Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)

WEDNESDAY 24 JUNE 1998

DR VERNON BARBER, MR TIM BENNETT, MR BEN BOOT and MR ROBERT FIDDAMAN

  280.  The related problem is, I suppose, the use of transgenic crops; factories for producing pharmaceuticals.
  (Dr Barber)  That is correct. There are a number of ways of making pharmaceuticals. One is to use crops. One is to use cells. There may be cells which are deliberately cultivated for this purpose. The other is to use microbiological organisms.

  281.  If that is done, will that not expose birds and animals to ingesting all sorts of drugs?
  (Dr Barber)  Well, the crops you are talking about are only being used in test situations, very controlled areas, usually in greenhouses. It is not anywhere near commercialisation. Obviously when these things come up, (if they ever do), for commercialisation, the decision as to whether they should be grown or not will depend on the regulatory authorities. We are quite confident that the ones in the United Kingdom would made the right sort of decision in respect to those sorts of products.

Lord Jopling

  282.  But are you not concerned, in the whole of this field, that so far we have only just scratched the surface? There are many other things. I can give you examples: a nitrogen fixing wheat, and I can remember at MAFF going to buy pigs in China which had very high litter numbers. Our people were wanting to transfer their genes into European breeds. There are a whole raft of these things where we do not really yet understand all the possible applications. We have had a scare story, within the last few months, with regard to corn borers in maize, Swiss work which you are probably aware of. This shows there could be a whole raft of secondary effects or even a mistake in transferring a gene that, in fact, messes up adjoining genes. There is an area here where there are people who express great anxiety as to what we may be uncovering. Does this not cause you discomfort?
  (Mr Boot)  It would do, my Lord Chairman, if we were not convinced that the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes and the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment did not do a proper job. It would be complemented by our suggestion of further study of post release monitoring, which would provide extra assurance that the process was not going to get out of hand. I think we feel that the existing parts of the process are fine and could only be improved by that.
  (Mr Fiddaman)  I think it highlights the importance of being able to do early trials under constrained conditions, so that we are able to understand exactly the sort of questions you have been asking as to what can happen. If you can only do this on a small trial basis, unless you can trial it outside the greenhouse, which is an enclosed environment and which is not typical, then how are we going to be able to have the answers? The concern obviously of that is that unless we can have these trials done on a wider basis under controlled conditions, we will not get the answers; and we will not get the confident reply that everyone expects, including ourselves. Certainly there is no way that I, as a farmer, would want to grow a crop in which I was not confident.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  283.  Are you concerned that with the increased use of genetically modified seeds, for example, that there will be fewer varieties of crops available? Are you worried what effect that could have on production in other countries?
  (Mr Fiddaman)  I do not think I am concerned about the reduction in the number of varieties. The current situation is that there are always more varieties that are being produced by the breeding companies than we currently have on offer. The difficulty is controlling the mechanisms by which they are mass-produced for industry. For example, if we are looking at specific advantages, take biodiversity. This is when the trial mechanism has a very broad basis to work from. We will look for various conditions according to particular commercial pressure. GM will only be added at a particular point in a particular grouping variety, but it does not mean that those other varieties are no longer available. So I cannot see it actually reducing the total variety of biodiversity because of that reason.

  284.  Surely, if farmers are seduced by the appeal of GM seeds and they become widespread, current varieties will fade out. You could be left with fewer varieties: this would magnify the problems of crop failure. If there was something wrong with those few varieties there would be danger and implications for countries like China and India.
  (Mr Fiddaman)  The fact is that if you are looking at a particular usage—I am thinking in terms of herbicide tolerance—if we were to see an introduction of a herbicide-tolerant feature in a group of varieties, the rest of the characteristics of those varieties will not change. What you are suggesting is that we would only have the availability of that particular herbicide tolerance. However, there are still enough breeding companies out there which breed for other reasons and that will not be the only source of, let us say, an oil seed rape, particularly the development of that. The fact is that there is likely to be much genetic modification in the types of oil that each rape will carry, which will keep a very broad base of genetically modified varieties to allow that breeding to continue.

