Select Committee on European Communities Seventeenth Report


Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee, to the Rt Hon Michael Meacher MP, Minister for the Environment, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

  This amended proposal was sifted to Sub-Committee D on 4 May, but the Sub-Committee thought it sensible to defer consideration until after the debate on their report on the original proposal (6278/98). Accordingly the Sub-Committee considered the proposal on 9 June, and asked me to write to you raising two points.

  The amended proposal seems to be an improvement on the original, but it is still not clear how any cumulative and indirect effects of GM crops will be taken into account in the EU regulatory framework, as they now are in the UK regulatory framework with the widening of ACRE's remit and the establishment of the advisory commissions on human genetics and agriculture and environment biotechnology. I would be grateful for an explanation of how the EU system will consider these wider issues.

  The Committee would also like to probe the Government further on the use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes, which was raised both in the report and in various speeches—including Lord Reay's—in the debate on 27 May. The Committee recommended that "in view of the fact that alternatives are now available, antibiotic-resistant marker genes should be phased out as swiftly as possible" (paragraph 75). (1) Do the Government agree that alternatives are now available? (2) Given the views of the Chief Medical Officer (as expressed in the report on the health implications of genetically modified foods) did the Government support the European Parliament's proposal to ban the release of GMOs containing antibiotic-resistant genes? (3) Why did the Commission not accept the European Parliament's proposal?

  The scrutiny reserve is maintained pending a reply to this letter and the written replies to questions raised in the debate on 27 May.

10 June 1999

Letter from the Rt Hon Michael Meacher MP, Minister for the Environment, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee

  You wrote on 10 June raising two points on which the Sub-Committee wished further information. I would have liked to have responded before your meeting but unfortunately I only received your letter yesterday evening as it had been wrongly addressed. Please accept my apologies.

  The Government has continued to encourage the German Presidency to seek Common Position on the amendment to the Deliberate Release Directive 90/220/EEC and the amendment is on the agenda for the Environment Council which starts tomorrow.

  The Government submitted Explanatory Memorandum 6378/98 on 23 March 1998 and I appeared with the Minister for Food Safety before the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities on 21 October 1998. The Report of the Select Committee on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture was published on 21 January, and the Government Response was issued two months later. The matter was debated in the House of Lords on 27 May. I understand that Lord Donoughue sent written replies on 16 June to questions raised in the debate, and that copies of these have been placed in the House of Lords library.

  You wished to know how any cumulative and indirect effects of GMOs will be taken into account in the EC regulatory framework. The scope of the risk assessment was amended in the Commission's proposal to take into account direct and indirect, and immediate and delayed effects of GMOs. Annex II which lays down the Principles for the Environmental Risk Assessment has been designed to take into account any potential indirect or cumulative effects of a GMO release since a risk assessment which is carried out on the basis of these principles will take into account, inter alia, any GMOs already in the environment. The Government will fully support text which reinforces consideration of indirect and cumulative effects in the regulatory regime.

  You will be aware that at last December's Environment Council we agreed, in response to public concern, that while the Member States continue to apply the existing Directive 90/220, they will take into account the principles for risk assessment and monitoring resulting from the work already done on the revision of the Directive up till then. We are about to publish guidance on these principles for risk assessment which take account of indirect and cumulative effects.

  Your second question relates to antibiotic resistance marker genes. The Government understands that alternatives to these are still being developed. The Government considers that the amendment proposed by the European Parliament which would seek to prohibit the release of GMOs containing genes resistant to antibiotics in current medical or veterinary use is not workable in its current form. However at the Environment Council, the Government will endeavour to seek support for a proposal to require Member States to identify and phase out antibiotic resistance markers in GM products which may have adverse effects on human health and the environment. I trust that this will meet your concerns.

  The Commision did not incorporate the European Parliament's amendment on antibiotic resistance genes into its amended proposal on the grounds that it would impose a general ban on certain types of GMO while the basis of the Directive is for a comprehensive scientific risk assessment to be carried out case-by-case.

  I regret that the Committee will be unable to consider this response before the Council. However, I hope you will understand that it would not be in the UK's best interests to prevent agreement should Common Position be attainable, given that we expect to have a text which substantially strengthens the environmental protection provisions of the existing directive and that there has been substantial Parliamentary consideration. It would be extremely damaging to the UK were we to be excluded from the qualified majority on a matter subject to co-decision.

23 June 1999

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