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

Examination of Witness (Questions 125-139)




  125. Good morning, Professor Grant. You have had the somewhat unenviable task of leading the AEBC and attempting to square circles and bring together an extraordinarily diverse range of opinion on the issue of genetically modified crops. So far, the fruit we have seen has been the report Crops on Trial, which appeared towards the end of last year, and the Government response to that early this year. One of the key points in the Government response, prompted by what Crops on Trial said, was to suggest that you should give advice on how to instigate a better informed public discussion about the future of genetic modification in this country. The timescale was given for the end of this month. Would you give us some indication of what sort of advice you may be giving?

  (Professor Grant) Thank you, Mr Chairman. We very much welcome the Government's commitment to holding a wide ranging public debate about the potential commercialisation of the GM crops as the subject of the current farm-scale evaluations. The particular initiative comes from our report Crops on Trial because we believe that there were a number of issues that needed to be addressed that went beyond the issues that are narrowly defined in the legislation around the commercialisation of these crops. We, therefore, proposed to the Government that we would be willing to assist them in thinking through what a large scale public debate might look like. Indeed, when she wrote to me in January, Mrs Beckett accepted that recommendation and asked us to provide them with advice by the end of this month. Our process has been along the following lines: we asked our special sub-group on public attitudes to do the preliminary work on this; and they have consulted quite widely, including with a number of academics and practitioners with experience in public engagements and public dialogue. Their initial draft came to a full Commission meeting a few weeks ago. Then just last week, on 18 April, we held a special meeting of the Commission, in public, at which we discussed the draft which had come through from the sub-group; and, subject to a number of relatively minor amendments which we hope we can agree by circulation, we are on track to let the Secretary of State have the full advice by the end of the month—we hope to publish it on Monday.

  126. What role do you think the Government should play in this debate, bearing in mind that right at the start of this process the Government were portrayed as enthusiastic supporters of biotechnology in crops? Do you feel that they have a particular role, or should be objective and allow others to conduct this debate?
  (Professor Grant) The Government, I think, finds itself in something of a dilemma. It needs a public debate, and has acknowledged that it needs a public debate; but it suffers from potentially an image that has raised, in the minds of some of those engaged in the discussions—the stakeholders, an opinion that the Government is not neutral, for the reason that you mentioned. Our take on that might be more to the effect that the Government is finding it difficult to speak with one voice; there are divergent interests within Government around the whole issue of GM; and they find expression, of course, around the more particular question of the potential commercialisation of GM crops. I think it is important, therefore, for the debate to be conducted in as independent a manner as possible. Independence will divorce it from the suspicion of Government interference and intervention, both in framing the questions for the debate and the processes through which the debate is undertaken. The advice that we shall be bringing to Government will be very clear: it will propose that the debate should be at a mechanical level entrusted to a firm, an organisation, to be selected by tender, who have experience of public engagement, consensus, conferences, focus groups—this whole range of extremely important activity that bolts on a variety of public opinion to the bare framework of democracy. Secondly, we are proposing that the work of the debate should be steered by a special steering board. That steering board, we guess, would have three main constituencies of members: the first would be representation from the AEBC itself; that saves the Government having to invent a further independent advisory body—it has 20 independent experts already sitting around the table who have found a modus operandi. The second constituency would, we think, need to be Government officials because of the questions around proprietary for the financial running of the programme. We are expecting that the Government will finance the public debate, and it needs, therefore, to have proper accountability for the use of public funds. The third constituency would be a co-opted constituency. We anticipate it would be valuable for the steering board to be able to bring on to it one or two people who have themselves expertise in the area of public discourse and public engagement, so we would like to do that. I would like to stress though that the view of the AEBC is that independence needs to be maintained in relation to the key substantive processes of public debate: in other words, around the way in which the issues are framed; around the commissioning of a film which is part of our proposals; and around the evaluation of the material that comes back to us as a result of the public debate. We would not anticipate that officials would be engaged in that activity; and we would wish to secure a guarantee of the independence of the actors who were involved in it.