Lord Moran

  285.  I ought to declare an interest. My wife has a small hill farm in Wales with pedigree cattle. Does it worry you that transgenic crops could themselves transfer pollen to wild relatives, which then themselves become weeds?
  (Mr Boot)  Our position is, I think, as informers, that we are concerned to the extent that we think there ought to be a system of post release monitoring. The indications are that it is unlikely to occur to the extent that it is presented by those who fear that. So it is better to act against the possibility of that happening and by having a post release monitoring system. That is one of the main reasons for adopting that policy.
  (Dr Barber)  It would depend on the type of crop we are talking about. For example, the possibility of that happening with the oil seed rape, which you have obviously mentioned, is considerably higher. The studies which have been done on oil seed rape shows that it depends a bit on the weed species in the area. In France they have had positive results, as far as the crop is concerned, rather than the United Kingdom oil seed rape. So it depends on the environment to some degree.

Lord Grantchester

  286.  I declare an interest as a farmer in Cheshire and as a member of the NFU. I have two questions on the crops modified to be herbicide-tolerant. Are you concerned that a farmer may become dependent, with all the implications of this dependency, on a single supplier of seeds and herbicide? My second question is on consumer perception. It seems to me on this issue that the consumer has reservations because the technology is seen as benefiting the farmer rather than benefiting the consumer. Would you agree?
  (Mr Bennett)  On the question about whether we are concerned about being tied to a single supplier of seed or for herbicide, as an industry we would be concerned about the growth of multi-national companies, of very large powerful companies, as an industry. So the answer to that question is yes.
  (Mr Boot)  I think the benefits issue is an involved one, my Lord. It is one where we would expect benefit to work through the system. It may be that the introduction of a benefit is of primary benefit to a multi-national seed and chemical company, but unless it is a benefit to the grower through financial benefit, which he can pass on to a greater or lesser extent to the consumer, it will not get taken up. The benefit tends to spread out through the chain rather than being restricted to one particular sector. To say that all the benefit is going to accrue to the multi-national chemical or seed company is an over-simplification of the position.

Chairman

  287.  Could I come back to Mr Bennett's answer, where you say that you are concerned about the growth of the big multi-national companies. Why is that? Is that because you think it is going to lead you to a situation where there is an insufficient degree of competition between those companies in the industry?
  (Mr Bennett)  Certainly we would not want there to be dominant forces, even though this might give some choice within those companies. We think competition is a good thing.
  (Mr Boot)  I think their emphasis tends to be on the good of that company rather than perhaps the good of the farmer or the grower.

Lord Gallacher

  288.  Could I ask, apropos multi-national companies, whether the NFU is at all concerned in this context about the remoteness of the shareholder from control of the multi-national companies which, in certain circumstances, could be dominated by scientists or those who are concerned only to produce a good trading result?
  (Mr Boot)  Men in white coats and things like that.

  289.  Precisely.
  (Mr Boot)  Yes, I think we are. I will ask Dr Barber to cover the steps that we have taken in order to preserve farmer privilege in Europe, which have been to some extent successful; but the whole area is one where we are, like everybody else, frightened of the potential development of power by multi-national companies.
  (Dr Barber)  One of the advantages in the new Patenting Directive is that it does contain articles in this which do protect farmer privilege. So, for example, there is an ability to save seed in that Directive, which was a very important feature as far as we were concerned. In the same way that the use of animals is protected, so breeding is protected in this Directive. One of the problems for us rather than for America are the very exclusive contracts that limit the farmer to obtaining the second year seed from the same original supplier. This would not be legal under the EC Directive. Some of those contracts, which have been highly criticised in the farming press and elsewhere, are very restrictive. I suspect they would not be found to be acceptable to most British farmers. So there are protections there built into the legal system which we are very pleased to see; mainly put in by the efforts of our representatives in the European Union and also by the European Farming and Agricultural Co-operative Union. They have made efforts for that to be included and it has been.

Chairman

  290.  Does the terminator seed concern you? Crops which do not reproduce, and so farmers have to go back to the company to buy all their seed for the next year.
  (Dr Barber)  There are several technologies to try to avoid the transgene getting out into the general weed population or to the other crop population. That is just one of the technologies. Another technology is to incorporate this into the chloroplast of the plant. Terminator seeds is one way of doing this.

  291.  What we are really asking is, would you be concerned by having to buy your seed from the supplier the next year?
  (Dr Barber)  That would be a concern. In particular, the developing countries are a bit nervous as this could be seen as a way of taking over their farming industry. Personally, I believe that seeds will be too expensive—for example, with the terminator—for most of those countries, for farmers to afford this. I have my suspicion that it is not a very important technology in their regions. It may be in our regions but it is not in the undeveloped areas, I suspect.

