Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-
WEDNESDAY 3 JUNE 1998
MELCHETT and DR
120. Would you end this if you were satisfied
research experiments showed they were not as dangerous as you
thought at first? Would you end your ban?
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, knowledge changes and
again I do not pretend to foresee the future so I can only answer
on the basis of what we know and understand today. I believe what
we know and understand today about this technology tells us that
the risks will be unacceptable and inevitable.
121. Has a ban been your policy for some
time or is it a recent evolution?
(Lord Melchett) We have been working on this issue
for just under a decade, my Lord. For just under a decade that
has been our position.
122. Are there any other changes in law
that you are calling for?
(Lord Melchett) We have recently had a meeting
with the Minister for the Environment, Mr Meacher, and with a
number of other environmental groups where we discussed in more
detail the Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Organisms
Directive or at least the proposal for an amended Directive. There
are a number of detailed proposals about how the Directive could
be amended which the environmental organisations are putting together,
and which we think would go some way to ensure that some of the
questions which are not currently being considered by the regulatory
process could be considered in the future. If your Lordships are
interested to have a copy of that paper that would be possible;
it has not yet been finalised.
Chairman] I am sure
we would if you were able to send it to us.
123. Just to follow Lord Willoughby de Broke's
question. If genetic technology improves such that it was far
more targeted and did not rely on the scatter gun application,
it could be fitted in very precisely, would this advance lead
you to change your views at all?
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, as I said, I do not pretend
to be able to foresee the future but I do not think it would be
right to say the scatter gun nature of putting the genes in is
the only problem. We simply do not understand what impact inserting
a gene into a group of genes will have on the rest of the genes
in that group, still less on genes in other groups which are affected
by the behaviour of the group that has had the modified gene inserted
into it. Nor is there any way that I am aware of under current
science of looking at how these things might develop over generations
or how they might affect other species to which the gene could
be transferred, particularly in the natural environment where
these things are not controllable and where the potential for
transfer is more or less infinite.
(Dr Parr) Can I just add one thing. The idea that
we can do more research and elaborate and find out more is an
extremely beguiling prospect. One has to look at the warping of
the research agenda that can take place by simply examining one
approach to agricultural improvement. A Dutch Government laboratory,
TLO, have expressed concerns that by purely going down the genetic
modification route then effectively, because there is a limited
resource and so on, you close the door on other opportunities
for developing more sustainable and more environmentally friendly
technology. In a particular reference to herbicide-tolerant crops
they said there may be a short term gain but in the long term
I think it is questionable as to how far this is going to take
us. It is like if you want to get to the end point, which is sustainable
agriculture, by purely going down the genetically modified herbicide-tolerant
crops route, you are almost going down a cul-de-sac instead of
finding ways forward. I think those are concerns that we would
124. Are there any governments in the Community
which are pursuing policies which seem to you right and, if so,
which are those governments?
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, no, I do not think there
are any governments which Greenpeace would say are pursuing what
we believe are the right policies. Obviously there are differing
views in different countries reflecting by and large, but not
entirely, the differences in the extent to which public opinion
is being expressed in opposition to this technology. Although
I think it is worth emphasising that those differences in the
expression of public opinion are underlain by concern amongst
the public that in most, if not all, European countries is still
very similar. I mentioned earlier the most hopeful development
from our perspective seems to be taking place in the commercial
worldin the market place. Whilst it is not a government,
Iceland are developing, with a tremendous amount of energy and
determination, their entire range of food products as guaranteed
GMO free. They have shown at least that is possible, whereas they
had been told by everyone, including their rivals, and all the
main food companies, that it was not. Other supermarkets in this
country are following behind, not going as far, but Sainsbury's
to some extent and Tesco's to a slightly lesser extent. Similar
commitments, although not action, have been expressed by many
food retailing chains and some food producers in a number of other
European countries. I think Iceland are the first to go as far
as they have.
125. Could I ask a supplementary question
on a slightly different aspect of it. It does seem that there
is generally much more concern about this matter in Europe than
there is in the United States. Why do you think that is so?
