Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. True; but there is no evidence to the contrary, is there?
  (Mr Holden) It gets back to Gundula's point earlier, which is evidence; you say it.
  (Ms Meziani) It seems just very strange, if you look at the process, it rather predicts a range of risks; many people are concerned, there are no obvious benefits, there are clear alternatives, I think one should proceed on the basis of precaution. I definitely feel very strongly we are not able to assess all the risks, and therefore say what sort of level of risk, we are not at that point. So I think these questions are very, very important.
  (Mr Holden) It is interesting that in the medical sphere a completely different approach has been taken, despite the fact that their use is confined only to people who are sick, who elect to use them and the derivatives are non-viable. So why, if we have adopted that very precautionary approach for medical use, why are we not adopting the same approach for agricultural use?

Mr Breed

  41. Can we turn now to the farm-scale evaluations and the trials which have been allowed to continue, subject to a number of conditions. I suppose, one of the most contentious conditions relates to separation distances, or buffer zones. Now I think SCIMAC have indicated 200 to 600-metre zones, and you have indicated that you think that, in some respects, that could be substantially lower than the EU suggested figure, particularly for rape, and such; but how wide do you think buffer zones really need to be, in terms of to ensure that there can be no contamination into organics, and is it likely that such buffer zones can then be practical in the size that they would have to be?
  (Mr Holden) I think this is known already, but I will just repeat, very briefly, that we commissioned the National Pollen Research Unit to investigate precisely that issue, and they came up with recommended distances which they considered would protect organic producers against contamination, which was on a crop-by-crop basis, so different distances for oil-seed rape, for sugar beet, for maize and for other crops. And our approach to this was that we felt that those distances should be built into the provision for the licensing of future trials, and then on a case-by-case basis a decision would be made, on a farm trial by farm trial basis, based on the evidence, which would then be assessed; we have got nowhere, so far, with advancing those arguments. But while we have been pressuring for those buffer zones to be introduced some new information has emerged, has it not, from the EU, which perhaps you can speak about.
  (Ms Meziani) Yes. I have not read the full report, but it just seemed to confirm that the sorts of distances that have been used in the UK would be inadequate, and you do need very large distances; and that also follows on from the English Nature report into the development of the so-called "super weeds" in Canada, and I think that also concluded that, if GMOs were introduced on a wide scale in the UK, contamination and those sorts of consequences are inevitable. So I think we just stand by the distances; those are based on, I think, a review of all the scientific literature.

  42. The five-kilometre for rape?
  (Ms Meziani) Yes. I think it is between three and six kilometres.
  (Mr Holden) Yes, six kilometres for rape and three kilometres for maize.

  43. But, given that there is a pretty wide divergence of opinion as to what these buffer zones, separation distances, should be, is it likely that we are going to be able to coincide the interests of the various differing points of view on this, in order to come to some sort of clear policy on it? Are we actually going to be able to accommodate those interests, if the different parties have a different view?
  (Mr Holden) With respect, I do not think that that should be the parameter, or the guiding parameter, for the decision-making. If you take the AEBC position, they have upheld our position, which is that the public have the right of choice, in relation to organic food, and that right of choice should be protected. And so then it is not a question of whether we can agree with SCIMAC, it is a question of the science which would inform a decision about the buffer zones needed to protect that right of choice.

  44. So what you are saying is, if you went to five or six kilometres, on an individual farm, case-by-case basis, you tested within that buffer zone to see how far any penetration had gone, then that would be the protection that you got for the trial, it would also bring out the information necessary for any future subsequent plantings?
  (Mr Holden) We are saying that, from now on, any field-scale trials, or any other plantings, should be made using that system of prior identification of vulnerable farms, and then, on a-case-by-case basis, an assessment made of the likelihood of cross-pollination.

  45. So still a minimum of five or six kilometres?
  (Mr Holden) Yes, that they should be the distances. It is all very clearly set out in the recommendations we have made to Government.