Lord Grantchester

  292.  May I follow up on that, please? Have you been in contact with your members undertaking trials regarding the rising incidence of eco-terrorism and would you support, as I have heard others call for, for these trial areas to be kept secret while the results are being monitored?
  (Mr Bennett)  We are obviously concerned about trial plots being destroyed because the basis of what we are asking for is good trial work, good post release monitoring, and if we do not have good trial work undertaken and it is destroyed this causes some difficulties. We accept that we have to release a certain amount of information to the public in terms of what trial work is taking place. We think it is unwise actually to give the locality. We would like to see the actual locality taken away from the public information so that we can make sure that we have good, sound, robust R&D work taking place. We accept that there has got to be some sort of public information on what sort of trial work is taking place.
  (Mr Boot)  The key to the adoption and acceptance of the technology is good information. Everything seems to indicate that once people become more familiar with the technology because of openness of information and good communication, that they are more likely to accept or take a view that is based on science rather than supposition. It is important, I think, in the development or the introduction of biotechnology in the early stages, that the public do base their views on science rather than supposition. You get yourself in an unfortunate situation if it is all based on a view that God should be responsible for it, or whatever.

Lord Gisborough

  293.  I should also declare an interest as a farmer. Is it practical to require segregation of crops while they are being grown and stored in agriculture? How would this be consistent with the traditional freedom of farmers to grow the crops of their choice?
  (Mr Bennett)  First of all, it is practical. In fact, it has already been undertaken by a lot of our members who grow seed crops. This is the normal procedure that they undertake. Certainly, in terms of segregation of crops while being grown and certainly stored on a farm, that is perfectly practical. In terms of the freedom of farmers to grow crops of their choice...
  (Mr Fiddaman)  I think the point, my Lord, on having a choice and being able to segregate is the fact that you are able to make a decision. I am a seed grower. I grow crops which require discussion with my neighbour. Under the conventional growing of them you need to be able to keep a pollen distance—with pulses, for example, they are open flowering. My neighbour, who is growing a crop right next to mine, will effectively be able to stop me growing a seed crop. By discussing with my neighbour I am more able to grow the same sort so that I do not have that barrier problem, or I move the crop myself, or he might even change his cropping programme, or her cropping programme, so there is not a problem of an effect. The segregation of the crop is certainly very easy on a farm. As far as post release movement is concerned, it is entirely due to the strength of middle and end users that they will wish to see that segregation, according to the direction that they are provided with, to produce certain crops in due course. Where there are changes, for instance, within a crop which is herbicide-tolerant, this does not matter because it is not going into the oil. The oil that is produced at the end of the day is no different from that oil produced by the genetically modified variety.

Lord Redesdale

  294.  In the case of an organic farmer, where someone is growing a GM crop very close to his, what is the convention there? If, from what he was saying, he seemed to have no choice and he was going to lose his organic status.
  (Mr Fiddaman)  I am aware of his concern. Obviously the concern again is a matter of distance. It is recognising what distance becomes, if you like, the contaminant barrier. Certainly within the seed growing there are recognised distances over which these pollens will not effectively travel to cause a problem. Certainly our recommendation would be that those sorts of distances would be the sustainable answer.

  295.  But there will be no organic farmer who can actually enforce a buffer zone round his own fields other than on his own land?
  (Mr Fiddaman)  In the sense that if it is a crop which is known to be genetically modified, my reaction as a conventional grower would be to see that there is a barrier of another crop between. Similarly, I have to confer with my neighbour. Certainly we would have no difficulty in recommending that those wishing to go into genetic engineering in the early period should certainly discuss with their neighbours their intention, so that they are aware of what is happening rather than the fact that there is any particular risk. That is very important for those organic farmers, and certainly those who are farming round organic farmers will be aware of their existence.

Chairman

  296.  So is segregation something that you consider, for the most part, should be and will be market-driven and market-led rather than be required by statute?
  (Mr Fiddaman)  I would certainly see that being the end result. In the first instance, it is logical for consumer confidence that we offer it as an opportunity. I think, at the end of day, that if there is seen to be no problem with the end product we will eventually see segregation, as there is with the other varieties now within the oil seed sector. We have the segregation of the Hero that is maintained throughout the sector. I see no problem in maintaining that in other areas.
  (Mr Boot)  Unfortunately, this whole business of segregation is somewhat broken down because of the refusal of the American growers to segregate or label soya as being genetically modified.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

