Examination of witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 13 MAY 1998
1. Good morning, Professor Beringer. Thank
you very much for coming to give evidence to us. As this is the
first public session of this enquiry I should like to precede
my remarks on the subject by declaring a farming interest, largely
as a grassland farmer, but I might conceivably one day have an
interest in genetically modified crops although I am not aware
of it today. Could I perhaps ask you, Professor Beringer, to introduce
yourself and explain the role that you play in the regulation
of genetic modification in agriculture
(Professor Beringer) Good morning, my Lord Chairman.
I am the Dean of Science at the University of Bristol. I have
been Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment
and the Committees that preceded it for about 11 years now. My
involvement in this area started about 15 years ago, when I tried
to interest the Ministry of Agriculture in setting up some form
of system to look at the release of genetically modified organisms;
so I have been involved right from the very beginning before things
were even released. I have also worked during this time, on a
consultancy basis and otherwise, with the European Commission,
the OECD, the UN, the USDA and various countries around the world
in developing thoughts about regulations and guidelines. My actual
role, I believe, is to ensure that the best quality advice is
provided to make assessments of the risks of releasing genetically
modified organisms; and also that the Department of the Environment,
Transport and the Regions provides good quality advice and guidelines
to people who wish to make releases, so they prepare what they
are going to do sensibly.
Chairman] Thank you.
2. Professor Beringer, the Sub-Committee
was told that no field trial experiment notification has ever
been turned down. Could you explain the procedure which ensures
minimal risk, but which appears to accept every application to
release a modified crop.
A. We assess
the probability that harm will arise from a release. Always you
can control the harm that will arise by the way you manage a release.
If you fence an animal in you can prevent it straying. If you
stop crops from forming flowers they cannot transfer pollen to
other crops. So the basic system is to look at the possible harm
that could arise from a release; to look at the way it is being
managed to ensure that harm does not occur. If it does not look
as if it will be safe, we ask for more information or a strengthening
of the management. If we were to believe that someone was not
competent to manage the risk, then we would certainly prevent
it happening. There have been two cases where we have not given
approval. One was for a non-indigenous insect and the other was
for a genetically modified insect, where we just did not see that
the applicant was going to be able to overcome the problems.
3. Are the possible risks that you referred
to in the public domain? Are they known?
A. The possible
risks would not be in detail in the public domain. What happens
is that the application to make a release is in the public domain.
If you ferret around hard enough you will find all of these. What
you will not find is our full discussion where we try to draw
out of the application from our own experience, what we believe
the true risks are, relative to those that are proposed. There
is no mechanism for all of that discussion to be in the public
4. How do you physically manage and control
these risks, Professor Beringer? What staff do you have available
and how often do they carry out site visits?
A. The situation
is that the Health and Safety Executive takes the responsibility
for the Department. It has inspectors who visit sites to ensure
that experiments are conducted as they should be. Not all sites
are visited in one year. The tendency is to ensure that people
who are doing something new, or are new to us, are visited to
ensure that they are competent. I have to say that of all the
releases we have approved to date, there are none for which there
has been any form of serious concern for environmental harm. So
there has not had to be very intensive supervision to make sure
that serious damage would not occur. It is conceivable that crops
will be made in the future to carry genes that produce pharmaceutically
active products, which would be a great value in medicine but
which must definitely not enter the food chain. We would then
be much more in a position of requiring a very efficient system
to ensure that those were managed properly, but we have not had
that need to date.
Lord Willoughby de Broke
5. There was a report in last week's Guardianthis
is not field trial experiments, I agreebut about a large-scale
organic vegetable grower who was concerned that the pollen from
close-by genetically modified maize may contaminate his own crops.
Do you have a view on the risk of that? Is that a real risk which
should be properly quantified and growers warned about, or is
that a newspaper scare story?
A. It is a very
interesting story, if it is the same one as I know about which
is in Devon, where the organic farm is about 500 metres from a
variety trial for seed registration.
6. That is right.
A. My feeling
about this is that what we are going to be looking at here is
a very, very low frequency with which pollen from the genetically
modified maize will enter the organic maize. This means that a
few kernels out of all the cobs produced may contain the gene
from the genetically modified maize. The situation is that the
kernel you actually eat is produced by the plant growing in the
field. It does not contain any of the gene products from the pollen
which has come from the genetically modified maize.
So all that can be consumed is derived from the original parent
but will have an extra gene that it did not have before. Therefore,
the risks of any harm to people are absolutely negligible. I recognise
that there are concerns that if people are growing organically,
so-called pure food, they do not want it to be contaminated with
something they do not like. Of course, the situation is that anyone
growing maize, genetically modified or not, that maize is transferring
genes which are not in the organic maize, so it is always contaminated
by any adjacent maize. It is the nature of the gene that is derived
from the genetically modified product, which is the cause of the
problem, but as far as I am concerned is not a cause for harm.
