Examination of witness (Questions 486
WEDNESDAY 22 JULY 1998
486. Good morning, Professor Williamson,
and welcome to the Sub-Committee. Thank you very much indeed for
having agreed to come and give evidence to us in our enquiry into
the regulation of genetic modification in agriculture. I hope
you will, with your huge experience, be able to illuminate some
of the tricky environmental issues which litter this subject.
You very kindly sent us some extracts from your published work
to help us and from them we have drawn some of the questions which
we wish to put to you. However, I would like to raise something
that came out of one of the papers. You referred to the instance
of the Texas male-sterile cytoplasm in the United States which
eventually produced a catastrophe in the crop when it succumbed
to fungal disease and was virtually destroyed. You described it
in a chapter of the book you sent us as being a genetic modification
of corn and we mistakenly assumed that this meant genetically
modified by modern methods. We have been subsequently corrected
by MAFF that this was not the case and that we had misinterpreted
it and, in fact, you meant genetic modification under traditional
breeding methods. Could I ask you to comment on that and confirm
our new understanding?
(Professor Williamson) I apologise for that. I
did use the words "genetic modification" in the book.
It comes from my view that one should really be talking about
genetic engineering rather than genetic modification but I do
understand that genetic modification is the official term and
I should not have used it here. This was a natural recombinant
gene not caused by the techniques listed in the Directive. This
is a single gene on the mitochondria of the corn which makes a
particular protein which fits into the membrane of the mitochondria
and the fungus produces a toxin that targets this particular protein.
It is not genetic modification in the sense in which we are using
487. Fine, but you accept that that is not
evident from the chapter as it is written?
488. Professor Williamson, a question which
the Sub-Committee has not asked so far, because it falls outside
the remit of this enquiry, is whether the technology is a desirable
technology, whether it is a technology which ought to be exploited?
What are your views on this aspect, which is fundamental, I think,
to the whole business?
A. I certainly
agree it is fundamental. My view is the same view as I have held
since I first got involved in this field about 12 years ago, that
this is a highly desirable technology. It has produced massive
benefits in medicine already. The differences in technology between
medicine and agriculture are negligible. Indeed, I would like
to see vaccines produced in plants in principle. It is a better
place to get vaccines, it seems to me, than from rabbits or horses.
So it is a highly desirable technology, but like all technologies,
it does have its risks. The other view I formed 12 years ago was
that this technology in agriculture would only be acceptable if
there were widespread public acceptance. I think that is a difficulty
we have got into this year, that some parts of the public are
worried about the technology, but the technology as such is certainly
Lord Wade of Chorlton
489. I have really a series of questions,
which lead us to consider how current practice is different, fromI
am going to use the words "genetic modification" but
you would say "genetic engineering".
A. I appreciate
"genetic modification" is the official term.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
490. Are GMHT (genetically modified herbicide
tolerant) and GMPR (genetically modified pest resistant) plants
any more or less likely to harm the environment than current practice
in commercial agriculture?
A. This is a
fairly complex question. I think as far as herbicide tolerants
are concerned, the harm might be from the way that herbicides
are used. Herbicides, of course, are already used very widely
and I do not see in principle any particular reason why herbicide
tolerant should be more or less. There is another underlying worry,
that the herbicide tolerant gene put in might have some other
unexpected result, in which case you might get something new,
but nothing like that has been found so far. I think with pest
resistant plants we are in a different situation. I think putting
pest resistance into the plants does produce new problems, particularly
in the evolution of pest resistance.
491. Going on from there, when you look
at the two systems of genetic change, the GM system and the conventional
system. Do you think that a similar system of approval is correct
in both cases, and again in the light of your comments about the
adjusted maize, where clearly something went wrong, even though
it was not genetically modified in the sense that is modernly
now understood? So do you believe as a result of that that we
need better monitoring and a better approval system to look at
A. I think it
would be desirable to have both elements but agriculture is an
enormous business. It is a question of how much we can do. One
thing that is in the Directive which has never been acted upon
is the question of cell-cell hybrids. It is listed as a technique
but the committees never ask for evidence on this and never consider
it, I think because it is too weak. You certainly should compare
genetically modified plants with conventional plants. In the book
review I sent to you on viruses, the people writing that book
said one must compare what happens in genetically modified plants
with viruses in them with what happens in ordinary plants with
viruses in them, and that is perfectly correct. The thing about
genetic modification in the sense in which we are using it here
is that one might possiblyI do not think we have got there
yetget some really novel plants which might produce some
really novel problems. So one has to keep a lookout to see if
there are novel problems coming up. So far they are modifications
of the sort of problems we have been dealing with before, and
possibly in the case of pest resistance rather more serious than
we have dealt with before but not qualitatively different.
492. So picking up what you have said so
far, would it be your view that the main purpose of regulation,
unless you have equal regulatory systems for both conventional
and genetically modified, which you are saying would be the ideal
but is now probably beyond practical possibilityis to satisfy
the consumer that products were safe rather than actually to look
at the basic safety of the products? Would that be true?
A. I do not think
you can satisfy consumers that things are safe without looking
at the basic safety, but I do agree that the primary reason for
doing all this monitoring is, indeed, to keep the consumer happy,
and we seem this year to have failed to do so.
493. Would it be fair to say that what we
should be looking at is not only the technique but the product?
