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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



  80. Have you had a sort of warm and friendly reception from your neighbours, or are they in out and out war with you about this; what has been your local reaction, have you had a large rising in the village hall?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Not a large rising. I have a very active pressure group that obviously is against the technology.

  81. But they are well-behaved, are they?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Most of them are very well-behaved, to be fair to them. They have put their point. When I had the first trial, they were invited on the farm and we had a full discussion; and, as I pointed out to them, they had not persuaded me that the views I held would prevent me from actually planting that first trial.

  82. But, given that you are known about, in your local area, have members of the public beaten a path to your door to say, "What is it you're actually doing? Tell us about it"?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Very few deliberately doing that, but where we have met some, I have various activities take place on the farm, where actually the public come in, I actually allow working-dog trials to take place on the farm, so therefore quite a number of public come on, and they are aware of what I am doing. Most of them, their common reaction is, "Well, at least we need to have the information so we can make some real comment." Those that are against the technology are against it, and I would recognise their right to be so; but the majority I meet, in actual fact, are ambivalent, and most actually say, "Well, we need to get the information out, and then we can make some judgement, when we hear what's happening."

  83. What size is your farm?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Altogether, but the area that is being involved is about 260 hectares, so I farm about 500, all told.

  84. So roughly half down to trials?
  (Mr Fiddaman) No, the area is much smaller, the trial, certainly than the size of the farm; the trials themselves, this year my trial size is 16 hectares of crop, but it is a field-scale size, as you can well recognise. But I have spring as well as winter, and I have also hosted other site trials.

Mr Breed

  85. Although we must get on to talk about perhaps the public debate, I was quite interested in the yields, because, if that is the principal driver, those farmers that have been getting more and more yields of milk out of their cows are now being paid the lowest price they have ever had, I think, so if you think, in fact, yields is going to be the driver. Can we just think now about the public debate, and the way in which the public get informed, and suchlike. I think it has been argued reasonably fairly that the media have not been necessarily the best informants of the public debate, and suchlike; what is your view of the sort of quality of the way in which the media have dealt with this subject? How do you think that perhaps the media can be more educated, in the way in which they handle it, and in order to try to improve the whole public debate area, because what you have been saying just now is that people want to know the various bits of information?
  (Mr Fiddaman) That is my reaction, yes.

  86. I think that is why a lot of people are saying, "Well, give me the information." How do you think we can get the media, rather than have rather lurid headlines, perhaps actually to get to a more balanced view and try to inform the public, as opposed to frighten it, perhaps?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Certainly, obviously, I have had a lot of media contact, because I have been prepared to be seen and talk about it, and there are some elements in the media which have taken a very balanced view, I feel, in listening to the argument and wanting to put it across to their readership. Obviously, I have not spoken with the likes of the Daily Express, because they had a view to put; they have now stopped putting that view, obviously they have moved on to other issues. And this is the problem, is why it was being used. But I think the actual discussions, for example, within the farming press, and it was mentioned earlier about is there a debate within the farming community, the answer is, there is a debate, a lot of people are saying, "Well, actually, until we see there's any opportunity then we're interested, but that's as far as it goes." And even my involvement will depend on what opportunities I continue to see, because, obviously, I need to create a living, the same as everybody else, in the sense I have got to have something that is going to be profitable. But the debate that we need to start having is whether there is genuine benefit which the consumer can see, whether that benefit is not necessarily very clear but is going along with the trend of things. And I think this is where some of the current trials might actually show that, because if there is a real potential benefit of using this technology in the way that biodiversity might be improved then that surely is part of what is currently in the consumers' general interest, is how we are handling the environment. If it is a product that we are using which is a lower environmental risk than the comparative products that we are using on the conventional crop then that must be adding into the plus side of the environmental discussion.

