Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 323)

WEDNESDAY 24 JUNE 1998

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

  300.  Where do you see further development in unique GM products?
  (Mr Boot)  This is where it becomes very difficult because of the position on soya for example, soya particularly, because soya is included in about 1,000 products on supermarket shelves. It is very very widely used and no distinction is possible.

  301.  Would you like to see the development of a GM strawberry, a GM cauliflower or potato chip?
  (Mr Boot)  It would clearly be possible if it was for a particular reason. You mentioned the strawberry and of course that brings up the question of irradiation which has been rejected in effect by the consumer and there is theoretically no irradiated produce available in this country except for herbs like marjoram.

Chairman

  302.  On the superweed problem I think you stated your preferred solution. Could we have your view on the solution of making the plant male sterile or female as a solution to out-crossing and therefore risking the reduction of the superweed. Would this bring to an end the farmers' practice of reserving seed and, if so, would that concern you?
  (Dr Barber)  That is one option. As I point out, there are a number of ways of trying to ensure that out-crossing does not occur. That is just one possible way. The other way is transgene chloroplasts and another way is to use terminator genes. We do not yet know what process will be the acceptable one. It is impossible to say at this stage. The chloroplast one, for example, you can put very many more transgenes into the chloroplast than you can put into the normal genome. That might be one of the ways. We do not know at this stage.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

  303.  In your evidence you have called for post-release monitoring. You said that it should be conducted either directly by government or under contract from the government. Can you expand and say what should be monitored, how the monitoring should be conducted, what the role of the farmer would be in the monitoring and who would pay for the monitoring?
  (Mr Boot)  My Lord Chairman, to what extent should farmers be involved? They are extra eyes and ears. They are part of the monitoring process. If government have a responsibility in this area it need not necessarily involve them running extra trials themselves. They can then initiate trials through the grower or the product presenter. It would seem to me we should bring them in as part of a chain with a responsibility for taking up any case that was put to it by either the user, any outside observer, an advisory service, the farmer or indeed the company itself, if it wishes to bring to the notice of government some peculiarity or some development which it felt to be potentially undesirable.

  304.  Would you see this as being a statutory set of things that were required to be monitored or would you see this as a purely voluntary process?
  (Mr Boot)  I think that an element of statutory enforcement is essential because there is a tendency for it not to get done if the company had an interest in not revealing that some undesirable development was occurring, or at least the consumer might suspect that.

  305.  Could we perhaps get you to expand a bit on what it is that you would see requiring to be monitored.
  (Mr Boot)  If there is a development of a superweed, for example, or the passing of some of the genetically modified characteristics from one plant to another, if that becomes sufficiently threatening then it may warrant trying to put the process into reverse if you can. The sooner you start to do that, the more likely you are to be successful.

  306.  Do you think there is a case for monitoring the actual agricultural practices of the farms on which these products were being used in terms of both herbicide and pesticide application for example, or in terms of rotation which has already been raised?
  (Mr Boot)  I think there is definitely a case for allowing the farmer to have a role in the monitoring because he is closest to what is occurring in the fields or on the farm.

Chairman

  307.  It would take the form of conditions, would it, attached to the permit given to grow?
  (Mr Boot)  Yes.

  308.  Would the primary responsibility and liability lie with the company who has provided the seed or with the farmer who is growing?
  (Mr Boot)  It does now, my Lord I understand, but perhaps Dr Barber could cover the position now. It is a question of whether government has a place. The responsibility of ACRE and ACNFP for example is to try and anticipate the existence of any such problems post release. They have to do it by trying to forecast rather than by actually observing and it seems to us to be necessary to actually observe what does happen in practice post release to have a more secure system. Could I ask if Dr Barber would answer.
  (Dr Barber)  If I could add one or two comments. The new revision suggested for the EC Directive 90/220 does recommend a seven-year monitoring period. It may well become a statutory requirement via the European regulations if they pass through. So far as the monitoring process itself is concerned, one can envisage a whole range of possible studies to be undertaken. As an ex-research scientist I can envisage lots of them, for example, simply looking at the changes that may occur in the micro-organisms in soil or changes that might occur in the insect or other populations in the areas where the various crops have been grown as the sorts of things that will be monitored at least in the early stages. It may well be the case that the changes are relatively minor and in future it would not be necessary to make those checks because monitoring processes would carry it through. At the beginning I think it is important that we see what happens in real life as opposed to what happens in a test situation or what we think might happen from theoretical studies. So you can envisage a whole raft of changes.

