Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 603 - 619)

WEDNESDAY 21 OCTOBER 1998

THE RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER MP and MR JEFFREY ROOKER MP

Chairman

  603.  Good morning, Ministers. It is very rare for a Lords Committee to have appearing before it at the same time two Ministers of the Government, but I think on this occasion, in view of the overlapping responsibilities of your two Departments, it is entirely appropriate that this should be the case and I would like to thank you both for having decided to come to help us in our inquiry into genetic modification. I believe that you would both like to start the proceedings by making short statements, so perhaps I can invite you now to do so.
  (Mr Rooker)  Thank you very much, my Lord Chairman. Can I first apologise, by the way, for the absence in the room of my colleague Lord Donoughue, who indicated to me that he would normally have been here, but, as you realise, he is recovering from his recent operation. I just want to make a very brief statement about MAFF's approach to the control of GMOs. Public health and the protection of the environment are this Government's first priority on GMOs. I want to make it absolutely clear that we shall apply all the relevant legislation, that on GM foods and GM crops, where we share responsibility with the Department of Health and DETR respectively, plus that on seeds and pesticides, where MAFF takes the lead, fully and rigorously. Applications relating to GMOs will be dealt with fairly and they will not be given any preferential treatment. We need to recognise, however, that GM crops are now being grown in considerable quantities in other countries and that the UK's policy towards their use, and that of their products, must be based on a clear analysis of the scientific facts so that it is capable of being fully defended in international fora. In addition to the statutory requirements, MAFF has been considering what further safeguards need to be introduced to respond to the concerns that organisations and members of the public have expressed about the possible impact of GM crops when grown commercially. I should add that Ministers are not immune from these concerns. I am aware of concerns that herbicide tolerance, which is one of the main traits being engineered into crops for use in the UK, may cause serious problems as a result of their spreading to neighbouring crops and related wild plants. The best way to avoid such problems is for extra care to be taken when the crops are grown on the farm. MAFF has, therefore, urged the proponents of GM crops to draw up guidelines on their correct use, on proper identification and on full record-keeping. The industry group, known as SCIMAC,[1] dealing with this has made very good progress so far this year which we certainly welcome, but we are pressing them further to implement measures to secure compliance with the guidelines and of course proper sanctions if they are breached and not until we are fully satisfied will MAFF give our endorsement to this approach. It will be an industry code of practice, but once MAFF's imprimatur is on it, I know it will be read as a government code of practice, and we will not approve it until we are fully satisfied. There is also concern about the impact on biodiversity of the herbicides which would be applied to GM crops. The argument is that their use would interrupt the food supply chain for insects, small mammals and birds. There are differing views as to whether there would be environmental advantages or disadvantages in using a single, broad-spectrum herbicide compared with the current practice of using several different products. I have, therefore, asked the Pesticides Safety Directorate to prepare for me a scientific review comparing the likely impact on biodiversity of current and possible future practice. Some people have suggested that the level of herbicide usage on herbicide-tolerant crops will rise, while others have suggested it will fall. In order that we are properly informed on the point, I have also asked that the scientific review should include an analysis of the likely level of herbicide usage. A prior review of this kind should be able to make useful forecasts, but there is no substitute for monitoring the actual usage when the crops are eventually grown. I am asking my officials to discuss with the industry an enhancement of the Pesticide Usage Survey to give us specific information on this point. I am also ensuring that herbicides to be used on GM herbicide-tolerant crops will have to be specifically reassessed for this purpose. Their existing approval will not automatically be transferred to this new use. The assessment will cover their effect on non-target species. Lastly, there is the issue of the long-term safety of the products of these crops when used as foods. All GM foods are rigorously assessed for safety by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, using internationally recognised procedures endorsed by the World Health Organisation, before being allowed on the market; this is not an operation behind closed doors. However, the Government is currently looking into the possibility of going even further by introducing monitoring arrangements capable of picking up any unexpected effects should they emerge in the future and I hope to be able to make an announcement about this very shortly. I hope, Chairman and Committee, that this demonstrates that in MAFF we are not rushing ahead, but thinking ahead on the control of GMOs. Our approach to these matters is of course an integral part of the Government's overall policy towards the use of biotechnology and, therefore, I very much welcome the announcement which is being made this morning as we meet of a new Cabinet committee under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend, Dr Cunningham, to oversee developments in this area. The terms of reference will be to consider issues relating to biotechnology, in particular those arising from the use of genetic modification. This will enable all of us to ensure the Government's policies in this very complex area continue to develop in a fully co-ordinated way. I hope the Committee find that statement of use.
