Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-
WEDNESDAY 3 JUNE 1998
MELCHETT and DR
100. Good morning, Lord Melchett. Welcome
to the Committee. Thank you very much indeed for coming to give
evidence to us. I do not think you need to introduce either yourself
or your organisation, but perhaps you might like to introduce
your colleague and then we can go straight into questions. You
have kindly sent us some written evidence which arrived earlier
this week together with some appendices. All Members will have
received it but I am not sure that they will have had time to
read every word of the appendices yet. I am sure they will in
(Lord Melchett) My Lord Chairman, thank you very
much. I am not sure if it is proper for witnesses to declare an
interest but as several Members of your Lordships' Committee declared
interests as farmers I should add that interest of my own as well
as being Executive Director of Greenpeace in the United Kingdom.
With me is Dr Douglas Parr who is our Campaign Centre Director.
101. Lord Melchett, in relation to genetic
modification, what do you object to and why?
(Lord Melchett) My Lord Chairman, the fundamental
objection is that there are unreliable and unpredictable risks.
Maybe I could expand on that a little. It is our feeling that
in this area, the history of scientific advice, dealing with complex
and poorly understood areas, and BSE would be an example, does
not translate well into either public policy or action, or indeed
into political sound bitesthe need that politicians have
to explain things to the public. The laboratory is much more simple
than the real world and particularly the natural environment.
Genetic engineering experiments have gone wrong. Genetic engineering
does go wrong. There are real risks. There have been some expensive
failures like the Flavr Savr tomato and there have been some recent
problems which were alluded to earlier this morning like the effects
on beneficial insects, lacewings and ladybirds, which have been
recently identified as a potential problem. There are clearly
risks. The regulatory system, in our view, does not address those.
It fails to justify those risks by asking the most fundamental
questions about technology of this sort which are: "Is it
justified? Do we need it? What are the alternatives?" Those
are the questions that need to be answered satisfactorily in our
view, before you are justified in taking the undeniable risks
that you do take with a technology of this sort.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
102. Lord Melchett, before I ask my question,
could I follow on from that answer. You started off by declaring
an interest as a farmer and as a farmer you will know the comment
that we all make, that if you have never had a dead cow you have
never had any cows at all. In other words, everything that you
do is a risk. Certainly all the farming activities that I have
been involved in have been enormously risky, you never really
knew the outcome because of the various problems. Why is the risk
that is related here so different from the risk that we normally
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, first maybe I can observe
that I think most beef farmersand again I am onewould
have said that one dead cow may be an acceptable risk but the
scale of the problems which have affected the beef industry from
feeding beef cattle, or cattle generally, dead parts of other
cattle was not a justifiable risk. With the benefit of hindsight
that is clearly the case. There are risks and risks, I think.
Secondly, the risks of this technology are far greater than the
risks we have taken in agriculture in our history, I believe.
The risks involve a deliberate release to the environment of organisms
which can then not be subject to control, which cannot be recalled,
which will continue to exist whatever we do about it. Some of
those organisms may pose significant public health risks. We may
contaminate, in the public's mind, the whole of British agriculture
through the use of this technology. As we say in our evidence
it is our belief that at the end of the day farmers are likely
to end up being blamed for this, as they have been in the public's
mind for BSE, not the politicians and certainly not the companies
like Zeneca, or in the case of BSE, the animal feed companies
who were responsible for putting that stuff in animal feed in
the first place.
103. If I carry on and say that in so far
as your concerns are about safety does that mean you do not trust
the Government's Scientific Advisory Committees? If not, why not?
(Lord Melchett) I think our answer is that our
view of the Government's Advisory Committees is more complex than
simply being a question of whether they are trustworthy or not.
There are three points I would like to make. Firstly, it seems
to us that the Advisory Committees are not asked the right questions
and therefore are unable to give the answers which are necessary.
So this is not a question of trust or competence. They are not
asked questions like: "Is this justified? What will be the
long term effects on food production and agriculture policy? Are
there alternative routes which we can take? What is the need?"