  127. You have been very generous in giving us some substantial insights into what you are going to tell the Secretary of State. We would certainly appreciate that.
  (Professor Grant) Chairman, may I perhaps develop that further. What we have done as a Commission has been to develop a working process that is entirely open. The thinking behind the public debate has, as it has emerged, been posted on our website. Every one of our meetings at which we have discussed it has been held in public. I am delighted to be able to impart some of this information to you today. But it is publicly available, and that is part of the important principle that the Commission has committed itself to. We felt we were not going to get anywhere in this highly polarised area unless we were as open and as committed to public deliberations as we could be.

  128. Do you feel, bearing in mind the context of two years ago in which there were some extremely ill-informed and, some would say, hysterical views taken of the science and its application, that the context of that debate is now more favourable; and we are more likely to see an informed debate in which people can participate without necessarily being characterised unfairly?
  (Professor Grant) I think we would characterise the debate as being one which needs to be very carefully managed. We know that this will not be the only show in town. If there is a public debate, there will be a great deal of media interest. Those members of the Committee who have seen some of the studies of media coverage around GM issues—I think particularly of the POST report in May 2000—will realise that the press rather divided itself into the reporting press and the campaigning press. I would not imagine that we could conduct a public debate without that occurring once again. However, we are very keen to reach beyond that, and the point of a public debate, through the mechanisms I have just described to you, has to be reaching beyond that to members of the public; not to seek a referendum, not to seek a simple yes/no answer to the question of whether these crops should be commercialised, but to evaluate the feedback and to understand what it is about public concerns that lead to the press coverage that you have mentioned, Mr Chairman, but which are undoubtedly much more subtle than is frequently portrayed in simplistic campaign and press coverage.

Mr Jack

  129. I am interested in this term "public debate"; because the public who, for example, bought a GM product in the form of tomato paste from Sainsburys seemed to have very little part in a public debate surrounding its removal. We then had lots of people who had strong, powerful vested interests discussing in public the whole question of issues surrounding crop trials and associated GM matters. Given that already positions have become so polarised, do you actually think you can in some way engage the wider public in the process you have described, in such a way that their views can, if you like, rise up to influence the decision makers? One of the real problems that we find, not just in this Inquiry but in much of the work we do, is how do we deal with the very big issue of public confidence in what scientists say; because they are the keepers of the message of reassurance; but, in many cases, the people who appear before this Committee to substantiate their own position have in many cases prayed in aid their "selective" science. Therefore, it is quite difficult to work out what the real science is, which must lie at the heart of the so-called public debate.
  (Professor Grant) I think the question at the core was to do with whether public debate can help to come through the polarisation. We believe that it can. If we did not believe that then we would not be proposing it. We believe that there is an unfortunate polarisation and, as you suggested, that public confidence has been dented. It has been dented by a number of events, and I need not recite them this morning—I think we are all well aware of what they have been. There is, we believe, no point in the Government moving to introduce on a wide scale basis commercial growing of GM crops against public confidence. If there is a lack of public confidence in the outcomes then it is unlikely that this will be an easy operation for the Government to achieve. Where does the public debate fit into this? In our view, its purpose is to, first of all, allow for the public themselves, through a series of regional focus groups, to think about the issues, to be advised and informed on the issues, and to come through with some understanding of what sort of questions they would wish the public debate to be around. That is a starting point which is terribly important. Going back to the Chairman's earlier question about independence—our view is that were the Government to define the objectives and the range and the parameters of the public debate it would lack that confidence. We have got to work from the bottom up in trying to understand what it is that people feel concerns about. How deep are those concerns? What do they relate to? Do they relate to food safety? Do they relate to environmental protection? Do they relate, as has sometimes been put to us, to the multinational control of the industry, and the way in which it might move towards a monopolistic or oligopolistic sovereignty over the technology? We want to start with that. We need to move on to engaging people in debates prompted, we think, by the production of a broadcast quality film, maybe of about 30 minutes, which builds on what we have heard from those earlier regional focus groups; we need to take regional differences into account, including of course the regional differences that we will find in the devolved administrations; and we will then have a series of seminars, conferences and focus groups which will bring through to an evaluation group a subtlety of opinion that you will not find in the campaigning newspapers. We believe that if we can find that we will be able to give to the Government at the end of the process, not a mini referendum—nobody wants a voting package which delivers a yes or no vote—we want to get to the basis of what is causing the polarisation, and what it is that people need to understand, want to understand, and how they can express their views from that.

