Examination of Witnesses (Questions 263
WEDNESDAY 24 JUNE 1998
BOOT and MR
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
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
(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.
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 restrictionsfor instance,
if we had post agreement monitoring which turned up something
that we did not like and we imposed a banthen 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
(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
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
(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.
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.
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 examplewhich has been very difficult to do through
the conventional breeding because it is a multi-factorial activity
through the plantthe 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.
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.
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.