  87. How does that sort of get into the public consciousness?
  (Mr Fiddaman) I think it will start getting in when the trial results are formally known. At the end of the day, if there is either no benefit or a disbenefit then, obviously, that is going to have one effect; but if the benefit is positive then, obviously, one would wish to build on it. Certainly, from my own perception, and it is only subjective rather than objective, obviously, because I do not see the trial data, and they are doing the counting, not me, I can see, the way that I am seeing the crops, that, yes, there are more weeds around for a longer period in the GM one, because I do not have to tackle them early, which I do in the conventional so, therefore, they just do not exist, or I try not to have them exist, because that is the way you grow the crop. And, certainly, and it is one of the things that we need to build on once we get the information, if you like, it is the agrological advice that will benefit the best use within the whole of the farming community; but, therefore, are there better times at which these products can be applied. Now, personally, I have found that I go late, and by late I mean January, February, because that way I can get in and get what I want as the control, the crop itself is well-established; and then you have the benefits of leaving behind material which has grown, and, yes, you have killed off, that is lying there as a dead mass. But if you go back some six or eight weeks later it is not no weeds, the weeds are there, but the crop itself then acts as the controlling mechanism, which is all, obviously, as you are intending to do. So there are benefits that can be built on. What we do not know, and we have not got a handle on yet, and cannot, for a while, is being able to show environmentally those benefits, and, therefore, if you like, get consumer acceptance of the technology, as something in which they are quite interested.
  (Mr Pearsall) I do not think we come from the viewpoint either that there is outright consumer rejection of this technology. I think there are various pieces of market research which have been done, which you can point to, which suggest that there are consumers willing to buy products containing GM ingredients, if they are clearly labelled. And our position would be that the only way really to determine public attitudes and consumer perception is by delivering a choice in the market-place and providing a framework of enabling regulation which allows that choice to be provided. I think, from an agricultural perspective, there are a number of aspects of the technology which fit into future priorities for the agricultural industry that were identified by the Curry Commission, in terms of moving towards more integrated systems of farming and seeking to produce crops more in sympathy with the environment.

  88. We spoke earlier on about the fact of the hostility of a couple of years ago, and such, and it was all in the papers, and everything else; but, to a certain extent, the trials are now at a sort of period of time when I suppose there is a cooling-off really of the whole sort of hostility and conflict on GMOs. Do you see that that might arise again, when the crop trials are finished and the results begin to be published, and they are going to be analysed and exposed, and everything else; are we just in a bit of a lull before another storm, or what?
  (Mr Pearsall) I do not know. I think I would like to think that the debate has moved on. Clearly, the process of farm-scale evaluations is an important demonstration by industry of a commitment to ensuring decisions about the technology are based on the best available scientific evidence, and industry has put its technology, free and unfettered, to the scrutiny of the independent scientists involved. Now, if that has had a part to play in defusing and moving the debate more constructively forward then that is to be welcomed.

  89. But do you think that, in this period of time, until that happens, if you like, you can contribute positively to try to assist this informed public debate, or is it just, keep your head down and we will see what happens later on?
  (Mr Pearsall) I think, far from it.

  90. Are you going to be proactive, or are you going to react, and something else, are you actually going to be proactive, in terms of trying to inform public debate during this period of time of the trial, or what?
  (Mr Pearsall) I think that SCIMAC should not be seen as the protagonist for every element of biotechnology and its promotion; we have a very specific role, which is at the farm supply level, to seek to deliver co-existence, rather than conflict, between different systems of agriculture. I think, wherever possible, we have adopted the most open and transparent approach to that, in the way we have provided details of the sites as soon as practically possible, in attending public meetings, in sending information about the trials. Where it comes onto, I think, the wider discussion that you are referring to, which is a more generic debate about the technology generally, there are other organisations, I think, beyond SCIMAC, that have a more pertinent role for that.


  91. I want to touch on a couple of the scientific publications that have come out in the last six months; one you heard aired at some length in the previous discussion, which was the Nature article. Firstly, are you familiar with that debate?
  (Dr Turner) Yes.

  92. And what is your perception of what has been demonstrated, or what has not been demonstrated, in that exercise?
  (Dr Turner) I think, what has been demonstrated is that the analytical techniques used in that particular study were flawed, and that the means by which those genes may or may not have got into that particular plant are questionable. My understanding is, it is probably to do with international trade in maize, moving from the US into Mexico, rather than gene flow per se, that has caused that. Having said that, I think the understanding of what is a landrace and how it will be affected by gene flow, I think, that is slightly cloudy there. My own view is that landraces have been subjected to gene flow for millions of years, and that a GM construct will have the same effect as anything else, it is not going to be beneficial, it is not going to be negative, there will still be a source of genetic diversity; and there is no guarantee that, even if the gene is found, it will transfer back into another variety. You have to recognise, a variety is a finished product, it has a legal set of standards that it has to meet, in terms of its content, its purity, etc. A landrace is a breeding population that is extremely diverse.

