 2008 supports a precautionary approach to GM. The report is the product of contributions from more than 400 scientists from around the world. These experts continue to debate the potential benefits and threats of GM with research showing that there have been variable yield gains and declines. The report warned that the assessment of this technology is lagging behind the process of its development, thereby increasing our uncertainty about the risks to the environment, human health and our economy.

Our precautionary approach therefore remains unchanged and, today, I am announcing my plans to undertake a full public consultation on co- existence arrangements. The European Commission has stated that no form of agriculture, whether GM, traditional, or organic, should be excluded in the European Union. I therefore intend to publish a public consultation in a few weeks’ time setting out proposals to put in place co-existence arrangements between GM, traditional and conventional crops in Wales.

Co-existence refers to the ability of farmers to make a practical choice between GM, conventional and organic crop production, in compliance with the legal obligations for labelling and purity criteria. The possibility of the presence of GM crops in conventional and organic crops cannot be dismissed, and may have commercial implications for the farmers whose crops are affected. Consequently, suitable measures during cultivation, harvest, transport, storage and processing are necessary to ensure co-existence. Co-existence measures aim to protect farmers of conventional and organic crops from the possible economic disadvantages of accidental contamination by GM crops.

Our restrictive stance on GM crop cultivation in Wales can be seen through the approach that we intend to take on the implementation of the GM aspects of the environmental liability directive. The directive is aimed at preventing significant environmental damage by forcing businesses that pollute to pay for the costs of prevention and remediation. Following our public consultation on the environmental liability directive last year, the proposals that we have made in relation to the GM aspects of the directive will shortly be put into effect through domestic legislation. This will give added protection to our environment in Wales by making the growers and biotechnology companies, namely the permit holders, responsible for any unforeseeable damage to the environment that a GM crop might cause.

The intention is for co-existence to be tightly regulated in Wales. Our proposed measures will be more restrictive than those proposed in England and Northern Ireland. I would like to take a few moments to outline some of the key features of our co-existence proposals.

On seed thresholds, we will seek views on whether the present 0.1 per cent default seed threshold should be retained, as in many EU member states, where separation distances have been established on that basis.

On liability, we will include options for imposing strict liability on GM crop growers and introducing a voluntary industry-funded compensation scheme. Consideration may also be given to an option for a statutory redress mechanism.

On GM-free zones, we will seek views on the desirability of a statutory prohibition on GM crop cultivation in all statutory conservation areas. On a GM crop register, we will propose a statutory national register with public access. To grow GM crops will require registration with the Welsh Assembly Government three months prior to planting. In addition to the implicit need for consultation with neighbours, in order to ensure compliance with separation distances, it is also proposed that there will be a statutory requirement to inform people living in the vicinity and neighbouring landowners. It is proposed that record keeping should be a statutory requirement for GM producers, as will training for all on-farm handlers who have any intent to grow GM crops.

The field measures that I will be proposing are based on our average arable field size in Wales of fewer than 3 ha. I will also propose significant isolation distances between GM and non-GM crops and buffer zones, incorporating pollen barriers or traps. I am conscious that a growing world population, climate change and increasing food costs have given rise to concerns regarding future food security. The debate on the potential role that GM crops have to play in meeting food security has increased. I do not believe that there is any clear evidence that GM crops do have a role to play. However, all parties in the Chamber will, no doubt, be reflecting in depth on this debate.

My officials continue to liaise proactively with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in relation to the DEFRA-managed England-and-Wales research and development budget. This includes GM and sustainable food and farming programmes. My officials are also engaged with the UK Government’s Foresight programme, which includes land use and food security. The Welsh Assembly Government will continue to review evidence, as we do in all policy areas, to ensure that our approach to GM remains informed and takes into account new and emerging evidence.

Current evidence supports the continuation of a precautionary approach and it is my intention to maintain as restrictive a policy approach to GM as is possible within our legal obligations. I look forward to receiving comments on the proposals for co-existence arrangements, which will help us to put in place an appropriate regime to control any future GM crop development in Wales.



Brynle Williams: Diolch i chi, Weinidog, am eich datganiad heddiw.

It is obvious that GM crops are a controversial subject, not just in Wales, but all over the world. There are a few questions that I would like to ask, Minister. When can we expect the public consultation on co-existence arrangements to begin, and when will the regulations be implemented? There are grave concerns about co-existence measures, as organic farming is expanding throughout the principality. What will the buffer zones be?

