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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-201)



Mr Mitchell

  180. What do you reckon you have learned so far, particularly in terms of administering trials like this?
  (Mr Meacher) So far, I think we have made progress in the last three or four years compared to our policies when we began. First of all, the notification period has been increased because there have been complaints that the opportunity for nearby farmers or local communities to take account of a proposal to have a GM trial site near them was not long enough. It has now been increased from four to six weeks between the time when it is made public and the first sowing. Secondly, as I have already indicated, there is a demand for information to be able to ask someone questions and to get an answer, and we now have a policy that if we receive an invitation from a parish council or some community group we will do our best to make sure that a public meeting is held and an official or officials will attend to give answers. Thirdly, we have tried to provide information on the website, and more and more people do use it—very detailed, extensive and lengthy information. We have tried to answer the main questions that people ask. We have got a document and anyone who writes in will receive that. Those are all, I think, improvements in making it a more—dare I say—consumer-friendly process.

  181. Crops on Trial gave the impression it was all rather spatchcock and improvised and that some of the sites were selected at pretty short notice. Do you think more could have been done to ensure it was conducted in a more open and transparent way?
  (Mr Meacher) I am astonished at that conclusion, because I think, under pressure (because there has certainly been pressure to—

  182. "It seems that the trials have been conceived and designed in a secretive way, with key players not fully engaged. Some local people have felt excluded from decisions".
  (Mr Meacher) I am not denying that is what Crops on Trial says, I am saying I am surprised because I do not think the evidence suggests that. The method of selection of trial sites is not by the Government, it is done by SCIMAC arranging with farmers to make available a pool of sites, and the research bodies then make their choice in order to get the range of representative management techniques and in order to get good scientific results. As soon as that is decided we make the information available with four-figure grid references; detailed site locations are, therefore, publicly available; we post the information on the website as soon as we can and we write to all parish councils hosting trials. I do not actually see how we could be more transparent in the way in which it is done.

Mr Jack

  183. The Soil Association, in 1999, said that the field trials of GM organisms were, as they described it, "a licence to pollute". There have been a lot of stories that have subsequently come out from that side of the argument talking about contamination. Are you yet able to give any comment about whether, in fact, for example, any organic farms which are located near to a GM site have been contaminated or lost their organic status as a result of a trial activity?
  (Mr Meacher) I can certainly say that no conventional or organic farm or crops have lost their status as a result of the FSE trials, as far as I know.

  184. Is that because somebody has gone and checked up or because the organic farm has, as it were, kept their head down and said "We are a bit close but we will not say anything"? Have you got any feel as to how that statement you have made could be justified?
  (Mr Meacher) I am, again, not aware that any trial site has been so close to a conventional or organic farm as to cause this problem. The one that did come into the media extensively over the election period was the Henry Doubleday Research Association at Ryton. What happened here was that the Soil Association list of organic producers, which we passed on to SCIMAC in order that they could avoid those sites, mistakenly (there is always the cock-up theory) omitted Ryton. The fact, however, is that anyway the Soil Association did agree that at a 3 kilometre distance, which is what it turned out to be (3,000 metres), Ryton was not under any threat from the proposed GM trial. I do not believe that there is a problem. I repeat, the purpose of the trial is to test the effect of differential herbicide management on wildlife and the environment, and we try to control the pollution by the necessary separation distances to keep the contamination threshold below 1 per cent. It is also true that crop material arising out of the trials is destroyed. The term "licence to pollute", I certainly believe, is quite wrong, but I do not believe that there has been pollution as a result of these trials.

  185. If we can move on, there has been, obviously, a lot of discussion and various stories around about how far GM material can travel and as to what actually ought to be the right buffer zone. In terms of the remaining farm-scale trials, has the Government had any further discussions with SCIMAC over the current recommendations? Have they been changed at all to take into account, firstly, the concerns of the organic industry and, secondly, if you like, the noise in the background that, maybe, we have not got it right; maybe our distances are too narrow? Can you bring us up-to-date on that?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. Crops on Trial did suggest that we should set adequate separation distances. We did, in the light of that, then discuss with both SCIMAC and the Soil Association. I regret to say that their views remained wholly polarised and I do not think they are going to change in the short-term. So faute de mieux we have simply maintained current separation distances. I have to say there is a real problem here over separation distances, because it is what I understand the statisticians call a leptokurtic curve.

  186. Would you explain that?
  (Mr Meacher) In other words, it is normal bell distribution, but with very low levels of deposition over very considerable distances. There is not any one point at which one can authoritatively and finally say that no pollination will get beyond that. The amounts are probably vanishingly small but there is no absolute certain one point. That is the problem. So you have to reach a practical conclusion, which is inevitably messy. Very different climatic atmospheric conditions prevail which have very different results.