7. Before I begin I should, like the Chairman,
declare an interest as a farmer. I am also a member of the National
Farmers' Union. You gave us two examples of where applications
have been turned down, and you gave us one hypothetical example
where in the future you could foresee an application being turned
down. Could you speculate a little further and tell us what are
the general headings of where you could imagine there being reservations
about either of those applications which are now in the pipeline,
or applications which may come in the future which would cause
that application to be turned down. I am thinking of a similar
one to the pharmaceutical one which you mentioned earlier.
A. I did not
say that the pharmaceutical one would be turned down. I said that
I thought this is a development which could be very valuable but
these crops would have to be kept very separate from the food
chain. What we would wish to turn down would be the introduction
of, let us say, the introduction of peanut protein gene into wheat
or some other crop that could enter the food chain, and people
would eat food then with a very well-known, very serious alleren.
I can find no possible excuse for wanting to make a release of
that nature. However, if there was some scientific reason why
that needed to be done for a proper understanding of science,
I think we could come to an agreement with a very high degree
of very stringent management so that this could be accepted. But
it would be very, very hard to approve. We are going to have difficulties
in terms of what is coming with crops such as frost tolerant potatoes,
where these potatoes will become a greater problem in following
crops than potatoes already are. After a mild winter, existing
potato crops can cause severe weed problems in following crops.
It is usually frost that controls the problem. So I can see this
will be a difficulty but I think the agronomic benefits will be
higher than the agronomic disadvantages of increased weediness.
We would need to work that one through and understand properly
what might be other environmental implications. It is very difficult,
as you are seeing, to identify things that we could not possibly
8. Could you say to what extent (if at all)
diesel rape could cross-fertilise with the edible rape as one
A. That very
much depends on which way the bees are flying; how much pollen
is available and how close the adjacent crop is. The frequency
of cross-pollination could be really quite high. If you were saving
seed and resowing it, you would have a significant proportionmaybe
10 per cent at a high levelin your following crop. In order
to give approval for any genetically modified crop to produce
higher levels of oil that could be used as a diesel substitute,
that would have to be taken into consideration. But the oil which
is produced from rape to use as a diesel substitute is oil that
we eat anyway so it is not a nutritional threat.
9. Professor Beringer, ACRE tells us that
it works on a precautionary basis, by giving advice to Ministers
on the conditions which should be attached to a consent. Could
you tell us what ACRE does to ensure that those lessons which
are learnt from field trials, are used by ACRE and other bodies
in assessing further implications from either the same applicant,
as an earlier one, or new applicants.
A. Yes, of course,
I can. However, I think the difficulty in answer to this question
is that nearly all the field trials which have been done to date
have been so highly managed to reduce any chance of any harm,
or any risk of harm, that we cannot really learn anything from
them because we made sure that there was nothing that could happen
which was unexpected. Having said that, we have experienced from
trials that were done specifically to look at frequencies of gene
transfer, which have been very valuable to us in determining probability
of gene transfer, and which have basically told us that we must
assume that genes will be transferred to other potentially cross-pollinating
varieties of the same crops and sometimes weeds. The distance
can be up to maybe a couple of miles at very low frequency. It
is worth remembering, of course, that a genetically modified organism
is the existing crop plus one or two extra genes, so we still
get plenty of information from our knowledge of existing crops.
What does wheat normally do as a weed with the few hundred thousand
genes that it already has? Also, we are now learning from experience
in China and North America, where these crops have been grown
in millions of hectares. If anything unexpected is going to happen,
they are going to give us advanced warning long before in Europe,
at the present time, we are likely to see anything.
10. Once these genetically modified foods
are grown, do they act very similarly to hybrids, either in that
they do not breed true, or at all? That they do escape into the
wild, but that the properties they are given to grow in a specific
crop do not lock into that variety for the future.
A. The genetically
engineered crop is no different, in terms of whether it breeds
true or not, to the same crop grown otherwise in agriculture.
So if it is an F1 hybrid it will not breed true. If it is not
an F1 hybrid or is self-pollinating it will be relatively true
breeding. If it is cross-pollinating it will not. These are not
different conceptually, or in terms of their make-up, than any
other plant. They just happen to have one or two more genes in
their chromosomes, which segregate and cross as any other genes.
They are not unnatural in that respect.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
11. First, I must also declare an interest
as being a farmer and also a director of a company that is an
international trader in milk products, fish and meat products;
not grain products, I should mention. My question relates to cross-border
activities. Does ACRE take into account information about field
trials undertaken elsewhere in the world? What information is
required from the applicant about field trials in other countries?
Are dossiers prepared by the applicants, (for example, in Ireland),
acceptable in the United Kingdom?
