Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Farmers Union of England and Wales

  The NFU welcomes the opportunity to comment on this topic and would respond as follows:

1. INTRODUCTION

  The NFU, in concert with COPA/COGECA, welcomes the introduction of emerging biotechnological innovation into farming. It can provide clear advantages, although, as with any other new technology, there are also recognised risks that have to be addressed. As a recent COPA/COGECA document states, "authorization of placing GMOs on the European Union market must be based on comprehensive assessment of experimental data over a sufficiently long period so as to provide the general public with maximum security for human and animal health as well as environmental protection". A copy of this document is appended (Appendix 1). It should also be mentioned that this approach is similar to that of the European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development as stated in the report on the impact of biotechnology on agriculture (Appendix 2) [not printed]. A similar approach has been developed by the NFU as is outlined in the appended Report of the Biotechnology Working Group, March 1998 (Appendix 3).

2. THE PRESENT UK REGULATORY SYSTEM

  The two regulatory bodies that are involved in biotechnology topics as they relate to farming in the UK are the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE), and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). One of the possible difficulties with these two committees is that they have different departmental loyalties. ACRE have the responsibility of "advising the Secretary of State on human health and environmental safety concerning the release of GMOs into the environment". It is serviced by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The remit of the ACNFP is to "advise Health and Agriculture Ministers of Great Britain and the Heads of the Departments of Health and Agriculture Ministers of Great Britain and the Heads of the Departments of Health and Social Services and Agriculture for Northern Ireland on any matters relating to the irradiation of food or to the manufacture of novel foods or foods produced by novel processes having regard where appropriate to the views of relevant expert bodies". It is serviced by the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

3. CHANGES TO THE REGULATORY SYSTEM PROPOSED BY THE WHITE PAPER ON THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY

  While we understand that there has been informal contact between ACRE and the ACNFP we welcome the proposal in the white paper on the Food Standards Agency that the responsibility for both ACRE and the ACNFP are to be subsumed by this new agency on its formation. This should lead to a more integrated approach to the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their use in agriculture and food.

  The NFU also welcomes the acceptance of the recommendation of the Lamming Committee for the creation of an independent Advisory Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs. No doubt this committee will have to take account of the need to properly label animal feedstuffs that will increasingly contain genetically modified constituents. The proposed changes to amend EC Directive 79/373 and repeal Directive 82/471, which relates to the specific raw materials in animal feedstuffs, should be relevant to the activities of this new committee. The new Directive contains sections that are concerned with the requirements to ensure that animal feedstuffs are appropriately labelled, including information on constituents derived from GMOs.

  An unexpected recommendation included in the white paper was that animal biotechnology will continue to be under the purview of the Department of Agriculture. While there may turn out to be aspects of this subject that are not appropriately covered by ACRE or the ACNFP, or their successors, there will appear to be a need for consultative processes to be established when the Food Standards Agency has been put in place.

4. A SUGGESTED OVER-ARCHING COMMITTEE

  One of the criticisms of the present UK regulatory structure that always arises when non-governmental organisations, the NFU and industry representatives come together to discuss biotechnology is the lack of an over-arching body. Such a body would be expected to discuss more global issues, such as is it advisable for UK agriculture to go the route of using herbicide tolerant or pesticide-containing genetically modified crops? The inclusion of ACRE and the ACNFP in the Food Standards Agency would present the ideal opportunity for such an over-arching committee to be established.

5. PROPOSED CHANGES TO THE REGULATORY PROTOCOLS

  In general the NFU considers that the present UK system has worked well. However, there have been some difficulties presented by the system and some additional procedures would be sensible prior to commercial growing of GM crops in the UK.

(a) Post-release monitoring

  The NFU is concerned that there is currently no requirement for monitoring possible environmental changes after consent to market has been granted. We recognise that widespread monitoring could be difficult and costly and that a condition of the consent to market a GMO requires the applicant to inform the Secretary of State of any environmental problems that subsequently occur. Nevertheless the NFU has proposed that a post-release monitoring programme be instituted. The monitoring programme should be independent of the company that is expected to profit from the GMO, should be paid for by govnerment, and should be directed by govnerment, or under govnerment contract. The post-release monitoring programme should extend over a period of, say, 10 years and the review that derives from it should form the basis for the continued licensing of the GM crop. The report and data that arise from the monitoring programme should be in the public domain. Any major environmental changes that arise within the monitoring period could lead to immediate withdrawal of approval. Prompt action would then have to be taken to limit environmental damage if such an event occurred.

  The NFU welcomes the suggested changes to EC Directive 90/220 on deliberate release of genetically modified organisms to the environment which include a provision for a mandatory monitoring of products after they have been placed on the market linked to a consent granted for a fixed time period of seven years.

