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.