  309.  There are some respected organisations that have called for a moratorium on all genetic modification on the grounds that not yet enough is known about the long-term effects. Do you see post-release monitoring as being an alternative procedure to a moratorium, a route you would rather go down whereby conditions are attached to permission to release and if the outcome is not as desirable as hoped then possibly the permission to grow would be withdrawn?
  (Dr Barber)  The suggested changes in the EC regulations do actually have a withdrawal capability after monitoring or even in the middle of the monitoring period so that has been anticipated by the European regulators. As far as the moratorium is concerned the Government have said quite clearly that is not legal in the European Community so whether we like it or not it is not legally possible. As far as the alternatives are concerned clearly nothing should be authorised for growing in commercial quantities without it being considered to be safe. We do not believe the United Kingdom regulatory authorities have actually made such an authorisation. Clearly if there is a doubt about what environmental effects there might be these must be investigated by test growing activities. Unfortunately, as we discussed earlier on, this year there have been 21 destructions of crops out of about 300 test sites. It is becoming more and more difficult to carry out these sorts of activities.
  (Mr Bennett)  On post-release monitoring we actually feel this is an integral part of reassuring the consumer and so on that basis we feel if the consumer is going to feel assured about the development of this technology some sort of statutory mechanism needs to be in place rather than voluntary.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

  310.  Can I just follow up the last point which is who you would see being responsible for that within the framework set by Government and who would pay for it?
  (Mr Bennett)  We felt it should go to the Food Standards Agency to say that they take a view. In terms of monitoring the actual crop in terms of the farmer that is part of his normal procedure. If it is a public health issue then obviously the Government should undertake some of the cost.

Lord Jopling

  311.  In your paper you advocate very detailed record-keeping and traceability for GM crops. Do you think that that is a practical suggestion right across Europe or indeed for imports which is a much wider problem than the situation within the European Community?
  (Mr Bennett)  Well, my Lord, as you are probably aware, the NFU has been at the forefront of the development of farm assurance schemes where we actually can in terms of the United Kingdom certainly deliver the full record-keeping and traceability and even independent verification in the future in this country. Obviously, across Europe it depends on how they develop their own schemes but in terms of imports we could not possibly comment. At the moment we would doubt they would have that capability. We intend in terms of our own market to make sure we can deliver full record-keeping and traceability.

  312.  I have no doubt about that. I am sure you all do, as I do, have bitter memories of things being agreed in the Council of Ministers which then become totally ignored in other Member States. I have no doubt that we can do it here but do you think it is a practical suggestion in terms of the whole of the European Community and indeed on a wider basis or is it rather pie in the sky?
  (Mr Bennett)  I have some doubts that we will be able to be reassured about the full traceability of imports, my Lord.

  313.  And within the European Community, is it seriously practical or is it just wishful thinking?
  (Mr Bennett)  If it is practical, as we see it, within the United Kingdom then it is certainly practical within Europe. Whether they will do it there I do not know I am in a position to answer that question.
  (Mr Boot)  I think, my Lord, there has been a move towards much greater traceability and accountability for one's produce which is accelerating and I think we have to take account of this. Whilst we have our doubts as to how effectively this might be pursued in foreign parts, that I think probably is no more than chauvinism often.

Lord Moran

  314.  If something goes wrong with a genetically modified crop either in relation to human health or to the environment, who is going to be responsible? Should farmers be liable?
  (Mr Boot)  My Lord, if the genie gets out of the bottle who is liable? We fear that the multi-national company will put the corporate lawyers on to the issue to the point that they make sure that it is not their fault, it is some poor old farmer, and I think that our concern would be to protect the farmers' position in that scenario. It is not an issue that has been decided at all yet and I suppose it is going to be interesting when we get the first legal cases that are taken up on this. If something does go wrong who will be held to blame? I share the concern about the question.

