Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 520 - 538)

WEDNESDAY 22 JULY 1998

PROFESSOR MARK WILLIAMSON

  520.  Perhaps I could interject that the way you have answered so far leads me to believe that the cause for concern to your mind is whether it leads on and out into other species, the environment and so forth?

  A.  Yes.

  521.  Rather than the nature of the antibiotic, which would lead me back to say should not the use of the antibiotic itself, such as the use of ampillicin, which is still a useful antibiotic today, should not that be a cause for concern, not the fact it can get into the cow's gut?

  A.  Again, we get into one of the detailed arguments about which particular form of ampicillin is used and who uses it. We certainly get these arguments about kanamycin, which of course is the common one, and people say, "Kanamycin is never used at all", but my medical friends tell me that it is still used but rather rarely, and neomycin, which is used rather more commonly though again not all that frequently. There is another possibility with antibiotic resistance genes. If you have the antibiotic resistance gene under a plant promoter it will be forming, quite rightly, a protein in the plant, the same protein that in the bacterium is used to fend off the antibiotic, and that conceivably could have allergenic or toxic effects, particularly if you get a nasty mixture. One of the undesirable things one can see coming from this technology is that you will get plants with multiple constructs and then they are going to have all sorts of different antibiotic genes all forming small quantities in plants, and maybe this mixture of small quantities of things might turn out to be undesirable. But, again, it is one of these unlikely risks but one which one can consider and do something about. I think it comes to, as you say, how can one identify the least-safe practices and phase them out, and I think this is a very important question. Certainly my plant molecular biology people say that the idea of putting an active bacterial antibiotic into something you are going to feed to cows which are already full of antibiotics for various other reasons, does show a total lack of imagination on the part of the company and they should not have ever started down that road. But, of course, in America, this is a notification procedure and nobody gives a damn. In Europe, where we are much more concerned about these sort of risks, the answer is you could require the company now to take it out and you should perhaps require it under a timescale because, as I said in earlier answers, it will be a slow process for the company now to take these out. They are going to have to go back probably to the cell culture stage to take it out, but it could be done, and you could insist on it being done and you could say, "Okay, we will have a licence for this corn for five years with these things in and meanwhile we are monitoring but after five years all corn grown which is genetically modified must be free of antibiotics." You could have a regulation which said that. It might conceivably improve consumer confidence if you did say that. A lot of these actions will be not so much to counteract the risk as you estimate it, but to improve consumer confidence that you are doing everything possible to avoid risk. Of course, with BSE we do know how very important it is not to underrate any sort of risk if we are going to keep the confidence of consumers.

Chairman

  522.  It is not, surely, an antibiotic that the corn has in it, it is an antibiotic resistance gene?

  A.  That is right.

  523.  There is no actual antibiotic in the corn.

  A.  Yes, that is right. There are actually two antibiotic resistance genes in it, if I remember correctly, but it is the ampicillin one which is the one which causes concern.

Lord Jopling

  524.  Professor, as you know the current European regulatory system under Directive 90/220/EEC is being discussed and there is a Commission-proposed series of amendments to it. Will you tell us what you think to be the main faults in both the existing structure and the amendment which is currently being discussed, which I believe the Government think will take two years. I wonder if you could tell us what you believe ought to be amended in those two years?

  A.  I think the short answer to what is wrong with it, is an awful lot. It seems to me an extraordinarily unhappy document and I would hope that the British would make major changes to it. As a short first step I would take out the whole of annex 2 and annex 3 and start again from scratch. I think you will find annex 2 and annex 3—and annex 3 is the old annex 2—are derived from the Directive as we have got it from 1990, which took a few years of negotiation. I do remember a discussion of this at OECD meetings in the late 1980s when we tried to persuade DG XI that perhaps they might modify, looking at the best set of characters instead of being rather vague, but they were what you might call not receptive and they were not modified. This list of characters which you get in annex 3 comes from the 1985 OECD document, the thing which used to be called the Blue Book, which may be misleading here in the Houses of Parliament. In an annex to the Blue Book you have got all the characters listed there. I did ask a gentleman from the Health & Safety Executive if he knew how it came about and he said yes, he had chaired the meeting, and they had an evening session where they had a brain-storming session and asked everybody to think of anything they could put down on paper which might possibly be relevant, and they slammed them all down, and we have still got them. I do think in 1998 we should not be using a list devised one evening in 1985, I think we should be doing much better than that. If I might be a little more constructive—that is all rather destructive—I would say that you cannot do a quantitative risk assessment by asking for qualitative information. If I can turn to annex 3 on page 72 of the document I have, Part C, section 2(d) you do actually get a quantitative question on the "rate and level of expression", but I think it is almost the only quantitative question in the whole document. If you go higher up, asking for "the description of genetic trait(s) or phenotypic characteristics and in particular any new traits and characteristics which may be expressed or no longer expressed", is just too vague to be helpful for a risk assessment. We do need to know this information somewhere as background information, but what we are trying to do is a risk assessment not getting background information, and I think you cannot do a risk assessment from this document.