  (Mr Meacher)  Thank you very much, my Lord Chairman. I also would like to say that I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief opening statement to highlight in effect three issues in what is, I think, a pretty fast-moving debate. Firstly, as to the negotiations on the amendment of Directive 90/220/EEC, the UK welcomed the Commission's proposal which we think helps to address some outstanding issues, but we think it can go rather further. Our aim is to strike the right balance between protecting the environment and human health, on the one hand, and, on the other, maintaining the proper degree of certainty needed by business for the development of new products. I think it is right, as my colleague has said, that we should be cautious at this relatively early stage of the large-scale use of the technology in the environment and to make sure that for every product, we have practical evidence on safety before we take a decision on whether to move to commercialisation. For these reasons, the UK is seeking to make sure that the scope of the Directive and of the environmental risk assessment is well defined and broad enough to cover indirect as well as direct effects of GMOs. We want to strengthen the links between this Directive and EC product legislation, such as the Novel Foods Regulation, and we are strongly promoting the introduction of mandatory monitoring of the effects of products in use following market approval. We shall also press for changes to ensure that Member States' views are effectively reflected in any decisions on the marketing of products. I think this is crucial in making the best possible judgment on safety and, not to be underestimated, it will also help the acceptance of the technology. Now, to make the regulatory process predictable, we are looking for sensible, but defined time-frames for each of the steps in the decision-making process. We have also pressed for maximum disclosure of information and supported consideration of ethical issues at the Community level. I think there is considerable support for these ideas and we are hopeful that when the amendment finally comes into force, we shall have an improved regulatory regime, but we certainly must not pin everything on that because it will be a number of years before the amendment is agreed and comes into force. At the same time, we are not despondent; I think there is much that we can do now, even within the framework of the present Directive, and, if I could put it like this, we are trying to exploit every opportunity for improved controls and open debate. Secondly, in addition to the important work on revising the Directive, I have been considering how best to respond to calls from groups, such as English Nature, for a moratorium on the commercial release of certain GM crops and of course to the great public anxiety that undoubtedly exists which surrounds this whole technology. The concerns of English Nature and others centre largely on fears that the widespread planting of GM herbicide-tolerant crops may lead to changes in agricultural practice that will reduce our already declining biodiversity, and I feel strongly that the commercial use of GM crops in agriculture must not put unacceptable pressure on our countryside and our wildlife and prejudice our goal of maintaining and, if possible, wherever possible, enhancing farmland biodiversity. I am, therefore, very pleased to be able to announce this morning that we have reached agreement in principle with the plant breeding industry for a programme of managed development of herbicide-tolerant GM crops whereby the first farm-scale plantings are strictly limited and monitored for ecological effects along with comparable plantings of conventional crops. This process will be underpinned by the strict guidelines for best practice in using GM crops which my colleague, Jeff Rooker, has already referred to. The results of these farm-scale evaluations will be carefully assessed before we move further. I feel it is extremely important that we do not travel further down the road to commercialisation of GM crops before we have this information. If, during this process, we do find evidence of harm, then we can take appropriate action. The industry has also made the important commitment that no insect-resistant GM crops will be introduced into the UK for the next three years. The concept of managed development, I believe, provides a precautionary way forward to investigate in a proper scientific framework the concerns that some GM crops might be harmful to the environment. Thirdly and briefly, my Lord Chairman, I also welcome the announcement that Jeff Rooker has referred to of a new Cabinet committee today. I am acutely aware of the public unease over genetic modification and the widely-held belief that these concerns are not being heard or addressed by the Government, however inaccurate that actually is. In my own area of responsibility, I am also aware of the need to look at developments on a generic level in order to take a more strategic approach and ensure that the wider issues are addressed properly. Many on both sides of the debate have proposed an environmental stakeholders' forum to discuss and advise on environmental issues raised by biotechnology. Such a forum might include representatives of everyone with an interest, such as farmers, plant breeders, conservation bodies and public interest groups. This group would work in parallel with ACRE, which would remain a scientifically-based committee, considering applications to release or market genetically-modified plants and other organisms on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, my Lord Chairman, I would be happy to elaborate on any or all of these issues in response to your questions. Thank you very much.