Mr Curry

  46. I wonder if you can help me. I have been sitting here in a sort of growing mood of perplexity, because our perceptions are obviously so different. From where I am sitting, you seem to be winning this argument hands down; after all, you have got the Government faffing around so much you have not the faintest idea what its policy is any more, you have got the European Union in an absolute blue funk about the whole business, and half the States in the European Union saying they are not going to approve it under any circumstances whatsoever. Goodness knows what is happening with the field trials in the UK, are they sorting the thing out or are they not sorting the thing out. And yet you are sitting there, like a sort of group of Jehovah's Witnesses, with a persecution complex, as if the whole world is against you, and anybody who says that they are is fired, or is immediately sent to the Tower of London, or is sort of burnt at the stake, and pressures are put on scientists to come up with the right results. My perception is, you are winning this; and your perception is, you are clearly not winning it. Am I right, do you actually think you are losing this argument?
  (Mr Holden) I think we have won the public argument, but I do not think we have won the struggle to prevent commercial planting. And, if you look across to North America, I think there is a catastrophe unfolding there, with a scale of cross-pollination and other forms of contamination which is going to be very difficult to deal with, which is already seriously affecting markets, international markets, for the crops that have been grown from GMOs.

  47. Can I ask you, leaving aside whether you think it is a good thing or a bad thing, or any sort of judgmental question, do you think that GM crops will be grown commercially in the UK within, let us say, seven years, to choose a figure absolutely with no particular relevance? Do you think they will be grown, not whether you think it is a good idea or a bad idea, but do you think that, pressures to do so, which you have described at some length, and which you would argue the Government is supporting, and your interpretation of the Government, actually, is that the Government is gung-ho for GM, do you actually think we will see commercial planting in the UK?
  (Mr Holden) I do not think the Government is gung-ho any longer. I think it has taken the report from the AEBC quite seriously. I would say, the answer to that question hangs right in the balance, at the moment. I think it is far from certain now that commercial crop plantings will go ahead, but the pressures are still very considerable, because there is a view that Britain will fall behind the rest of the world, if we resist commercial planting, and that the result of that will be that we will lose an opportunity to be world-class in plant biotechnology.

  48. The approval process in the European Union is a complex one, as you know, but already it looks like a number of European Union States have decided that they are not going to approve, in any circumstances; do you think that will persist, or do you think that, at the end of the day, the pressures will be such that those countries will cave in, if you like, and the UK will sort of row along behind them?
  (Mr Holden) I am a great believer in public opinion, and, obviously, badly-informed public opinion, which is the fruit of the wrong kind of information campaign, or whatever, can be dangerous, but I think it is the best means we have of arriving at practices which are in the long-term public interest, and I think that public opinion is not likely to shift from the position that it has got to now. But I do not think that we are out of the woods, as it were, in the struggle to stop commercial planting going ahead, because of the very considerable commercial pressures, which are also backed by an element of Government opinion which is very pro scientific innovation.

  49. You give the impression, if I may say so, that you do not even want experiments, or tests, which might give us an answer, one way or the other, to go ahead. Now, if the Government said to you, "Okay, we realise that we're in a bit of a bind here, we realise that there are pressures on us from one side, commercial pressures, international pressures, from the United States, some within the United Kingdom, to plant, we realise that we've got a public opinion problem, we've got yourself, with some fairly high-profile allies, where you are saying, `We don't want to do this'; help us devise something to see if we can get ourselves out of this bind," what would you suggest they did, so that they could come up with an answer which people would accept, a bit like the disposal of nuclear waste, if you see what I mean? What is the process, the procedure, which would enable you to feel that, whatever the outcome was, it had been fairly arrived at?
  (Mr Holden) I think that the public would not be happy if they felt that the results of the sort of opinion that we are expressing meant that it was impossible to look at the technology at all. But I think that the public would be happier if any experimentation was done on a contained basis; and the critics of that would say, "Well, you've got to put them in the open air to find out what will happen on the environment, otherwise how would you know?" But I think we are far too early to do that, even if you accept the role of the technology. And contained trials should be the rule, as they are in medical research, and, in parallel with that, long-term feeding trials; and, I think, if they went ahead, it would be difficult for us, even though we do not see any place, as I have already said, for the technology in agriculture, to object to that. But it is a question of, if you are going to do something in your garden and it does not affect me, that is fine, but if you are doing something in your back garden and it affects me, and I do not want that, then that is another issue. And it is a question of one set of rights against another; and, when you have that friction, you need to take into account the overwhelming body of public opinion, which is against them.