(b) Antibiotic-resistant marker genes

  One of the first genetically modified crops that was adopted for commercial planting was Novartis's (formerly Ciba-Giegy's) Bt maize. This contains an antibiotic-resistant "marker" gene. The ACNFP recommended against the authorisation of this product for growing in the UK and Europe because of the perceived risk of the marker gene being transferred to the bacterial inhabitatants of the gut of livestock fed with feedstuffs that included it, and the eventual possibility of the antibiotic resistance being passed on to human pathogens. This risk was considered to be low but it was felt that further investigations were warranted before the use of the maize was authorised. This recommendation was eventually overturned by an EC majority vote, which led to considerable public protest in various parts of the EU. The whole matter is not yet resolved as various legal and technical challenges to the decision have not yet been concluded. For example, Austria is still refusing to accept the maize. It is ironic that the level of risk is presently being investigated via several MAFF research contracts. It would have been prudent for the EU to have insisted on such investigations before growing authorisation was granted. In the event the Bt GM maize is being commercially grown in the EU for the first time this year. It is estimated that between 1,000-2,000 hectares are being grown in France, and some 15,000 hectares in northern Spain.

  A precautionary principle should be the basis for all EU decisions of this sort. If there is any doubt as to the safety of a product it should not be authorised for use in the EU unless the level of risk has been determined through properly targeted scientific and technical research. The two terms are used advisedly, as knowledge of the likelihood of gene transfer between maize in feedstuff and gut bacteria requires scientific investigation, but information is also needed as to whether the DNA of concern is properly inactivated by the maize processing regimes, which in essence is a technical problem.

(c) Test site information provision

  The upsurge in eco-terrorist actions has brought into sharp relief the difficulties posed by the UK regulatory system that makes available full information of the location of a GM crop test site before growing is undertaken. There is clearly a "right to know" issue here as far as the general public are concerned. However, giving potential eco-terrorists detailed information that will allow them to unlawfully destroy test sites hardly seems helpful and should be reviewed.

6. CODES OF PRACTICE

  One way of assisting farmers and growers, and other members of the agri-food chain, to deal with the introduction of GM crops is to develop appropriate codes of practice for growing them. Two have so far been produced and were introduced in April 1997. The first was the joint BSPB/NFU/UKASTA Code of Practice on the provision of information relating to genetically modified crops, and the second was the NFU Code of Practice to establish a consistent approach to providing information to farmers and growers regarding genetically modified crops. In addition there was a joint response to the MAFF consultation on genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops produced by the BAA, BSBSPA, BSPB, NFU and UKASTA (these three documents are provided as Appendix 4).

  One feature of the codes is the requirement for a clear identifier that a seed is genetically modified to be placed on all seed packets/sacks. This should be supplemented by more detailed information, which should be supplied in a leaflet that accompanies the seed, sales literature and the NIAB recommended lists. The explanatory information should provide details of the specific genetic modification, and should give details of the agronomy of the GM plant. Farmer training schemes may also be necessary. When the crop is harvested the produce should be identity preserved so that the GM crop can be segregated from the non-GM crop if it is deemed to be necessary. Each GM crop consignment should be accompanied by a post-harvest declaration, which should also include the name of the variety. The provision of such information should be maintained during subsequent transportation. These codes of practice will require detailed record keeping both on and off farm, which form the basis of traceability of the crop.

  As a result of these activities a group has been formalised to extend such initiatives. It is the Supply Chain Initiative for Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC). At present its members are in the process of completing a set of guidelines for growing herbicide tolerant crops. The intent of all these actions is to ensure that the commercial growing of GM crops in to the UK is carried out in a responsible manner.

7. LABELLING

  The situation with labelling brings into sharp relief the chaos that has undermined the credibility of the EU regulatory actions with regard to the introduction of GMOs. The hard won EC Directive on Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients (Regulation No. 258/97), which was intended to harmonise regulatory controls in Europe, came into force in May 1997. It was expected to calm consumers' concerns about GMOs. Unfortunately it did not do so. The problem was that the regulation did not cover GM products that had previously been approved or ones that were presently being considered. Some consumers have also been concerned that a food was only considered to be a "novel" one, and so covered by the legislation, if it was "no longer equivalent" to an existing one. In addition, while a particular food may not be covered by the novel food regulations, there can be consumer concerns about how a particular product had been produced (an example of this could be sugar that had been produced from GM herbicide tolerant sugar beet).