  93. So your reaction would be, firstly, the piece of research was flawed; but, secondly, that, the main message of the piece, your answer would be, "So what?" to some extent, which is, "Gene flow happens now, has always happened, there is nothing particularly wrong with having GM genes going into other plants, there is no obvious reason why we should be concerned"?
  (Dr Turner) I think it would depend a little bit on which particular gene; so I would not say that is a blanket yes/no.

  94. That is interesting. How would you qualify that, when you say it depends which particular genes? And there is a secondary question, which is, if there is a qualification, how do you try to make that qualification meaningful in nature?
  (Dr Turner) The genes that are being used at the moment in herbicide-tolerance, insect-resistance, as the main ones in North America, I think, used properly, they will not have a negative impact on the environment and on the dynamics of "nature". Whereas I think you could dream up all sorts of theoretical possibilities of things that might go into a plant that could be transferred out there; but my own feeling is, that is unlikely to happen for a while.

  95. Which, if then placed in a rather different environment, might be negative?
  (Dr Turner) Yes.

  96. So to lead you on slightly, there is a genuine point of potential concern there, as to how you manage that relationship between genes from GM crops and the natural habitat around them and other plants, which you accept; and, to some extent, presumably you would argue that these trials and other trials around the world are partly to identify how one can manage that relationship better?
  (Dr Turner) I would come back and talk about conventional plant breeding, and that sort of thing has been going on, genes have been flowing in and out; and my own view is that we are measurably better off, thanks to plant breeding, and the impact has always tended to be beneficial, rather than negative.

  97. Turning to the other one, which is English Nature's published research on the gene stacking, what is your reaction to that? There, they say, at some point, I am looking for the carefully guarded, but generally, "the SCIMAC code is probably inadequate to prevent gene stacking happening in Britain." How do you respond to that?
  (Dr Turner) The author of the report disagreed with English Nature's view on that area, and, I think, again, you come down to what you were talking about earlier, about separation distances and buffer zones, and my own view is that you can manage them that way. My understanding, in North America, is they did not have the same sort of SCIMAC guidelines and separation distance in that market-place, and therefore the chances of getting something like gene stacking would happen. But, again, I do not have any negative vibes about that; there are ways that that can be managed. Bob, as a farmer, will say you can manage stacked genes by mechanical, rotational, chemical methods; so I do not see that it is a major (hurdle ? ).

  98. So your answer, again, would be a bit "So what? Well, it happens, but we're not particularly concerned"?
  (Mr Pearsall) I think it is worth pointing out, we were concerned at a discrepancy between the press release, which reported the report, and what the report actually contained, which is, I think, what Roger is referring to. Because the report contains a significant paragraph which highlights the existence of the SCIMAC guidelines, and says: "Both UK gene flow data and Canadian experience suggest that this would be effective in reducing significantly the occurrence of gene flow to other canola crops that are not varietal associations or possible partially restored hybrids, and perhaps both the practicalities and the data suggest that there is little benefit in aiming for a greater separation distance."

  99. So you are actually saying that the press release which criticised your separation distances does not tally with the report, which actually says that they are probably just about okay?
  (Mr Pearsall) Exactly. And I think there are other measures specified within the SCIMAC guidelines, in addition to separation distances, in relation to encouraging evenness of maturity, in relation to monitoring for volunteers and in relation to volunteer control, which would also help in ensuring this was not a significant agricultural issue. I think the other point we would make is that gene stacking in relation to GM crops would only happen if more than one crop of the same species, with different tolerances, were approved for commercialisation. I think it is important to point out that English Nature is a statutory consultee in that approvals process. Clearly, we are not in a situation yet in which any crops have been approved for commercialisation.

  Mr Curry: Listening to you give evidence is rather like watching Leeds United play football.

  Chairman: Not many goals scored, if that is the case.

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