Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300
WEDNESDAY 24 JUNE 1998
BOOT and MR
300. Where do you see further development
in unique GM products?
(Mr Boot) This is where it becomes very difficult
because of the position on soya for example, soya particularly,
because soya is included in about 1,000 products on supermarket
shelves. It is very very widely used and no distinction is possible.
301. Would you like to see the development
of a GM strawberry, a GM cauliflower or potato chip?
(Mr Boot) It would clearly be possible if it was
for a particular reason. You mentioned the strawberry and of course
that brings up the question of irradiation which has been rejected
in effect by the consumer and there is theoretically no irradiated
produce available in this country except for herbs like marjoram.
302. On the superweed problem I think you
stated your preferred solution. Could we have your view on the
solution of making the plant male sterile or female as a solution
to out-crossing and therefore risking the reduction of the superweed.
Would this bring to an end the farmers' practice of reserving
seed and, if so, would that concern you?
(Dr Barber) That is one option. As I point out,
there are a number of ways of trying to ensure that out-crossing
does not occur. That is just one possible way. The other way is
transgene chloroplasts and another way is to use terminator genes.
We do not yet know what process will be the acceptable one. It
is impossible to say at this stage. The chloroplast one, for example,
you can put very many more transgenes into the chloroplast than
you can put into the normal genome. That might be one of the ways.
We do not know at this stage.
Baroness Young of Old Scone
303. In your evidence you have called for
post-release monitoring. You said that it should be conducted
either directly by government or under contract from the government.
Can you expand and say what should be monitored, how the monitoring
should be conducted, what the role of the farmer would be in the
monitoring and who would pay for the monitoring?
(Mr Boot) My Lord Chairman, to what extent should
farmers be involved? They are extra eyes and ears. They are part
of the monitoring process. If government have a responsibility
in this area it need not necessarily involve them running extra
trials themselves. They can then initiate trials through the grower
or the product presenter. It would seem to me we should bring
them in as part of a chain with a responsibility for taking up
any case that was put to it by either the user, any outside observer,
an advisory service, the farmer or indeed the company itself,
if it wishes to bring to the notice of government some peculiarity
or some development which it felt to be potentially undesirable.
304. Would you see this as being a statutory
set of things that were required to be monitored or would you
see this as a purely voluntary process?
(Mr Boot) I think that an element of statutory
enforcement is essential because there is a tendency for it not
to get done if the company had an interest in not revealing that
some undesirable development was occurring, or at least the consumer
might suspect that.
305. Could we perhaps get you to expand
a bit on what it is that you would see requiring to be monitored.
(Mr Boot) If there is a development of a superweed,
for example, or the passing of some of the genetically modified
characteristics from one plant to another, if that becomes sufficiently
threatening then it may warrant trying to put the process into
reverse if you can. The sooner you start to do that, the more
likely you are to be successful.
306. Do you think there is a case for monitoring
the actual agricultural practices of the farms on which these
products were being used in terms of both herbicide and pesticide
application for example, or in terms of rotation which has already
(Mr Boot) I think there is definitely a case for
allowing the farmer to have a role in the monitoring because he
is closest to what is occurring in the fields or on the farm.
307. It would take the form of conditions,
would it, attached to the permit given to grow?
(Mr Boot) Yes.
308. Would the primary responsibility and
liability lie with the company who has provided the seed or with
the farmer who is growing?
(Mr Boot) It does now, my Lord I understand, but
perhaps Dr Barber could cover the position now. It is a question
of whether government has a place. The responsibility of ACRE
and ACNFP for example is to try and anticipate the existence of
any such problems post release. They have to do it by trying to
forecast rather than by actually observing and it seems to us
to be necessary to actually observe what does happen in practice
post release to have a more secure system. Could I ask if Dr Barber
(Dr Barber) If I could add one or two comments.
The new revision suggested for the EC Directive 90/220 does recommend
a seven-year monitoring period. It may well become a statutory
requirement via the European regulations if they pass through.