  The problem was that genetically modified soya and maize, grown in the USA or Canada (and now in other countries) was being imported into the UK and Europe in increasing amounts. It was not segregated so that the separation of GM soya or maize from non-GM soya or maize was not possible. The products of either crop were not considered to be covered by the novel food regulations so that no special labelling was required. Extensive public unease about this situation caused a re-think in this attitude. A decision was made to produce an EC regulation that covered the labelling of products that contained derivatives of GM soya and maize. This is EC Regulation No. 1813/97 that directed that "genetically modified soya beans covered by decision 96/281/E", and "genetically modified maize covered by decision 97/98/E" should now be covered by the Novel Food Regulation, and should consequently be labelled. However, this regulation is still not in place, although agreement on the components of it has now been reached. For example, a third category of labelling of "may contain GM material" has been removed. Also, labelling will only be required if a product contains novel protein or DNA. A list of products that do not need to be labelled is to be produced.

  In the meantime, the Institute of Grocery Distribution, of which the NFU is a member, instituted voluntary labelling guidelines in November 1997 for products that contained soya. The basis of these guidelines was that any food that contained soya probably contained at least a very small amount of GM soya, so that all such products should be labelled as "containing" GM soya. This labelling initiative has also been supported by the Business Retailing Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation. The voluntary guidelines have now been extended to include foods containing maize. Labelling of on-shelf foods under this scheme started in early 1998 and should be completed by the end of the year.

  It is clear that, commendable as it might be, the voluntary labelling scheme would never have been necessary if the EU had dealt with the problem with speed and precision at the outset. One of the major difficulties with the EC is that it has to balance the conflicting requirements of its member countries. This often means that decisions can be very slow in coming, and that when they do occur the regulations are not always sufficiently detailed to deal with the problem at hand.

8. EC DIRECTIVE FOR THE LEGAL PROTECTION OF BIOTECHNOLOGICAL INVENTIONS

  Following many years of negotiations, and the failure of the 1995 draft EC Directive because of ethical objections, a revised version has recently been accepted by the European Parliament. It should be noted that the NFU has been one of the groups instrumental in ensuring that clauses were included in the revised version of the Directive that should protect farmers' rights with regard to GM crops and livestock. These rights would include the right to "use the product of his harvest for the reproduction or propagation by him on his own farm", and "implies authorization for the farmer to use protected livestock for an agricultural purpose. This includes the sale for the purpose of agricultural activities". The NFU welcomes the new Directive as it is felt that it will harmonise regulations in the EU and will produce a legislative atmosphere that should encourage innovation in the biotechnology area in Europe. However, it should be pointed out the Directive is thought to be likely to come into force in September 2001, two years after completion of the necessary ratification procedures in the member states. Such a lengthy delay points out the limitations of the EU regulatory system in comparison with those of a nation state such as the UK.

9. INTERNATIONAL HARMONISATION

  The NFU is concerned that products of genetic modification are reaching the market in Europe before harmonised controls are in place. We believe that international guidelines for safety assessment are crucial and support programmes being developed in this area by the United Nations Environmental Programme, the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Codex Alimentarius.

  The NFU is aware of the concerns of underdeveloped and developing countries on the possible exploitation by multinational companies of products derived from their naturally occurring flora and fauna. The NFU supports attempts to develop international agreements in this area.

10. INFORMATION

  One of the failings of the UK and EU regulatory climate is the lack of accurate information that has been provided to the general public. Individual bodies such as the NFU, IGD, FDF, and individual supermarkets have provided some information. However, with some notable exceptions, such as the BBSRC, government sources have not done so. It is the opinion of the NFU that a government funded information strategy should be devised so that the benefits and possible risks of the introduction of biotechnology into farming could be presented in a balanced manner from a source that is (hopefully) regarded as neutral. This would aid in countering the distorted information on biotechnology that is often presented by non-governmental organisations that are opposed to the technology.

Acronyms

ACNFP—Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes

ACRE—Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment

BAA—British Agrochemicals Association

BSBSPA—British Sugar Beet Seed Producers Association

BBSRC—Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

BSPB—British Society of Plant Breeders

BT—Bacillus thuringiensis (a soil bacterium that is a natural source of pesticides)

COGECA—Comité Général de la Coopération Agricole de l'UE

COPA—Comité des Organisations Professionelles Agricoles de l'UE

FDF—Food and Drink Foundation

GM—Genetically modified

GMOs—Genetically modified organisms

IGD—Institute of Grocery Distribution

MAFF—Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

NFU—National Farmers' Union of England and Wales

NIAB—National Institute of Agricultural Botany

SCIMAC—Supply Chain Initiative for Modified Agricultural Crops

UKASTA—United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association

10 June 1998



 
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