Chairman:  Those were two statements of considerable significance and I would like to thank you both for having shown us the courtesy of first making them in this Committee. They raise several matters that we would like to pursue further in our questions.

Lord Gallacher

  604.  Ministers, do you consider that the technology of genetic modification holds potential net benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment and that, with appropriate safeguards, it should be allowed to proceed?
  (Mr Meacher)  As I indicated, we do believe it is right to proceed, but certainly with caution because there is a great deal of uncertainty about GM crops, particularly, as we have indicated, about indirect and cumulative effects on the environment and biodiversity and, for example, in regard to the transgenic outcrossing to related species. Now, as I have said, our own statutory conservation adviser, English Nature, has called for a three to five-year moratorium on the introduction into commercial agriculture of herbicide-tolerant crops and insect-resistant GM crops. Now, this, as I said, is because of their concern about changes in agricultural practice which could arise and the possible knock-on effects of what I think we are all concerned about, the dramatic decline in farmland wildlife. English Nature has been joined in this by a number of other organisations, mainly in the NGO community. Now, we do believe that there is the need for a further breathing space to allow additional systematic research to be undertaken in controlled conditions and it is for those reasons that I have been very pleased to announce that we have reached this agreement in principle both with English Nature and with the plant breeding industry to shift from the current field trials on a very small scale, like we have at the moment, to farm-scale plantings under carefully controlled conditions, and I underline those words, underpinned by the strict guidelines for best practice use of GM crops which have been developed by SCIMAC which we attach great importance to, the industry body of course representing farmers, the seed trade and the biotech companies, because it is only, in our view, on this basis that further research data which we believe is required, and I think that is widely accepted, can then be systematically compiled. Of course we have at the moment not any commercial growing of GM crops and we believe that this wider testing or, the phrase which I used which I think is a good one, managed development must now be completed before we are in a position, as I say, to reach a decision on whether or not to proceed to commercial planting in this country. So the answer to your question, rather a long one, is yes, we do think that there is merit in proceeding further, but on a larger scale with very careful control of the conditions in which this is undertaken before we reach a final decision.
  (Mr Rooker)  I wonder if I could just add a point about the consumer on that because I think there are potential net benefits to the consumer and the Government's first priority is the protection of the consumer in relation to health in respect of food, and of course the environment, as Michael Meacher has made clear. From the industry's point of view, to make sure the consumers see there is a net benefit, they will have themselves to convince consumers that there is a net benefit for consumers as well as producers. It is not sufficient for the industry to make the point that all the benefits, the ones they emphasise, tend to be for the producers, so the consumers need to know that there are some benefits for themselves, they need to know that the process of control, checking and assessment is open, transparent and as universal as possible, and the consumers need to be given choice. Now, that being so, the net benefits can be put across to the consumers in a much more consumer-friendly way than they have been hitherto put by the industry. It is very early days in this at the moment.

Chairman

  605.  Could I ask a question on the farm-scale plantings, Mr Meacher, which you announced in your statement? My question is, under existing European law, will they count as a trial release or a commercial release? Will they require that there has been permission to release commercially at EU level before they can take place or not? What will happen to the crop after harvesting? May it be sold?
  (Mr Meacher)  They will be covered of course by the current 90/220 Directive and because the completion of the amendment of that Directive is going to take some time, they would then be regarded as trial, not commercial, plantings.[2] An awful lot does depend of course on the SCIMAC code which has been developed and I think we have reason to be confident in it. I know a great deal of negotiation has gone into this. It is finalising a code of practice and guidelines for newly-developed herbicide-tolerant crops. That will provide for what we are now envisaging, a framework for monitoring and control at and between each stage of the primary supply chain and a series of formal obligations subject to independent audit stretching from the initial supply right through to final sale and despatch of the harvested crops and specifying detailed on-farm management techniques and guidelines to ensure best practice, as we have been saying, in the best use of these crops. That includes, and perhaps I could just spell it out because I do think it is very important in terms of public confidence to understand the depth and comprehensiveness of what we are now proposing, that includes the separation distances between GM and non-GM crops as they are growing in the field, the segregation of GM and non-GM crops in cultivation, in harvest and through the whole supply chain, the full labelling of harvested crops, on-farm inspection by the British Society of Plant Breeders as well as independent auditors, and the monitoring and strict control of follow-on crops. We believe that that is a very comprehensive and detailed framework in which we have confidence and we believe the public should have confidence.

Lord Grantchester

  606.  If I can ask a supplementary at this early stage, we have heard recently, especially in relation to BSE, that Ministers make decisions to proceed only according to the best scientific advice available. Could you please confirm or comment on how far this may apply to GM foods?
  (Mr Meacher)  Well, obviously Ministers can only take decisions on the basis of the best scientific evidence available. There is no other alternative way to proceed and obviously that is how we shall proceed and it certainly applies in the case of GM crops, and of course we are taking account not only of an ongoing programme of research, which is very substantial, in this country, but also of research which is being undertaken elsewhere. We are keeping a careful monitor of all of that work and we will of course look to any new and, at this stage, unpredicted research findings in terms of deciding whether any decisions that we have taken do need to be modified.
  (Mr Rooker)  If I may say, that is one of the reasons for the setting up of the Cabinet sub-committee so that we have got real, joined-up government on this issue because it covers at least four different departments in addition to the ones I have mentioned this morning. Naturally, the best scientific advice, and I attended a meeting of the Tyndall Forum last night with 100 scientists discussing GMs and they did not all agree with each other, and I fully accept that, but one does not expect that, but as long as the advice is from a broad spectrum and we are open and transparent about it so that we can receive, if you like, contradictory advice, that we can debate the issues in the international fora as well, this is not an issue, like I think when you started your question, where it has been done behind closed doors, but we have been very open and transparent about this, so there will be no argument about people with alternative views not being able to put them and having them widely known to Ministers.