Mr Mitchell

  130. Do you not think you are being super academic and super cautious to the point of being totally lily-livered on the issue? Is it not your job, and Government's job, to give a lead on this issue?
  (Professor Grant) Chairman, I would like to invite Mr Mitchell to come to one of the public meetings of the Commission because lily-livers he will not find.


  131. You would need to add a good hour to the schedule!
  (Professor Grant) When I came to this Committee in May 2000 I am not sure I did not get the same sort of question then in advance.

  Mr Jack: He has only got one!

Mr Mitchell

  132. It makes a change from the beginning of the 19th Century—power looms are coming in and you advocate the setting up of a combined committee of Luddites, government and mill owners to decide what to do about it! It will be a kind of genetically modified machines commission!
  (Professor Grant) I will not volunteer for service on that one! What I would like to do is bring you back to where we are. Where we are, as we as a Commission see it, is in the middle of a highly polarised debate. Look at the devolved administrations—the National Assembly for Wales against any GM growth in Wales has used the Article 16 procedure under the Directive to take safeguarding precautions around separation distances. The Transport and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament has just voted 5:4 to stop the present trial that is occurring in Munlochy in the Black Isle. That is the degree of polarisation we have got. If Members of Parliament believe you could soar ahead into a commercial planting of GM crops against that sort of public unrest and unease without taking seriously public opinion, I think that would be a fundamental error. Our Commission has been struggling with that over the last 18 months. It is not a bunch of academic, lily-livered individuals. It is actually a bunch of rather disturbingly intelligent and articulate individuals who, in this report Crops on Trial, I think have delivered to the country something of value.

  133. Just like this Committee. You are in that position because Government itself has not fulfilled its responsibility to give a lead. The more you get politicians involved the more likely they are to be panicked by the kind of prejudices and arguments about Frankenstein food by the manipulation of fear, and not to look at the scientific argument, and you are really for it or agin it. Government has blown hot and cold. It came in saying, "New technology, marvellous for Britain; must be in there". Then it began to get cautious, and now it does not know what it thinks, according to what you say. Should not the Government give a lead?
  (Professor Grant) Government should give a lead, but it should give an intelligent lead. It of course cannot turn its back on public opinion, that is how governments become governments. The lead which they must give, I would have thought, could be much more intelligently conceived were it upon the back of the sort of public debate we are proposing to the Government. Should it decide to proceed without that degree of caution, then it may well find itself becoming deeply unpopular amongst an influential portion of the public. I think this is the dilemma the Government finds itself in. It is represented not only in the terms I have just put to you, it is a dilemma which you will find governments across Europe in. If you take, for example, what has been happening since 1998 in the European Commission on applications for Part C consent (that is commercialisation consent for the deliberate release of GMOs) there is a moratorium—it is not a formal moratorium, it is a moratorium which has come about as a result of an unwillingness of Member States to agree to Part C consents. It is going to be extremely difficult for the UK Government alone to proceed with a Part C consent for the two crops in the present trials that require Part C consent still against that inertia and moratorium that is occurring in Europe. Caution, I would counsel this Committee, is still important as we proceed in the public understanding and testing of public acceptability of GMOs.

