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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



Mr Curry

  100. I get the sense that you know you are not going to get in the Championship League, and it has all gone wrong off the field; it is a bit like that, is it not?
  (Dr Turner) Setting aside any comments about the value of myself versus some of the Leeds forwards, I do not feel that, myself. I think I would say, cautiously optimistic, waiting for the opportunity, to use the footballing analogy, to score a few goals and come through.


  101. Play the game as it comes; a game of two halves?
  (Dr Turner) Yes.

Mr Curry

  102. You are not winning many though, are you?
  (Dr Turner) I do not think we won very many to start with. I think there are more and more that we win now.

  103. Two years ago, I had, personally, at least an idea of what I thought was the Government's scenario to pull this debate together, and it was based very strongly on the field trials. Since then, I have to say, I no longer know how I think the Government is going to pull this together, I have not got the confidence that it thinks the field trials are going to deliver its results. You heard evidence given earlier today that some groups think field trials are heading off in entirely the wrong direction, and that a more complex process of adjudication has got to take place. Just looking at your crystal ball, when do you think, realistically, not what you would like, but when do you think realistically, you are likely to be able to grow your first commercial crop, in the UK?
  (Mr Fiddaman) That is a real crystal ball, is it not.
  (Dr Turner) I will stick my neck out: 2004, 2005.
  (Mr Fiddaman) I would have said, three years; so that is not far out.

  104. So you think that the present procedures and process put in place, leaving aside some sort of problems of joined-up government between various Departments involved in all that, you think they will actually push this through, to be able to take a decision, leaving aside any complications at the European Union level with the sorts of mechanisms and approvals, you do think that is the case?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Yes.
  (Dr Turner) Yes.
  (Mr Pearsall) I do not think we can leave aside complications at a European Union level, because we are in a situation where the de facto moratorium, as it is called, is overriding, and that is the essential block on new approvals being granted.

  105. And so you think that, were it not for that, the British Government would have the sort of clear perspective as to where we are going and a sort of timescale which, eventually, given the outcomes which people expected, or hoped for, would lead to commercial planting?
  (Mr Pearsall) I do not think we can answer on behalf of the Government. I think we can present what is our clear understanding.

  106. That is what I am asking you for, what is your clear understanding?
  (Mr Pearsall) Which is that, at the outset of the farm-scale evaluations, industry, via SCIMAC, entered into an agreement, and it was a voluntary agreement, from industry's perspective, on the conduct of the farm-scale evaluations; that is set within very clear parameters and has very clear time-lines. Now it is a voluntary agreement, it is outside regulatory requirements, over and above regulatory requirements; there are other regulatory hurdles for each of these crops that must be cleared, not just in relation to GM but also in relation to normal plant variety and pesticide registration.

  107. Are you aware of, and I am quoting again, I think, previously, a catastrophe in the making in the United States?
  (Mr Pearsall) No; in fact, in relation to the producer benefits that Mr Jack was particularly asking about, I was going to offer to provide information about the uptake of GM crops in other parts of the world, including the United States, where their penetration in the major crops continues to increase.

  108. Yes; the remark made earlier was not about producer penetration, or growing, it was suggesting that the environmental consequences would be tantamount to a catastrophe there. But that is not a perception which you recognise?
  (Dr Turner) No; and, certainly, the people I have talked with from America and people I have listened to, and read scientific papers, suggest that the benefit you see, in terms of pesticide reductions, benefits to reduce tillage, lots and lots of things that I would put in a "box" that said organic benefits are manifest there, and I do not think that North American consumers would be willing to lose those.

  109. What have the farm-scale trials demonstrated, up to now?
  (Mr Pearsall) I think, as you will be aware, there are no results or data from the trials, those will be published as one, covering the three-year period. I think, from our perspective, as SCIMAC, we have gained experience of applying the SCIMAC guidelines in a normal farming situation at more than 180 field-scale sites; and I think the experience we have gained is that they are robust and practicable and workable in a normal farming situation.
  (Mr Fiddaman) And they have been audited to endorse that viewpoint, that what we are doing, practitionally, on the ground, is what has been recommended, and is keeping any element of risk to the minimum, this is assuming what this term risk means.

  110. The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, which is yet another one of these bodies in this extraordinarily complicated piece of bureaucratic architecture, said, basically, that why cannot you chaps and the organic lot get together and sort out something which will make them happy, and make you happy, and will prevent the contamination of organic crops. Do you believe that the buffer zones, as they presently exist in the Code of Practice, are adequate, and is asking you and the organic people to get together and sort it out a bit like asking President Bush and al-Qa'eda sort of to come to a gentlemanly agreement?
  (Dr Turner) I would use the analogy of Mr Paisley and the Pope, but I accept the point you are making. I do not think it is a particularly fair comment; we do talk to them. This year, for instance, in selecting the sites, some of the organic accreditation bodies gave us lists of farmers in the areas, so we could actually take steps to avoid that potential conflict. In terms of the separation distances, I would say that they do work, in practice, the whole of arable farming is based on certified seed, which is based on buffer zones and separation distances, to give guaranteed genetic purity. Inherent in that is setting some form of threshold that is "acceptable", and, there, I think, is where you would come down; if the threshold is zero, which is quite impractical and unenforceable, then I think that will be very difficult. But, I think, if there is a pragmatic realisation that you can have very, very low levels, without in any way damaging the integrity of the products, then I think we can live together. And there have been studies in North America, Canada and Switzerland which show quite clearly that organic and conventional farming can co-exist quite happily.