  187. Let us just be clear: at the moment are the separation distances for the current farm-scale trials the same as they were when the farm-scale trials started?
  (Mr Meacher) I think there has been a modest change, has there not? We did go to the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and we looked at the relationship between separation distance and the possible likely degree of contamination. There was a small extension in one or two of the crops, but there has not been a significant change. I do have to say that in respect of organic crops there are larger distances in order to try and protect organic crops, where the contamination threshold is set at 0.5 per cent for maize and 0.1 per cent for oil seed rape.

Mr Curry

  188. Minister, so I know where we are now and how far we have got to go, could you set out for me the stepping stones to an eventual approval of commercial production, even if at any one stage you might decide you do not want to go from one stepping stone to the next? Could you give me the map of what has to be gone through to get there so I know where we are now?
  (Mr Meacher) I cannot because those decisions, I repeat, have not been taken. I would expect in the next month or two that there will be a decision taken on this and whether to go ahead with the debate, the parameters of that debate and the time-scale, the form of it and the scale of it. All of those are issues which we have to decide. What I can say is that farm-scale evaluations will conclude with the autumn sowings this year and that the first scientific results will come out in the summer of next year. Beyond that I cannot go at present.

  189. When you can, would you make sure that you send a note to the Committee setting out—even if there is more than one scenario—what the scenarios are?
  (Mr Meacher) I am glad to undertake to do that.

Mr Drew

  190. Given the current regulatory regime here and in Europe, can you see that, if you like, in a way we are putting the less-developed world at risk because, clearly, companies will take the line of least resistance and if they cannot get the developed world to get its act together and give them what they want, they will go off to the third world and begin to exploit possibilities there? Have you an inkling of sympathy to those governments who are going to be—as already has taken place—put under a lot of pressure over the coming months and years?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course, over the impact on developing countries, as indeed over the impact in the industrialised world, there will continue to be divided views. It is certainly strongly assessed, and I believe this to be true, that genetic modification of crops can make them more resistant in saline or salty conditions or in very dry climates and it may extend the shelf-life of the crop/food once it is harvested, but it is also alleged, for example, that it would lead to less use of pesticide. That itself is often disputed. So there are different views. It is sometimes, again, said that this is going to save the starving millions of the world. I, myself, think that view is rather exaggerated. I think the whole question of land distribution, land ownership, family planning and population control are at least as important as the question of either the Green revolution, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, or GM this time round. However, I do think that in certain conditions genetic modification can make a useful contribution. In order to ensure that countries get the benefits with the minimum down-side risk, you are quite right, we do need to do more capacity building. This is true of so many areas of policy with regards to the environment and health. We talk a great deal about it, but I am afraid we still do far too little about it, although I hope that the World Summit in Johannesburg may actually make some major policy recommendations to significantly improve capacity building. There is also the bio-safety protocol which governs international trade in GM and which aims, again, to provide some improved capacity building and, I think, by the fourth meeting of the parties, to make provision on liability—which is, again, another highly controversial but very important area, who is responsible if things start to go badly wrong? So you raise a very important question, and I do think there does, again, need to be more debate about the full implications.


  191. Do you think one of the handicaps we have is that the particular collection of crops we are trialing in this country is extraordinarily unsexy and unexciting and offers no quantum benefits to consumers or the medical profession (because you referred earlier to very different attitudes towards potential medical exploitation), and that that has coloured this debate to some extent?
  (Mr Meacher) I think that is a very important point. I think that the biotechnology companies have very largely concentrated on producer benefits rather than on the consumer benefits. As you say, oilseed rape, maize (which is largely used for animal feed) and beet are not directly relevant to the consumer. Therefore, making the consumer aware that there are benefits—if there are and I think there are—does need to be propagated much more strongly if we are going to get a proper balance between potential consumer benefits and the down-side risks. There are certainly down-side risks as well and we need to be open and clear on both sides.

  192. Do you feel that we can make progress on this divorced from the views of our European partners? David explored the relationship and it is reasonably clear a consent in one country applies in any other, but clearly relationships with other Member States and their different attitudes are critical to the resolution of many of these issues. Are they not?
  (Mr Meacher) That is certainly right. I should make clear that there is an application which is made to one country and the competent authority, as it is called, in that country then carries out an investigation as to impacts on health, environment and safety. It makes that information available to the Commission, the Commission then circulates that information to all other Member States and they see the evidence on which the decision is made and they can comment on it or disagree with it, and if there is disagreement it will then go to the scientific community of the EU. If need be it comes back for a final decision in Council, although that is exceedingly rare. So it is not as though other Member States are pre-empted by one Member State; they all have an opportunity before a decision is finally made.

