Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
WEDNESDAY 24 JUNE 1998
BOOT and MR
280. The related problem is, I suppose,
the use of transgenic crops; factories for producing pharmaceuticals.
(Dr Barber) That is correct. There are a number
of ways of making pharmaceuticals. One is to use crops. One is
to use cells. There may be cells which are deliberately cultivated
for this purpose. The other is to use microbiological organisms.
281. If that is done, will that not expose
birds and animals to ingesting all sorts of drugs?
(Dr Barber) Well, the crops you are talking about
are only being used in test situations, very controlled areas,
usually in greenhouses. It is not anywhere near commercialisation.
Obviously when these things come up, (if they ever do), for commercialisation,
the decision as to whether they should be grown or not will depend
on the regulatory authorities. We are quite confident that the
ones in the United Kingdom would made the right sort of decision
in respect to those sorts of products.
282. But are you not concerned, in the whole
of this field, that so far we have only just scratched the surface?
There are many other things. I can give you examples: a nitrogen
fixing wheat, and I can remember at MAFF going to buy pigs in
China which had very high litter numbers. Our people were wanting
to transfer their genes into European breeds. There are a whole
raft of these things where we do not really yet understand all
the possible applications. We have had a scare story, within the
last few months, with regard to corn borers in maize, Swiss work
which you are probably aware of. This shows there could be a whole
raft of secondary effects or even a mistake in transferring a
gene that, in fact, messes up adjoining genes. There is an area
here where there are people who express great anxiety as to what
we may be uncovering. Does this not cause you discomfort?
(Mr Boot) It would do, my Lord Chairman, if we
were not convinced that the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods
and Processes and the Advisory Committee on Releases into the
Environment did not do a proper job. It would be complemented
by our suggestion of further study of post release monitoring,
which would provide extra assurance that the process was not going
to get out of hand. I think we feel that the existing parts of
the process are fine and could only be improved by that.
(Mr Fiddaman) I think it highlights the importance
of being able to do early trials under constrained conditions,
so that we are able to understand exactly the sort of questions
you have been asking as to what can happen. If you can only do
this on a small trial basis, unless you can trial it outside the
greenhouse, which is an enclosed environment and which is not
typical, then how are we going to be able to have the answers?
The concern obviously of that is that unless we can have these
trials done on a wider basis under controlled conditions, we will
not get the answers; and we will not get the confident reply that
everyone expects, including ourselves. Certainly there is no way
that I, as a farmer, would want to grow a crop in which I was
Lord Willoughby de Broke
283. Are you concerned that with the increased
use of genetically modified seeds, for example, that there will
be fewer varieties of crops available? Are you worried what effect
that could have on production in other countries?
(Mr Fiddaman) I do not think I am concerned about
the reduction in the number of varieties. The current situation
is that there are always more varieties that are being produced
by the breeding companies than we currently have on offer. The
difficulty is controlling the mechanisms by which they are mass-produced
for industry. For example, if we are looking at specific advantages,
take biodiversity. This is when the trial mechanism has a very
broad basis to work from. We will look for various conditions
according to particular commercial pressure. GM will only be added
at a particular point in a particular grouping variety, but it
does not mean that those other varieties are no longer available.
So I cannot see it actually reducing the total variety of biodiversity
because of that reason.
284. Surely, if farmers are seduced by the
appeal of GM seeds and they become widespread, current varieties
will fade out. You could be left with fewer varieties: this would
magnify the problems of crop failure. If there was something wrong
with those few varieties there would be danger and implications
for countries like China and India.
(Mr Fiddaman) The fact is that if you are looking
at a particular usageI am thinking in terms of herbicide
toleranceif we were to see an introduction of a herbicide-tolerant
feature in a group of varieties, the rest of the characteristics
of those varieties will not change. What you are suggesting is
that we would only have the availability of that particular herbicide
tolerance. However, there are still enough breeding companies
out there which breed for other reasons and that will not be the
only source of, let us say, an oil seed rape, particularly the
development of that. The fact is that there is likely to be much
genetic modification in the types of oil that each rape will carry,
which will keep a very broad base of genetically modified varieties
to allow that breeding to continue.
285. I ought to declare an interest. My
wife has a small hill farm in Wales with pedigree cattle. Does
it worry you that transgenic crops could themselves transfer pollen
to wild relatives, which then themselves become weeds?
(Mr Boot) Our position is, I think, as informers,
that we are concerned to the extent that we think there ought
to be a system of post release monitoring. The indications are
that it is unlikely to occur to the extent that it is presented
by those who fear that. So it is better to act against the possibility
of that happening and by having a post release monitoring system.