Lord Tordoff

  607.  I would just like to follow that up because the Select Committee has had problems in the past with Directives coming from Brussels which have been based on very poor scientific evidence. The Bathing Water Directive and the Drinking Water Directive came in for considerable criticism from Sub-Committee C in the shape of Lord Lewis of Newnham who is a past President of the Royal Society of Chemistry and ought to be listened to. I want to test how robust you think your own advisory committees are in the advice that they supply to you and whether there are any gaps that need to be sorted out.
  (Mr Meacher)  Well, since, I think it is, February 1993, ACRE, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, has been offering us, as you know, expert advice on more than 160 applications to release GMOs. I believe that that work has been rigorously undertaken. I am aware, though, and perhaps this is what you are referring to, that there is criticism that ACRE's remit has been too narrow. Indeed, I believe that that is the case. Under the current regulatory framework, ACRE offers advice on the direct impact of GMOs on both the environment and on human health and there are many people who argue, and I think we are sympathetic to this view, that the indirect impact of GMOs should also be considered, for example, changes in agricultural practice and the subsequent effects on biodiversity, and it is because I am sympathetic to that that we are looking to extend the remit of ACRE. For example, I would propose that additional specialisms or expertise be added in terms of agronomic practice, ecology and farmland diversity. Those are criticisms, I have to say, not of the Committee, as such, but of the framework in which it has hitherto acted. We would like to extend that; we believe that that is what the public wishes and we believe that there is a good argument for doing that.
  (Mr Rooker)  May I just say on the food side because the advisory committees work both ways that the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, and I understand earlier on you took evidence from Professor Burke, the former Chairman of that Committee, and I think later you will be seeing Dr Bainbridge, the present Chairman of the Committee, that is an expert scientific committee that has got a very wide remit. It publishes its agenda, its minutes and it has had at least one open meeting on discussing the monitoring, how we can set up monitoring long term once these foods are in the food chain on a large scale. Of course we have the advantage in MAFF, unlike in DETR at the present time, of having the Food Advisory Committee which is not a scientific committee, but which has a very wide remit also to take advice from the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods, so there is a second overarching look at the issue. There is cross-membership of the committees and, with ACRE and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods, there is the Committee on Toxicity and the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food Policy. So far as MAFF is concerned, we have consumer representatives on them all and the Novel Foods Committee also has an ethicist, a specialist, and always has had of course. Therefore, I am confident that that side of the operation as far as the food end of the chain is concerned is fairly robust and even more so now because of the announcement about the Whitehall side of it as well.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  608.  Good morning, Ministers. I would like to turn to the question of what measures you are considering to deal with the possible, but not altogether proven, as you have admitted in your opening remarks, indirect and cumulative environmental effects which are at present not covered by the risk assessment process. You have since, Minister, reported in your opening statement that you might consider a stakeholders' forum which may be part of this process. The Royal Society also produced a statement recently which, though supporting the development of the technology, felt that there is a need for an overarching authority, as they described it. I would just like to press you a bit further on how such an organisation might actually work in practice.
  (Mr Meacher)  We are seeking to include consideration of indirect and cumulative effects in the drafting of the new Directive. It is of course the case that in the present Directive, 90/220, there are no details with regard to the approach to risk assessment, so we do welcome the annex on risk assessment which is included in the new Directive. It is, however, fair to say that cumulative effects are already addressed in the current regime because subsequent applications for similar products would take account of those products which are already used, for example, herbicide-tolerant crops, but we do believe, and I take your point, that this should be made more explicit in the new Directive and that is certainly the line we are taking in the working group in Brussels. Now, you mentioned whether there should be an additional advisory committee. We have given a good deal of thought to that and we do think that there could well be merit in that idea. I do think it is right that ACRE should remain an explicitly scientific and technical committee, whilst extending its remit in the way I have indicated, for example, by bringing in additional ecologists, but we would envisage and, as I say, there has been a lot of pressure from both sides of the argument to do this, but we would envisage an additional committee would include representatives of all stakeholders, and one is thinking of farmers, of the plant breeders, the conservation bodies and other public interest bodies, like the NGOs, and I think it has the very substantial benefit that it would engage in a public debate in a way that we have not done up to the present time. One of the factors I do find galling in government is that there has been a great deal of activity on this issue going on behind the scenes and it has not, I think, up to now been sufficiently understood and the more that that can be put in the public domain and that this can become a debate between the protagonists on both sides, I think the more confidence the public will have in the conclusions we reach, so I do think there is considerable merit and we are looking to proceed with the idea.