A. We do not
have, as a requirement, that field trial results in other countries
are part of the application, although if there was relevant information
from elsewhere it would be a requirement if that information affected
the risk assessment. I should point out that the consent that
is issued from the Department is a consent that says: "If
any new information comes forward, it is your responsibility to
make that known if it affects the risk assessment." So any
consent is entirely limited by any knowledge that comes from anywhere
and it could be abroad. You ask the question as to whether we
can accept a document presented within another country. Yes, we
could. In reality the difficulty is that we have a very set series
of questions that we like answered, and if you have a dossier
for another country it may be that one or two of those are not
answered. So very often I think people would tend to dress up
their existing dossier for another country to make sure they answered
our questions. But, in principle, yes, we could. In practice it
actually would be probably more difficult because it would require
a number of returns to get all the questions appropriately answered.
12. My Lord Chairman, I should declare an
interest as a small hill farmer. Professor Beringer, I think you
have probably answered the gist of this question. It relates to
the call by English Nature for a three-year moratorium. Perhaps
you would like to respond to what English Nature has said and
whether you feel the risk assessments are adequate.
A. I think I
am bound to say that the risk assessments are adequate, since
I chair the Committee that makes these risk assessments! You would
be surprised if I said otherwise. I do not believe that a moratorium
would be helpful because I have not seen harm defined in terms
of anything that we are looking at, at the moment, which would
make me feel that we should not proceed because harm will be caused.
I have heard plenty of concerns about lack of knowledge, lack
of predictability, but those concerns are not different to me
than the same concern with a traditionally bred crop which may
have been crossed with a wild weedy relative with many unknown
properties. So I do not see that what we are looking at, at the
present time, as being significantly different. I do not think
we would learn from a moratorium and I do not think a request
for a moratorium properly understands that this is not a totally
new technology which is untested. We must remember to look at
the United States, China, and elsewhere, where we now have millions
of hectares of crops that are not mystically killing birds (or
whatever) through totally unknown processes as a result of the
Lord Willoughby de Broke
13. I have an interest to declare as an
owner of a mixed farm in Warwickshire, arable and grassland. I
am also chairman of a publishing company that publishes a country
interest magazine, Country Illustrated, which would be
very interested in writing something on this subject. As to my
question: we are aware that in the interests of transparency,
ACRE publishes grid references for each experimental release.
We are also aware that this information is compiled on Internet
by those who would advocate the destruction of such research sites,
and that this destruction is taking place. How do you propose
to counter this and can it be countered?
A. We have discussed
this issue. We do not propose to counter it. We think communication
is extremely important. We think it would be an extremely retrograde
step to withdraw knowledge of where this work is being done. Having
said that, I should make the point that the reference is to the
farm that is growing the crop; not where within that farm, the
specific point where the trial is going to be. We do offer advice
and we have actually told people not to put fences up around their
genetically modified plots. We think that a lot could be done
by the people themselves so that these trial plots are not too
obvious. I have to say, of course, that we are now looking at
much larger areas for seed multiplication and things of this nature,
where it just would not be feasible for vandals to destroy the
whole of the crop. My belief is that this is a brief phase, as
has happened elsewhere, and that it will soon die down to be relatively
inconsequential. I hope it is. If it is not and if it gets a lot
worse we will have to reconsider, but I would be very sorry if
we were moving to a position where we no longer gave information
that is helpful to people.
14. Those who would advocate destruction,
are these individuals or are they organisations, as far as you
know, who feel that what you are doing is wrong?
A. I think it
is both. There are some individuals who feel very, very strongly
that you should not interfere with nature, forgetting that most
of our food is interference with nature, but that is another matter.
I do believe there are some organisations who are strongly opposed
and are trying to increase awareness. I would not like to say
who is responsible for any of these because I do not know.
15. How many occurrences have there been?
A. We are probably up to our fourth or fifth now.
16. I should
declare an interest as an arable and sheep farmer. Directive 90/220
applies in all countries in Europe. Is the assessment of projects
similar in all the different countries, especially where very
nearly the same organism is to be released under similar conditions?
A. The best answer
I can give you is that similar is a word which allows great discrepancy
in action. This is roughly what is happening. There are different
interpretations within the Member States as to what is harm, and
as to what information is needed. Basically I believe that all
the assessments have a level, which is not lowered, that ensures
safety. There are certain things: for example, the French are
extremely keen to know about the sequences of genes that have
been inserted in bits of DNA. We have yet to identify how a sequence
tells you anything about potential for environmental harm and
are not so concerned. Some countries are worried about the expressions
of the genes; how much they are expressed. We believe that gene
expression varies through environmental changes. Therefore, it
is wrong to put too much emphasis on having gene expression because
it may be quite different, so you should assume differences. We
are all working to the same sort of objective; the similarity
is relevant here as being something that is not absolute.