The other issue that I have noted is one of liability. What do you mean by ‘compensation money’? Will it be voluntary compensation? Will it be voluntary from all farmers in Wales or will it be top-sliced from the agriculture budget?

On the GM register, what would happen if I decided to grow GM crops and I farmed next door, effectively, to a registered organic producer? Would it be up to the Minister to decide who is permitted to grow crops in certain areas? Will the seed companies or the farmers be responsible for cross-contamination if it occurs and if litigation is brought about? That is our great concern.

Finally, Minister, I welcome your precautionary approach to the GM problem, and I eagerly await your comments.

4.00 p.m.

Elin Jones: Thank you for that list of questions. I apologise to you and to other Members because, although I am making a statement on my intention to consult, the proposals themselves are not yet fully out for consultation, although I have given a pretty full outline of them. Finding the answer to a number of Brynle’s questions will involve inviting people who are interested in this field to comment during the consultation process.

With regard to a GM register, if Brynle Williams or anybody else were to decide to grow a GM crop, the proposal in the current consultation would mean that they would need to publicly register their intention three months in advance of planting or sowing.

The environmental liability directive and the regulations that were consulted on at the end of last year, including the part on GM, put the responsibility for contamination and environmental damage as a result of planting GM on the permit holder, be that the farmer, the seller or the biotechnology company. I hope that I made it clear in my statement that Welsh Ministers do not have the power to ban GM crops from Wales if they are authorised at the European level. We are, therefore, through the environmental liability directive and its regulations, and now through the consultation on co-existence regulations, putting in place the most restrictive policy—I welcome Brynle’s support for the precautionary approach—so that we can ensure that conventional farming, which includes, for this purpose, organic farming, can be protected from any aspirations to grow GM crops in Wales.

Joyce Watson: It is right that our position on GM be informed by the best evidence available and that it should always take account of new evidence as it emerges. That said, I am pleased that you have used this opportunity to restate our precautionary approach to GM. Time has elapsed since the UK completed its large farm-scale trials in 2003, which concluded that GM crops had a damaging impact on farmland wildlife. In the light of recent news stories and the apparent confusion over the regulations governing how and where GM crops can and cannot be grown, I welcome the fact that plans for a full public consultation on the arrangement are in the pipeline.

You mention the importance of labelling to ensure that consumers are informed of farmers’ decisions to grow GM, conventional or organic crops. I agree with this approach, and add that we need to improve on the current system.

I am sure that you are aware that some businesses and organisations in the poultry industry are considering dropping their current self- imposed ban on GM soya feeds because of the extra costs in sourcing non-GM feed. Their argument is that other classes of livestock and dairy products in the UK are produced using GM feeds, about which the public is often unaware. Minister, have you held any discussions with the industry on this issue? Do you agree that products should be clearly labelled to inform consumers about all GM sourcing, be it for the crop itself or feed to be used in other ways?

Will the consultation address the use of other herbicide-resistant varieties of crops? There are concerns that some of the new varieties of crops that are being developed using conventional plant-breeding techniques are potentially more harmful than GM crops, but, because they are being developed using conventional techniques, they are not subject to the same controls as GM crops.

Elin Jones: Thank you for your support for the precautionary approach that the Government is adopting towards GM crops. There are regulations currently in place on traceability and labelling, although I have had discussions with a number of interested parties, including the GM Free alliance in Wales, regarding the need to improve labelling and information to consumers—whether the consumer is the farmer or the person consuming the food—on the GM content of any food or feedstuff. In general, this would be a matter for European consideration and not a matter to be considered on a Wales basis, in that we need to ensure that our consumers have confidence in labelling.

On the issue that you raised in terms of the acceptability—or otherwise —of some conventionally bred crops, it is not an issue that has been raised with me or on which I have received advice. However, if you want to give me more information on some of your concerns on this issue, I would be very happy to listen and to respond in due course.

Mick Bates: The Welsh Liberal Democrats recognise that the Minister has a good record on maintaining the most legally restrictive policy possible in relation to GM crops, and we praise the strong efforts being made to maintain this policy. The Welsh Liberal Democrats oppose the commercial growing of genetically modified crops, and we are proud of the cross-party support in the Assembly in 2000 to a motion to adopt the most legally restrictive policy possible in relation to GM crops.

We remain deeply concerned about the way in which GM crops are grown around the world, and the ability of multinational companies that own the patents on GM seeds to make poor farmers dependent on a monopoly supplier. I urge the Minister to comment on that, in view of the fair trade statement that has just been made, and how we wish to maintain fairness in trade throughout the world.