(Lord Melchett) I am sure there are a number of
reasons. I think one clear difference is that BST, the genetically
engineered product to enhance milk yields, was rejected by European
farmers when companies attempted to sell it here some years ago,
and in particular by British dairy farmers who wanted nothing
to do with it. There was strong opposition. It was introduced
in the US and, therefore, the number of genetically engineered
food products, or foods that have genetically engineered organisms
in them, is much greater there and has been for some time. I would
not myself rely on the US consumer remaining as happy with the
technology when something, as it will inevitably, goes wrong.
We know from previous experience in the US that when there is
a food scare there it tends to take a grip of even greater force
than the food scares in Europe.
(Dr Parr) Can I just add something there. You
have seen from our evidence, towards the end of the evidence,
we do talk about the state of public opinion in the United Kingdom
and Europe. I am aware of no similar research that has been done
in the US to establish what underlies consumer attitudes and approaches.
If you look at some opinion polling data on, say, labelling of
genetically modified foods the figures are actually very similar
to those in Europe. There is a certain passivity in the US which
may well be to do with other features that have come up in discussions
with people, like the supportive nature that Americans have towards
their home based companies like Monsanto and so on. Because we
do not understand, as far as I know nobody understands, what underlies
citizen views in the US, the possibility, as Peter outlined, about
there being some kind of backlash has to be present.
Baroness Young of Old Scone
126. Can I ask an additional question? We
have now seen fairly significant releases in a number of countries,
including the US, Canada and Brazil. Are there signs of things
(Lord Melchett) Yes, there are a number of instances
where things have gone wrong and I will ask Dr Parr to comment
on that. I would just emphasise as a farmer, to say nothing of
being an environmentalist, the scale of the sacrificial areas
which the companies themselves are now recommending after two
or three years of use in the field does seem to me absolutely
staggering. If somebody tried to market a new conventional herbicide
on the basis that you could use it on half your crop and the other
half you could not spray because it is going to induce herbicide
resistance, they would not have much chance of selling it to many
farmers. That is a clear indication of the very substantial problems
of this technology.
(Dr Parr) I will add a few things to that. One
of the features, as has already come up this morning about the
scientific investigation, is if you are monitoring you have to
know what you are looking for. If you are looking for something
going wrong then you have to be seriously looking for it. A study
by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the States dealing with
the assurances of safety from field trials that have taken place
there said it was not a case of showing safety, it was more a
case of do not look, do not find. Secondly, I would say that if
you develop an environmental problem as a result of ecosystem
incursion, gene flow, or whatever, it could take place over quite
a long period of time. Sometimes exotic organisms have taken over
a century to get really established and start being a problem.
The very short period of time that we have had so far does not
demonstrate safety, it demonstrates that there has not been a
problem that we have not actually been looking for. Finally, as
Lord Melchett said, there have been a number of instances where
things have unexpectedlyand that is the important pointgone
wrong. Those range from microbes that have been released that
have out-competed their parents' strain; there have been mix-ups
of genes which have led to very costly seed recalls because the
genes could not be tracked through the different varieties that
were being commercialised, and so on. These are outlined in Annex
2 which you may not have had a chance to look at.
127. Coming to a different issue now. There
are some who are saying that unless we can get substantial use
of genetically modified crops we will be unable to feed the world.
How do you answer that?
(Lord Melchett) Firstly, I would say what evidence
I am aware of indicates that the main problem we have currently
in people having insufficient food is uneven income distribution,
not lack of food. Genetic engineering as far as I am aware, and
even the most fervent advocates have not suggested this, is not
going to help redistribute income more evenly in the world so
that people can afford to buy food who cannot currently afford
to buy food. That is the problem that needs addressing to address
starvation and malnutrition. There is no evidence that the alternatives
which we would advocate, particularly organic agriculture, will
be capable of feeding the world, but then there is no evidence
that genetic engineered agriculture will be capable of feeding
the world either. As Dr Parr said earlier we do not want to try
to pretend we can predict the future, but what we do need to think
more carefully about is what route we want agriculture to go down
in the long run. Genetic engineering is not environmentally sustainable,
it is not ecologically friendly, it is not going substantially
to reduce, and it may even increase, the use of chemicals in agriculture.
