THIRD SPECIAL REPORT
The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following
The Committee has received the following memorandum
from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, constituting
the Government's Reply to the Eighth Report from the Committee
of the 1999-2000 Session, Genetically Modified Organisms and
Seed Segregation, made to the House on 26 July 2000.
* * *
1. The Government welcomes the Committee's report
which provides a useful analysis of the issues raised by the Advanta
rapeseed incident and helps to identify the key lessons that need
to be learned. The Government notes that the Committee intends
to look further into this matter in due course but has made the
following recommendations for action in the short term:
are required for dealing with incidents of this kind. It was obvious
that confusion existed as to which Ministry should lead on the
issue. The lengthy internal debates on the incident contrasts
with the robust, rapid Swedish disclosure in like circumstances.
Planting of the new crop of winter oilseed rape begins in August
and it is essential that farmers are able to plant these crops
with confidence. This means that this year's batch of seed must
be tested and certified as free from GM content. For farmers near
the field trials, it is also vital that they can be sure that
their crops are protected as far as possible from inadvertent
cross-pollination which will require a rapid assessment of the
consultation on segregation distances and an equally rapid implementation
of the advice which emerges as a result. Similarly, preliminary
results from the trials on gene flow should be peer-reviewed as
soon as possible. Seed companies too need urgent regulatory guidance
from the Government, if only in the interim, in order that the
possibility of seeds with GM impurities being planted in the UK
be minimised. The question of liability should be addressed in
this context. Finally, and above all, the newly-established Agriculture
and Environment Biotechnology Commission must be involved in these
processes. These judgements will carry little confidence outside
a narrow scientific community without broader consideration".
Government handling of the incident
2. This was the first time that an unauthorised
GM impurity was found in conventional seed in the UK. As a novel
situation it raised difficult legal and technical issues which
had to be considered very carefully before the appropriate and
proportional course of action could be determined. At the time
the Government was first told of the potential difficulty most
of the basic facts of the incident were uncertain but it was understood
that they were being clarified urgently.
3. As soon as it was clear which GM seed lines
were involved and the likely extent of the problem scientific
advice was sought from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and from
three expert committees; the Advisory Committee on Releases to
the Environment (ACRE), the Advisory Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs
(ACAF) and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes
(ACNFP). The FSA advised that oil from the GM line was as safe
for food use as that obtained from conventional crops. ACAF confirmed
that the GM presence, at the levels reported, did not pose a risk
to humans or animals via use in animal feed. ACRE advised that
risks to human health and the environment posed by the presence
of GM seed were very low, and that there was no evidence that
herbicide-tolerant GM rape is any more persistent, invasive or
otherwise environmentally damaging than conventional oilseed rape
in similar circumstances. The information given to the advisory
committees and their full advice to the Government was published
quickly. In light of advice from these committees, DETR officials,
in consultation with MAFF officials, submitted advice to Mr Meacher
indicating that this was not considered to be a safety issue.
4. Legal advice confirmed that the Government
could not order the affected crops to be destroyed, because there
was no tangible risk, but highlighted the complex way in which
GM legislation and seeds legislation interact.
5. The Committee pointed to the rapid disclosure
of the Advanta matter by the Swedish authorities. The Government
agrees that there are lessons to be learned from the handling
of this incident and that with hindsight certain things should
have been done better, but the comparison with Sweden is inappropriate.
By the time it became apparent that the problem also applied to
Sweden (nearly one month after the UK), the early uncertainties
had been resolved. Looking to the future, the Government is taking
steps to prevent a recurrence of this problem but it will ensure
that appropriate action is taken should a similar incident occur.
This will take account of the experience of the Advanta case.
6. The Government agrees with the Committee on
the need for arrangements to test conventional seed for GM content.
The responsibility for this rests primarily with the seed companies
who have a clear duty of care not to import unauthorised GM seed
varieties. The Government wrote to seed importers in 1997 and
again in June 2000 to emphasise that they are expected to take
all reasonable measures to ensure compliance with EU Directive
90/220 which prohibits the marketing of unauthorised GMOs. These
measures will include seed testing, especially where material
is sourced from countries or areas where GM crops are being grown
commercially on a wide scale. At MAFF's request, the British Society
of Plant Breeders wrote on 24 October 2000 outlining the action
the seed industry had taken to ensure that these obligations are
7. For its part the Government has arranged for
the GM Inspectorate at the Central Science Laboratory (CSL) to
inspect seed importers to audit their operations and verify that
they are taking the action required of them. If CSL believe that
quality assurance procedures are inadequate they will take seed
samples and undertake their own tests for GM content. Should an
unauthorised GM be discovered appropriate enforcement action would
be taken under the provisions of the Environmental Protection
Act 1990. This programme of seed import audits began last summer
and focused initially on the seed for this winter's crop of oilseed
rape. All the major suppliers have been audited and no problems
have been found. The programme will be kept under review in the
light of the expected developments in the legislative rules on
seed purity (covered below).
Segregation (or Separation) Distances
8 Last August the Government published the findings
of the scientific review and public consultation it had commissioned
on separation distances (attached at Annex B [not printed]). Ministers
are presently considering what changes would be appropriate to
separation distances used in future rounds of the farm scale evaluations.
