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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)



  160. I am not criticising your role, which I think has been very important and, indeed, brilliant! However in your view, what effect will there be on public opinion if the crops were genetically modified to deliver health benefits rather than simply to improve yield? In other words, if it was a health matter rather than a farming matter.
  (Mr Meacher) I think there is a totally different attitude. In respect of pharmaceuticals and drugs the public is much more willing to be supportive than in the case of food production—for very clear reasons. If you are in pain or dying and if you might be helped as a result of genetically modified plants providing some kind of cure, I think almost everyone would leap at the opportunity. However, food is a different matter. The human race has lived for a quarter of a million years on this planet perfectly satisfactorily and people do not want to take risks. That is the problem.

Mr Curry

  161. We probably began through a genetic mutation. Minister, what do you expect the public debate to tell you, given that it is conducted, largely, by intermediaries? Secondly, when do you determine that the public debate is concluded? Thirdly, what happens if the public debate merely illustrates that people are divided?
  (Mr Meacher) Taking the easiest question, the middle one, we will of course have to say that over the next so many months we propose to have a debate, if this is the way we decided to go. I think that is reasonable. It is certainly, I presume, a long enough period to give people a chance to say—

  162. So there will be a beginning and an end.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, it will have a beginning and an end.

  163. What will it tell you? What do you expect it to tell you?
  (Mr Meacher) On your first question, it is open-ended in the sense that people are going to tell us what they wish to say, and I do not think, when you ask questions, it is necessary—

  164. This is tautology, if I may say so.
  (Mr Meacher) People are going to make comments, they are going to tell their views and I expect there will be views right across the spectrum. The issues that we are concerned about, as I say, are the particular issues we have raised with the AEBC: cross-pollination, what is an acceptable level of incidental GM presence—

  165. With due respect, you do not have a public debate to find out what is an acceptable level of incidental GM cross-pollination, or whatever. What do you draw from a public debate? What are you expecting the debate to tell you, as it were, and how will it aid you to make your decision? Is there a balance of people voting yes or people voting no? What actually are you hoping to get out of it, except time?
  (Mr Meacher) You did interrupt me. I do think it is actually relevant to ask what is the level of contamination within a conventional organic product which is acceptable to people. I think that is a serious issue. At the moment there are labelling provisions which the Agriculture Council in the EU have determined, which says that if the presence is believed to be below 1 per cent (in many cases it is considerably below that) then there is no need to label. One view, I suppose, will be as to whether that is acceptable. What is the kind of level which people agree? What do they want to be told? What are they quite prepared to accept? That is reflected in cross-pollination distances. So it is a very relevant question. On your main point—are we going to count heads? Are we simply going to say "Hands up those who say yes" and "Hands up those who say no"?—I think that is far too crude. It is not that kind of simple exercise. Anyway, with a population of 35 million adults it can hardly be done. We are not proposing that. We are proposing, as I say, a debate which will make it clearer what the public's views are about the results of the FSE trials, one result of which could be commercialisation of GM crops.

  166. Minister, with respect, the question you asked about 1 per cent tolerance, that is a technical issue. I doubt if people coming out of Tesco's, as it were, have a spontaneous view on whether 1 per cent, or 0.8 per cent, or 0.6 per cent is the right level; that debate is inevitably going to be conducted by intermediaries, so it means people who respond by writing along the terms suggested to them by the Soil Association or by the Agrochemicals Association or by some other intermediary. Is this not really going to be a battle of lobby groups and not public debate?
  (Mr Meacher) I hope not, and that is not what we intend, but I accept the point you are making. Clearly those groups who have very strong views—and you have interviewed SCIMAC and you have interviewed the Soil Association, so you can see the range—are clearly, I imagine, going to be pressing their view and getting their supporters to help them in that. I agree that is exactly the kind of issue that we have got to discuss. We have not had a debate amongst ourselves about how exactly we are going to do that. I agree if it is just a manipulation by intermediaries it does not take you very far, but you raise a very important point and the Government has not yet decided exactly how we handle that.