17. Can I declare an interest? My wife has
a very small herd of pedigree Welsh black cattle on a hill farm
in Wales. We are not yet into genetic modification. If I may,
could I go back to question 4 on environmental risk assessment?
You yourself were quoted in The Daily Telegraph on 25 March
as raising concerns, on behalf of your Committee, about the introduction
from next year of crops which tolerate herbicides, which would
remove what few food plants remain in today's arable fields for
birds and other wildlife and therefore have a fairly dramatic
effect on them. I wondered if you still have those concerns and
whether you thought there was anything effective that could be
done about them. This is because obviously if it does spread on
a big scale it will have a serious effect on species that are
already in fairly dramatic decline.
A. Thank you
for that question. I must state that I very seldom, if ever, speak
for the Advisory Committee because I would not trust myself to
reflect what they believe. This is a concern of mine which I do
not see as a specific concern relating to the release of a GM
plant. If you do not use a herbicide on that plant it does not
matter whether it is genetically modified or not. There will be
no effect on the weeds. We do approve the use of herbicides in
agriculture. It is fairly clear that herbicide tolerant crops
will improve the efficiency with which weeds are killed. The more
efficiently you kill weeds the less food there is for wild animals.
That is quite clear. That is simply making worse an existing situation
which is totally independent of genetic modification. Genetic
modification is simply allowing a system that is not quite as
efficient as it could be, to be more efficient, so it is not unique
and special to this. I believe this is an important issue because
also we will be seeing crops that are resistant to attack by insects.
If these become very widespread there will undoubtedly be fewer
insects in the environment and, therefore, less food for birds.
So there is the potential for a further decline in bird populations.
On the other hand, it may be that by removing the need for pesticide
use there are more insects from hedgerows and adjacent areas,
so there might be more food for birds but we are not sure. These
are very much secondary issues. These are not issues for ACRE,
which is a committee that looks at the safety of the genetically
modified crop. My concern is that there is a vacuum in the political
system, which is not looking at how changes in agricultural practice
are linked to changes in the environment we see. I think we all
must remember that the environment we see and like is that environment
which farmers produce for us. If we want it to stay as it is they
have to do what they are doing now, pretty roughly, which is not
what nature would intend. Somehow or another, the debate is how
we are going to have what we want, which is artificial, and handle
change which must happen. However, it is not one I believe that
a committee, which is trying to ensure safety, should be actively
involved with, because it will divert us from our major role.
Lord Moran] Thank
you very much. That was very interesting.
18. Could I come back to the question of
other Member States. Is there any liaison between ACRE and your
counterparts in other European countries on applications? To what
extent are you advised about applications in other countries and
any reservations that may be made by those authorities about the
releases they authorise?
A. Not all countries
have advisory committees. It is worth pointing out that the regulatory
system requires that each country has what is called a Competent
Authority. These are the civil servants with responsibility for
ensuring that the legislation is properly carried out and safely.
We do not really, as an advisory committee, see very much relating
to trials in other countries. It is probably just as well because
they would not be terribly relevant to our environment and the
way we are doing things here. We do see all the marketing applications
and we comment on those. The competent authority, on the other
hand, is aware of what is going on elsewhere and does sometimes
come to us for advice, but we have no role as to whether another
country may make a trial release or not. I think that is entirely
appropriate. I do not think we would learn from these other trials
because, as I said earlier, they tend to be so small that there
is little you can learn from them. The last thing we should ever
do is to say no harm occurred in that trial. If that trial is
too small it tells you nothing about the harm which may occur
with a very, very big one. So for very small trials which are
very heavily managed, we need to be careful not to assume we can
learn too much and use it too far.
19. Should there not be an international
control of some sort? Was not the release of the bee from Indonesia
a prime example of bees throughout the world being put in jeopardy
by the release of the grower?
as you have just said, no matter what regulations you have people
will do stupid things. Somebody took bees up into Scotland recently
and moved further north varroa mites by one hundred miles or so
through crass stupidity. We will never overcome that. I do think
it is extremely important that we rapidly understand that there
is a world beyond Europe, and that in much of the world genetically
modified crops are being deregulated. By definition, therefore,
they are not subject to careful constraint. By definition, therefore,
bulk commodities will be contaminated with genetically modified
seeds, whether we want it in Europe or not. I have argued for
at least five years with the European Commission that they really
had to think what was going to happen. That commodities were commodities
and they had to start believing that there was a world out there.
That the Americans were not perverse and stupid and that things
would start to come. We have not properly grasped that nettle
and done something about it. I think it is critical to the development
of agriculture in future, the movement of food in future, world
trade, and common sense.
Chairman] This leads
on to the question, Lord Moran, you were going to ask on that.
1 Professor Beringer qualifies this by adding that
the embryo and the endosperm will contain some products made by
genes derived from the male parent. Back