Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

WEDNESDAY 13 MAY 1998

PROFESSOR JOHN BERINGER

Chairman

  1.  Good morning, Professor Beringer. Thank you very much for coming to give evidence to us. As this is the first public session of this enquiry I should like to precede my remarks on the subject by declaring a farming interest, largely as a grassland farmer, but I might conceivably one day have an interest in genetically modified crops although I am not aware of it today. Could I perhaps ask you, Professor Beringer, to introduce yourself and explain the role that you play in the regulation of genetic modification in agriculture
  (Professor Beringer)  Good morning, my Lord Chairman. I am the Dean of Science at the University of Bristol. I have been Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment and the Committees that preceded it for about 11 years now. My involvement in this area started about 15 years ago, when I tried to interest the Ministry of Agriculture in setting up some form of system to look at the release of genetically modified organisms; so I have been involved right from the very beginning before things were even released. I have also worked during this time, on a consultancy basis and otherwise, with the European Commission, the OECD, the UN, the USDA and various countries around the world in developing thoughts about regulations and guidelines. My actual role, I believe, is to ensure that the best quality advice is provided to make assessments of the risks of releasing genetically modified organisms; and also that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions provides good quality advice and guidelines to people who wish to make releases, so they prepare what they are going to do sensibly.

Chairman]  Thank you. Lord Gallacher.

Lord Gallacher

  2.  Professor Beringer, the Sub-Committee was told that no field trial experiment notification has ever been turned down. Could you explain the procedure which ensures minimal risk, but which appears to accept every application to release a modified crop.

  A.  We assess the probability that harm will arise from a release. Always you can control the harm that will arise by the way you manage a release. If you fence an animal in you can prevent it straying. If you stop crops from forming flowers they cannot transfer pollen to other crops. So the basic system is to look at the possible harm that could arise from a release; to look at the way it is being managed to ensure that harm does not occur. If it does not look as if it will be safe, we ask for more information or a strengthening of the management. If we were to believe that someone was not competent to manage the risk, then we would certainly prevent it happening. There have been two cases where we have not given approval. One was for a non-indigenous insect and the other was for a genetically modified insect, where we just did not see that the applicant was going to be able to overcome the problems.

Lord Moran

  3.  Are the possible risks that you referred to in the public domain? Are they known?

  A.  The possible risks would not be in detail in the public domain. What happens is that the application to make a release is in the public domain. If you ferret around hard enough you will find all of these. What you will not find is our full discussion where we try to draw out of the application from our own experience, what we believe the true risks are, relative to those that are proposed. There is no mechanism for all of that discussion to be in the public domain.

Lord Rathcavan

  4.  How do you physically manage and control these risks, Professor Beringer? What staff do you have available and how often do they carry out site visits?

  A.  The situation is that the Health and Safety Executive takes the responsibility for the Department. It has inspectors who visit sites to ensure that experiments are conducted as they should be. Not all sites are visited in one year. The tendency is to ensure that people who are doing something new, or are new to us, are visited to ensure that they are competent. I have to say that of all the releases we have approved to date, there are none for which there has been any form of serious concern for environmental harm. So there has not had to be very intensive supervision to make sure that serious damage would not occur. It is conceivable that crops will be made in the future to carry genes that produce pharmaceutically active products, which would be a great value in medicine but which must definitely not enter the food chain. We would then be much more in a position of requiring a very efficient system to ensure that those were managed properly, but we have not had that need to date.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  5.  There was a report in last week's Guardian—this is not field trial experiments, I agree—but about a large-scale organic vegetable grower who was concerned that the pollen from close-by genetically modified maize may contaminate his own crops. Do you have a view on the risk of that? Is that a real risk which should be properly quantified and growers warned about, or is that a newspaper scare story?

  A.  It is a very interesting story, if it is the same one as I know about which is in Devon, where the organic farm is about 500 metres from a variety trial for seed registration.

  6.  That is right.

  A.  My feeling about this is that what we are going to be looking at here is a very, very low frequency with which pollen from the genetically modified maize will enter the organic maize. This means that a few kernels out of all the cobs produced may contain the gene from the genetically modified maize. The situation is that the kernel you actually eat is produced by the plant growing in the field. It does not contain any of the gene products from the pollen which has come from the genetically modified maize.[1] So all that can be consumed is derived from the original parent but will have an extra gene that it did not have before. Therefore, the risks of any harm to people are absolutely negligible. I recognise that there are concerns that if people are growing organically, so-called pure food, they do not want it to be contaminated with something they do not like. Of course, the situation is that anyone growing maize, genetically modified or not, that maize is transferring genes which are not in the organic maize, so it is always contaminated by any adjacent maize. It is the nature of the gene that is derived from the genetically modified product, which is the cause of the problem, but as far as I am concerned is not a cause for harm.