Chairman

  609.  So this would be a parallel committee rather than an overarching committee?
  (Mr Meacher)  It would indeed be a parallel committee. When you talk about an overarching committee, and this is another matter we are giving thought to, in the National Biotechnology Conference, which took place in March of last year, one of the recommendations arising from that conference of again a range of experts on all sides of the argument was that we needed what I think they called a "Warnock-style" commission to examine the ethical issues that arise from the advances in the technology. That is again something that we are examining and of course there is a proposal in the amended Directive that equally there should be committees to whom ethical questions should be addressed.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  610.  Will the responsibility continue to lie with the existing Committees strengthened, with the new forum as an advisory forum looking at wider issues? Or would the responsibility for release be moved to a wider-based committee, or is this something that still needs to be decided?
  (Mr Meacher)  These committees are not hierarchical in the sense one is more important than the other; they have different functions and there would, therefore, still be the requirement for ACRE to undertake systematic scientific and technical assessment both in terms of human health and in terms of the impact on the environment, and the Government will not proceed unless such a positive assessment is made. However, quite separate from that, I think the broader issues as we move, as I say, through this process of managed development do need to be brought out in the public domain and I think that is probably the single most important missing dimension in the debate which we have had so far, and we look to bringing public opinion along. Whatever the conclusions are, the gap between public opinion and what many of the experts in industry are saying is now very large and that has got to be closed and that is what we look to this Committee to help us with.

Lord Rathcavan

  611.  Ministers, you have both referred to monitoring. Could you perhaps elaborate on how monitoring responsibilities might be allocated, particularly on commercial releases?
  (Mr Rooker)  Well, on commercial releases, I think it would be best if Michael[3] deals with that. I was referring to the food in the food chain because there has to be monitoring there, in my view. I have made it quite clear from my early days that I would not be comfortable with this new technology even though an open, rigorous assessment and approval of the products as safe for people to eat as consumers as required by the law had been fully gone through if we simply regulated, assessed them, approved them and then walked away and never did any checking, and I said in the early days that I want to have some system, difficult though it may be to construct, so that we have long-term monitoring of the use and the production and the consumption of these foods. Now, the human diet of course is extremely varied, as all the vast reports show and as we know from our own personal experience, and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods addressed this earlier in the year and held an open meeting as to how such a monitoring and long-term surveillance programme could be constructed. They are due to repeat that hopefully before the end of the year. There is a lot of work being done and we are talking to the supermarkets, we are talking to the people who know. I do not know the details because it is early days for it to come to Ministers, but, for example, the big supermarkets, they know what everyone buys because they flooded the country with their loyalty cards. People may not think they are buying their points, but the supermarkets are buying information about what people buy. Now, we have to find avenues through health, surveillance and all other possibilities, and we are looking for anything that is unexpected and because you are looking for the unexpected, you have got to operate on a fairly wide, multi-faceted basis, if you like, without of course forcibly taking samples from people to do surveillance. This is something that the Advisory Committee is looking at with outside advisers and having open discussions about so that we can have comfort to give both to Ministers and consumers that the Government is looking at this on a continuous basis, not simply approving the products and then walking away from it. They have to know. People might argue about the nanny state, but people want the comfort of knowing that the Government and the regulatory authorities are looking at this on a long-term basis.
  (Mr Meacher)  Can I just add to that because we are working in tandem and there is another aspect of this. I think monitoring is an extremely important advance on the present position. The current Directive does not require monitoring after a marketing consent has been issued, but the new proposal in the Directive is to require notifiers to supply a detailed monitoring plan and we believe that however detailed this is as regards scientific evidence that there are no adverse effects of a product, we still need to carry out actual field observations in order to confirm that that is actually the case and there should also be means whereby any unexpected adverse effects, to which Jeff was referring, are fed back both to the consent holder and to the competent authority. We think that that is enforceable because monitoring will be a statutory requirement and we can, therefore, enforce it by requiring regular reports of outcome monitoring and after there has been independent scrutiny of those reports, then the competent authority can make its own decision about whether the monitoring does need to be improved, whether particular observations do need to be followed up if something unpredictable has been found, or whether the conditions of consent do need to be amended, and of course we can also enforce it, we can enforce the conditions of the marketing consent through the work of HSE inspectors. So the Government does support the amended Directive to incorporate the requirements for monitoring commercial releases and these would have to be set out with each marketing consent and enforced by the relevant competent authority.