  193. Going back to the start of our discussion this morning, it does highlight that our own national debate is one which is a small element of a decision-making process which may be completely derailed by the attitudes of quite a number of other Member States and, indeed, eventually challenged in court. As we know, some Member States have just simply said they are not going to grant any more licences regardless of what the scientific merits may be, at least in the current circumstances. How is the Government grappling with that?
  (Mr Meacher) You are absolutely right, Mr Chairman, that is a significant issue—the so-called unofficial moratorium which has stalled GMO applications since 1998. We have always believed, in the UK, that that was not legal. However, that has not prevented, I think it is now, seven countries keeping to that moratorium and refusing to advance consents. The Commission's view, with which I think we agree, has always been over the last two or three years that we should bring in place, by agreement between ministers, the tighter conditions applying to applications and consents which are in Directive 2001/18/EC, which becomes operative, I think, on 17 October this year, but that in the period prior to that we should agree that those tighter controls should be in place together—if agreement could be reached—with labelling and traceability. That has still not persuaded these other countries to forego a moratorium. We are now, of course, quite close to the point at which all of those increased controls will actually be in place and there will certainly be a major discussion about this around that time within the EU. I do not think one can carry on with this indefinitely.

  194. We can assume that the UK will be holding to a view that science and an adherence to reasonable decision-making processes will be paramount?
  (Mr Meacher) Our view is that there is a set of rules for testing applications. No one has suggested that that set of rules is inadequate or inappropriate and our belief is that those rules should prevail. If at any point any evidence is provided which suggests that there is a risk—a significant risk—to human health or the environment then under Article 16 of the 90/220 Directive the matter can be raised. If that evidence is considered justified, then action can be taken to prevent the marketing or continued use of that particular crop.

  195. The other issue which is running parallel to this is the one of traceability and labelling, which again lies within the EU domain to resolve. How are you progressing with that?
  (Mr Meacher) There is an attempt to negotiate it. I think we would be strongly in favour of those negotiations being drawn to a conclusion. The Commission, again, is doing its best but, of course, there are strong international views about this which have been made known to the Commission. The Commission is in a difficult position. Basically, the audit trail involved in traceability and labelling, if it is practicable, it does seem sensible that, as a basis for labelling, it should be in place, but there are real problems about negotiating it.

  196. Is there a genuine prospect that a lot of these issues will end up being resolved either in court or through a WTO process, or both, if we end up stalling these decisions at EU level?
  (Mr Meacher) Obviously, that remains a last resort, and I think you would need to discuss that with, for example, the representatives of the US because, presumably, it might well be they who would be considering launching it. I am quite sure that they would have considered it. There are, of course, wider implications in raising the profile in that kind of debate. It would be far better if this can be resolved within the EU.

Mr Jack

  197. In the United States, one of the most litigious countries in the world, they have had wide-scale acceptance of GM. If people had been frightened by it they might not have done anything because of the legal risk. Why do you think there has been such an easy acceptance against a background of potential litigation?
  (Mr Meacher) That is a good question. I cannot give you any better answer than anyone else to that. One real advantage the United States, or the North American continent, has is that it is vastly greater; it has a population which is about four times our size but the landmass is vastly greater than four times our size, and there is much more opportunity for separating out whole prairies of GM with minimal effects on other forms of farming. There is, of course, still the safety issue, and why the safety issue has risen so strongly here and not in the United States, to be honest, I am not sure what the answer is.


  198. Finally, the AEBC has set out to us a challenging work programme, which I think has been shared with the department. Has the work of the AEBC highlighted any need to reconsider the regulatory framework for GM crops, because that was a concern of the Agriculture Committee when it reported three years ago?
  (Mr Meacher) We did, of course, consider this extensively when we set up the AEBC. There did seem to be a gap there to have a statutory body advising us on ethical and social issues. I think the scientific regulatory framework is satisfactory. I do not think anyone is actually saying that that should be fundamentally changed. There is the Independent Scientific Technical Committee with regard to the risks to human health and the environment from GMO releases; you have got the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes which looks at non-GM as well as GM and you have got the FSA, which is responsible for all aspects of the safety of GM food.

  199. There is a large number of bodies, and you are reasonably comfortable they all know their separate roles, and they all talk to each other about the areas that overlap?
  (Mr Meacher) As far as I know they do.

  200. I have to say Professor Grant did say he was happy.
  (Mr Meacher) I am happy. I do think we have a range, or a network, of bodies which do a good job, and I think there is communication between them. We did have a gap, which I think has now been very well filled by the AEBC.

  201. We are dead on time for your opportunity to test out the travel system within London to get to your train. Many thanks indeed for your attendance again, Michael. I am sure we will see you again on this subject in the future.
  (Mr Meacher) Thank you very much indeed.

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