Lord Jopling

  7.  Before I begin I should, like the Chairman, declare an interest as a farmer. I am also a member of the National Farmers' Union. You gave us two examples of where applications have been turned down, and you gave us one hypothetical example where in the future you could foresee an application being turned down. Could you speculate a little further and tell us what are the general headings of where you could imagine there being reservations about either of those applications which are now in the pipeline, or applications which may come in the future which would cause that application to be turned down. I am thinking of a similar one to the pharmaceutical one which you mentioned earlier.

  A.  I did not say that the pharmaceutical one would be turned down. I said that I thought this is a development which could be very valuable but these crops would have to be kept very separate from the food chain. What we would wish to turn down would be the introduction of, let us say, the introduction of peanut protein gene into wheat or some other crop that could enter the food chain, and people would eat food then with a very well-known, very serious alleren. I can find no possible excuse for wanting to make a release of that nature. However, if there was some scientific reason why that needed to be done for a proper understanding of science, I think we could come to an agreement with a very high degree of very stringent management so that this could be accepted. But it would be very, very hard to approve. We are going to have difficulties in terms of what is coming with crops such as frost tolerant potatoes, where these potatoes will become a greater problem in following crops than potatoes already are. After a mild winter, existing potato crops can cause severe weed problems in following crops. It is usually frost that controls the problem. So I can see this will be a difficulty but I think the agronomic benefits will be higher than the agronomic disadvantages of increased weediness. We would need to work that one through and understand properly what might be other environmental implications. It is very difficult, as you are seeing, to identify things that we could not possibly allow.

Lord Gisborough

  8.  Could you say to what extent (if at all) diesel rape could cross-fertilise with the edible rape as one is inedible.

  A.  That very much depends on which way the bees are flying; how much pollen is available and how close the adjacent crop is. The frequency of cross-pollination could be really quite high. If you were saving seed and resowing it, you would have a significant proportion—maybe 10 per cent at a high level—in your following crop. In order to give approval for any genetically modified crop to produce higher levels of oil that could be used as a diesel substitute, that would have to be taken into consideration. But the oil which is produced from rape to use as a diesel substitute is oil that we eat anyway so it is not a nutritional threat.

Lord Jopling

  9.  Professor Beringer, ACRE tells us that it works on a precautionary basis, by giving advice to Ministers on the conditions which should be attached to a consent. Could you tell us what ACRE does to ensure that those lessons which are learnt from field trials, are used by ACRE and other bodies in assessing further implications from either the same applicant, as an earlier one, or new applicants.

  A.  Yes, of course, I can. However, I think the difficulty in answer to this question is that nearly all the field trials which have been done to date have been so highly managed to reduce any chance of any harm, or any risk of harm, that we cannot really learn anything from them because we made sure that there was nothing that could happen which was unexpected. Having said that, we have experienced from trials that were done specifically to look at frequencies of gene transfer, which have been very valuable to us in determining probability of gene transfer, and which have basically told us that we must assume that genes will be transferred to other potentially cross-pollinating varieties of the same crops and sometimes weeds. The distance can be up to maybe a couple of miles at very low frequency. It is worth remembering, of course, that a genetically modified organism is the existing crop plus one or two extra genes, so we still get plenty of information from our knowledge of existing crops. What does wheat normally do as a weed with the few hundred thousand genes that it already has? Also, we are now learning from experience in China and North America, where these crops have been grown in millions of hectares. If anything unexpected is going to happen, they are going to give us advanced warning long before in Europe, at the present time, we are likely to see anything.

Lord Grantchester

  10.  Once these genetically modified foods are grown, do they act very similarly to hybrids, either in that they do not breed true, or at all? That they do escape into the wild, but that the properties they are given to grow in a specific crop do not lock into that variety for the future.

  A.  The genetically engineered crop is no different, in terms of whether it breeds true or not, to the same crop grown otherwise in agriculture. So if it is an F1 hybrid it will not breed true. If it is not an F1 hybrid or is self-pollinating it will be relatively true breeding. If it is cross-pollinating it will not. These are not different conceptually, or in terms of their make-up, than any other plant. They just happen to have one or two more genes in their chromosomes, which segregate and cross as any other genes. They are not unnatural in that respect.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  11.  First, I must also declare an interest as being a farmer and also a director of a company that is an international trader in milk products, fish and meat products; not grain products, I should mention. My question relates to cross-border activities. Does ACRE take into account information about field trials undertaken elsewhere in the world? What information is required from the applicant about field trials in other countries? Are dossiers prepared by the applicants, (for example, in Ireland), acceptable in the United Kingdom?

