Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 263 - 279)




  263.  Good morning. May I welcome you to the Sub-Committee and thank you very much for coming before us to give evidence on the important issue of genetic modification in agriculture. Before we proceed to our questions could I, first of all, thank you very much for the paper you provided us with, which was interesting and forms the basis of some of the questions we want to ask you. May I ask you to introduce yourselves, not as an organisation but as individuals.
  (Mr Bennett)  Thank you, my Lord Chairman. We welcome the opportunity obviously to back up our written submission with oral views. My name is Tim Bennett and I am the Deputy President of the NFU. On my right is Ben Boot, who is Chairman of our Biotechnology Working Group. Bob Fiddaman on my left, (and not Ian Gardiner, as the nameplate suggests), is also a member of that Working Group. On my right is Vernon Barber, who is a staff member of the NFU and scientist.

  264.  Thank you very much. Could I kick off and ask you this question: as and when the CAP is reformed, agriculture in this country should, in many sectors, be in a strong position to compete on world markets. In that context, should, in your view, British agriculture make full use of the technology of genetic modification, or do you think it should take a back seat and concentrate on the preservation and conservation of the countryside as it now is, with all its biodiversity?
  (Mr Bennett)  The short answer to that is that I do not think we have the choice. We are going to be exposed in terms of agriculture to a more competitive world, and the use of GM technology will be part of that more competitive world. I do not necessarily accept the premise in the question that by using GM technology, that you cannot preserve the countryside and biodiversity.
  (Mr Boot)  I think Tim has covered the point, my Lord, in saying that I do not think we have a choice. To suggest that the preservation of the countryside and biodiversity are the opposites of biotechnology, is a mis-statement of the position.

  265.  To concentrate for a moment on the competitive side, do you see it as being essential, for the future competitive survival of British agriculture, to embrace this technology?
  (Mr Boot)  I believe that is going to be essential. In order to remain competitive we are going to have to use biotechnology.

  266.  And is this feeling, would you say, widespread throughout British farmers? In America we see American farming galloping towards the full embrace of genetic modification over a wide range of crops. Now, I appreciate that the crops grown in this country are not the same, but would you anticipate that if the seeds became available in this country, that British farmers would go at the same speed and indeed the same direction as agriculture in the United States?
  (Mr Boot)  I think, my Lord, there are two things which worry us about biotechnology. One is the position of monitoring post release where we feel that more ought to be done to preserve the position, and to see that if anything goes wrong then we need to get that straightened out. The other is the possible rejection by consumers who, at the end of the day, are going to govern whether this technology is taken up.

Lord Jopling

  267.  May I begin by declaring an interest as a farmer and as a member of the NFU. My impression from your helpful paper was that you are concerned by the delays which occur in Europe. Could you tell us to what extent you think that delay might lead to further dominance by the United States' agriculture. Also, perhaps I can add the danger that if now we were to try to involve ourselves in certain restrictions—for instance, if we had post agreement monitoring which turned up something that we did not like and we imposed a ban—then that could give rise to serious trade problems with the United States which, of course, we have had before.
  (Mr Boot)  I think Lord Jopling is correct in suggesting that we are concerned about the rate of uptake of technology. It is an unfortunate characteristic of the European system that if there is diversity of opinions from different countries' representatives, then they tend to fudge the issue and obscure the thing, which leads to slower decision making. The system in America seems to be much more conducive to more rapid decision making. Indeed, they are rather more adventurous in their approach to biotechnology than the European is traditionally. I do not know whether Dr Barber could give specific examples of where there has been a slowing down of the decision making process in Europe.
  (Dr Barber)  There are many examples of this but the Novel Foods Regulations is a obvious one, where it took about nine years to get to fruition. Almost as soon as it was in place it was outdated by events: imported soya and maize to Europe. The other is the EC Biotechnology Patenting Directive, which took nine years to get to fruition. It now looks likely to be passed and, indeed, will be in place in 2001. In the meantime, the standardisation of labelling throughout the EU is not in place. Therefore, those are two simple examples. What Europe is always doing is following after the events; not generating the regulations that are in place to lead events. So, for example, the Labelling Directive for soya maize has just been put into place and will come into action on 1 September. This is a very late reaction to the public concern about soya and maize. It should have been in place beforehand rather than after the event. This is just two or three simple examples.
  (Mr Boot)  If I may add, my Lord, if it is seen to be easier to get agreement on rules and regulations in America, then it tends to make biotechnology migrate to either Japan or the States rather than remaining native to Europe.