Lord Grantchester

  612.  I have heard it commented that the farmer is the best person to do this post-release monitoring and others have said that no, it is the biotechnology companies that should do the monitoring. Can you make some comments as to who you think is the best person not only to get accurate results, but that the public will have confidence in?
  (Mr Meacher)  Of course that is absolutely correct in that one is the cost of it and second is the public confidence in the results. In terms of cost, we think the financial responsibility for monitoring should lie with the consent applicant or the consent holder. It is then up to that person to decide whether to do it themselves or through some independent organisation, but, to take up the point that you are making, we envisage reviewing the proposed monitoring during the approval process to ensure that the methodology is adequate before a consent is granted, so whatever the person decides as the means of monitoring, he would have to get approval of that methodology before the consent is granted.

Lord Jopling

  613.  Can I begin, Ministers, by saying that I very much welcome the announcements you have made this morning which recognise that there is a need to restore public confidence on these matters and that you have between you, as I understand it, a general uneasiness about the regulatory situation as it is now and one which, I must say, I share. I wonder if you would be good enough just to summarise what is being proposed. You have mentioned the Cabinet committee and you have mentioned a possible environmental stakeholders' forum to discuss and advise on environmental issues raised by biotechnology. This would involve farmers, plant breeders, conservation bodies and public interest groups. I wonder if that is quite the same thing as the proposal which was put out recently by the Royal Society that "In addition, an overarching body or super-regulator should be commissioned by the Government to span departmental responsibility and have an ongoing role to monitor the wider issues associated with the development of GM plants". That seems to me to be a different matter from any environmental stakeholders' forum. I wonder if you could explain how you react to the Royal Society's proposal, especially as at the end of the paragraph in their statement, they say, "In addition, the new Food Standards Agency might have a role to play". I wonder if you could at this point tell us as much as you can about what is going to happen with regard to a Food Standards Agency, particularly as, as the Royal Society said, it could have a role.
  (Mr Meacher)  Well, could I start and then I am sure that Jeff will deal with the Food Standards Agency. I think we have a lot of sympathy with what is being proposed, that we do need some kind of overarching body which can monitor and control the technology to ensure that there is no damage to public health or the environment, and that is the overriding aim. Now, it is perfectly true that the stakeholders' forum, as has been proposed, did not meet that requirement. What I would say, though, is that the combination of all the measures that we are proposing does, I think, fully meet what the Royal Society is suggesting and let me take them in order. First of all, there is the Cabinet sub-committee which embraces all the departments who have a prime interest and, in no particular order, they are MAFF, DETR, Health and DTI as well as of course the Government's Chief Scientist and of course the territorial departments, and it is going to have a very wide spectrum of interest in ensuring co-ordination within government. Secondly, we are proposing to extend the remit of ACRE to take account, as I say, of wider ecological concerns which are not covered at the present time and that when we have had the opportunity next June because, by chance, there is going to have to be under Nolan Rules a major change in membership, we will ensure that those wider interests are brought in. Thirdly, there is the stakeholders' forum idea, if we proceed with that, which is designed to open the debate, which has, I think regrettably, up to now been too much behind closed doors, and to make sure that it is as transparent and as open as possible. Fourthly, and this is a matter on which we have not yet reached a decision, but we are certainly looking at what has been recommended to us by the National Biotechnology Conference, there is this "Warnock-style" commission, and I have always had great admiration, may I say, for Baroness Warnock and what she did in embryology and we are looking for that similar kind of body which is both learned and prestigious and takes a view that the public, I think, would have confidence in of the relationship between ethics and the rapid movement of science and technology in this area. When I add to that that SCIMAC is now bringing industry alongside what the Government is seeking, namely a slowing down of the process towards commercialisation until much fuller information is available, particularly on the environmental effects, I do think that the Royal Society ought to be, in my view, pretty satisfied because I think what they are seeking to do is now fully met by this range of different bodies and different remits.
  (Mr Rooker)  If I can just add to that, first of all, I have to say that I found the Royal Society document extremely useful recess reading and I make no bones about that and I think in due course, more particularly after today, it deserves and will receive a government response because it made very useful suggestions which I think do deserve serious consideration. I think by what we have said this morning, it will be seen that the Government in various guises has taken on board many of the points that have been raised, but it does deserve a response. So far as the Food Standards Agency is concerned, I want to make it absolutely clear that in due course the Agency will in fact become the UK competent authority for assessing the novel food applications under the Novel Foods Regulations. In other words, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and the Food Advisory Committee will report to the Agency, not to MAFF, and let us make that absolutely clear. This is a serious organisation that is contemplated and, contrary to some of the fabrications in the weekend press, it remains a Government commitment. Nevertheless, in preparation for the Agency, we have made considerable changes within MAFF and in fact in June of last year, 1997, by setting up the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group which is a joint operation of approximately 300 staff, with 250 from MAFF and 50 from the Department of Health, and they are headquarters civil servants dealing with all these issues relating to food safety in its widest sense. They actually answer to one civil servant who happens to be coincidentally a DH civil servant who had been on secondment to MAFF for some time, but a very senior civil servant, and he reports both to myself and to our colleague, Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Public Health, so the embryonic functions of the Agency and the staff are actually in place in many ways. We have proceeded with considerable effort in the early part of this year in terms of the drafting of the legislation and we will consult, as we promised, in due course on the funding of the Agency because we made a specific commitment in the White Paper Force of Change to do that and we are at the final stage, if you like, of discussions in Whitehall on the draft of the consultation paper for that. So the Agency will actually take over many of the functions, the legalistic functions that MAFF currently carries out. It will be open and transparent, the members will be appointed fully and consistently with the Nolan Rules and it will have an educational remit as well in respect of speaking to the consumers and the public in a way that frankly I would not, neither would Michael, have dreamed to say, "I am a Minister; believe me"; it does not work. The very reasons for having the Agency as a Manifesto commitment of the Government remain today as they did then and, as I say, it will become the competent authority in the UK for the Novel Foods Regulations and of course it will have the additional effects of both education and information to consumers.