  297.  I would like to pick up the references to the American line on segregation. You may not be able to answer this one but certainly in some of the previous evidence we have had there has been a suggestion that some degree of segregation is now beginning in America, partly because of the lack of ability to monitor the impact of genetic modification if there are not control areas, and also because of the concerns about gene-creep into other species and the impacts on beneficial insects as well as non-beneficial insects. I wonder whether I could ask you your thoughts on that, and also on the differences in the system which I think is used for approving GM crops in the United States. In many cases the environmental benefits from the growing of the crop emerge from major transfers to the no-till system rather than a system of tillage. The question really is whether you see both of these factors, the segregation system and the no-till system, as being useful or likely in this country.
  (Dr Barber)  The situation in America is very, very particular but one notable thing about it is that even though one company in the United Kingdom is attempting to obtain non-GM soya, they have said they cannot do it essentially. This is Iceland. They have said that they can obtain it from a non-GM source, but this quite different from saying that they can obtain non-GM soya. What happens in transfer of material from the actual fields in the United States to the manufacturing processes in the United Kingdom is that there is always a risk at every level of procedure of some soya beans getting mixed, some GM with a non-GM source. So it might become impossible. It may already be impossible to guarantee a complete non-GM source to a manufacturer in the United Kingdom. So there is a problem there. What the Austrians have done is have an organic status which recognises what they call point one per cent adulteration in their non-GM material. A small amount is allowed but it is still organic in their definition. My suspicion is that something of that sort will be required in the future because it will be impossible to guarantee completely non-GM material. It does not matter how hard you try, it might well be impossible. The tillage point I will pass on to my farming friends.
  (Mr Fiddaman)  Certainly, as you rightly say, the Americans have shown the advantage of the pesticide tolerance factor in the fact that you can go in and plant a seed and destroy the old cover crop that was there protecting the soil. You have got to remember this is on the back of a water shortage basis and that is one of the reasons for looking at no till. There is certainly a move towards no tilling in United Kingdom agriculture in terms of cost reduction. How much of this will be reliant on chemical reaction? I would suggest not. The benefits of being able to use herbicide tolerance to modify your chemical practice are in the fact that it is a more benign usage than some of other chemicals that we might be using on a conventional crop in those same circumstances.

Chairman

  298.  Could I ask you about crop rotation, which relates to no tillage. I presume with no tillage there is no crop rotation. Generally, do you see genetic modification affecting crop rotation if it came in widely in this country and would that concern you?
  (Mr Fiddaman)  In itself there is no reason why it should actually affect crop rotation because I think a lot of it would be done on good farming practice. In other words, we already see the advantage of having a break crop in the production of a first wheat crop because it actually gives benefits to the first wheat crop. The change in that area might happen whereby if they are able to protect the crop against the particular organism that affects continual cereal growing then those soils that are particularly good at cereal growing, wheat growing would probably return to it. However, there is a lot of people today doing continuous wheat on those sorts of land. In general terms I cannot see it making a big difference to a rotation. I could actually see a positive advantage, particularly with something like the herbicide tolerances that are being put into the oil seed rape because some of the difficulties within the cereal growing cycle is that we cannot knock out some of the competitive graminae weeds, which things like glufosinate are very good at removing and being able to take them out late in a rape crop and therefore stopping a seed deposit during that part of the rotation would reduce pressure on other parts of the cycle. I can see those actually being used as a positive benefit to the rotation.

Lord Rathcavan

  299.  I would like to ask a question which relates to the earlier one on useful modifications. Most of the development of GMOs is in crops and it gets, as far as the consumer is concerned, diluted in the end product to a great degree. As you said earlier in your evidence, so much depends on the acceptance by the consumer at the end of the day. As far as we know there is only one pure GM item on the market which is this tomato paste which is available and marketed as a 100 per cent genetically modified product. Do you think that to get greater consumer acceptance you should encourage more GM fruits and vegetable products—and maybe cereals—to get pure GM products on the market. The consumer is undoubtedly confused at the moment when a very small part of soya or maybe maize in the future is involved.
  (Mr Boot)  Yes, I think you are right. There is another product and that was the cheese made with the aid of chymosin rather than rennet extracted from calves stomachs which may be perceived to be an unfortunate business as far as the calf is concerned. In both cases I think it is fear of the unknown is the real enemy and it becomes possible for the consumer to be thoroughly familiar with a GM product where it is labelled as such and available side by side. The indications with the GM cheese were that it actually out-sold in a side-by-side trial traditional cheese, if you want to call it that. I am sure you are right, my Lord, that it is a much better way to familiarise the consumer where you have labelling, you have segregation and it is possible to draw a distinction between a GM product and a non-GM product.


 
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