Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 486 - 499)

WEDNESDAY 22 JULY 1998

PROFESSOR MARK WILLIAMSON

Chairman

  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 it here.

  487.  Fine, but you accept that that is not evident from the chapter as it is written?

  A.  Yes.

Lord Gallacher

  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 desirable.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  489.  I have really a series of questions, which lead us to consider how current practice is different, from—I 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 both systems?

  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 possibly—I do not think we have got there yet—get 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 possibility—is 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.

Lord Grantchester

  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?

  A.  Certainly 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 worthwhile?

  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.

Chairman

  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.


 
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