So far as the monitoring process itself is concerned, one can
envisage a whole range of possible studies to be undertaken. As
an ex-research scientist I can envisage lots of them, for example,
simply looking at the changes that may occur in the micro-organisms
in soil or changes that might occur in the insect or other populations
in the areas where the various crops have been grown as the sorts
of things that will be monitored at least in the early stages.
It may well be the case that the changes are relatively minor
and in future it would not be necessary to make those checks because
monitoring processes would carry it through. At the beginning
I think it is important that we see what happens in real life
as opposed to what happens in a test situation or what we think
might happen from theoretical studies. So you can envisage a whole
raft of changes.
309. There are some respected organisations
that have called for a moratorium on all genetic modification
on the grounds that not yet enough is known about the long-term
effects. Do you see post-release monitoring as being an alternative
procedure to a moratorium, a route you would rather go down whereby
conditions are attached to permission to release and if the outcome
is not as desirable as hoped then possibly the permission to grow
would be withdrawn?
(Dr Barber) The suggested changes in the EC regulations
do actually have a withdrawal capability after monitoring or even
in the middle of the monitoring period so that has been anticipated
by the European regulators. As far as the moratorium is concerned
the Government have said quite clearly that is not legal in the
European Community so whether we like it or not it is not legally
possible. As far as the alternatives are concerned clearly nothing
should be authorised for growing in commercial quantities without
it being considered to be safe. We do not believe the United Kingdom
regulatory authorities have actually made such an authorisation.
Clearly if there is a doubt about what environmental effects there
might be these must be investigated by test growing activities.
Unfortunately, as we discussed earlier on, this year there have
been 21 destructions of crops out of about 300 test sites. It
is becoming more and more difficult to carry out these sorts of
(Mr Bennett) On post-release monitoring we actually
feel this is an integral part of reassuring the consumer and so
on that basis we feel if the consumer is going to feel assured
about the development of this technology some sort of statutory
mechanism needs to be in place rather than voluntary.
Baroness Young of Old Scone
310. Can I just follow up the last point
which is who you would see being responsible for that within the
framework set by Government and who would pay for it?
(Mr Bennett) We felt it should go to the Food
Standards Agency to say that they take a view. In terms of monitoring
the actual crop in terms of the farmer that is part of his normal
procedure. If it is a public health issue then obviously the Government
should undertake some of the cost.
311. In your paper you advocate very detailed
record-keeping and traceability for GM crops. Do you think that
that is a practical suggestion right across Europe or indeed for
imports which is a much wider problem than the situation within
the European Community?
(Mr Bennett) Well, my Lord, as you are probably
aware, the NFU has been at the forefront of the development of
farm assurance schemes where we actually can in terms of the United
Kingdom certainly deliver the full record-keeping and traceability
and even independent verification in the future in this country.
Obviously, across Europe it depends on how they develop their
own schemes but in terms of imports we could not possibly comment.
At the moment we would doubt they would have that capability.
We intend in terms of our own market to make sure we can deliver
full record-keeping and traceability.
312. I have no doubt about that. I am sure
you all do, as I do, have bitter memories of things being agreed
in the Council of Ministers which then become totally ignored
in other Member States. I have no doubt that we can do it here
but do you think it is a practical suggestion in terms of the
whole of the European Community and indeed on a wider basis or
is it rather pie in the sky?
(Mr Bennett) I have some doubts that we will be
able to be reassured about the full traceability of imports, my
313. And within the European Community,
is it seriously practical or is it just wishful thinking?
(Mr Bennett) If it is practical, as we see it,
within the United Kingdom then it is certainly practical within
Europe. Whether they will do it there I do not know I am in a
position to answer that question.
(Mr Boot) I think, my Lord, there has been a move
towards much greater traceability and accountability for one's
produce which is accelerating and I think we have to take account
of this. Whilst we have our doubts as to how effectively this
might be pursued in foreign parts, that I think probably is no
more than chauvinism often.
314. If something goes wrong with a genetically
modified crop either in relation to human health or to the environment,
who is going to be responsible? Should farmers be liable?