That is one of the main reasons for adopting that policy.
(Dr Barber) It would depend on the type of crop
we are talking about. For example, the possibility of that happening
with the oil seed rape, which you have obviously mentioned, is
considerably higher. The studies which have been done on oil seed
rape shows that it depends a bit on the weed species in the area.
In France they have had positive results, as far as the crop is
concerned, rather than the United Kingdom oil seed rape. So it
depends on the environment to some degree.
286. I declare an interest as a farmer in
Cheshire and as a member of the NFU. I have two questions on the
crops modified to be herbicide-tolerant. Are you concerned that
a farmer may become dependent, with all the implications of this
dependency, on a single supplier of seeds and herbicide? My second
question is on consumer perception. It seems to me on this issue
that the consumer has reservations because the technology is seen
as benefiting the farmer rather than benefiting the consumer.
Would you agree?
(Mr Bennett) On the question about whether we
are concerned about being tied to a single supplier of seed or
for herbicide, as an industry we would be concerned about the
growth of multi-national companies, of very large powerful companies,
as an industry. So the answer to that question is yes.
(Mr Boot) I think the benefits issue is an involved
one, my Lord. It is one where we would expect benefit to work
through the system. It may be that the introduction of a benefit
is of primary benefit to a multi-national seed and chemical company,
but unless it is a benefit to the grower through financial benefit,
which he can pass on to a greater or lesser extent to the consumer,
it will not get taken up. The benefit tends to spread out through
the chain rather than being restricted to one particular sector.
To say that all the benefit is going to accrue to the multi-national
chemical or seed company is an over-simplification of the position.
287. Could I come back to Mr Bennett's answer,
where you say that you are concerned about the growth of the big
multi-national companies. Why is that? Is that because you think
it is going to lead you to a situation where there is an insufficient
degree of competition between those companies in the industry?
(Mr Bennett) Certainly we would not want there
to be dominant forces, even though this might give some choice
within those companies. We think competition is a good thing.
(Mr Boot) I think their emphasis tends to be on
the good of that company rather than perhaps the good of the farmer
or the grower.
288. Could I ask, apropos multi-national
companies, whether the NFU is at all concerned in this context
about the remoteness of the shareholder from control of the multi-national
companies which, in certain circumstances, could be dominated
by scientists or those who are concerned only to produce a good
(Mr Boot) Men in white coats and things like that.
(Mr Boot) Yes, I think we are. I will ask Dr Barber
to cover the steps that we have taken in order to preserve farmer
privilege in Europe, which have been to some extent successful;
but the whole area is one where we are, like everybody else, frightened
of the potential development of power by multi-national companies.
(Dr Barber) One of the advantages in the new Patenting
Directive is that it does contain articles in this which do protect
farmer privilege. So, for example, there is an ability to save
seed in that Directive, which was a very important feature as
far as we were concerned. In the same way that the use of animals
is protected, so breeding is protected in this Directive. One
of the problems for us rather than for America are the very exclusive
contracts that limit the farmer to obtaining the second year seed
from the same original supplier. This would not be legal under
the EC Directive. Some of those contracts, which have been highly
criticised in the farming press and elsewhere, are very restrictive.
I suspect they would not be found to be acceptable to most British
farmers. So there are protections there built into the legal system
which we are very pleased to see; mainly put in by the efforts
of our representatives in the European Union and also by the European
Farming and Agricultural Co-operative Union. They have made efforts
for that to be included and it has been.
290. Does the terminator seed concern you?
Crops which do not reproduce, and so farmers have to go back to
the company to buy all their seed for the next year.
(Dr Barber) There are several technologies to
try to avoid the transgene getting out into the general weed population
or to the other crop population. That is just one of the technologies.
Another technology is to incorporate this into the chloroplast
of the plant. Terminator seeds is one way of doing this.
291. What we are really asking is, would
you be concerned by having to buy your seed from the supplier
the next year?
(Dr Barber) That would be a concern. In particular,
the developing countries are a bit nervous as this could be seen
as a way of taking over their farming industry. Personally, I
believe that seeds will be too expensivefor example, with
the terminatorfor most of those countries, for farmers
to afford this. I have my suspicion that it is not a very important
technology in their regions. It may be in our regions but it is
not in the undeveloped areas, I suspect.
292. May I follow up on that, please? Have
you been in contact with your members undertaking trials regarding
the rising incidence of eco-terrorism and would you support, as
I have heard others call for, for these trial areas to be kept
secret while the results are being monitored?
