Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100- 119)

WEDNESDAY 3 JUNE 1998

THE LORD MELCHETT and DR DOUGLAS PARR

Chairman

  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 due course.
  (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.

Lord Gallacher

  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 bites—the 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 take?
  (Lord Melchett)  My Lord, first maybe I can observe that I think most beef farmers—and again I am one—would 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 us—and I would say this with some astonishment—that 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 Strohman—this is looking at the degree of independence of the Advisory Committee system—he says[18] 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.

Chairman

  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.

Lord Rathcavan

  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.

Chairman

  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 as well?
  (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?

Lord Grantchester

  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 public.

Lord Gisborough

  114.  Are the objections exclusively environmental?
  (Lord Melchett)  They are environmental and human health concerns.

  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 appendices—I 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.

Lord Jopling

  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 is—maybe I am wrong but if I am not wrong—the 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.[19] 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 view?
  (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

19   KSBR research on Issues and Attitudes "World Views" of the public for Greenpeace UK, unpublished. Back


 
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