Select Committee on European Communities Second Report


15 DECEMBER 1998

By the Select Committee appointed to consider Community proposals, whether in draft or otherwise, to obtain all necessary information about them, and to make reports on those which, in the opinion of the Committee, raise important questions of policy or principle, and on other questions to which the Committee considers that the special attention of the House should be drawn.


6378/98/98 (COM(98) 85)Proposal for a European Parliament and Council Directive amending Directive 90/220/EEC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms


1.  Genetic modification[1] (GM) is a branch of biotechnology. It involves the insertion of genes from one organism into another so as to produce a modified organism[2] (GMO) with different characteristics. Many different plants have been or could potentially be modified to change a wide range of characteristics, from herbicide tolerance and pest resistance to extended ripening or altered nutritional content. Present modifications are but the beginning of what is a technological development of great importance. There has been little progress in the genetic modification of animals[3], but experiments to modify fish for faster growth and tolerance to cold have been successful[4]. The private sector has invested heavily in the technology of genetic modification and five major agro-chemical/seed companies[5] control most of the agricultural applications world-wide.

2.  Genetic modification offers great potential benefits for agriculture, industry, the environment and consumers. As well as benefits, there are serious potential hazards and risks which must be addressed by proper regulation. Since 1990, the European Community (EC) has had in place a regulatory system for the control of GMOs. This consists principally of Directive 90/219/EEC on the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms (the "contained use Directive") and Directive 90/220/EEC on the deliberate release[6] into the environment of genetically modified organisms (the "deliberate release Directive", hereafter referred to as "the Directive")[7]. The European Commission has now proposed amendments to both Directives[8]. This report is concerned with the proposed revision of the deliberate release Directive which will have to be agreed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament under the co-decision procedure[9]. The changes proposed by the Commission have provided us with the opportunity to assess the working of the Community's regulatory system. We have also considered the impact of the process of regulation on Europe's scientific and agricultural competitiveness. Finally, we have considered issues related to public confidence in the technology and its regulation.

Scope of this report

3.  This report examines the regulatory system for the agricultural and food use of genetically modified organisms. Its principal focus is plants and products derived from them because the overwhelming majority of organisms modified using genetic modification have been plants. The technology is not yet sufficiently developed for it to be of commercial use in relation to animals. Additionally, animals would normally be used in containment, not released into the environment, and it is release which is the subject of the Directive. We have concerns about fish, which, in relation to their release, are a special case, and are dealt with in paragraph 156. This report is concerned with issues which arise directly from the use of GMOs and does not attempt to deal with wider concerns raised by the industrialisation of agriculture, though experience of the latter gives useful insights.

4.  We are aware of the investigation into the ethical issues raised by genetically modified crops by a working party of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. We had a valuable meeting with the members of the working party, but we have deliberately limited our inquiry to the efficiency and effectiveness of the EC regulatory structures.

5.  This report does not consider any of the issues relating to the patenting of living systems. Some of the pertinent issues have been addressed in our report on "Patent protection for biotechnological inventions"[10]. We have also not considered the issues surrounding liability either for GM crop failure or for any damage GM crops might cause to the environment or health.

Structure of this report

6.  Part 2 of this report gives a detailed background covering both the technology of genetic modification and the existing regulatory system. If further background is required, the May 1998 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) report on "Genetically modified foods: benefits and risks, regulation and public acceptance" can be recommended. Part 3 contains the views of witnesses, together with the Committee's opinion on the potential benefits that the technology offers and also the potential risks. We consider how the risks can be assessed and managed as well as the questions of public acceptance of the technology and the effects of regulation. The committee's opinions are presented in bold print. A summary of the conclusions is presented in part 4. Appendix 1 contains the membership of Sub-Committee D which conducted this inquiry and Appendix 2 is a list of witnesses, to all of whom we express our gratitude. A glossary is to be found in Appendix 3.

1  Also known as "genetic engineering". Back
2  For the purposes of the EC Directive on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms (Directive 90/220/EEC (OJ L117 (8 May 1990) pp 15-27)), "organism" is defined as any biological entity capable of replication or of transferring genetic material; "genetically modified organism" (GMO) as an organism in which the genetic material (DNA or RNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and / or natural recombination (Article 2). Back
3  Cloning, as with Dolly the sheep, is not strictly genetic modification as no gene has been inserted or altered. Back
4  European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, report on the impact of biotechnology on agriculture, B1. See also the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on behalf of the Scottish Office, pp 350-1. See also paragraph Fish are being modified for rapid growth and cold tolerance and further modifications are in development. Once released, it would be impossible to recapture a fish or to control its breeding (unless sterile). Fish do not respect national boundaries and we would be very concerned if sea or river releases were to take place here or abroad. We strongly recommend that there be an international agreement prohibiting such actions. Any trials or commercialisation must be in containment and not released into the sea or freshwater network. Back
5  AgrEvo, Dupont, Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca (Q 627). Back
6  Article 2 of Directive 90/220/EEC defines "deliberate release" as "any intentional introduction into the environment of a GMO . . . without provisions for containment such as physical [and/or] chemical . . . or biological barriers used to limit their contact with the general population and the environment". Crops are thus released when planted in the open.  Back
7  Both Directives were set out in OJ L117, 8 May 1990. They were due to be implemented in Member States by 23 October 1991. The text of the revision of 90/220/EEC proposed by the Commission was published on 26 February 1998. Any revision is not expected to be adopted until late 2000. Back
8   A revised contained use Directive was adopted by the Council of Ministers on 5 December 1998 (OJ L330, 5.12.98, p.1).  Back
9  The Environment Committee of the European Parliament has yet to report on the proposed revision of the Directive, but has received a report from a consultant (Dr von Schomberg, "An appraisal of the working in practice of Directive 90/220/EEC on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms" Final Study, European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment, (STOA), January 1998, PE 166.953/Final. (For Dr von Schomberg's evidence, see pp 401-2.)) The committee had not reported when this report was ordered to be printed. The Economic and Social Committee of the European Community has volunteered an opinion on the role of GM within agriculture ("Genetically modified organisms in agriculture - impact on the Common Agricultural Policy", July 1998) and has also produced a report on the revision of the Directive (CES 1117/98, 9-10 September 1998). Back
10  European Communities Committee, 4th Report (1993-94), HL 28. Back

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