(Mr Bennett) We are obviously concerned about
trial plots being destroyed because the basis of what we are asking
for is good trial work, good post release monitoring, and if we
do not have good trial work undertaken and it is destroyed this
causes some difficulties. We accept that we have to release a
certain amount of information to the public in terms of what trial
work is taking place. We think it is unwise actually to give the
locality. We would like to see the actual locality taken away
from the public information so that we can make sure that we have
good, sound, robust R&D work taking place. We accept that
there has got to be some sort of public information on what sort
of trial work is taking place.
(Mr Boot) The key to the adoption and acceptance
of the technology is good information. Everything seems to indicate
that once people become more familiar with the technology because
of openness of information and good communication, that they are
more likely to accept or take a view that is based on science
rather than supposition. It is important, I think, in the development
or the introduction of biotechnology in the early stages, that
the public do base their views on science rather than supposition.
You get yourself in an unfortunate situation if it is all based
on a view that God should be responsible for it, or whatever.
293. I should also declare an interest as
a farmer. Is it practical to require segregation of crops while
they are being grown and stored in agriculture? How would this
be consistent with the traditional freedom of farmers to grow
the crops of their choice?
(Mr Bennett) First of all, it is practical. In
fact, it has already been undertaken by a lot of our members who
grow seed crops. This is the normal procedure that they undertake.
Certainly, in terms of segregation of crops while being grown
and certainly stored on a farm, that is perfectly practical. In
terms of the freedom of farmers to grow crops of their choice...
(Mr Fiddaman) I think the point, my Lord, on having
a choice and being able to segregate is the fact that you are
able to make a decision. I am a seed grower. I grow crops which
require discussion with my neighbour. Under the conventional growing
of them you need to be able to keep a pollen distancewith
pulses, for example, they are open flowering. My neighbour, who
is growing a crop right next to mine, will effectively be able
to stop me growing a seed crop. By discussing with my neighbour
I am more able to grow the same sort so that I do not have that
barrier problem, or I move the crop myself, or he might even change
his cropping programme, or her cropping programme, so there is
not a problem of an effect. The segregation of the crop is certainly
very easy on a farm. As far as post release movement is concerned,
it is entirely due to the strength of middle and end users that
they will wish to see that segregation, according to the direction
that they are provided with, to produce certain crops in due course.
Where there are changes, for instance, within a crop which is
herbicide-tolerant, this does not matter because it is not going
into the oil. The oil that is produced at the end of the day is
no different from that oil produced by the genetically modified
294. In the case of an organic farmer, where
someone is growing a GM crop very close to his, what is the convention
there? If, from what he was saying, he seemed to have no choice
and he was going to lose his organic status.
(Mr Fiddaman) I am aware of his concern. Obviously
the concern again is a matter of distance. It is recognising what
distance becomes, if you like, the contaminant barrier. Certainly
within the seed growing there are recognised distances over which
these pollens will not effectively travel to cause a problem.
Certainly our recommendation would be that those sorts of distances
would be the sustainable answer.
295. But there will be no organic farmer
who can actually enforce a buffer zone round his own fields other
than on his own land?
(Mr Fiddaman) In the sense that if it is a crop
which is known to be genetically modified, my reaction as a conventional
grower would be to see that there is a barrier of another crop
between. Similarly, I have to confer with my neighbour. Certainly
we would have no difficulty in recommending that those wishing
to go into genetic engineering in the early period should certainly
discuss with their neighbours their intention, so that they are
aware of what is happening rather than the fact that there is
any particular risk. That is very important for those organic
farmers, and certainly those who are farming round organic farmers
will be aware of their existence.
296. So is segregation something that you
consider, for the most part, should be and will be market-driven
and market-led rather than be required by statute?
(Mr Fiddaman) I would certainly see that being
the end result. In the first instance, it is logical for consumer
confidence that we offer it as an opportunity. I think, at the
end of day, that if there is seen to be no problem with the end
product we will eventually see segregation, as there is with the
other varieties now within the oil seed sector. We have the segregation
of the Hero that is maintained throughout the sector. I
see no problem in maintaining that in other areas.
