Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 188 - 199)




  188.  Good morning, Miss Hill. Thank you very much indeed for coming to give evidence to the sub-Committee, to help us with our enquiry into genetic modification in agriculture. You are, as I understand it, a member of ACRE, but I wonder whether I could ask you to introduce the Green Alliance. We know something about it from the paper you sent us. Could you say what the origins of Green Alliance are and how it comes to have the title of Green Alliance. What is its history of involvement in this particular matter?
  (Miss Hill)  Of course. The Green Alliance is an environmental charity or non-government organisation: NGO, to use the usual jargon. The Green Alliance was formed in 1978 with the purpose of influencing all the political parties to have an environmental agenda. So it was formed explicitly to be cross-party, not affiliated to the Green Party or any one particular party, but to try and elevate the position of the environment on the political agenda generally. I think, 20 years ago, the position of the environment was fairly low on the political agenda and that was a specific job which needed to be done. The original Green Alliance: the alliance referred to an alliance of individual people, eminent in a range of fields—including scientists, politicians, media people—people who had some standing in public life and who were willing to lend their name to the cause of elevating the environment on the public agenda. So that was the alliance. We are not, in a formal sense, an alliance of other environmental groups; but in an informal sense we do a lot of work with the other major environmental groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the RSPB, the CPRE. We have very strong links with them and on quite a number of topics, including this one, we act as informal liaison and co-ordination for those groups. However, they are not formally signed up to us in any mandated sense. Our history of involvement in this issue: we came across it first in 1987. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was doing an enquiry on the possibility of regulating biotechnology. Also, the European Directives were going through their processes at the time. We helped host a visit for a United States campaigner, Jeremy Rifkin, on this subject, as a way of raising the awareness of the environmental implications of genetic modification in the United Kingdom. Subsequent to that, we felt it was a subject we should continue looking at, (the policy development), partly because there were not many other NGOs strongly interested at that time; but partly because it fitted very well with Green Alliance's skills in terms of looking at regulatory process and administrative process, which has always been part of our particular expertise. So we did quite a lot of work on the Environment Protection Act 1990, Part VI of which implements the EC Directives. That was going through Parliament. Shortly after that I was asked to join the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, which was formed in 1990, as the Statutory Committee which advises the Secretary of State for the Environment and others on the implementation of the law. I should stress that I speak, of course, for Green Alliance in this context. I cannot speak for the Committee. I do not speak as a member of the Committee in this context, but a lot of my experience is drawn from those deliberations. Thankfully, I think enough of them are public and have been analysed academically and politically for me to be able to say quite a lot of how the regulatory process works, without that being a special privilege from my being involved in the Committee.

Chairman]  Thank you very much. Perhaps we can proceed to the Green Alliance's views. Lord Gallacher.

Lord Gallacher

  189.  Ms Hill, do you think that on balance GM crops will have a harmful or beneficial effect on the environment?

  A.  I do not think we are in any position to make that judgment at the moment. One of the reasons for that is because to make that judgment we will be weighing up very different kinds of environmental impacts. There are the ecological impacts of the movement of genes. There are the possible environmental impacts of the use of chemicals. There are the possible environmental impacts of changes of land use. We do not know enough about those three types of impacts, about how they will progress in the long-term, to make any kind of judgment on that yet.

  190.  Has your organisation made any attempt to assess a timescale when such a judgment could be made?

  A.  No, not a timescale when we can make the judgment. We are continually asking for information which I hope will help us eventually to come to that kind of view. Our message is that there should be full environmental audit of this technology so that we can come to a judgment. Our main problem is finding an acceptable way of weighing up those different kinds of things. Some people are very concerned about the concept of genetic pollution in itself. Others may be more concerned about the use of chemicals. There are such different kinds of things that it seems to me that we have to have a politically acceptable way of assessing them, and deciding whether they can be balanced against each other or not.


  191.  Paragraph 5 of your paper seems to me to strike quite a sceptical tone in this matter. You say that the biological companies are arguing that the GM crops "will lead to a decrease in the use of damaging pesticides, but as yet they have provided very little independent evidence that this is the case." Would you say you were sceptical about these claims, or are you neutral on them? Would you be interested in knowing whether they are correct or not?