They will make an announcement in due course. Appropriate separation
distances will ensure that any impact on neighbouring farms, through
cross pollination with compatible non-GM crops, is minimised and
high standards of crop purity maintained.
9. The scientific review by the National Institute
for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) raised one point requiring immediate
attention. This was the advice that varietal associations and
partially restored hybrids of oilseed rape are more susceptible
to cross-pollination than ordinary rape and require a greater
segregation distance to achieve the same cross-pollination limit.
In response the Government asked both ACRE and SCIMAC to reflect
urgently on the NIAB findings. ACRE's advice, which has been published,
was that these did not alter its previous opinion on the safety
of releasing GM oilseed rape. SCIMAC voluntarily agreed to apply
an extended segregation distance to reduce cross-pollination of
any neighbouring varietal association rape by the GM rape in the
FSEs sown last autumn, pending further consideration of the issue
10. Preliminary data on gene flow from the FSE
trials will be released as soon as it is available. The data will
be placed on DETR's web site and be open to scrutiny by the scientific
community and other interested parties.
Seed Purity Rules
11. The Government agrees that urgent rules are
needed to deal with the possible adventitious presence of GM impurities
within conventional seed. This was a key part of the action plan
that the Government announced in its initial response to the rapeseed
incident. Because of the nature of the trade in seeds it is essential
that appropriate rules are established on an international basis.
The Government has therefore pressed for action within both the
EU and OECD seeds fora.
12. As the Government informed the Committee
on 10 October, the European Commission published a set of interim
seed purity measures to facilitate harmonised action by EU Member
States on a voluntary basis, pending agreement on legislative
proposals. Under the interim measures a zero threshold is stipulated
for GMOs which do not have a marketing consent under Part C of
Directive 90/220, and a 0.5% threshold for GMOs which have such
an authorisation. This is less than the 1% threshold already approved
for GM material in foodstuffs.
13. The interim measures provide a temporary
framework which helps to control the incidental presence of GM
impurities, protect consumer choice and allow the legitimate trade
in seeds to continue. The Government has made certain that seed
companies understand this situation and is taking appropriate
steps to ensure that the possible occurrence of GM impurities
14. MAFF has emphasised the importance of this
issue to the Commission, and the need to take forward action swiftly.
The Commission has now taken matters a stage further by circulating
a Working Paper (attached at Annex A [not printed]) outlining
possible proposals for the legislative control of adventitious
GM impurities in non-GM seed lots. These can be summarised as
- GM material which is not covered by an EU authorisation
under Part C of Council Directive 90/220 would not be permitted
as an impurity within conventional seed. In other words, a 0%
threshold would apply.
- GM material which is covered by a Part C authorisation
should not exceed a threshold of 0.3% in the case of cross-pollinating
varieties and 0.5% in the case of self-pollinating and vegetatively
- no GM plants of the same, or closely related
species, may have been grown in the land used for seed production
of a non-GM variety for five years in the case of small seeded
legumes (fodder plants), oil and fibre plants, two years for other
- the distances currently applicable to the isolation
of seed crops of conventional cross-pollinating varieties should
be doubled in respect of neighbouring sources of pollen from GM
- all packages of seeds must carry the following
declaration on the required labels: "EU-unauthorised genetically
modified organisms not present".
- packages of seeds of genetically modified varieties
covered by an EU authorisation under Part C of Council Directive
90/220/EEC must carry the following declaration on the
required labels: "genetically modified variety".
- examinations required for compliance would be
carried out either officially or under official supervision but
this would not be necessary if the seeds have been produced in
areas where GM varieties of the same species, or of a closely
related species are not grown.
15. The Commission has made clear, however, that
these represent only working propositions. They have asked the
EU Scientific Committee on Plants for its view of the scientific
validity of their ideas and have also pledged to consult the EU
Standing Committee on Seeds and the EU seed trade organisations
before reaching a final view.
16. MAFF is consulting widely on these outline
proposals. In doing so, it has made clear that it has an open
mind on them and that the Government will not form its opinion
before taking into account all the views that are expressed.
17. The Commission has already held meetings
to discuss sampling and testing methods for the implementation
of GM thresholds, and further meetings are planned. The aim will
be to produce clear and workable protocols for both the industry
and Member States' enforcement agencies.
18. The adoption of new legal standards for GM
presence should provide seed companies and farmers with a clear
framework in which they can operate with a high degree of confidence.
In the longer term, the European Commission has issued a White
Paper on the general issue of environmental liability and has
undertaken to bring forward legislative proposals later this year
which will cover GMOs. The Government recognises that there may
be a case for some form of EU action in this area and has responded
to the Commission's White Paper accordingly. The Government is
examining the current position on liability under domestic legislation
Involvement of the Agriculture and Environment
19. The Government agrees that the AEBC has an
important role to play in bringing a broader perspective to bear
on GM issues, in particular in relation to public acceptability
of the new technology and the interface between scientific opinion
and the public's understanding of a highly technical subject.
This was the impetus behind the Government's decision to establish
the AEBC and is reflected in its terms of reference. In the light
of the rapeseed incident the Government has asked the AEBC to
consider the specific question of gauging public acceptance of
levels of GM impurity. It is hoped that the AEBC will provide
advice on this in due course.
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food