(Mr Boot) Unfortunately, this whole business of
segregation is somewhat broken down because of the refusal of
the American growers to segregate or label soya as being genetically
Baroness Young of Old Scone
297. I would like to pick up the references
to the American line on segregation. You may not be able to answer
this one but certainly in some of the previous evidence we have
had there has been a suggestion that some degree of segregation
is now beginning in America, partly because of the lack of ability
to monitor the impact of genetic modification if there are not
control areas, and also because of the concerns about gene-creep
into other species and the impacts on beneficial insects as well
as non-beneficial insects. I wonder whether I could ask you your
thoughts on that, and also on the differences in the system which
I think is used for approving GM crops in the United States. In
many cases the environmental benefits from the growing of the
crop emerge from major transfers to the no-till system rather
than a system of tillage. The question really is whether you see
both of these factors, the segregation system and the no-till
system, as being useful or likely in this country.
(Dr Barber) The situation in America is very,
very particular but one notable thing about it is that even though
one company in the United Kingdom is attempting to obtain non-GM
soya, they have said they cannot do it essentially. This is Iceland.
They have said that they can obtain it from a non-GM source, but
this quite different from saying that they can obtain non-GM soya.
What happens in transfer of material from the actual fields in
the United States to the manufacturing processes in the United
Kingdom is that there is always a risk at every level of procedure
of some soya beans getting mixed, some GM with a non-GM source.
So it might become impossible. It may already be impossible to
guarantee a complete non-GM source to a manufacturer in the United
Kingdom. So there is a problem there. What the Austrians have
done is have an organic status which recognises what they call
point one per cent adulteration in their non-GM material. A small
amount is allowed but it is still organic in their definition.
My suspicion is that something of that sort will be required in
the future because it will be impossible to guarantee completely
non-GM material. It does not matter how hard you try, it might
well be impossible. The tillage point I will pass on to my farming
(Mr Fiddaman) Certainly, as you rightly say, the
Americans have shown the advantage of the pesticide tolerance
factor in the fact that you can go in and plant a seed and destroy
the old cover crop that was there protecting the soil. You have
got to remember this is on the back of a water shortage basis
and that is one of the reasons for looking at no till. There is
certainly a move towards no tilling in United Kingdom agriculture
in terms of cost reduction. How much of this will be reliant on
chemical reaction? I would suggest not. The benefits of being
able to use herbicide tolerance to modify your chemical practice
are in the fact that it is a more benign usage than some of other
chemicals that we might be using on a conventional crop in those
298. Could I ask you about crop rotation,
which relates to no tillage. I presume with no tillage there is
no crop rotation. Generally, do you see genetic modification affecting
crop rotation if it came in widely in this country and would that
(Mr Fiddaman) In itself there is no reason why
it should actually affect crop rotation because I think a lot
of it would be done on good farming practice. In other words,
we already see the advantage of having a break crop in the production
of a first wheat crop because it actually gives benefits to the
first wheat crop. The change in that area might happen whereby
if they are able to protect the crop against the particular organism
that affects continual cereal growing then those soils that are
particularly good at cereal growing, wheat growing would probably
return to it. However, there is a lot of people today doing continuous
wheat on those sorts of land. In general terms I cannot see it
making a big difference to a rotation. I could actually see a
positive advantage, particularly with something like the herbicide
tolerances that are being put into the oil seed rape because some
of the difficulties within the cereal growing cycle is that we
cannot knock out some of the competitive graminae weeds, which
things like glufosinate are very good at removing and being able
to take them out late in a rape crop and therefore stopping a
seed deposit during that part of the rotation would reduce pressure
on other parts of the cycle. I can see those actually being used
as a positive benefit to the rotation.
299. I would like to ask a question which
relates to the earlier one on useful modifications. Most of the
development of GMOs is in crops and it gets, as far as the consumer
is concerned, diluted in the end product to a great degree. As
you said earlier in your evidence, so much depends on the acceptance
by the consumer at the end of the day. As far as we know there
is only one pure GM item on the market which is this tomato paste
which is available and marketed as a 100 per cent genetically
modified product. Do you think that to get greater consumer acceptance
you should encourage more GM fruits and vegetable productsand
maybe cerealsto get pure GM products on the market. The
consumer is undoubtedly confused at the moment when a very small
part of soya or maybe maize in the future is involved.
(Mr Boot) Yes, I think you are right. There is
another product and that was the cheese made with the aid of chymosin
rather than rennet extracted from calves stomachs which may be
perceived to be an unfortunate business as far as the calf is
concerned. In both cases I think it is fear of the unknown is
the real enemy and it becomes possible for the consumer to be
thoroughly familiar with a GM product where it is labelled as
such and available side by side. The indications with the GM cheese
were that it actually out-sold in a side-by-side trial traditional
cheese, if you want to call it that. I am sure you are right,
my Lord, that it is a much better way to familiarise the consumer
where you have labelling, you have segregation and it is possible
to draw a distinction between a GM product and a non-GM product.