  111. Now Bob Fiddaman told us about the discussions he had had with his local community about his own trials, but Crops on Trial said that it felt that some of the sites that had been chosen were inappropriate sites, particularly inappropriate sites, and it also said that it felt that the processes of consultation and design could be condemned as having been secretive. Do you think that is a justified comment, in the light of some of the trials, or some of the consultations?
  (Mr Pearsall) I think, `unfortunate' is a very subjective term. Our role within the farm-scale evaluations essentially was one to support the scientific endeavour, which was to deliver a pool of sites which met the scientific criteria of the researchers and the steering committee. In terms of the design and methodology of the trials themselves, I think that is probably more an issue for Government, but, clearly, there was a process of public consultation, not only in a written form but also in the form of a public meeting, before the trials were embarked upon. From our perspective, we have learned lessons over the period of the trials, and, I think, as each successive round of plantings has been announced, we have made additional efforts to provide information to local people as early as practicably possible. This year, the announcements were made six weeks, at least, before the first plantings took place, and that was in line with the AEBC's recommendation; in fact, the AEBC recommended a benchmark of four weeks and that SCIMAC should strive for six weeks, we have delivered six weeks. It does add to the pressures and the practicalities of delivering the site requirements. But, I think, a suggestion of secrecy, or a lack of transparency, is misplaced, in relation to the way we sought to deliver public information.

  112. So you believe that when the present cycle of trials has been completed, European Union rules and politics permitting, the Government ought then to be in a position to make the decision on commercial growing?
  (Mr Pearsall) The farm-scale evaluations are asking one single question, does the management of the GM herbicide-tolerant crops, in direct comparison with the equivalent non-GM crop, have a positive, neutral or negative impact on farmland biodiversity; they do not provide the green light through all the other regulatory hurdles that already exist. Now the crops involved are at varying stages through those regulatory procedures; the forage maize is the furthest progressed, that has a full marketing consent, the others are being grown under experimental release consents. But even the forage maize has two specific hurdles to clear before it could be grown commercially, national listing and pesticide registration.


  113. Which takes us back to a point that we were discussing earlier, which is the European process, because the process you have just alluded to is governed through European Union agreements. As we have said, a number of EU States effectively have said that they will not authorise any further release of GM crops, imposing an informal moratorium on the process. How do you view that?
  (Mr Pearsall) I think my understanding of the position, of certainly some of those Member States, is that they would not lift their de facto block on new approvals until not only the revised Deliberate Release Directive was in place and implemented across Member States but also the proposed food and feed labelling and traceability requirements were also met. As far as SCIMAC's position on that, we come from the viewpoint that there is no scientific or safety basis for a de facto moratorium, as it stands at the moment, and our concern would be that that risks not only commercial disadvantage but also disadvantage to the many scientific institutes and academic institutions, in terms of their ability to conduct research and deliver progress and innovation in Europe.

  114. There seems some evidence that a court challenge might succeed; is that an action that any of your members might consider?
  (Mr Pearsall) I do not know. I do not think we are in a position to comment on that.

  115. So at the moment you are just accepting this moratorium, although you feel it to be unfounded?
  (Mr Pearsall) Taking the risk of answering on behalf of SCIMAC, I do not think a legal challenge would be the most constructive route forward to deliver public confidence in the strengthened regulatory regime.

  116. I think I would say that is a very sensible view, but the implication of that is that you will have to accept some significant delay, and, bearing in mind your rather optimistic statements about when we would be seeing these crops in the ground, you are not expecting a substantial delay on this; but one of the provisos, as you said, is the labelling and traceability one, do you feel that that is an acceptable proviso, bearing in mind that it would be applied purely to GM product and not to other foods?
  (Mr Pearsall) We come very much from the perspective that SCIMAC was established in response to a very clear demand for consumer choice, where GM crops and products are concerned, that is the basis of—

Mr Breed

  117. Where was the great clamour for GM crops, for GM food?
  (Mr Pearsall) For choice?

  118. Yes; from the consumer then, where was the consumer crying out for this choice? They did not; it was offered to them, we can say?
  (Mr Pearsall) The ability to exercise a choice, in that case, between GM and non-GM.

  119. Yes; but there was no great clamour for it, was there?
  (Dr Turner) There was, in my local Waitrose, from me and my wife.

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