  525.  Would you give us the reference for that second point?

  A.  That was C 2(a), three sub-sections up from the one I was talking about on page 72.

  526.  "Description of genetic traits ...."?

  A.  Yes, that is what I am talking about as being vague and qualitative. "Stability of the organism", unless you say we want this measured in a particular way, that is the same. Sub-section (e), "activity of the expressed protein(s)", what sort of answer are they expecting here? If you put it out to 15 competent authorities to look at this, are we not going to get 15 different answers? The whole thing I think is far too qualitative and really pays no attention to where we really are in understanding risk assessment. I think the whole field of risk assessment was clarified greatly by a Royal Society report in 1992, from memory, which is now used for health assessments, where they distinguished in the first part of the report in an engineering sense between hazard and risk. A hazard is something which can go wrong, a risk is a probability of it going wrong. I think what we have got in this document is what I would call a hazard assessment. They talk about things which might go wrong, we do not get anywhere near a risk assessment of how likely they are, let alone what sort of action you should take in the light of this probability. I think there is also a third stage which still does not come through in the ACRE and HSE proceedings, which I think is very important in the field we have here. It comes in the back of the Royal Society report and that is the public perception of risk. Again, if I can go to medicine, if we have two risks of low probabilities, 1:100,000 say, and in medicine this is something you are going to cure, you will say, "I am quite happy to live with that sort of risk, I do not mind it." If you are dealing with food, you may well say, "Despite the fact of it being a very small risk, the after effects are so nasty I do not want to live with it at all." Certainly if we go back to beef, there were some of us in 1988 who said, "Okay, we now know there is a nasty disease coming forward from cows, we have no idea what the probability of ourselves catching it is but we can avoid it by not eating beef, we can eat pork instead." So with food, people are going to insist on a much higher level. The perception of the nastiness of the risk is going to be an important part of the assessment. I think is not at the moment in the ACRE procedures but there have been calls for attention to the social sides of risks and this, I think, is part of that scene.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

  527.  Can I ask one other question in terms of risk assessment and that is, should we have to take into account the reversibility of any change that is being assessed? You talked earlier about the clean-up as a result of monitoring, should it be part of the risk assessment how permanent the hazard would be, were it to happen?

  A.  Yes, though it is difficult. One could distinguish. If you are getting a crop going out which might unexpectedly produce allergenic effects, then you can say, "Okay, we are going to be able to get rid of these effects once we discover them just by stopping growing the crop". Okay, but that is not an environmental effect. I think when we get an environmental effect—with allergenicity the crop might turn out to be allergenic to wild mammals of some sort and you might suddenly find all your foxes or sheep were suffering severely from eating casual amounts, either directly or indirectly—you could then say, "Okay, this crop is having an undesirable effect" and call it back. I think if we are talking about invasion either of the feral crop itself or invasion of the gene into the wild relatives, it is very difficult to know in the early stage how recallable it will be. We talked earlier about the difficulty of eradication, but you can eradicate. You were also asking, and I think I did not really complete the answer, about companies being liable for restitution, and I did have an analogy there—a case which came up again on my local friendly computer. In Australia they grow olives, as it has a suitable Mediterranean climate. They find that olives are escaping into the native Australian vegetation and they do not like it, they want to get rid of them, and they find they can control them in the bush. I do not know how they do it but I presume they cut them down and paint them over with a herbicide, that is how you usually control trees you do not want. But they are having continuing problems because the olive farmers do not really care where they dump their surplus olives and they have a lot of olives dumped on the wayside somewhere, and from these they are getting invasion. They are saying they are having no luck in persuading farmers to use more environmentally friendly ways of disposing of their surplus olives. So if you have a crop that is producing minor environmental problems from escape, then you could insist on certain farming practices and have regulations there, so that the problem was certainly greatly diminished and, with a bit of luck, removed altogether.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  528.  If I could follow that? Bearing in mind again what you were saying to us earlier, clearly the possibility of something going wrong through traditionally modified crops is just as great, from what you were saying, as it is with genetically modified crops. With the traditional system we have had all kinds of problems. Since farming began we have had weeds and animals which have gone wrong but we have found solutions to all that.