  A.  We do not have, as a requirement, that field trial results in other countries are part of the application, although if there was relevant information from elsewhere it would be a requirement if that information affected the risk assessment. I should point out that the consent that is issued from the Department is a consent that says: "If any new information comes forward, it is your responsibility to make that known if it affects the risk assessment." So any consent is entirely limited by any knowledge that comes from anywhere and it could be abroad. You ask the question as to whether we can accept a document presented within another country. Yes, we could. In reality the difficulty is that we have a very set series of questions that we like answered, and if you have a dossier for another country it may be that one or two of those are not answered. So very often I think people would tend to dress up their existing dossier for another country to make sure they answered our questions. But, in principle, yes, we could. In practice it actually would be probably more difficult because it would require a number of returns to get all the questions appropriately answered.

Lord Rathcavan

  12.  My Lord Chairman, I should declare an interest as a small hill farmer. Professor Beringer, I think you have probably answered the gist of this question. It relates to the call by English Nature for a three-year moratorium. Perhaps you would like to respond to what English Nature has said and whether you feel the risk assessments are adequate.

  A.  I think I am bound to say that the risk assessments are adequate, since I chair the Committee that makes these risk assessments! You would be surprised if I said otherwise. I do not believe that a moratorium would be helpful because I have not seen harm defined in terms of anything that we are looking at, at the moment, which would make me feel that we should not proceed because harm will be caused. I have heard plenty of concerns about lack of knowledge, lack of predictability, but those concerns are not different to me than the same concern with a traditionally bred crop which may have been crossed with a wild weedy relative with many unknown properties. So I do not see that what we are looking at, at the present time, as being significantly different. I do not think we would learn from a moratorium and I do not think a request for a moratorium properly understands that this is not a totally new technology which is untested. We must remember to look at the United States, China, and elsewhere, where we now have millions of hectares of crops that are not mystically killing birds (or whatever) through totally unknown processes as a result of the technology.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  13.  I have an interest to declare as an owner of a mixed farm in Warwickshire, arable and grassland. I am also chairman of a publishing company that publishes a country interest magazine, Country Illustrated, which would be very interested in writing something on this subject. As to my question: we are aware that in the interests of transparency, ACRE publishes grid references for each experimental release. We are also aware that this information is compiled on Internet by those who would advocate the destruction of such research sites, and that this destruction is taking place. How do you propose to counter this and can it be countered?

  A.  We have discussed this issue. We do not propose to counter it. We think communication is extremely important. We think it would be an extremely retrograde step to withdraw knowledge of where this work is being done. Having said that, I should make the point that the reference is to the farm that is growing the crop; not where within that farm, the specific point where the trial is going to be. We do offer advice and we have actually told people not to put fences up around their genetically modified plots. We think that a lot could be done by the people themselves so that these trial plots are not too obvious. I have to say, of course, that we are now looking at much larger areas for seed multiplication and things of this nature, where it just would not be feasible for vandals to destroy the whole of the crop. My belief is that this is a brief phase, as has happened elsewhere, and that it will soon die down to be relatively inconsequential. I hope it is. If it is not and if it gets a lot worse we will have to reconsider, but I would be very sorry if we were moving to a position where we no longer gave information that is helpful to people.

  14.  Those who would advocate destruction, are these individuals or are they organisations, as far as you know, who feel that what you are doing is wrong?

  A.  I think it is both. There are some individuals who feel very, very strongly that you should not interfere with nature, forgetting that most of our food is interference with nature, but that is another matter. I do believe there are some organisations who are strongly opposed and are trying to increase awareness. I would not like to say who is responsible for any of these because I do not know.

Lord Grantchester

  15.  How many occurrences have there been?

A. We are probably up to our fourth or fifth now.

Lord Gisborough

  16.  I should declare an interest as an arable and sheep farmer. Directive 90/220 applies in all countries in Europe. Is the assessment of projects similar in all the different countries, especially where very nearly the same organism is to be released under similar conditions?

  A.  The best answer I can give you is that similar is a word which allows great discrepancy in action. This is roughly what is happening. There are different interpretations within the Member States as to what is harm, and as to what information is needed. Basically I believe that all the assessments have a level, which is not lowered, that ensures safety. There are certain things: for example, the French are extremely keen to know about the sequences of genes that have been inserted in bits of DNA. We have yet to identify how a sequence tells you anything about potential for environmental harm and are not so concerned. Some countries are worried about the expressions of the genes; how much they are expressed. We believe that gene expression varies through environmental changes. Therefore, it is wrong to put too much emphasis on having gene expression because it may be quite different, so you should assume differences. We are all working to the same sort of objective; the similarity is relevant here as being something that is not absolute.