  134. I notice you say that "an important effect of the agreement between the Government and the industry to carry out the farm-scale evaluations has been to buy some time . . .", in other words, you want a delay. What has been done; how has the conflict over GMOs been reduced while you have been buying time with the trials?
  (Professor Grant) We report on that as a phenomenon. The effect was to buy some time; indeed, that may have been the object of those who agreed to the moratorium that accompanied the announcement of the farm-scale evaluations; but buying time in itself has been a valuable commodity; it has given more time for the SCIMAC participants, and also the Soil Association and other organic interests, to consider their position. As you will know, both of them are represented at a very senior level on the AEBC. Secondly, the FSEs themselves are an extremely important experiment. They may yet yield us data, not only about the differential impact of the herbicide regime on the GMHT crops, but also on the baseline. One of the things we are urging the Government to look at very carefully is the environmental footprint of different agronomic practices. It may be that GMHT crops are more environmentally beneficial or less environmentally beneficial; we do not know that, and we may not know that even following the outcome of the FSEs because of their narrow focus; but at least we shall have started our thinking along the right lines. What is the basis upon which we should move to adopt a new technology? Is it a blind acceptance, because we think the science is good; or should we be looking at it alongside other types of agronomic practice, and the use of pesticides is a good example, to see whether there are benefits or disbenefits? That is the question we feel that the additional time has allowed us to investigate more fully.

  135. Having used the fear, the field trial results are in and evaluated because, as far as I can see, the argument is not central—it is an environmental argument and that will be evaluated by the field trials, right and good, but it is basically a manipulation of the fear about Frankenstein food which will not be evaluated by the field trials, will it?
  (Professor Grant) No, it will not. The field trials are quite narrow in their focus. It is one of the critical recommendations in Crops on Trial that they are not the final bit of the jigsaw. There are much more complex questions to be asked. The Government is ultimately going to have to take decisions under Directive 2001/18. It is going to have to take decisions under plant varieties listing legislation; it is going to have to take decisions under the EU Regulations on novel foods. There is a wide variety of intersecting and interlocking regulatory choices that lie ahead of it. The farm-scale evaluations help in that, but they are not the final piece of the jigsaw.

Mr Jack

  136. In terms of the debate you describe, are there any precedents you can put before the Committee to persuade us that the methodology you have described can deliver the kind of balanced debate where the public and others can have a proper discussion about these matters?
  (Professor Grant) I think it is difficult to point to a direct precedent for what we are trying to do. There has, however, been a great deal of development in the UK in use of consensus conferences, and other forms of engagement of public opinion. There has also been quite a lot of experience in other European countries, in Denmark and the Netherlands; and we have been drawing on that, and our thinking around the design of the debate has been very much determined by some fundamental questions of why we are having a debate; who do we want to engage in it; what is the best way of stimulating and sparking off an intelligent discussion; and what is the best way of reporting back to the Government? One of the things that we have added right at the end of these processes is an evaluation not just of the substantive feedback but of the process. What can we learn from this? This is not the only polarised debate in town. The Government is finding a number of other areas where there is polarisation. Is there a method that we can use which would assist in future decision-making in other forums, as well as in relation to GM crops?