Mr Drew

  167. As the Minister who appears on the Today programme more often than, probably, any other minister, what are your views on the way in which the media have handled GM?
  (Mr Meacher) Not very well. I have to say I think it has been largely a propaganda exercise rather than the provision of factual information or encouragement to genuine debate. I think, for a period of about a year and a half—a period which has now ended about a year ago—it was pursued at a frenzied level; most days on the front page of newspapers with at least one full page behind on this issue, pumping out a particular line. It certainly raised the profile of the issue, there is no doubt about that, but for people who have a genuine interest and want to be given the range of facts and make up their own minds, that simply has not happened. That is why we are considering this debate. In the meantime, we have done our best—which I do not think is probably adequate, although we have tried—to provide much more information, put factual information on the website, provide extensive, detailed summaries of the facts as we see them to anyone who enquires, and, of course, they are in the backs of many MPs' letters that I have received. We have provided officials, including those sitting with me, to go to parish council or other meetings which are called in community halls where there are proposed GM trial sites; we have put out detailed documents about frequently asked questions and tried to give answers. We have done our best to counter it, but the power of the media is so great that I do not think we have had more than a relatively marginal effect. If we can try and get a genuine public debate, we might begin to counter this. This is an issue which, as a nation, we do need to try and broadly move forward. It will not be with a consensus, by any means, but we do need to narrow the degree of polarisation which exists and we will certainly be appealing to the media to help us. I do not know whether they will.

  168. So you live in hope of headlines such as "Government takes sane, reasonable and reasoned approach to GMO" on the front page of the Daily Express?
  (Mr Meacher) No, I think that is asking a great deal too much. What I am looking for is newspapers being willing to run articles which can give a range of different views.

  169. Is there not a problem there, Michael, inasmuch as one of the antagonisms that those opposed to GM feel so strongly about is the slippage in terms of the 1 per cent tolerance level, the problems over labelling and the problems over animal feed; people think that they are incapable of making their opposition tell because these decisions have been taken anyway, and the media just reflect that—the complete antagonism to the political process and so on. Is that not really what lies beneath some of these problems?
  (Mr Meacher) It is true that the 1 per cent labelling requirement has been set down by the EU and is now being carried through in each of the Member States. The other issues you raise remain in many cases open, but it is very important in a democratic society, where there is an extremely contentious issue, to try to open it up in a way which reduces the gap between the decision-makers and the general public. That is what we are trying to do. As I say, I do not think anyone is proposing, and I do not think it is practical, simply to say that we are going to have a debate and at the end we are going to have a poll or a referendum or citizens panels. It cannot be done like that, but there does need to be a broad expression of views and opportunity for people to express what they believe about this. In the light of this, as in all other issues, the Government has to make up its mind.

Mr Curry

  170. Minister, do you think that the coverage—and let us take probably the most famous of the expressions "Frankenstein Food"—is a material handicap to you in being able to take a decision based on objective, scientific advice? You were suggesting just now that you were hoping for a more balanced debate and you were acknowledging that just putting it on the website does not have the same impact as a spread in the Mail. Have you approached those papers which have taken this vitriolically, almost ideologically hostile approach and suggested there is another point of view? If you have, what has been the response?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not know the full answer to that. I do not know how far the press offices in particular departments have, after a particular day's edition, rang up and said "Hey, we note what you say. There is a different view, will you run it?" I do not know how often that has happened, and to be honest, I do not actually know the result.

  171. We know the result because it has not appeared.
  (Mr Meacher) I was about to say that my feeling is, in the light of keeping an eye on these things, if it has been tried it has not made much of a difference.

  172. Is it a material problem? We all emphasise we have to do this on scientific objectivity. That is not what is inspiring some of these articles. Is that a material problem in your ultimate ability to take a decision based on science and to have that accepted as a decision taken on science?
  (Mr Meacher) I think it is very important to explore what you mean by a decision which is taken on the basis of science. Science does, in the light of further information, sometimes nuance its conclusions over time as more information becomes available, but what science will tell you is the consequences if you do certain things. It will tell you about the effects of what is sometimes called "gene stacking", where crops which are tolerant of more than one herbicide can acquire a resistance. It will explore issues of detectability of GM in very small amounts; it will clarify data about cross-pollination. It is that sort of detail. It will not tell you whether it is a good thing or not. It will tell you some of the benefits, it may tell you some of the down-sides, but in the end one has to make a judgment about this. That is not a scientific conclusion.