  A.  No.

  529.  Why not? We have, because we have been able to succeed and carry on and increase our production, so we must have found solutions. We are all here! We have not had some disaster which wiped us all out. Is there any reason to believe that something that might go wrong as a result of genetic modification is likely to be any more serious and likely to be unable to be coped with than any other problem that the agricultural industry has solved over the last 2,000 years?

  A.  Well, yes. There was an earlier House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology report, I seem to remember, where I answered pretty much the same question saying that I do not think there will be any new problems, and we had a certain amount of excitement because somehow in the record the word "new" got left out. The problems will be of the same sort that we have got now, but that does not mean that they will not be intractable problems because we do now have intractable problems. In the United Kingdom we are really rather fortunate with most of the problems we have. You can say that oil-seed rape in pea crops and these sorts of things are perfectly tractable problems providing you go to some expense. A recent case where agricultural practices have led to a weed problem is weed beet. Weed beet is a variety that had been formed by agricultural practices in the south of France and the north of Italy and you can indeed control weed beet by controlling it with glyphosate, which is why we thought Monsanto was perhaps not following the best course by developing glyphosate-resistant sugar beet because that would make the weed beet problem less tractable but certainly not intractable. To give you a case which is actually intractable in this country but which you do not observe, there is a disease called pine blister disease, if I remember correctly, which attacks certain conifers and particularly five-needled pines. I do not know, Lord Wade, if you know about pine trees but if you take a pine needle off you will find it has got a sort of a sheaf around the base and the normal pines we get in this country have two needles and there are two-needled pines, three-needled pines and five-needled pines. There are almost no native five-needled pines in Europe, although there are plenty of them in North America. There is the Weymouth Pine, after Lord Weymouth who introduced it from North America, which looked as though it was going to a very useful forest tree, a good white wood tree. But this is highly susceptible to pine blister disease and no cure has been found for the disease, so the foresters in fact do not plant this pine now, they plant pines which are not susceptible to the disease. So in a sense that solved the problem but you solved it without curing it, you solved it by side-stepping it. In many cases we will be able to side-step problems but there will be other cases where you cannot side-step problems, you will have an intractable one. To think of cases one has seen pictures of, they are usually ones which are tractable because when the thing has been totally lost you can no longer use it and you do not get pictures of it. I have got pictures of Queensland in the 1920s which was completely smothered in prickly pear, and that was at that point a totally intractable problem, and they lost, being Australia, no doubt millions of acres or hectares through it. That was in fact solved by biological control—they managed to find an insect which would eat up the prickly pear.

  530.  Quite, they found a solution.

  A.  I see no reason why you should not eventually with some of these genetically modified things come across an intractable problem where you will just abandon doing that type of agriculture in that type of way because the problem is impossible. You will use your land for some other purpose.

  531.  That is the solution.

  A.  Yes.

Chairman

  532.  The starting point for these questions was the EC regulatory system. Did you say all you wanted to say as regards your views on the current regulatory system within the Community?

  A.  I think, Chairman, saying how it should be done, re-writing annex 2 and annex 3, is not a thing I would either want to try to discuss with the Committee in the time we have available, or that could be written down. I think it is the sort of thing where I would hope that the people who were discussing this document will bring in people who do understand risk assessment and who do understand ecological risks and get in appropriate experts. It will take them, as indeed Lord Jopling was saying, a couple of years I suspect before they come up with a draft. I was just throwing into the ring the suggestion that they are so hopeless, they should start again from scratch on these two annexes, and see if that persuaded them to call in a useful expert committee to thrash out how it should be done.

Lord Gisborough

  533.  I am not sure you have not answered this just now, but how would you regulate to prevent disasters which may not happen for decades? Do you support a moratorium?