  50. Equally, you give the impression that, after all, you represent organic producers, in a sense, you are the sort of genesis, as it were, of organic production, your organisation, and if you were saying, "Well, our job is to make sure that the position of our producers is not compromised in any way," one would say, "Fair do's, that's what you're there for, that's what you're paid for, that's what people pay their subscriptions for." You give the impression though that you are on a crusade which actually is rather more than that, that you just do not believe they should have a role in agriculture, full stop, whether it affects your members or does not affect your members, whether you can work out separation distances or not. Is that unfair?
  (Mr Holden) No, I think it is fair. I think the position we are advancing is shared by the vast majority of the public, and applies equally inside and outside organic farming. The difference between the position that we have and that the non-organic sector has is that we happen to have standards which include the exclusion of GMOs, whereas the rest of the agricultural community only has the market; but if you look at the way that the market is reacting, it is also excluding GMOs, it is just not backed by, in our case, the force of a regulation. So I think we are representing public opinion, not just organic opinion.

  51. Do you think that trashing GM experimental sites is wrong?
  (Mr Holden) We have always been against direct action; we have not changed.

  52. The answer is, you do believe that is wrong?
  (Mr Holden) Yes.

  53. We ought to give you credit for that, because I do not want people to have a misleading impression.
  (Ms Meziani) I would just say that, personally, I find that quite destructive to the debate. I think it certainly kept alive public interest, and that has helped us to put forward our issues, but, I think, actually, to some extent, it has not helped a full debate. You asked a little while ago what the Government should do, in terms of this dilemma, how it should legally take it forward.

  54. How would you help it?
  (Ms Meziani) I would just say, three things have jumped to mind. First of all, just to say, I do not think the trials programme is anything to do with establishing the facts about GMOs, all the concerns that we have would not be addressed at all by this trials programme; and that is the big reason why the GM opponents have been not supporting the trials programme, it is not because we do not want to know about the technology. So our issues are things that can be discovered in the laboratory, and they are mainly to do with the health and the process. So I would say, first of all, spend ten years learning about genetic processes. We know leading researchers, for example, Craig Ventnor, who discovered the human genome; he himself said, "We know nothing about biology." So we arrive at a situation, we can actually look at the processes involved, and therefore establish risk. Health; if we have GMOs that seem to be stable, long-term feeding trials, monitor the effects of that. And establish a proper liability regime, so that, at the end of the day, should the Government decide to introduce GMOs and we have overlooked something major, then neither the Government, nor innocent farmers, nor the food industry, nor consumers, will actually be exposed unreasonably, financially; this could well happen at the moment.

  55. So your answer to the question how do you reconcile openness in, for example, the identification of the allocation of sites for trials, with security for the farmer concerned, that is actually the wrong question, because these trials are actually going down the wrong direction.
  (Mr Holden) They are flawed, yes.

  56. The process of testing and proving and finding out all the implications of this should actually be taken down different directions; and the Government is ahead of itself, the Government has taken the final step before it has taken the first step. And would you say that was correct?
  (Mr Holden) There is that, and the fact that we do not accept open-air trials because we are worried about deliberate release and the consequences which cannot be contained; also we are heavily critical of the research parameters for the open-air trials, we do not think they are going to tell the public what it needs to know about the risks, or potential risks, because the right questions are not even being researched. So I think those are the two issues.

  57. The trials of GM in the United Kingdom, as far as you are aware, have they led to contamination of other crops?
  (Mr Holden) I think the honest answer is, we do not know, because they have not been monitoring. There are oil-seed rape trials which have been grown within easy cross-pollination distance of other oil-seed rape; so, given the fact that bees love the stuff, it is highly likely that there would have been low-level cross-pollination. But, as far as I know, testing has not been done.

  58. People have talked about, I think, `particularly unfortunate' sites, they have described. What is a "particularly unfortunate" site?
  (Mr Holden) A `particularly unfortunate' site will be one where these risks are very high. I have been to quite a few of the public meetings which have been organised in various village halls. I do not know whether you have attended any of them; but I would strongly recommend going to one, if you want to find out what the public really thinks about them. Because these are not GM campaigners that fill these village halls, these are local inhabitants of the villages, who are really deeply upset about the fact that these trials are being imposed on their local community without any consultation.

  59. You are known to be extremely rigorous in the standards you require for people to be certified as organic producers by the Soil Association. Have you had to withdraw organic status from any of your members because of contamination?
  (Mr Holden) No; but we have had, she said, near-misses. There have been a number of farms where there has been a very active debate, in one case, in the Ryton case last year, the crop was removed, and then there was, I think he was called Colonel, I have forgotten his name now, but the Wiltshire case, where, again, the family pressure resulted in the trial being sprayed off. But we have not had a case where the threat of contamination, or actual contamination, has resulted in us decertifying, if that is what you are asking.

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