Clear labelling is needed on GM foods, particularly those that are imported. Is the Minister able to state that even tighter restrictions could be introduced on the content of GM in food? Currently, we have an internationally accepted contamination level of 0.9 per cent. We have the best agri-environment policies and organic farming policies, but they could be under threat; that is why we welcome your proposal to consult on the co-existence policies that are in place here and in other parts of the world.

However, will you, in the consultation, specify the distances that were proposed in the second organic action plan that runs from 2005 to 2010? For example, it was suggested that the separation distances between GM and organic holdings should be set at 4 km for beet crops, 8 km for maize crops and 10 km for oilseed rape crops. It is particularly important that the consultation gives consideration to the fact that different GM crops require different separation distances, because, otherwise, the good work that you and previous Government have undertaken in this regard could be threatened.

4.10 p.m.

I am pleased to see that issues around a GM register and the need to notify all neighbours will be part of the consultation. How will you enforce that? For regulations to be trusted it needs to be known that they will be enforced, so will you, as part of this consultation, recognise the need for extra investment to enforce the results? What have you done on that issue?

Similarly, is it possible to provide a timetable? As you say, you have only announced today your intention to consult, and have not published the consultation document. No clear date on when that will take place has been given, so there is no clear date for the statutory period of 12 weeks that would follow the consultation and there is no timetable for when you would aim to introduce the results of the consultation to protect the ever-increasing status of Welsh food, in the quality of which the Government has invested.

Elin Jones: Thank you, Mick, for your strong and continuing support for the view of the Government and the Assembly on growing GM crops in Wales. Part of what I am announcing today is the putting in place of legislation following earlier Assembly decisions and votes. This is an appropriate time to put regulations on co-existence in place.

You asked about the ability to consider wider political parameters in decisions on GM. It is important to stress that, while decisions at the European level on seed authorisation are currently taken based on scientific advice alone, it is this Government’s opinion that wider parameters should be used, allowing member states and the Council of Ministers to take decisions based on socio-economic and ethical factors, as well as the scientific considerations that are, quite rightly, always needed.

The consultation will have proposals regarding separation distances between GM crops and conventional crops. The proposal will be to treat all non-GM crops in a way that does not differentiate between organic and other, conventionally grown, crops. This means that that the separation distances will be between GM crops and all other crops. The possibility of contamination is a consideration for both organic and conventional farmers.

The point regarding enforcement is important, and one that will have to feature in the final decisions on the exact nature of the regulations that we put in place. Enforcing those regulations is necessary if we are to make the whole legislative context meaningful. There will be a full 12-week consultation period once the consultation is published, which I hope will be in the next few weeks.

Leanne Wood: Thank you for your statement, Minister. I warmly welcome the Government’s continued commitment to maximising the restrictions on GM crops by following the precautionary principle. Wales has a growing organic, high-quality food sector, which has become an important aspect of our economy, as well as an important part of our tourism industry. I am concerned that the sector could be seriously undermined if the strictest co-existence measures are not put in place. We have developed a niche market, a market that I sincerely hope will be sustained through the difficult economic times that we face. People are likely to feel an extra squeeze on their finances, and I hope that these strict measures can only help in that respect.

I welcome your intention to ensure transparency through a statutory national register that will be open to the public. I am hoping that this will send a clear signal to farmers that they have no right to plant genetically modified plants behind people’s backs.

I accept your point that there are grave worldwide concerns about food security. Genetically modified crops are not the answer, at least not for us here in Wales. Climate change has already resulted in water shortages, and this, combined with Governments displacing food crops for biofuels and high oil prices, has seen food prices go up considerably recently.

I am sure that many Members share my concerns about this, but I share the Minister’s view that allowing genetically modified crops to be grown in Wales will not help to overcome that problem. I am not saying that we should not do anything about the global food crisis, but I would argue that our focus should be on cutting our carbon emissions and not on growing genetically modified crops.

I wish to conclude by drawing your attention to a vote that is due to take place in the European Commission on 2 March. This proposal would allow some countries to grow a form of genetically modified maize called MON810. Campaigners are calling for a re-evaluation of the safety MON810 and for the Council of Ministers to represent the public’s view on this and oppose the commission. I am only too aware, as you are, Minister, that Wales has no direct voice on the Council of Ministers, but I would be grateful if you could undertake to do all you can to ensure that Wales’s views on genetically modified crops are communicated to the relevant UK Minister with a view to opposing this move at an EU level.