You were talking about genetically modified and conventional systems,
but should you look at the new product and analyse the product
and monitor it rather than the technique?
from the scientific point of view one should be looking at the
product and that is what we have always said on the Committee,
that the risks of environmental damage will come from the nature
of the product and not from the nature of the method. I do not
think there is any doubt that some of the consumer groups are
concerned about the method and, therefore, we have to reassure
them about the method, and the method does produce sometimes some
side-effects. The problem with the Novartis corn is not the pesticide
resistant gene so much as the other genes it brought in with it.
That is not part of the product but it is part of the method.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
494. What do you believe would be the likely
impact of gene technology on the natural environment in the United
Kingdom and are the environmental benefits of no-till agriculture
likely to be of much benefit in the United Kingdom? We have heard
evidence from America that American farmers see that system as
a tremendous advantage to their production methods.
A. My Lord Chairman,
Lord Wade knows far more about British agriculture than I do but
I asked around about no-till agriculture. It has been used a little
bit in my part of Yorkshire. Farmers did not find it awfully helpful.
They said you still had to use herbicides and the result of no-till
was that you were liable to get rather compacted soil and they
did not find it was a good idea. So I do not really have views
worth reporting on no-till agriculture.
On the question of the likely impact of gene technology
on the natural environment, the likely impact is small to zero,
but the problem with its likelihood is that there is a small likelihood
of getting a serious effect and that is the difficulty. I like
to compare the release of genetically modified plants with the
introduction of invasive introduced plants. I know the industry
does not like this, they say we are working with familiar things,
but it seems to me the construct is novel and it might behave
like an introduced plant. If you take something like the rhododendron
that you see all over the place, that appeared to be perfectly
harmless for many years and yet now is a major pest in woodlands
in the West part of England and in Wales, though not in Yorkshire.
I think we might get effects like that, where you get rather intractable
problems from either the escaped plant or the escaped gene, but
the likelihood of that is fairly small, particularly in the United
Kingdom. Worldwide I think the likelihood of getting a nasty effect
somewhere is rather larger, and probably, looking at these problems
in general, one is more likely to get it in the tropics than in
the temperate zone, but those are very broad generalisations.
I think my middle prediction is small to zero effect on the environment
in the United Kingdom.
495. The evidence
we have heard from those who are concerned about genetic modification
technology is that we could have some great disaster down the
road. It might be a very long time off or it could be a short
time but it could really have very serious implications for the
environment and people.
A. Yes, this
is quite possible.
496. How do you respond to that?
A. Yes, we certainly
could have such a disaster and it can come out of the blue. If
I can take an American disaster, the thing called the zebra mussel
which got into the North American system about ten years ago through
the Great Lakes and has now gone all the way through the Mississippi
Basin, so that it covers most of the central part of North America.
That is a disaster for all sorts of people, waterworks and so
on, it smothers surfaces. And yet this is a little mollusc that
we have had in this country since early in the nineteenth century
and causes us no trouble at all. So it is very difficult to predict.
Here we have a thing which had invaded Western Europe from Eastern
Europe in the nineteenth century without causing trouble, invades
North America in the late twentieth century and causes immense
problems, and having caused the problem, at the moment there is
no cure known. So it is certainly possible that we might have
a major environmental problem from this technique. My view is
that it is not very likely but it is not impossible.
497. Coming back to your earlier answer
to Lord Gallacher's question, where you said you believe the technology
to be right and that it is going to bring greater benefits than
disasters, would you say that the potential for such disasters
could be very much reduced by now looking at further regulatory
systems and monitoring systems or do you think that it is a risk
that is always going to be there, but on balance that risk is
A. I would say
both, if I may. I think the risk will always be there and the
monitoring system may well fail to pick it up. On the other hand,
you have much more chance of picking it up if you have a proper
monitoring system. So we certainly ought to have a good monitoring
system, but that comes later in the questions. That is a very
difficult thing to do and, as you will see when I come to answer
the questions on that, I am uncertain as to how we should do it
best, but we should certainly try. We could probably try doing
it in several ways and see what the results are.
498. Even with the risk you would still
like to do it?
A. Yes, I think
so. It depends what sort of products you are thinking of. I am
particularly thinking of biomedical benefits from crop modification,
things like vaccines and antibodies and so on, because I think
this will be a way of getting new and different medical products
cheaply, conveniently and, for some people, more acceptably. I
think it is a pity that the industry has started with something
which only seems to have served the industry, a form of herbicide
resistance. It started off on the wrong foot and, to that extent,
put it back somewhat unnecessarily early, and it is a pity they
did not start with something else. I cannot understand why they
started with it.
499. Do you think that organic farming and
genetic modification are compatible with each other, having genetically
modified crops and organic crops living side by side, and could
genetic modification be of value to organic farmers?
A. The difficulty
with organic farmers is that they have very strict definitions
of what they mean by "organic". Personally I would very
much like a more sustainable sort of agriculture, an agriculture
with fewer inputs of pesticides and fertilisers and all these
sorts of things, which is the way organic farming is going. But
one of my colleagues was told the other day, for instance, that
grapes with seeds in them are natural but seedless grapes are
unnatural, and I think once you get into that sort of "angels
on a pin" argument, I am not happy with it. As I understand
it, the organic farming movement has declared that genetic modification
is not acceptable to organic farmers and I think that is unfortunate.
I do not see any way in which I am going to change their mind.
What I would say is that genetic modification is compatible with
sustainable lower input farming, and to that extent it is a thing
which I would hope the organic community would eventually come
round to welcoming, in some forms at least. But I do not see any
prospect of their doing it at the moment.