Those are questions which are simply not asked of any of the Government's
Advisory Committees in this country, or anywhere else for that
matter. That is the reason why the Advisory Committee system is
certainly not adequate in our view. The second point I would make,
it seems to usand I would say this with some astonishmentthat
the Advisory Committees do not even seem to be asked some of the
most obvious and simple questions, and the lacewing example is
one. I know there is an emergency meeting of ACRE tomorrow to
look at this but it seems to me incredible, given our experience
with DDT and DDE in agriculture and the environment, that Advisory
Committees were not asked to look at the possibility of ill effects
on insects travelling up the food chain to affect, firstly, the
beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybirds and so on and
then, next, the species that use those insects as their prey,
like many now highly endangered but previously common farmland
birds, many species of which feed on lacewings in this country
for example. That question was not addressed by the Advisory Committee
system. Finally, to quote an American Professor of Molecular and
Cell Biology at the University of California, Richard Strohmanthis
is looking at the degree of independence of the Advisory Committee
that academic biologists and corporate researchers have become
indistinguishable, and special rewards have been given for collaborations
between these two sectors for behaviour that used to be cited
as a conflict of interest. To get independent advice in this field
is near impossible in our view.
104. You say they are not asked the right
questions in your view but they are asked, are they not, to deal
with safety matters including the risk of a gene escaping and
so forth which are also matters which cause you some concern but
in those areas nevertheless you do not think they cover these
adequately, is that correct?
(Lord Melchett) Yes, my Lord.
105. How far are you prepared to carry your
objections to these developments?
(Lord Melchett) I am happy to answer for Greenpeace.
I think I should say first that the significant thing is what
the public's view of these developments is and what the public
do in the long run, not what any individual group or organisation
and indeed commercial entity or even Government does. Greenpeace
opposes all releases to the environment of genetically modified
organisms. We take a wide variety of action, appearing before
your Lordships' House is one of the quieter ones maybe. We take
direct action against the imports of genetically modified commodity
products into the European Union in a number of countries, including
the physical obstruction of some imports which have turned out
to be illegal. There is a large barge of, I think, maize which
we stopped. The Swiss authorities then tested it. It turned out
to be illegal and is somewhere in limbo between Switzerland and
Rotterdam at the moment.
106. From your written evidence, the impression
I have is that you are waiting for a trigger to set off large
scale public protests as happened in the case of the export of
live animals. Would you describe that as being your position?
(Lord Melchett) No, my Lord Chairman. I think
that would be an unduly negative position to take. Our view is
that there should not be a release of these organisms to the environment,
because that is a long term major risk to the environment and
to public human health. We see significant signs of movement against
genetically modified organisms. I should say that we do not simply
represent a United Kingdom or indeed a European perspective, Greenpeace
has offices in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, in a
number of producer countries as well as the consuming countries
like the European Union. In many parts of the world for different
reasons we see resistance to this growing. What we try and highlight
in our evidence, given your Lordships' particular interest in
agriculture, is the real risk we think that farmers in this country
and indeed elsewhere run by using this technology.
107. Your opposition to the release of GMOs,
that is an absolute and definite opposition? It is not one that
is dependent on further scientific research or improved procedures
being developed or any satisfaction you might get with regard
to the safety or otherwise in future?
(Lord Melchett) It is a permanent and definite
and complete opposition based on a view that there will always
be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed
it is the nature of science, that there will not be any absolute
proof. No scientist would sit before your Lordships and claim
that if they were a scientist at all.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
108. Does your concern go into the therapeutic
sector and to medical products produced? Are you opposed to those
(Lord Melchett) No, my Lord.
109. You are quite happy to produce a product
using genetic engineering provided it is a product that cures
people but does not feed people?
(Lord Melchett) I think that is a rather pejorative
way of putting the question but we are happy to answer it.
