RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, Minister for the Environment, DR LINDA SMITH, Head of the GM Policy and Regulation Unit, and MR GRAHAM DAVIS, Head of the GM Crops Policy Branch, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.


  1. 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?
  2. (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.

  3. 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?
  4. (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.

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

    Mr Mitchell

  7. 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?
  8. (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.

  9. 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.
  10. (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.

  11. There is an atmosphere of fear about whether you are going to grow three heads.
  12. (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.

  13. There was an anti-intellectual panic, because we had that tomato paste that Zenica 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.
  14. (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 ----

  15. They just panicked.
  16. (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.

  17. 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.
  18. (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

  19. 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?
  20. (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 ----

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

  23. What will it tell you? What do you expect it to tell you?
  24. (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 ----

  25. This is tautology, if I may say so.
  26. (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 ----

  27. 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?
  28. (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.

  29. 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 Agro-chemicals Association or by some other intermediary. Is this not really going to be a battle of lobby groups and not public debate?
  30. (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

  31. 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?
  32. (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.

  33. 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?
  34. (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.

  35. 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?
  36. (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

  37. 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?
  38. (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.

  39. We know the result because it has not appeared.
  40. (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.

  41. 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?
  42. (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.

  43. 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?
  44. (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

  45. 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?
  46. (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 review 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.

  47. 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.
  48. (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.

  49. 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.
  50. (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.

  51. De-list that seed?
  52. (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.

  53. 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?
  54. (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

  55. You used the word "significant" in the context of risk a moment ago. What is your definition of "significant risk"?
  56. (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.

    Mr Mitchell

  57. What do you reckon you have learned so far, particularly in terms of administering trials like this?
  58. (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.

  59. 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?
  60. (Mr Meacher) I am astonished at that conclusion, because I think, under pressure (because there has certainly been pressure to ----

  61. "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".
  62. (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

  63. 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?
  64. (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.

  65. 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?
  66. (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 Wrighton. 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 Wrighton. 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), Wrighton 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.

  67. 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?
  68. (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 meiux 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.

  69. Would you explain that?
  70. (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.

  71. 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?
  72. (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

  73. 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?
  74. (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.

  75. 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?
  76. (Mr Meacher) I am glad to undertake to do that.

    Mr Drew

  77. 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?
  78. (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.


  79. 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?
  80. (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.

  81. 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?
  82. (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.

  83. 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?
  84. (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 2000/118 (?), 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.

  85. 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?
  86. (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.

  87. 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?
  88. (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.

  89. 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?
  90. (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

  91. 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?
  92. (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.


  93. 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?
  94. (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.

  95. 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?
  96. (Mr Meacher) As far as I know they do.

  97. I have to say Professor Grant did say he was happy.
  98. (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.

  99. 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.