  268.  Would you be concerned that if British agriculture was only able to follow on behind American agriculture in the use of this technology, that in years afterwards, even in decades afterwards, the position of British agriculture on world markets would be lost?
  (Mr Bennett)  Certainly the ability of British agriculture or European agriculture in this sense to compete on world markets would certainly be damaged. However, it goes beyond that. Our ability in our research and development in biotechnology would be lost because, by its very nature, you would have America and Asia leading the research and development into this subject. It would have a damaging effect to our research facilities as well.

Lord Gallacher

  269.  If certain Member States wish, in effect, to be GM free for growing or for sales, is there not a case for allowing them to be so, rather than to endure their attempts to create the rest of the EC in their image?
  (Mr Bennett)  We would certainly not impose views if Member States wanted to become GM free. But to be blunt about this, my Lord Chairman, I do not think it is practical.

  270.  Would you like to expand on the likely practicality?
  (Mr Bennett)  We operate within the single market, let alone a world trade mechanism. For example, just in animal feed alone, some countries would have to import some animal feed from America or Asia, which might have some genetic modification. It would be very difficult to say that it was GM free. So we come back to the fact that I question the ability for that to be practical. Obviously, if Member States wished to do so, we would certainly not impose it.


  271.  Might it not be practical when it comes to a matter of growing? There are some who say that conditions vary considerably between different countries, and Member States should be able to impose different conditions on the ability to grow genetically modified crops. Do you see that as being feasible?
  (Mr Bennett)  If Member States wish to prevent GM crops being grown that is their decision. It certainly will not prevent that Member State from being GM free if it is available within the single market.

Lord Moran

  272.  Could you tell us how you think the wider issues are best taken into account in the process of regulation? You have called in your paper for an over-arching committee. Could you tell us what you think that would do, what its remit would be, and what it could do that ACRE and ACNFP do not already do?
  (Mr Boot)  The difficulty we find with the existing system is that ACRE and ACNFP are responsible to different Government departments. The creation of the Food Standards Agency as a single authority does actually give the opportunity to bring a more co-ordinated process into place. We foresee that would be an advantage. It does not essentially alter anything. The personnel involved on these committees do talk to one other but it would be helpful, we think, to have it more formally co-ordinated.

  273.  To which Government department do you think it should report?
  (Mr Boot)  It would probably be a combination of Health and Agriculture, in the same way as the Food Standards Agency is envisaged.


  274.  The main concern about what is not fully covered under existing regulatory arrangements are longer-term environmental concerns. How do you see these as being dealt with by the Food Standards Agency?
  (Mr Boot)  We would ask that governments should play a stronger and more specific role in post release monitoring because it is in that area that we feel that consumers deserve more comfort, more confidence. Especially in the early stages of biotechnological development, it is important that there is this assurance given by this greater confidence, so it is important that post release monitoring does go on. It is also important that this should be independent. At the moment, it is the responsibility of the company to actually pick up anything that goes wrong. We feel that is insufficiently independent.

Lord Redesdale

  275.  We had some evidence from Safeway which showed that their tomatoes, through being genetically modified, actually made it an easier crop to harvest and resulted in less waste when processed. What sort of modifications would you actually like to see as farmers?
  (Mr Fiddaman)  The modification we are always looking for is something that will improve the quality of what we are trying to produce. Certainly looking at some of the arable crops and the recent potential development of a better quality wheat, for example—which has been very difficult to do through the conventional breeding because it is a multi-factorial activity through the plant—the fact is that we have been able to identify the gene group that would increase the crop, which is something which the industry have been trying to achieve for a long time, because we know we can supply the product the consumer wants. It is that sort of development which we would obviously find very welcome. You mentioned the tomato situation. Yes, it has made it easier picking. The best thing is that it has been better quality and equally the price has been right for the consumer. These things very much concern people.