Elin Jones: Thank you for your comments, Leanne. I am pleased that Plaid Cymru is supporting the Government view on GM policy. With regard to confidence for producers, you are absolutely right to say that those producers who are very proud of their conventional or organic forms of agriculture might have invested heavily in developing and marketing their food product on the basis of its quality or organic status. Such producers need to have the confidence that they are able to protect that investment from any possibility of contamination from genetically modified crops. They need the confidence that, first, they would be informed of any intention to plant genetically modified crops in the vicinity and, secondly, that, should there be any environmental damage as a result of such crops, the liability will rest quite clearly with the permit holder of the genetically modified crops.

Like you, I am not convinced that the introduction of genetically modified crops or any support for them should be the reaction to the possible food shortages that could affect the global community. That would be a knee-jerk and simplistic political reaction to the issue. I would not shut out any consideration of the technology in future, but at this point in time I am not convinced of its contribution to food production, and I therefore want to ensure that, in Wales, and within our powers in Wales, we are able to protect those farmers who are of a similar view to me in taking a precautionary approach to genetically modified crops.

4.20 p.m.

With regard to any voting that takes place within the Council of Ministers on any authorisation or safeguard action for genetically modified seed, discussions take place between the four countries of the United Kingdom in preparing the UK voting position in advance of any voting. As I said in response to Mick Bates, I am quite clearly of the view that scientific advice should be taken on any decision or vote relating to the authorisation of genetic modification, and that we should have wider socioeconomic and ethical parameters before a decision is taken by any member state on how to cast its vote.

Alun Davies: I join others in welcoming this statement, if not, perhaps, the tone of the statement and everything that the Minister has said. I agree that genetic modification should not be seen or perceived to be a knee-jerk reaction, and the adoption of GM technology should not be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to climate change or to food shortages. However, you said in your last answer that genetic modification is a valid technology. For any government to take such an antagonistic approach to any valid technology is a disappointment in many ways.

I welcome the public debate on the matter, which will follow this statement today, and I hope that the Government will listen to that public debate with an open mind, and approach a public debate with an open mind.

I visited the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences on Friday and saw impressive presentations on the work that the institute does in Aberystwyth, and also on its ambitions for the future. IBERS is quite clear that it wishes to be a world-class research institution that can be compared with the best in the world. It was also clear that the current policy pursued by the Welsh Assembly Government will inhibit its ambition to be among the best in the world, perhaps not in the next few years and perhaps not in the short term, but certainly in the medium and long term. There is a direct contradiction between the stated ambition of the Government, which is to have an economy that is based on knowledge, and a policy that prevents the accumulation of knowledge. You cannot have it both ways. For too long, we have adopted an approach that has been rooted in what we call the precautionary principle. However, I think that, in fact, we mean conservatism.

I hope that you will approach the consultation, Minister, with a view to considering what is possible and allowing a public debate to take place. It will be a positive debate and it will ensure that the policy that we have reflects not only what is needed for the economy in the future and what our agricultural economy needs, but the perception of Wales. I believe strongly that Wales has to be perceived internationally to be a place where things get done and where things happen, and not a place where we seek to stop things from happening and to prevent things from being done. In addressing this policy, I hope that we will do so in a way that seeks to drive forward, not inhibit, research, and seeks to support our universities and higher education sector and, at the same time, seeks to explore the possibilities and the potential of GM technology.

Elin Jones: I hope that nothing that I have said thus far this afternoon has indicated that I would want to inhibit research. In my answer to Leanne Wood, I said that I—like most people here, hopefully— would not close my eyes entirely to the potential role that all new technology, and even GM technology, might play in the future. At present, this Government and I are not convinced that the argument for an open-door policy on GM introduction is there.

Current research shows that consumers remain unconvinced about the role of genetically modified food in Wales. Although I, as Minister, have not discussed this issue with IBERS, I would say that IBERS has aspirations to be a world-class research institution. It already undertakes world-class research on conventional breeding, and it may well have aspirations for GM technology research in the future. If that is the case, it will need to make its case to the Welsh Government, because we will have powers of consent in relation to such research, and I am sure that the institute will make that case to me and to the Government at an appropriate time, when it is ready to do so. However, I am putting in place today a consultation on regulations that will allow conventional and organic farmers in Wales to be informed and to feel protected from the effects of possible cross- contamination on their daily business arising from any farm in Wales deciding to grow any authorised GM product. That meets the aspiration of Assembly Members to have a proportionate approach that is within the legislative capacity of the Assembly, but within the overall framework of European legislation.