  614.  It would be helpful if you could give us the timescale for setting up the Food Standards Agency.
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes, I have no doubt it would be!

  615.  Are we talking about this year, next year, some time, maybe——
  (Mr Rooker)  Well, not some time never which is what you were about to say, Lord Jopling. No, it is a Manifesto commitment which will be delivered. As I say, we are not waiting for the Food Standards Agency to be set up. We have made considerable changes both in staff and the way we work and, I might add, the way the advisory committees operate. They all now, every single one, have lay people on them as representatives of consumer/public interests. They publish their agendas, their minutes and the people on the committees are fully entitled to speak to the press and to do interviews. They are committees of independent people, not so much independent committees, and we are encouraging them. I have visited every single one that services MAFF to explain that we want them to be open and transparent in the way they work. We have made a lot of changes in advance because we want the Agency to take over this ethos which is already there. In other words, we are not operating as old MAFF, but new MAFF, if I can put it that way, so that the Agency has that ethos imbued in it as we start. Now, we will be ready to publish draft legislation, which we are committed to doing anyway, and the Cabinet approved this last year, and we will put the draft legislation and the consultation paper on charging through a full parliamentary scrutiny process. We are not publishing the draft legislation as a PR exercise, but it is part of the consultation process. There will be either a joint or a special ad hoc committee set up to take evidence from Ministers, civil servants, outside bodies on the draft Bill and the funding consultation paper. I do not know when it will be published in terms of the draft form, but certainly it will be by the end or around the end of this year, and that will be open and in the public domain. I do not know what is in the Queen's Speech—indeed I only found out the date of the Queen's Speech in The Guardian this morning, so I cannot pre-empt that, I am afraid.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  616.  Segregation—what is your attitude to segregation of GMO products from non-GMO products? Is this something that ought to be left to the market? Is the traceability of GM products either desirable or in fact practicable?
  (Mr Rooker)  I think the answer to all of those is yes. I think there should have been segregation. I do realise that when this team of Ministers came into office in May of last year it was actually too late to do anything about it effectively and we had missed the boat by about 18 months, I understand. I could not believe, given the power of the supermarkets in our food system in this country, that they had not got the clout to demand segregation, but then they all told me, "Well, we are such small players in terms of our American suppliers for soya". Then I discovered the small part of the food industry when I opened the Vegetarian Food Fair and I found small firms who said to me that they had got sources of GM-free soya, for example, and I said, "Well, if you can do it, why can't the big players?" We held a meeting in MAFF earlier this year, January I think it was, when we pulled all these people together from the small specialist food chains to the British Retail Consortium, and we had a debate and we found it very interesting, Ministers and our officials, to listen to these different parts of the industry talk to each other. As a result of that, because our legal powers are very limited, we went away in MAFF and produced for the public and the food industry a list of originally 47 or 48, but it now stands at 59 company suppliers of non-GM soya which we have made available publicly and on the Internet, and we got this through the co-operation of the American Embassy, the Canadian Embassy and I think also the Dutch, and that will help in terms of people accessing non-GM products. So far as the traceability is concerned, I think the technology is such that the laboratories I have visited, both MAFF laboratories and indeed the Laboratory of the Government Chemist which, unlike its name, is a private sector company now, have got the capacity for checking the claims that are made as to whether any of the ingredients are GM or not, and I emphasise "ingredients" rather than production process, and, therefore, the labelling of this, which people might criticise, but in terms of what is in the product they are buying to say whether it does contain or does not contain, needs to be checkable. Traceability throughout the food chain I think is important. I also say, and I say this knowing that I might tread on a few toes because the information I am about to say came to me not in my role as a Minister, but as a member of the public attending a public meeting in the Food Future Roadshow which went around the country recently, that the issue of tolerances of food supplies is very important as to whether a food is up to 1 per cent GM or whether it is totally because it is going to be very difficult in the future with bulk purchase and the transporting of these commodity crops around the world to make a guarantee that it is GM-free. It is going to be very difficult to do that. I was informed, as indeed were another 100 members of the public forum, that one of the big food producers, Nestlé, when supplying to one of the small food producers for its non-GM foods, has a tolerance level of 0.1 per cent to 1 per cent GM in its contract. That was delivered in a public forum and it did not come to me in any papers as a Minister. So saying a product is totally and utterly GM free is extremely difficult. The Americans understand nothing if they do not understand market forces. What they clearly do not understand is the desire of European consumers to know more about the way their food is produced and what is in it. The Americans may not be so concerned about that but European consumers are. I think the commercial pressure that can be put on the suppliers from America is such that in the end we may get a degree of segregation and traceability that they were not prepared to contemplate even 12 months ago. I would encourage consumers and others to apply market forces to segregation because what we are interested in as a government is not to push a particular technology. We do not wish our productive capacity to be damaged by not allowing our industry to participate, but above all we want consumers to be able to have a choice. They cannot really do that if you have got difficulties in the supply chain.