We think that there are real potential benefits in going down
a route which is much more environmentally sustainable and environmentally
Baroness Young of Old Scone] Thank
128. Can I ask a question on that very point?
I think you quite rightly say that you think that food depends
on income, there is the assumption that food depends on income,
and therefore cheaper equivalent food must be advantageous to
people in developing countries where income is not assured. An
example which has been before the Committee in a statement made
by Safeway on 29 May points out that their genetically modified
tomato puree "have now been sold at 29p for 170g which compares
with 29p for the equivalent of a 142g can of normal tomato puree".
Therefore, that evidence seems to demonstrate that genetically
modified food can be produced cheaper for the benefit of the consumer,
especially in developing countries.
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, I do not think that canned
tomato paste is going to make a major contribution to the problems
of world hunger and malnourishment, nor indeed the other crops
which are currently the focus of the agrochemical companies involved
in this technology. Potatoes that do not go brown after they are
peeled, the Flavr Savr tomato, enhancing the taste of food, the
things you heard about this morning which companies are focusing
on. This is frankly propaganda and it is propaganda not supported
by any discernable evidence whatsoever.
129. If you were a hungry person and you
had the opportunity of that propaganda, as you call it, meaning
that you could buy genetically modified food cheaper than you
could buy ungenetically modified food, I guess that hungry person
would say "Well, give me the propaganda".
(Lord Melchett) Yes, my Lord, it would be a guess
at this stage, would it not?
(Dr Parr) Can I make one observation on that which
is that the nature of genetically modified crops is that when
applied in developing countries they are most certainly going
to be more capital rather labour intensive. One of the lessons
from the Green Revolution is that when that occurs you might increase
your yields but you will also increase the level of hunger because
you increase the inequity in particular countries. It is counter-intuitive
that you increase the amount of food but you would increase the
amount of hunger at the same time, but that is broadly speaking
what happened. The move to genetic modification is a similar move
towards capital intensive crops that are very intensive in research
and development, not the sort of crops that are going to be afforded
by small landholders in developing countries.
Lord Willoughby de Broke
130. You mentioned that perhaps this would
not benefit the consumer in the developing world but I understand
that China is the second greatest user of genetic modification.
That must be some argument for saying the developing world thinks
it is beneficial at the moment to try and enhance agricultural
production and hence feed people better through the medium of
genetic modification. Would you disagree with that?
(Lord Melchett) Yes, my Lord, I would. Maybe it
would be useful to think of an analogy with the nuclear industry.
The nuclear industry was a new technology introduced 50 years
ago or so with huge promises made for the potential benefits.
It was going to provide electricity for the world which would
be too cheap to meter. The nuclear industry is now, to all intents
and purposes, dead in the Western World, in Europe, Western Europe
and North America. There has not been a new nuclear reactor ordered
in the United States for 20 or 30 years. However, the nuclear
industry is still trying to push its wares in South East Asia,
in countries like China and other parts of Asia. Of course it
is doing so on the back of significant public, government money,
provided by governments in a number of countries, Canada, France
and so on. I do not think the use of an inappropriate and failed
technology in a developing country is evidence that the technology
has any potential benefit to the country concerned.
131. I think that brings us to the end of
our questioning. You have made the uncompromising position of
Greenpeace extremely clear. We are very grateful to you for that.
I dare say that you have enjoyed today one of the quieter mornings
in your active life. We are extremely grateful to you for having
come along and spoken to us. We would be very grateful if you
were able to send along as soon as possible the other proposed
amendments you have put forward to the Directive amending the
release directive so that we have them to work on in subsequent
(Lord Melchett) My Lord, thank you very much.
Thank you for your time. We would be happy to do that. I wonder
if it would be possible for us to see a copy of your Specialist
Adviser's paper that was referred to this morning. I think that
may have some relevance to the additional points we wish to make.
(Lord Melchett) Thank you very much.
Chairman] Thank you
very much for coming.