(Mr Boot) My Lord, if the genie gets out of the
bottle who is liable? We fear that the multi-national company
will put the corporate lawyers on to the issue to the point that
they make sure that it is not their fault, it is some poor old
farmer, and I think that our concern would be to protect the farmers'
position in that scenario. It is not an issue that has been decided
at all yet and I suppose it is going to be interesting when we
get the first legal cases that are taken up on this. If something
does go wrong who will be held to blame? I share the concern about
315. I am sure you are right in the fears
you express but does this not mean that you ought to be thinking
about it very seriously now to protect the farmer? Because somebody
has got to be responsible if there is damage.
(Mr Boot) We have thought of the question, my
Lord, but I am not sure we have come up with the answer yet.
316. You have thought of the problem but
has your research discovered whether most farmers' general liability
insurance covers an eventuality of this sort?
(Mr Boot) We are told that it does.
317. It does?
(Mr Boot) We are told so.
(Dr Barber) Could I add a rider to that. Some
of the contracts that have been signed in the United States have
attempted to pass the liability directly back to the farmer and
to his or her descendants and that sort of contract I personally
suspectif I can get agreement on the tablewe would
find unacceptable for United Kingdom farming. Obviously when these
contracts are made available to farmers then the legal department
will look at them and advise our members appropriately.
318. Are you aware of the Community's proposal
to withdraw relief which you now enjoy in respect of primary products,
and the liability indeed therefor?
(Mr Bennett) Yes.
319. Thank you. The evidence we have taken
from other witnesses leads us to a position in which we are aware
that the public perception is that GM foods are not perhaps as
safe as they might be and are therefore not as attractive as they
might be to consumers, with the notable current exceptions of
tomatoes and cheese, which have been mentioned. It has been put
to us that this is partly due to the BSE scare and other food
scares. Do you think anything can be done to address this problem
and, if so, where do you think the responsibility for doing that
(Mr Boot) I think that the answer to the thing,
as I think we have indicated both in the papers and in our oral
evidence, is openness of information and continuous availability.
In considering what part we might play in this we felt that our
best opportunity is contacts within the industry and with the
growers and farmers rather than with the consumers and we felt
that the best means of contact with the consumers has been via
the supermarkets where they are trusted by the consumer for the
most part and they have a regularity of contact and that makes
it important that we maintain contact with the Institute of Gross
Distribution, for example, and with the individual supermarket
companies, but we have tended not to take up the challenge of
contacting the consumers to any great extent.
Lord Gallacher] Thank
Lord Willoughby de Broke
320. Could I just follow up on that? Your
earlier suggestion for an over-arching committee we have already
heard about. Would you recommend including consumer representatives
and organisations on that over-arching committee?
(Mr Boot) Yes.
321. I am sure that what you say about the
supermarkets is absolutely right. Some of them have told us that
they attach enormous importance to the question of labelling and
indeed have done this with great success on tomato paste. Do you
think that this work has been undermined by the refusal of the
American growers to segregate soya and that that torpedoes the
(Mr Boot) We would say so, yes.
322. As far as supermarkets are concerned
are they putting any demands, or are they likely to put any demands,
on your members as far as genetic modification is concerned?
(Mr Bennett) So far the only demand that we have
identified in certain cases is the animal feedstuffs and the sourcing
of animal feedstuffs, for example for soya which obviously then
gets into the chain. That so far is the only problem we have identified.
323. Thank you very much. That bring us
to the end of the substantive questions we had to put to you.
We are very grateful indeed that you should have come with a very
full team and given us very useful evidence. I hope, Mr Bennett,
you will not take personally the question that I would now like
to ask. Often in the past when you have had evidence sessions
before the Committee the former President of the NFU came and
gave evidence to us. Is it significant that your President has
not appeared before us today? Does it indicate a lack of enthusiasm
on the part of the NFU towards genetic modification or a lack
of readiness on behalf of the NFU to take a position on the subject?
(Mr Bennett) My Lord Chairman, if I can apologise
for my President. Four times a year the Council of the Union (which
is the supreme body of the NFU) meets and it happens to be today
that that Council meets. As the President is the Chairman of that
Council it is obviously important he be there. On top of that
as Deputy President my particular remit is biotechnology and research
and development. That is why I have led the NFU team.
Chairman] Thank you
very much. That is very reassuring. Thank you very much indeed.