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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 152-159)




  152. Good morning, and welcome. As you will have seen, we have just been interviewing Professor Grant, and he gave us some indication of the suggested approach that the AEBC would be putting to the Department on consultation on GM crops in the future. He commented that the Government, partly no doubt because it had previously declared very strong support for biotechnology in crops, would perhaps not be the best agent directly to run any consultation exercise; and suggested that that ought to be carried through an independent process. Is that a view that you share?

  (Mr Meacher) On the question of the public debate, as you know, the Government asked the AEBC in January of this year to advise on how and when to promote an effective public debate about the possible commercialisation of GM crops. We also asked that advice should cover the whole question of how to determine public acceptability of GM crops, including the key issues of cross-pollination thresholds; and, again, the key question of the thresholds for the GM adventitious presence in conventional and organic crops. We will be considering the AEBC's advice when we get it before we decide on the form and scale of the debate. No decisions have been taken. There is a Cabinet sub-committee which deals with this, as you know; that has still to meet. Of course we have not had the AEBC advice but when we do we will consider it.

  153. As Professor Grant pointed out to us, the AEBC is laudably open, and much of what this advice will be is already available in the public domain, although not in perhaps a coherent report form. You have already said that you do not believe that the Government should take the lead in instigating a public debate. Clearly some decisions have already been made. Perhaps you will share with us where you are taking this now, because you are quoted in the Today Programme interview that this debate should be independent of Government?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. There are problems, as I did indicate in that particular interview, that, despite the fact that Government ministers make the case as honestly, truthfully and fully as we can, we are not always believed over GM; and I think the reasons for that are, that there continues to be a strong polarisation of views about GM; and if you do put a balanced case, as we try to, it is simply often dismissed. Secondly, of course, after the outbreak of BSE and foot and mouth the Government claim that GM is safe is often not readily believed. It is for those reasons, I think, that it can be argued that a debate would probably have greater credibility if it were independent of Government; but I do say that decisions have not been taken on this; they will be taken when we are formally given advice by AEBC, and when Ministers formally meet to decide, and that is not yet.

  154. Do you have any idea of a timescale within which you might make such a decision?
  (Mr Meacher) I would expect within the next month or so.

Mr Mitchell

  155. I cannot see why the Government is hanging back. It has been blowing hot and cold since it came in. Ra-ra a great advance for Britain of scientific importance, and then you get all the arguments against it. Is Government split on the issue?
  (Mr Meacher) There are different views in all sections of the population, and it will not be surprising that nuances are quite properly reflected in Government as well as outside. That is not surprising. The important thing is that ministers do meet, and of course there are divisions of view on all sorts of issues; but these are decided within Government in the formal process, and an agreed view is reached and ministers keep to that; that is what collective responsibility is all about.

  156. At some stage you have to say yes or no, have you not? It is like the euro, and I will not say the Government is split on that! We are absolutely united on wait and see, provided it is all wait and no see! The real issue is whether foods are safe. Everything has been postponed for the field trials, but the field trials will not tell us anything very much, apart from how it spreads and what the problem is with other crops and all that kind of thing. That is just postponing the issue, is it not? At some stage you have to come out and say that it is right or we are going to ban it.
  (Mr Meacher) The whole purpose of a public debate is that there should be an opportunity for a wider discussion about this. As I did say in the House when I was asked at the end of last week about this, there has never really been a balanced public debate in this country because extreme views on both sides have been very strongly put by their adherents, and the general public have not really been able to get an oar in.

  157. There is an atmosphere of fear about whether you are going to grow three heads.
  (Mr Meacher) First of all, on the question of safety, the farm-scale evaluation trials are not about safety at all. As we have said right from the start, they are about the possible impact on the environment and on wildlife of different forms of herbicide management—that is what it is about. They are not specifically about trans-gene flow, although there is a project to monitor cross-pollination between GM crops and sexually compatible plants nearby; but the main thrust is about herbicide management. It is a limited project, that is perfectly true, but a very important one, because the issues of safety are dealt with in the detailed risk assessments which are carried out routinely, every time there is a GMO release application, by ACRE. Safety is not the issue—although I absolutely agree with you that safety remains probably the uppermost concern in the minds of the public. Many of them confusedly and wrongly believe that these trials have something to do with safety, and that we will be making a declaration to say whether they are safe or not. We are not going to do any such thing at all. We will be talking about impact on the environment exclusively.

  158. There was an anti-intellectual panic, because we had that tomato paste that Zeneca made, which was on all the supermarket shelves, which explained what it was about, which was cheaper than tomato puree but which has now vanished in the panic. You have lost the opportunity to do things gradually.
  (Mr Meacher) I would not say that is true. I would say that GM food has actually very largely been removed from supermarket shelves precisely because supermarkets realise that the public, at the moment, is very anti-pathetic to—

  159. They just panicked.
  (Mr Meacher) Indeed, in the absence of a balanced, rational, thoughtful debate, one can use those sorts of words. It is not for lack of trying on the part of the Government, but it has not been handled in an ideal way. This is a very difficult issue on which people feel extremely strongly and it is very difficult to get rational discussion.

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