  A.  Two questions there. Let me start on the first one. How do you regulate to prevent disasters? Particularly with invasives, the lessons we get from invasive problems are that they are on the whole unpredictable, they come out of the blue. We have talked about the zebra mussel before where, from what we knew, nothing would happen. It can happen quite quickly as it did with the zebra mussel, or they can happen over very many years. The rhododendron was not a problem for decades, even a century, before people started worrying about it, and it is now quite common. Another case of a well-meaning introduction which is now a problem is the muntjac deer——

  534.  Or the grey squirrel.

  A.  I have quotations in my book where people say muntjac is an entirely harmless thing, and we had the same arguments about grey squirrels. Mammals are easier to think about. I think we may well get disasters which may not happen for decades and the analogy I would draw your attention to there is earthquakes. Earthquakes are very different from genetically modified plants but they are also large-scale, unpleasant and unpredictable, and the Japanese, as I am sure you know, have put in money—I hate to think how many zeros because the yen has quite a lot to start with—into trying to predict earthquakes. As they discovered in Osaka, all their predictions were a waste of money and they got nowhere with them at all. I think it is now generally agreed amongst earth scientists that earthquakes at the moment and for the foreseeable future will be unpredictable, but that does not mean you do not do anything about them. You certainly have building regulations to ensure in zones where you expect an earthquake sometime, but you do not know when, that buildings will not fall down. After every earthquake you will read about building contractors being arrested for not putting up their buildings properly. It is the same I think with genetically modified foods. We may get problems in the future, but I think we can expect most problems will occur rather faster with these agricultural products simply because the thing will be grown on such a large scale that it is likely to produce the products. So I think they are more on the sort of timescale that this document is talking about, seven years. Again, to come back, Lord Reay, to what is wrong with this document, a fixed seven year period, a fixed moratorium of seven years or fixed monitoring or anything fixed for seven years, does not strike me as sensible. There are cases and cases. In some cases you will say, "It is indefinite, so we are going to have to monitor until we are satisfied it is right." In other cases you say, "We do not expect anything, it is a fast reproducing plant, three years will be more than enough, possibly two might do." You have to examine your cases and have your reaction ready. Coming back to an earlier answer to Lord Willoughby de Broke, it was a question of companies taking out insurance for the future, if this comes from something they have produced. This is something like product liability of a sort. They need to be able to bring up enough financial resources to try and rectify it. Does that answer about regulating for disasters?

The moratorium: Lady Young's organisation has called for a moratorium. I had faxed to me on Friday their two-page paper calling for a moratorium, Position Statement on Genetically Modified Organisms from English Nature. They called for a moratorium on the grounds that certain sorts of research should be completed and analysed before we go forward. I also got on Friday from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, a list of current projects they are looking at, and these are all very useful projects and will help us improve our knowledge of risk assessment, but I do not think they are the sort of projects which would justify calling for a moratorium. People always say, "Let's have some more research". We know a lot more now than we did ten years ago, in another five years' time we will know more again. I think the answer is not a moratorium for that sort of problem but a limited licence and, as I suggested for the Novartis corn-borer, they should be given at most a limited licence until they can produce a better product. In general, we need moratoria on things where we see some problems or where consumer confidence is worried. There was a report in Nature where some food company suggested a moratorium might be a desirable thing to improve consumer confidence. I am quite sure that we do need some action at the moment to improve consumer confidence. He suggested a moratorium would do that, I think if we have a moratorium for three years all that will happen is that we will have the same lack of consumer confidence bobbling up in three years' time. I think it will only defer it. I think we do need to take other action to improve consumer confidence and I can suggest ways in which companies could do this. In the case of Novartis, they could say they will replace the corn with one which does not have this antibiotic resistance gene in it and that is a proposal and they would withdraw it from the market. In the case of Monsanto, my no doubt unwelcome advice is that they should stop spending £1 million on advertising and spend it instead on segregating modified soybean from unmodified soybean. It is not that I think myself there is any risk from modified soybean, but I do see that the European consumer is gravely affronted by not having any choice on the supermarket shelves. To improve consumer confidence in that field, you have to restore his choice and no amount of advertising is going to do that.

Chairman

  535.  Presumably, if there was to be a moratorium, there would be no opportunity to have those large scale commercial trials which you consider to be essential to gather the information one should have about the risks these crops may pose to the environment?