(Dr Parr) Let me just explain our position. Our
position is about the release of genetically modified organisms
to the environment. The vast majority of the medical applications
are contained use, as they are known, they come under Directive
90/219, a separate EC Directive. In principle we have no opposition
to the contained use of genetically modified organisms.
(Lord Melchett) Maybe I can add one other point
which is that the detailed investigation of public attitudes reflects
this. Not primarily I think because of the difference between
containment and non-containment, which is our position, but on
the basis of risk, need and justification which is also a key
to our position. When you ask people whether they think a particular
dangerous drug which is genetically modified should be used, the
answer you will get, quite reasonably in my view, is that if somebody
is dying and there is a new drug which may help save their life
but may, say, have a 50:50 or even an 80 per cent chance of killing
them if they take it, that is fine. There you have a clear need,
a clear basis for the risk and a clear benefit to the person using
the genetically modified organism. That is not the case with food
in our view at all.
110. Can I ask a final question. What if
a genetically modified food is produced that has a particular
impact upon human health, if that food is produced which is genetically
modified and then indicates by taking this your risk of cancer
is seriously reduced? Where would you draw the line, that is what
I am trying to look at?
(Lord Melchett) Where the genetically modified
organism is released into the environment and is therefore no
longer containable in any way. That is where we draw the line.
Chairman] Lord Grantchester,
I am not sure if your question has been covered?
111. My question has been covered I think
but following on from it is the question, if the public are made
aware of all the issues, are happy to go ahead and purchase GM
products, is this an area you can compromise on? Would you allow
consumer choice if they are happy to purchase GM0s, knowing the
risks? Are you happy to compromise?
(Lord Melchett) No, our position is that this
is wrong. We should not be releasing these organisms into the
environment and we should stop. Having said that, I alluded earlier
to the fact that there is some significant movement taking place
against genetically modified organisms in the food chain. We are
delighted to see, for example, a company like Iceland Frozen Foods
guaranteeing all their own label products as GMO free. Having
been told for several years by Monsanto and Cargills and everyone
else apparently involved in US soya bean production that segregation
is physically, commercially and every other way impossible, there
are now significant moves taking place in the US to try and segregate
the products so that consumers do at least have a choice. Certainly
we welcome that.
Lord Willoughby de Broke
112. Lord Melchett, can I ask you, does
that extend right down because we have heard the evidence from
Zeneca this morning about their tomato paste which side by side
with normal tomato paste outsells it and is selling very successfully
with information on the tin and I gather some leaflet information
available as well. The consumers are reasonably well informed
and they are still buying it.
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, I listened with interest
to the story of the tomato paste but, frankly, it is now an irrelevance.
There was a carefully constructed British strategy to introduce
genetically engineered food, to consumers, in which tomato paste
was the forerunner. It has been blown out of the water by soya,
maize and soon by sugar beet and, therefore, sugar. You have got
to the point where 60 per cent or so of processed foods, according
to the food processing industry, will contain genetically modified
ingredients of one sort or another. So that careful `take a product,
put it on the shelf, explain it all in a detailed leaflet' approach
is now no longer viable, and that has been lamented by some interests
in the United Kingdom who wished to promote genetically engineered
food in that way. It is no longer an option.
113. Nonetheless it is still being bought,
is it not?
(Lord Melchett) Yes, my Lord, it is and I have
no doubt that when 60 per cent, or whatever it will be, of processed
food is labelled as genetically modified it will still be bought.