  315.  I am sure you are right in the fears you express but does this not mean that you ought to be thinking about it very seriously now to protect the farmer? Because somebody has got to be responsible if there is damage.
  (Mr Boot)  We have thought of the question, my Lord, but I am not sure we have come up with the answer yet.

Lord Jopling

  316.  You have thought of the problem but has your research discovered whether most farmers' general liability insurance covers an eventuality of this sort?
  (Mr Boot)  We are told that it does.

  317.  It does?
  (Mr Boot)  We are told so.
  (Dr Barber)  Could I add a rider to that. Some of the contracts that have been signed in the United States have attempted to pass the liability directly back to the farmer and to his or her descendants and that sort of contract I personally suspect—if I can get agreement on the table—we would find unacceptable for United Kingdom farming. Obviously when these contracts are made available to farmers then the legal department will look at them and advise our members appropriately.

Lord Gallacher

  318.  Are you aware of the Community's proposal to withdraw relief which you now enjoy in respect of primary products, and the liability indeed therefor?
  (Mr Bennett)  Yes.

  319.  Thank you. The evidence we have taken from other witnesses leads us to a position in which we are aware that the public perception is that GM foods are not perhaps as safe as they might be and are therefore not as attractive as they might be to consumers, with the notable current exceptions of tomatoes and cheese, which have been mentioned. It has been put to us that this is partly due to the BSE scare and other food scares. Do you think anything can be done to address this problem and, if so, where do you think the responsibility for doing that should lie?
  (Mr Boot)  I think that the answer to the thing, as I think we have indicated both in the papers and in our oral evidence, is openness of information and continuous availability. In considering what part we might play in this we felt that our best opportunity is contacts within the industry and with the growers and farmers rather than with the consumers and we felt that the best means of contact with the consumers has been via the supermarkets where they are trusted by the consumer for the most part and they have a regularity of contact and that makes it important that we maintain contact with the Institute of Gross Distribution, for example, and with the individual supermarket companies, but we have tended not to take up the challenge of contacting the consumers to any great extent.

Lord Gallacher]  Thank you.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  320.  Could I just follow up on that? Your earlier suggestion for an over-arching committee we have already heard about. Would you recommend including consumer representatives and organisations on that over-arching committee?
  (Mr Boot)  Yes.

Lord Moran

  321.  I am sure that what you say about the supermarkets is absolutely right. Some of them have told us that they attach enormous importance to the question of labelling and indeed have done this with great success on tomato paste. Do you think that this work has been undermined by the refusal of the American growers to segregate soya and that that torpedoes the whole affair?
  (Mr Boot)  We would say so, yes.

Chairman

  322.  As far as supermarkets are concerned are they putting any demands, or are they likely to put any demands, on your members as far as genetic modification is concerned?
  (Mr Bennett)  So far the only demand that we have identified in certain cases is the animal feedstuffs and the sourcing of animal feedstuffs, for example for soya which obviously then gets into the chain. That so far is the only problem we have identified.

  323.  Thank you very much. That bring us to the end of the substantive questions we had to put to you. We are very grateful indeed that you should have come with a very full team and given us very useful evidence. I hope, Mr Bennett, you will not take personally the question that I would now like to ask. Often in the past when you have had evidence sessions before the Committee the former President of the NFU came and gave evidence to us. Is it significant that your President has not appeared before us today? Does it indicate a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the NFU towards genetic modification or a lack of readiness on behalf of the NFU to take a position on the subject?
  (Mr Bennett)  My Lord Chairman, if I can apologise for my President. Four times a year the Council of the Union (which is the supreme body of the NFU) meets and it happens to be today that that Council meets. As the President is the Chairman of that Council it is obviously important he be there. On top of that as Deputy President my particular remit is biotechnology and research and development. That is why I have led the NFU team.

Chairman]  Thank you very much. That is very reassuring. Thank you very much indeed.

  


 
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