Lord Gisborough

  617.  Do you agree with the Commission that labelling for process is not desirable? Should labelling be required only for the food products of genetic modification, or for all products, for example, fabrics and bio-plastics?
  (Mr Rooker)  On that latter point, I have to say that is not an issue I suspect has been considered in MAFF other than when I saw a sweater that had been knit using the fleece of Dolly the sheep. That was a genetically modified fabric if ever there was one. So far as the labelling of food is concerned, I think at this point in time the emphasis has to be on the ingredients of the food the consumer buys because at the moment it does not include additives and flavourings. We are dealing with that so far as the UK is concerned because we are pressing the Commission to make sure that additives and flavourings that have been genetically modified can be covered in a labelling process. So far as the food production techniques are concerned, I have to say that that goes way beyond genetic modification. If we are to go down the road of labelling food products as to how they have been produced as opposed to what the ingredients are then I say that opens up a whole new ball game that goes way beyond genetic modification. The only issue I can think of which currently operates like this is the beef labelling scheme which is unique to beef and, subject to what those who are signed up to the scheme for their independent accreditation feel, they can issue the sex of the animal, the method of slaughter and that kind of thing as to whether it was religious or otherwise. I cannot see at the moment how I could possibly put a label on a product where refined oils have been borne out of genetic modification but of which there is no genetically modified ingredients. I think that would be very confusing to the consumer. It is still very early days for this new technology and I think it is best to stick to all the ingredients and we do need to cover the flavourings and additives issue as quickly as possible.

Lord Grantchester

  618.  Perhaps I could return to the issue of segregation. If we are going to achieve total segregation it will only be at the cost of duplicate facilities. Bearing in mind the fact that this is highly unlikely to happen, it behoves the EU to set some standards of testing and thresholds which I understand does not happen at the moment. Can you perhaps tell the Committee when or how you think this is going to be approached in the EU, i.e. a policy on testing and thresholds, and how can such a policy not become too burdensome on smaller manufacturers?
  (Mr Rooker)  The Government would be very unwise to set out on any course where it knowingly would damage small manufacturers. On the other hand, if small manufacturers are to enjoy the use of this modern technology, which has only been borne out of incredibly expensive research, the price they have to pay is to fully conform to the regulatory process. I do not think the fact that because a manufacturer is small means they can be accused of opting out of the regulatory process. The issue which I touched on earlier though of tolerances is important both for the small and the big players. This is under active consideration at the moment simply because of the millions of acres that are grown around the world now and it is going up by a very substantial amount and the commodity purchasing of the crops is going to make it extremely difficult, even with the best will in the world, for cleaning out containers and bulk carriers let alone food production lines, which of course is much easier to do. We are discussing our tolerance levels. I do know that durum wheat regulation allows up to three per cent of other wheat in it and that is something that is accepted as the legitimate and it is still classed and no one argues that there is a fiddle going on or anything like that.

  619.  Do you have any timescale as to when there will be a policy and a standard set throughout the EU on this matter?
  (Mr Rooker)  No, I am not able to put a forecast on that. I went as far as I could with Lord Jopling on forecasting dates. It is actively being discussed in Brussels at the present time.


1   Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops. Back

2   The Minister adds: all the proposed farm-scale plantings will be covered by a deliberate release consent under directive 90/220. These will either be for trial releases (directive 90/220, part B) issued by UK Competent Authority or a commercial release (directive 90/220 part C) issued by another EU member state. Back

3   Mr Meacher. Back


 
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