Examination of Witnesses (Questions 152-159)|
TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002
152. Good morning, and welcome. As you will
have seen, we have just been interviewing Professor Grant, and
he gave us some indication of the suggested approach that the
AEBC would be putting to the Department on consultation on GM
crops in the future. He commented that the Government, partly
no doubt because it had previously declared very strong support
for biotechnology in crops, would perhaps not be the best agent
directly to run any consultation exercise; and suggested that
that ought to be carried through an independent process. Is that
a view that you share?
(Mr Meacher) On the question of the public
debate, as you know, the Government asked the AEBC in January
of this year to advise on how and when to promote an effective
public debate about the possible commercialisation of GM crops.
We also asked that advice should cover the whole question of how
to determine public acceptability of GM crops, including the key
issues of cross-pollination thresholds; and, again, the key question
of the thresholds for the GM adventitious presence in conventional
and organic crops. We will be considering the AEBC's advice when
we get it before we decide on the form and scale of the debate.
No decisions have been taken. There is a Cabinet sub-committee
which deals with this, as you know; that has still to meet. Of
course we have not had the AEBC advice but when we do we will
153. As Professor Grant pointed out to us, the
AEBC is laudably open, and much of what this advice will be is
already available in the public domain, although not in perhaps
a coherent report form. You have already said that you do not
believe that the Government should take the lead in instigating
a public debate. Clearly some decisions have already been made.
Perhaps you will share with us where you are taking this now,
because you are quoted in the Today Programme interview
that this debate should be independent of Government?
(Mr Meacher) Yes. There are problems, as I did indicate
in that particular interview, that, despite the fact that Government
ministers make the case as honestly, truthfully and fully as we
can, we are not always believed over GM; and I think the reasons
for that are, that there continues to be a strong polarisation
of views about GM; and if you do put a balanced case, as we try
to, it is simply often dismissed. Secondly, of course, after the
outbreak of BSE and foot and mouth the Government claim that GM
is safe is often not readily believed. It is for those reasons,
I think, that it can be argued that a debate would probably have
greater credibility if it were independent of Government; but
I do say that decisions have not been taken on this; they will
be taken when we are formally given advice by AEBC, and when Ministers
formally meet to decide, and that is not yet.
154. Do you have any idea of a timescale within
which you might make such a decision?
(Mr Meacher) I would expect within the next month
155. I cannot see why the Government is hanging
back. It has been blowing hot and cold since it came in. Ra-ra
a great advance for Britain of scientific importance, and then
you get all the arguments against it. Is Government split on the
(Mr Meacher) There are different views in all sections
of the population, and it will not be surprising that nuances
are quite properly reflected in Government as well as outside.
That is not surprising. The important thing is that ministers
do meet, and of course there are divisions of view on all sorts
of issues; but these are decided within Government in the formal
process, and an agreed view is reached and ministers keep to that;
that is what collective responsibility is all about.
156. At some stage you have to say yes or no,
have you not? It is like the euro, and I will not say the Government
is split on that! We are absolutely united on wait and see, provided
it is all wait and no see! The real issue is whether foods are
safe. Everything has been postponed for the field trials, but
the field trials will not tell us anything very much, apart from
how it spreads and what the problem is with other crops and all
that kind of thing. That is just postponing the issue, is it not?
At some stage you have to come out and say that it is right or
we are going to ban it.
(Mr Meacher) The whole purpose of a public debate
is that there should be an opportunity for a wider discussion
about this. As I did say in the House when I was asked at the
end of last week about this, there has never really been a balanced
public debate in this country because extreme views on both sides
have been very strongly put by their adherents, and the general
public have not really been able to get an oar in.
157. There is an atmosphere of fear about whether
you are going to grow three heads.
(Mr Meacher) First of all, on the question of safety,
the farm-scale evaluation trials are not about safety at all.
As we have said right from the start, they are about the possible
impact on the environment and on wildlife of different forms of
herbicide managementthat is what it is about. They are
not specifically about trans-gene flow, although there is a project
to monitor cross-pollination between GM crops and sexually compatible
plants nearby; but the main thrust is about herbicide management.
It is a limited project, that is perfectly true, but a very important
one, because the issues of safety are dealt with in the detailed
risk assessments which are carried out routinely, every time there
is a GMO release application, by ACRE. Safety is not the issuealthough
I absolutely agree with you that safety remains probably the uppermost
concern in the minds of the public. Many of them confusedly and
wrongly believe that these trials have something to do with safety,
and that we will be making a declaration to say whether they are
safe or not. We are not going to do any such thing at all. We
will be talking about impact on the environment exclusively.
158. There was an anti-intellectual panic, because
we had that tomato paste that Zeneca made, which was on all the
supermarket shelves, which explained what it was about, which
was cheaper than tomato puree but which has now vanished in the
panic. You have lost the opportunity to do things gradually.
(Mr Meacher) I would not say that is true. I would
say that GM food has actually very largely been removed from supermarket
shelves precisely because supermarkets realise that the public,
at the moment, is very anti-pathetic to
159. They just panicked.
(Mr Meacher) Indeed, in the absence of a balanced,
rational, thoughtful debate, one can use those sorts of words.
It is not for lack of trying on the part of the Government, but
it has not been handled in an ideal way. This is a very difficult
issue on which people feel extremely strongly and it is very difficult
to get rational discussion.