  A.  I am certainly interested to know whether they are correct. I am presently sceptical because we have seen very little independently assessed evidence that takes into account all the factors I have just mentioned. Also we have had hardly any commercialisation of GM crops yet and some of these things are quite hard to assess except on quite a large scale of growth. It is very early to have evidence, but my feeling is that the data that does exist has not been collected in a way that is going to give us a great deal of intelligence about these issues.

  192.  And an environmental audit would be a means of collecting this evidence?

  A.  Yes. There needs to be an agreed approach to judging the environmental impact that takes into account the wide range of issues.

Lord Moran

  193.  Could you tell us how you think the indirect effect of genetically modified crops on biological diversity should be taken into account in the regulatory process, both at national level and at community level.

  A.  The first step is making it explicit that indirect effects should be taken into account. The interpretation of damage to the environment should include indirect forms of damage. Both the Directive and the United Kingdom laws are actually quite broadly framed, but in both there is a fairly narrow interpretation of what constitutes environmental harm, which has been arrived at through the process of implementing the Directives. That could be reversed. The draft revision of the Directive is on the table at the moment and has wording which says that indirect effects, short and long-term effects, should be taken into account. In a way, it is a simple matter of making that explicit and providing some guidance about what those indirect effects are. Again, I think that is relatively straightforward. Indirect effects may be the effects of any chemical used in conjunction with the crop. There are the effects on target and non-target species of plants and animals; the likely cumulative effects of the crop being grown on a commercial scale; the likelihood of resistances evolving, and possible changes in land use pattern. All these things could be assessed if you gathered the right kind of data. They could be assessed and judged.

  194.  You think the draft Directive is satisfactory, from your point of view, on this?

  A.  It is a beginning. I would not say it is satisfactory in terms of providing guidance for Member States on how to do it. It is a beginning that the language is there, that could lead to an agreement that this an important part to consider the indirect effects, but there needs to be much, much more in terms of detailed guidance about what it is the Member States are meant to look at when they make their assessments.


  195.  At national level. Is this something which should be incorporated into a change to the remit of the existing committees, or should there be a new body?

  A.  It would be most effective to change the remit of the existing committee, yes.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  196.  Before I ask my question, could I ask a question which follows on from Lord Moran. When you talk about these indirect effects, what is your view on the balance between what might be, on the one hand, from an environmental point of view, to be a not good effect; but from another point of view, the use of the GM products which could bring enormous benefits. Where do you put the balance? Is there a balance, in your mind, or in the view of the Green Alliance, or is there no balance? Is it that if it is against the environment it is wrong and you do not do it? Or do you think there might be certain areas where we have to sacrifice environmental changes in order to achieve certain other benefits, as we have done since time began.

  A.  I am not sure it is for us to make those judgments, especially when neither the environmental harm nor the other benefits are very clear.

  197.  So how would you make the judgment?

  A.  I think that belongs in the political realm. We have international biological diversity objectives. We have, as a society and as a nation, signed up to fairly strong objectives protecting biological diversity across the world. In that sense we have, as our objective, protection of the environment.

  198.  We also have an objective to improve the benefits to the whole world: to make less people starving, to create more food opportunities, to create jobs and industrial development, to improve the economic needs of the people. These are also very strong objectives.

  A.  Indeed, and in the end Governments and Cabinets make those decisions but we have an environmental——

  199.  What would be your view?

  A.  Well, as I said earlier, I do not think we are in any position to judge the relative balance between those things. As an environmental organisation, our concern is that there is not environmental harm. That we do our best to protect the environment and that we take a precautionary approach. My view is that there is no point in accruing other benefits if they are not sustainable. It is all very well to say there may be benefits in terms of food production, but if they are not environmentally sustainable they will be benefits which will be short-lived, so I do not think there is much point in that. Economic benefits, no-one can deny the need for, but we can derive economic benefit from a great number of things other than GM technology. Therefore, our primary concern is that this technology does not carry unnecessary burden on the environment.

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