But if you look at the attitudes of consumers in more detail you
find that there is a very great underlying unease, even though
people buy these products. We say in our evidence, I think, that
the purchase of a product is not evidence of satisfaction with
the technology, or happiness about the regulatory process, or
trust in the companies or politicians who are assuring you that
it is safe. You cannot equate a simple decision to buy something
with all those other things. Indeed research shows that those
other elements of trust and satisfaction do not exist in the general
114. Are the objections exclusively environmental?
(Lord Melchett) They are environmental and human
115. Such as?
(Lord Melchett) Maybe I should also add a concern
about the future trend of agriculture in the world. The environmental
dangers are well known. You have had a discussion already this
morning about super weeds and the fact that Zeneca, I think, said
that they would happen. Conventional chemicals would then be needed,
we would say quite likely in greater quantities rather than lesser
in the long run. The environmental threats to natural habitats
and wild animals, plants and so on, are well known. There is no
way of testing against the huge variety in natural ecosystems
any more than there is of testing individual pesticides against
the huge variety of variables in the natural world, and certainly
not in combination with other conventional pesticides. Then you
look at genetic modifications and the possibility of gene transfers
and the effects of modifying one set of genes on other groups,
families of genes in the same plant, which we have put in evidence
in one of our appendicesI think it was appendix 1. This
indicates that the scale of the uncertainties in this are just
enormous. There are human health dangers. You talked earlier this
morning about allergic reactions. It is true that if you transfer
a brazil nut gene from a brazil nut to another product you will
test for allergic reactions but allergic reactions are not limited,
as far as we know, to those already identified. There may be many
other genetic combinations which could cause allergic or indeed
other ill-health in human beings, and you do not know so you cannot
test for it. The problem with this technology is that it is the
unexpected which will cause the problems, and by definition the
unexpected are not tested for in all the systems that there are.
116. Lord Melchett, the tone of the paper
which you kindly sent us implies that the cultivation of genetically
modified crops will cause greater damage to the environment than
existing agricultural practices. Now would you agree that really
ismaybe I am wrong but if I am not wrongthe greatest
presumption because is it not possible that the cultivation of
genetically modified crops could improve the environment? I will
give you one of dozens of examples. If, for instance, you were
to get greater productivity from existing cropping patterns there
would be less of a need to chop down the Rain Forest. I can think
of a whole number more. Is it not a gross assumption to say the
effect on the environment would be negative rather than a possibility
it could be positive?
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, I do not think we claim
the benefit of being able to know for sure what will happen in
the future. What we do say is the risks we are running with this
technology are greater and, therefore, the potential for disastrous
consequences for human beings, or the environment, or indeed the
agricultural industry are greater than risks we have run in the
past. It is the nature and scale of the risks which concern us,
not any certainty about actions. However, to pick up another point
that you discussed earlier this morning about refugia, sacrificial
areas, I think there is already emerging, it is very, very early
days, some significant evidence that there will be major problems
for farmers and the environment in the use of this technology.
Sacrificial areas are being recommended, for example, for Bt maize
of up to 50 per cent of the area planted, and that is the recommendation
by Pioneer, the seed company.
I think that is a pretty clear admission that there is a risk
of resistance to the Bt toxin in the maize. It is going to build
up extremely quickly. Even with Bt cotton the recommendation from
the American EPA is for 20 per cent sacrificial areas planted
with conventional crop rather than GE crop. Any farmer will know
that when a new variety comes on to the approved list some stay
for a long time and some disappear pretty quickly never to return.
To make judgments about this within a year or two is dangerous
and we do not intend to try and do so.
Lord Willoughby de Broke
117. Greenpeace have called for a moratorium
on any release of GM plants. What would this achieve and in what
circumstances would you end it?
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, actually we are calling
for a ban.
118. Total ban?
(Lord Melchett) Yes.
119. What would this ban achieve in your
(Lord Melchett) It would avoid the risks we have
talked about in terms of the threat to the environment and human
health that this technology introduces. This is a completely new
technology. It involves huge unknowns. It is a very crude and
uncertain technology. The existence of the antibiotic resistance
in GMO crops is there, as you know, because you need to find out
whether the genes hit the target or not. It is presented as being
the cutting edge of technology, it seems to me extraordinarily
crude and the risks enormous.
18 Adrian Hamilton, France learns a few pricey Pacific
lessons, Observer, 13 August 1995. Back
KSBR research on Issues and Attitudes "World Views"
of the public for Greenpeace UK, unpublished. Back