Mr Curry

  137. Most of political life is polarised. There has been polarisation in my constituency about how to deal with foot and mouth disease, but somebody had to make a decision. We can spend our lives eternally worrying about polarisation and trying to provide mechanisms by which we simply prove we are polarised. Can I take you back to the jigsaw. When you said that farm-scale evaluations were not the final piece of the jigsaw, when we embarked upon farm-scale evaluations many people thought that this was what demonstrated whether these products were safe (whatever we mean by that) for commercial planting. Now we get everybody suddenly bolting into this wonderful public debate we are going to have, and I am not quite clear what, at the end of the day, is going to be demonstrated by it—rather like identifying where we should bury nuclear waste, which we have investigated already. Could you tell me quite clearly what the other pieces of the jigsaw are? Could you spell out a pathway to the approval of these products for commercial planting? Let us alter our metaphor to stepping stones. Could you get me from one bank of the stream to the other bank of the stream and spell out what the stones are on the way and the time frame in which you think you might get there, without getting our feet wet?
  (Professor Grant) We are clear that the data that will come from the farm-scale evaluations should not be regarded as the final piece of the jigsaw. They are trials which are relatively narrowly focussed in their perspective. That is not at all to understate their importance. The question is quite narrowly defined; it is to do with the impact of different herbicide treatment and management regimes in relation to GMHT crops against a controlled non-GMHT crop in each case. That will help us to understand the impact on farmland biodiversity. It is too early, of course, to forecast what the outcome will be from those trials; and the data that have so far been collected have been kept entirely confidential, as is appropriate. We might find that there were quite a number of variables which were not uniform. For example, there might be a beneficial effect on some species of wildlife early in the season but not later in the season or vice-versa. We expect probably quite a variation in outcome, and not a clear yes or no answer that GMHT crops are better or worse for the environment. That is an important first reason for qualifying dependence on the use of the farm-scale evaluations. I think the other reasons are somewhat more difficult to encapsulate. The scientific criteria we find in Directive 2001/18 are to do with human health and the environment. The farm-scale evaluations will help us with some of the questions around the environmental side of that, but the technical questions around both of those issues are for ACRE, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, to advise the Government on. So far, their advice has been that there is no unacceptable risk to the environment in the conduct of the trials. However, the Government, whilst operating within EU legislation, is obliged to take into account a number of other issues. It must look not only at the immediate impact, but must look at the medium-term and long-term impacts. The Directive itself talks about social and ethical issues. The Government is clear that those are also relevant, if not to the immediate question of this process of regulation then perhaps to the question of the future negotiation of the Directive, should other Member States share its concerns. The Directive, for example, has provisions in it relating to the setting up of an ethical committee to advise the European Commission and, through it, Member States. There are public concerns that do not slot neatly into a scientific framework, and that comes back to Mr Mitchell's question: what is the political risk? It is a political risk which was at the beginning of Mr Curry's question. Issues about moving to a new technology, which a number of people have represented to us, seems a watershed. Within our report Crops on Trial we have set out very clearly the divergent views. View one is that GM crops are nothing more than a linear step along the 10,000/12,000 years of crop development. Version two is that we are at the dawn of a new era in biotechnology. This is the watershed. These will be the crops that will be hugely influential on whether other crops are eventually commercialised in the UK and in Europe. It is those sorts of issues, and the public's concern about those broader issues, that we are desperate that the debate we are proposing should be exploring, investigating and reporting. That has not happened yet.

  138. Why do you think in issues like human embryology—and those questions which touch on the ethics of human reproduction, and man's ability to reproduce man—that we have decided setting up committees of the great, the good, the wise and the scientific which are good enough for the job but nobody is talking about a vast public debate about this?
  (Professor Grant) I disagree. The Human Genetics Commission, which has responsibility for exactly those sorts of ethical issues around developments in human genetics, is engaged in very similar sorts of discussions to those with which we are engaged.

  Mr Curry: There is not a single member of my constituency who is engaged in that debate. I do not think anybody is engaged in this debate.

Mr Breed

  139. Turning now to farm-scale evaluations and your Crops on Trial report which recommends they continue against certain conditions, one condition that many people are extremely concerned about relates to the "buffer zones", and there has been wide disparity in terms of what that distance should be. In your view, as they currently are, do you believe the buffer zones set out in SCIMAC's code of practice are adequate to prevent any contamination of organic crops?
  (Professor Grant) I think there are two or three points that need to be made about the buffer zones, or separation distances. The first is that they are not purely technical measures. They have a political element to them as well; and that political element hinges around the question of how safe is safe, and what level of risk are people willing to accept. The separation distances that appear in the SCIMAC agreement are to do with preserving a certain threshold for contamination. So there is, of course, a political and technical issue around what that threshold should be. What we have done is propose to the Government, and the Government has accepted it, that the remainder of the trials should be conducted on a basis which will observe separation distances such as to ensure that there should be no decertification of any organic farmer as a result of cross-pollination from GM crops. However, we have not recommended the SCIMAC separation distances for adoption in a decision around full commercialisation; that is an issue which needs further reflection and further debate.

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