  A.  That is correct, Lord Reay. I see a moratorium as merely a way of deferring the problems we have at the moment and we would then have to face them again. I suppose, as we all have a limited lifespan, if we could defer everything for 50 years, it would be somebody else's problem, but I do not think that is the way we should go about public policy. I think if we have a problem we should tackle it rather than try to defer it. So I am sorry to disappoint Lady Young, but I do not support the call for a moratorium. I do understand why it has been called for, and I do think that the public concern/consumer confidence issue is one that does have to be addressed, but I think it should be addressed in other ways.

  536.  Would you perhaps like to say a little more about that? It is only now in our discussion today that we have touched on the question of consumer confidence. I am sure you have given it some thought in view of your belief, as you have stated it to us, in the technology. It plainly must be a concern for you that there is such a lack of consumer confidence in and support for the technology. What measures would you recommend for improving public confidence?

  A.  Again, if I can put in evidence a paper by Burke, who was chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes until a few years ago. He wrote a short article in the British Medical Journal, two sides. I do think we want to look carefully at the regulatory system, we want to make it transparent, which I think is the jargon, to make it publicly accessible. We do also want to make sure that the regulators ask appropriate and sensible questions, that the answers to the questions are out there, that if they have set up a system and some section is not happy with the answer then there should be some sort of appeal procedure where you can go back and have a look at it again. There are all these sorts of issues. It is not my field, my Lord Chairman, but I do think people who are experts in public policy do know how these sort of things should be done. If I am allowed to introduce this from my wife's field, which is consumer confidence in medicine, (she is a patient representative at various of the Royal Colleges), and there there is a question of how you inform the patient of what the risks are of what might be offered to them so they can take a rational judgment. This comes back to the soybean. People are not at all worried about genetically modified tomato paste because there it is on the supermarket shelf and it says, in rather large letters actually, "This is genetically modified paste", and if you say to yourself, "I am not happy with that technology, I do not really trust the scientists, I do not want to buy it", you can buy the tin next door. So for the time being we must ensure there is consumer choice available so that for most consumers who are going to be satisfied that the technology is safe and the regulators have done the right thing, they can go ahead and buy genetically modified food, but they need to know they are buying genetically modified food. For those who, for all sorts of reasons, still have worries, then you are going to have an alternative food. There are problems coming up here. There is the fish gene for cold hardiness which may find itself in crops and I am sure there are going to be people who do not wish to have anything of any animal origin, who are going to object, and they are going to want to have a choice of buying products which have that particular fish gene in. I would say at a straightforward biochemical level that they are misguided, but I can see on an emotional and human level it is their choice and they are perfectly entitled to that view.

Lord Jopling

  537.  I wonder if you could tell us whether you have any misgivings at the news this week that Monsanto has acquired Plant Breeds International, which is formerly, you recall, the old Plant Breeding Institute and the National Seed Development Organisation at Cambridge? Does that worry you in any way?

  A.  Yes, I would say that the activities of Monsanto are worrying quite a lot of people but I do not know that that is a matter for me as a person or for this Committee. People do see a danger in monopolistic activities, I think that is a general worry they have. I think you can say in another field, in computers, there are a lot of people who are very unhappy at Microsoft's behaviour in directing its monopoly, but that does not mean they are not going to go and buy Microsoft goods because they, after all, do the work and there may not be alternatives. I think there is always concern where there is the appearance that a company is going to be putting itself in effectively a monopolistic position. I think there are concerns about that here, voiced by my colleagues in informal discussions about Monsanto, that they do see it driving the field by acquiring a large number of companies. They are also concerned about some developments and the effect on developing countries, they are concerned about developing countries being beholden to companies in developed countries, to multinational companies. These are general concerns, they are not really anything to do with the ecological risks of genetic modification.

Chairman

  538.  Professor, I think that brings us to the end of the questions we wanted to put to you. May I, on behalf of the Committee, thank you very much indeed for having taken so much trouble with your evidence and giving us an exceptionally interesting hour and a half. You have given us any amount of interesting information and argument, you have carried us down fascinating byways with plenty of lateral thinking, and with many interesting and amusing analogies. We really could not be more grateful, thank you very much indeed.

  A.  Thank you very much for inviting me, Lord Reay.

  


 
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