Lord Moran

  17.  Can I declare an interest? My wife has a very small herd of pedigree Welsh black cattle on a hill farm in Wales. We are not yet into genetic modification. If I may, could I go back to question 4 on environmental risk assessment? You yourself were quoted in The Daily Telegraph on 25 March as raising concerns, on behalf of your Committee, about the introduction from next year of crops which tolerate herbicides, which would remove what few food plants remain in today's arable fields for birds and other wildlife and therefore have a fairly dramatic effect on them. I wondered if you still have those concerns and whether you thought there was anything effective that could be done about them. This is because obviously if it does spread on a big scale it will have a serious effect on species that are already in fairly dramatic decline.

  A.  Thank you for that question. I must state that I very seldom, if ever, speak for the Advisory Committee because I would not trust myself to reflect what they believe. This is a concern of mine which I do not see as a specific concern relating to the release of a GM plant. If you do not use a herbicide on that plant it does not matter whether it is genetically modified or not. There will be no effect on the weeds. We do approve the use of herbicides in agriculture. It is fairly clear that herbicide tolerant crops will improve the efficiency with which weeds are killed. The more efficiently you kill weeds the less food there is for wild animals. That is quite clear. That is simply making worse an existing situation which is totally independent of genetic modification. Genetic modification is simply allowing a system that is not quite as efficient as it could be, to be more efficient, so it is not unique and special to this. I believe this is an important issue because also we will be seeing crops that are resistant to attack by insects. If these become very widespread there will undoubtedly be fewer insects in the environment and, therefore, less food for birds. So there is the potential for a further decline in bird populations. On the other hand, it may be that by removing the need for pesticide use there are more insects from hedgerows and adjacent areas, so there might be more food for birds but we are not sure. These are very much secondary issues. These are not issues for ACRE, which is a committee that looks at the safety of the genetically modified crop. My concern is that there is a vacuum in the political system, which is not looking at how changes in agricultural practice are linked to changes in the environment we see. I think we all must remember that the environment we see and like is that environment which farmers produce for us. If we want it to stay as it is they have to do what they are doing now, pretty roughly, which is not what nature would intend. Somehow or another, the debate is how we are going to have what we want, which is artificial, and handle change which must happen. However, it is not one I believe that a committee, which is trying to ensure safety, should be actively involved with, because it will divert us from our major role.

Lord Moran]  Thank you very much. That was very interesting.

Chairman

  18.  Could I come back to the question of other Member States. Is there any liaison between ACRE and your counterparts in other European countries on applications? To what extent are you advised about applications in other countries and any reservations that may be made by those authorities about the releases they authorise?

  A.  Not all countries have advisory committees. It is worth pointing out that the regulatory system requires that each country has what is called a Competent Authority. These are the civil servants with responsibility for ensuring that the legislation is properly carried out and safely. We do not really, as an advisory committee, see very much relating to trials in other countries. It is probably just as well because they would not be terribly relevant to our environment and the way we are doing things here. We do see all the marketing applications and we comment on those. The competent authority, on the other hand, is aware of what is going on elsewhere and does sometimes come to us for advice, but we have no role as to whether another country may make a trial release or not. I think that is entirely appropriate. I do not think we would learn from these other trials because, as I said earlier, they tend to be so small that there is little you can learn from them. The last thing we should ever do is to say no harm occurred in that trial. If that trial is too small it tells you nothing about the harm which may occur with a very, very big one. So for very small trials which are very heavily managed, we need to be careful not to assume we can learn too much and use it too far.

Lord Gisborough

  19.  Should there not be an international control of some sort? Was not the release of the bee from Indonesia a prime example of bees throughout the world being put in jeopardy by the release of the grower?

  A.  Regrettably, as you have just said, no matter what regulations you have people will do stupid things. Somebody took bees up into Scotland recently and moved further north varroa mites by one hundred miles or so through crass stupidity. We will never overcome that. I do think it is extremely important that we rapidly understand that there is a world beyond Europe, and that in much of the world genetically modified crops are being deregulated. By definition, therefore, they are not subject to careful constraint. By definition, therefore, bulk commodities will be contaminated with genetically modified seeds, whether we want it in Europe or not. I have argued for at least five years with the European Commission that they really had to think what was going to happen. That commodities were commodities and they had to start believing that there was a world out there. That the Americans were not perverse and stupid and that things would start to come. We have not properly grasped that nettle and done something about it. I think it is critical to the development of agriculture in future, the movement of food in future, world trade, and common sense.

Chairman]  This leads on to the question, Lord Moran, you were going to ask on that.


1   Professor Beringer qualifies this by adding that the embryo and the endosperm will contain some products made by genes derived from the male parent. Back


 
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