  173. You are not going to say to the public "We have come to this conclusion and, of course, there is no scientific base for it"? If I can quote the first two lines of your responses, which you have alluded to, the first two sentences are: "Our policy is as scientifically based as it can be. We believe in sound science and its application." I was just asking do the headlines make it difficult to rest your case on that basis?
  (Mr Meacher) Can I just take up what you said? I am not suggesting that we take a decision on the basis of desirability, irrespective of science. We should use all the scientific data we possibly can and we should not take a decision which flies in the face of what the scientific evidence is telling us. That would be, I think, quite wrong. No one is proposing to do that. All I am saying is that whilst it is a necessary condition for reaching a successful conclusion, it is not a sufficient one; there are other factors which we also have to take into account.

Mr Breed

  174. Just turning to the farm-scale evaluations and what they might ultimately give us in terms of real evidence as such, last week Mr Pearsall, SCIMAC's secretary said: "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." Given that the farm-scale evaluations are addressing, basically, one question with three possible answers, have you got three alternative responses in place so that as soon as those trials are finished you can provide an assurance or announce the way forward in response to what is actually going to happen? Otherwise those trials will come to an end and you are going to be presented with those scenarios. What is the way forward that the Government is going to take?
  (Mr Meacher) First of all, I do not know what the conclusions are going to be. These are trials which have been carried out by various prestigious research bodies overseen by a scientific steering committee and the first reports will, I understand, be in peer- reviewed scientific journals in the summer of next year. I have not seen any preliminary results, and as between those three broad alternatives (and there are, obviously, permutations) I do not know what the conclusions are going to be. I do not suppose it will be quite as simple as to say A, B or C; there will probably be quite a lot of qualifications, I would imagine. The purpose of the debate is to take account of public opinion before the Government has to reach a decision based on whatever evidence is presented to us.

  175. That evidence will be part of the public's ability to make up its mind, and as they were initiated by the Government you will have to give some view as to the results, as to what they have concluded.
  (Mr Meacher) That depends, of course, on the timing of the debate. If the timing of this debate, if we go ahead, is to be before the summer of next year then it will not include the results of the farm-scale evaluations.

  176. Just one other aspect. You may be aware that there is concern that some commercial seed companies are already applying for listing of genetically modified seeds. What will the Government do to adhere to its commitments on protecting the environment if the results of the farm-scale trials show negative effects on the environment, given that some commercial seed companies have no obligation, legal or voluntary, to refrain from marketing that listed seed? Whatever happens, all they have said is that they can do it when the trials have finished, not subject to any results of those trials.
  (Mr Meacher) I think a good deal does depend on the results of the trials. If the trials were to show that GM crop cultivation had certain specific detailed disadvantages for the environment or for wildlife we would have to reconsider our policies.

  177. De-list that seed?
  (Mr Meacher) I am not saying what we would do. I do not think it would be de-listing a particular seed, it would be to put in place procedures to ensure that the environment was protected, in regard to the respect in which there is a problem. We are certainly concerned to ensure that if GM cultivation goes ahead it does not cause any significant risk to the environment or to wildlife.

  178. So GM seed which might have been listed and capable, therefore, of being planted might somehow be conditioned or prevented from being planted prior to any clear results from the trials?
  (Mr Meacher) First of all, I am talking about when we have got the results of the trials. I am not talking about the period up to that point. I am saying that if in the light of the trial results there was an indication that there were particular problems for the environment, we would have to revise our policies in order to prevent that risk developing. Any question of seed listing or GM crop cultivation would have to be revised and it would have to be a condition of marketing that those new conditions were met.

Mr Jack

  179. You used the word "significant" in the context of risk a moment ago. What is your definition of "significant risk"?
  (Mr Meacher) I did, as I said it, wonder whether there might be that response. The point I am really making is that there can be, I suppose, very small, trivial or insignificant impacts, and to revise policies to take account of that might be considered to be excessive or unreasonable. By "significant" I did not mean that we are seeking to impose a high threshold and that up to that point we are not going to do anything about it. We have carried out these tests in good faith, and if they say that there are risks, unless they are trivial, we will take account of that and revise policies as may be necessary.

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