  276.  Do you find that scientists actually ask what you need, or do they come up with products which they think you will find useful?
  (Mr Fiddaman)  I think it is fair to say that the scientists are driving what is being produced, namely because they are identifying what is available. I would suggest that a number of things they are identifying is based on the industry indicating its preferred area for development, through the R&D discussions we have had with them on the various working groups.
  (Mr Boot)  The scientists are governed partly by what is easiest to modify. Herbicide tolerance is a characteristic which is generally covered by only one gene. It is easier to modify one gene biotechnology than a multiplicity of factors.

Lord Rathcavan

  277.  A lot of the development is commercially led, i.e. herbicide or pest-related. What do you feel about more unconnected developments, like frost-proof characteristics in potatoes, where there is not such a commercial link?
  (Mr Bennett)  As we have already indicated, we feel so far that the debate has been generally headed by the scientists and what they can develop quicker and get to market very quickly. We, within the levy boards and the R&D groups, are actually getting through to the scientists on certain R&D work that we want done, and linking into it some of the concerns that my noble lord is indicating.

Lord Moran

  278.  A great deal of the debate and, indeed, the work of this Committee so far, has been dealing with crops and plants. But I wondered if you could tell us what your view is about the development of genetic engineering of animals and fish in agriculture in this country? What do you think are the immediate prospects for working in that field and are there risks which you think we ought to take into account?
  (Mr Boot)  I think, my Lord, that the issue of genetic modification in animals is a great deal more sensitive than in the case of plants. It is clear that people are a lot more wary of engaging in genetic modification in the case of animals. I think especially if it involves the transfer of human genes into animals, which is clearly possible, then people get very wary indeed unless it is for preventing terminal disease or death, and then it looks as if the human population changes its attitude to become more tolerant of genetic modification in animals. The whole area is, as I say, very much more sensitive. It is only if it is for the benefit of human health that there is likely to be much development in this area.

  279.  Has there been much progress in this country in work on animals or fish?
  (Mr Boot)  Could I ask Dr Barber, who can perhaps cover the developments that have been, in particular, at Edinburgh, through the sheep side particularly.
  (Dr Barber)  The Rosslin Institute is the world leader in this case, as you probably know. In their case they presently have alpha anti-trypsin, which is a chemical. This can be used for treating various respiratory problems, particularly cystic fibrosis, and that is in clinical trials at the moment. It looks as if it will become commercially available within the next two or three years. So alpha anti-trypsin is a chemical used for treating lung disorders and the Cystic Fibrosis Organisation have supported research in this area. It has fully supported this sort of the work. As Ben has said, it is quite common for people to look at this area quite differently in the animal areas, as far as human feelings are concerned. As far as other research is going, it is quite clear that biotechnology will be used in animal reproduction. The idea of cloning, for example, which is a bugbear view in some people's minds; however, it seems obvious to me in future years that this will be used as part of normal reproductive technology, much in the way that artificial insemination was used 50 years ago. Controversies were in place then. The other area might be progress in the animal/human use in the situation with regard to marker assisted breeding where there is no actual transgene put into the animal, but the selection from particularly favourable characteristics for eating or other purposes are selected by that particular means. That seems to be an area where there is not likely to be very much controversy; where you might expect to have animals which will have improved characteristics which we, the public, might find, as a whole, more acceptable because there is not any transformation of genes put in or taken out from these particular animals. In other parts of the world there is a lot of work going on in other sorts of human uses. You have all probably seen the discussions about modified animals for transplant purposes, for example. This is an area of very active research at the moment. There is a moratorium in Britain on the use of animal organs to be used in humans because of the possible risk of viruses from these pigs, usually from the transplant donors to humans. It seems to me to be not a huge problem but there is certainly a worry there that there is a risk, so there are areas of that sort which are quite actively being researched.

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