Examination of Witness (Questions 140-151)|
TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002
140. So they are alright for the moment but
you do not know whether they will or will not be if we get to
(Professor Grant) No, I think that commercialisation
involves a series of choices. Should there be commercialisation
then those choices are around the question of management, and
management includes the separation distance question. The critical
issue is the issue of coexistence of different farming types in
141. If there is any debate at all then much
of that debate is focussed around that in rural areas where they
are close to crop trials. Just briefly on English Nature's claim
that "the SCIMAC code is probably inadequate to prevent gene
stacking happening in Britain", do you have a view on English
(Professor Grant) No, that report came out more recently
than the publication of our report. We have taken it into account,
but just noted it, in fact, in a recently published horizon scanning
report. It is a technical question which ACRE, I know, have already
142. You set out, very laudably, the extremely
open way in which AEBC have conducted its affairs. One of the
criticisms of the farm-scale evaluations has been the secretive
(in the view of the critics) way in which those have been carried
out. Indeed, you yourself made remarks about the understandable
commercial sensitivity of some of the work. Do you feel that that
process is consistent with the openness of debate that has been
(Professor Grant) The secrecy of which we were critical
was that which was widely reported to us around some of the early
farm-scale evaluations. We heard at some of public evidence-taking
sessions, particularly in Norwich, quite profound and serious
criticisms of the way in which the local communities felt that
these farm-scale evaluations had been rather sprung on them out
of the blue; and that they were given far too short a period in
which to express their views. Also our sub-group, which prepared
this report, visited the Munlochy site in Black Isle and heard
from people concerned and other local community groups about their
worries, about the shortness of the consultation period and the
secrecy of the process, so we have reported that.
143. Do you think the latest batch of sites
chosen pass that test in terms of the process of notification
(Professor Grant) Certainly there seems to have been
a distinct improvement. We recommended certain steps to the Government
in Crops on Trial and, so far as I am aware, they have
been observed and there seems to be less concern.
144. References in the Crops on Trial
report particularly to unfortunate sites are a matter of history
now, and there is no continuation of sites that clearly cause
conflict to arise?
(Professor Grant) There are no simple sites; but I
think that you are correct to conclude that our criticisms are
historical rather than current.
145. Finally, and you delicately touched on
this, the range of different bodies that advise in this area is
large. To the untrained eye the picture might appear extremely
confusing. Do you feel that there needs to be any clarification
of the role of your Commission based on the experience you have
(Professor Grant) No, I think not. It is a very heavily
populated regulatory landscape. What we have done, very carefully
right from the beginning, is make sure we did not get wires crossed.
In other words, we coordinated our activities quite closely with
the Human Genetics Commission and with the Food Standards Agency.
We found very little overlap with the Human Genetics Commission;
potentially quite a lot with the Food Standards Agency, because
people in their minds do not have clear distinctions between food
safety and crop management. Through open discussions with Sir
John Krebs and myself, and also liaising at a secretariat level,
we have been quite successful at keeping the balance. We have
also maintained open discussions with the other regulatory bodies,
with ACRE, ACNFP and the Animal Procedures Committee and the Advisory
Committee on Pesticides, just to make sure that they know what
we are doing; we know what they are doing; there is no competition
and there is no conflict. Our terms of reference are deliberately
broad. Ministers do not tell us what to do. We define our own
work plan. We submitted that work plan in 2000; it was approved
by ministers; and we have now just published a new work plan based
on an horizon scanning study we undertook, and that is after consultation.
Subject to approval by ministers it will set out the programme
of work for the Commission over the next two years.
146. Can I take you through a scenario based
on this complex area of a number of different bodiesI am
not sure whether you call yourself a regulatory body?
(Professor Grant) No, we are an advisory body.
147. Purely advisory?
(Professor Grant) Yes.
148. Let us say for the sake of argument that
one of the bodies says that the 1 per cent tolerance level is
too high and unacceptable. If we are talking about GM-free we
should mean GM-free. How would you handle that in terms of the
AEBC? You may actually make that proposal, but I want to tease
out what the relationship is with all these bodies. I can quote
four bodies and you have got six sub-committees, and you might
want to say what they do and who they report to?
(Professor Grant) I think on the question you have
put to me it would depend very much on what body it was. If it
was a regulatory body then it has full sovereignty to decide what
it wants within its legal framework. If it has that responsibility
and makes that decision it is a matter for it. However, that has
been the one decision that governments across Europe have shrunk
away from making. We have that, of course, in relation to the
labelling of foods; but what we do not have is it in relation
to crop management. That is one of the reasons why you have an
AEBC to give strategic advice to Government as to how it handles
decision-making, as opposed to itself taking regulatory decisions
which we have no capacity to do.
149. The six sub-groups, can you give us a feel
for what they are doing?
(Professor Grant) Do you mean the six sub-groups of
150. Yes. Do they draw from the other bodies
at all, or are they self-contained and merely report to the AEBC?
(Professor Grant) Every report is a report of the
Commission as a whole. The sub-groups do the preliminary work.
The range of work they are currently engaged on is a major report
which we hope will be published in the summer on animals and biotechnology,
because we quite quickly came to the view that animals were the
new crops; there were as likely to be polarised and difficult
issues arising as biotechnology in relation to animals becoming
more widely applied. We have, and hope to publish by the end of
the year, a developing report on liability. Liability issues are
quite fundamental to the management of GM crops. If, for example,
an organic farmer faces decertification of a crop as a result
of contamination from a GM crop, who is liable and for what, and
for how much? That group is now well underway in its investigation
of liability principles. We also have a group working on consumer
choice which will report next year. What we have proposed in our
recent work plan is that we should take up some of the following
themes: first, an exploration of the balance between public and
private research in relation to biotechnology, which you will
find outlined in Crops on Trial; secondly, and we think
an extremely important subject, on environmental footprints. What
are the differences between different approaches to crop management;
because we should not be looking at GM crops as if there were
no other management techniques in existenceof course there
are. What is necessary is a comparative view of environmental
differences. We have another proposal for a review of competitiveness,
by which we mean competitiveness of British agriculture in an
international market and the role of biotechnology in that forum.
Finally, a study of trans-boundary issues and impacts in other
countries. We all understand the problems of adventitious contamination,
and the recent Mexican land race example is an interesting one.
However meticulous we may be about preserving separation distances
in this country, adventitious contamination, in a changing world
market, is going to become an increasing problem.
151. You certainly have a number of highly controversial
issues still to tackle, and one cannot see an end to the work
of your Commission; so you have clearly volunteered a significant
proportion of your life for this activity. Obviously your advice
to the Secretary of State will indicate that this Committee will
have plenty of work to do in the future in monitoring the process
of that debate and its outcome. Thank you very much for coming
this morning; it has been extremely informative. I am sure we
will see you again.
(Professor Grant) Thank you very much,
Mr Chairman. I would just say, the work of the last two years
has not been easy. You and your predecessors on this Committee
accurately forecast that it was going to be difficult. I would
like, however, publicly to commend the time, work and the expertise
that my members have brought to this task, for which I am extremely
grateful. I hope that the Government may, in due course, be grateful