Examination of witness (Questions 400
WEDNESDAY 8 JULY 1998
Lord Wade of Chorlton
400. The point is that that situation might
well be reached in Europe. Certain consumers want that choice
and if it means extra so be it. You say that these products can
be segregated if there is a clear consumer decision to pay the
extra cost involved. You and US farmers because of your confidence
in the system see no difference in these products. They do not
demonstrate any difference. That is not so in Europe. Our people
think that they are different. In those circumstances, do you
see that segregation can take place on the basis that they are
different products and perhaps command a different price in the
marketplace because of segregation?
A. It could develop
that way. If it did develop that way it would be a natural development
that we would support and endorse. I would view that situation
as similar to the current differences between organic and conventionally
produced commodities. In general, the public is willing to pay
a premium for organic products because it feels that such product
are better for whatever reason. But that is a natural development
in the marketplace as a result of consumer preferences.
401. You are saying that the initiative
to bring about segregation must come from a clear indication by
consumers that they are willing to pay for it. Some importing
organisation in Europe must then negotiate with specific growers
and say, "Okay, you segregate these products and we will
deal with it right the way through the chain to the consumer"?
402. Would it be practicable at reasonable
cost for a supermarket chain in Europe to contract with a group
of US farmers to be supplied with unmodified soya given what you
say about the fact that US farmers put the product together and
it all goes to the same elevator?
A. It depends
on one's definition of "reasonable cost". I do not think
that farmers would be willing to do it as a matter of routine.
They would rather produce and market their commodities mixed together
because they would view the soybean as a fungible commodity. Unless
it had a different end-use characteristic they would tend to mix
the genetically modified with the conventional. But where someone
was willing to provide a premiumit would depend on how
great it wasour farmers would be willing to undertake the
necessary expense of responding to that specific demand.
403. The Sub-Committee has received evidence
that some Brazilian soya producers are supplying non-GM soya products
to certain outlets in this country and not at a premium price,
so it can be done. Is it correct that the US Government has put
pressure on Brazil not to segregate their soya products?
A. It is not
correct that we have put any pressure on the Brazilian Government
to segregate their products. We have not intervened in that issue
in any way at all, as far as I know. To my understanding Brazil
has offered soybeans that are not genetically modified, but that
is simply because that country has not approved the commercial
production of the genetically modified product. Therefore, all
it has had to offer is the conventional product. There was no
segregation required by any producer in Brazil. In that respect
it was very easy for Brazil to say that it could offer only the
conventional product. One issue that Brazil faces is whether it
should authorise the planting of genetically modified soybeans
for commercial use. From my observation, they will be making that
decision over the next year or two, or possibly three. Argentina
is another example. Argentina has already approved the commercial
production of genetically modified products, so that country is
embracing the new technology. Our assumption is that the new technology
will continue to spread as long as the approving countries are
confident that these products are safe for the consumer and environment.
404. As I understand it, the US has not
ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity but you are taking
a role in the negotiations in Montreal now going on in relation
to the protocol on the trans-boundary movement of living modified
organisms (LMOs). How is that proceeding? What do you understand
by the term "LMO"? Do you think that the regulatory
structures should apply only to such organisms and not to the
products derived from them?
A. You have accurately
described the situation in terms of the US's involvement. Even
though the US is not a member it is trying to stay engaged in
the debate. We hope that the focus in the discussion is on those
items that pose significant risks to biodiversity. Our concern,
given the current debate, is that notification requirements may
go beyond just those products that pose a risk to biodiversity.
If such a broad procedure is put in place it may be very harmful
and disruptive to trade. The focus of our efforts is to make sure
that any agreed procedure would be imposed only in the case of
products that posed a significant risk to biodiversity. One of
our concerns about the definition of "living modified organism"
is that it should not be applied to processed products. We believe
that processed products do not constitute a living modified organism.
405. Are you reasonably optimistic that
the negotiations will end in a situation that you regard as reasonable?
A. We are not
optimistic given where the debate is currently. We are hopeful,
406. I am not sure I understand why the
United States has not signed the convention. What is the reason
A. I have not
been involved in all the various reasons why we have not signed
the protocol. I would be happy to provide that for the record,
if I may.
407. Is it not a matter of considerable
importance, even urgency, that there should be international agreement
on many issues raised by genetically modified crops?
issues have been raised, but the question is: How far do we go
with regulation? We say that where there is risk to the importing
country, then by all means notification should be required. But
if there is no significant risk we do not believe that notification
Lord Wade of Chorlton
408. That would be your decision, not that
of the buyer or consumer, on the degree of risk?
A. In this case
I do not think that it is just a matter of US determination of
the risk. That sort of risk assessment would take place under
codex and similar international standards.
409. Turning to the subject of trade disputes,
is one imminent in relation to GMO? Are you playing a leading
role in the pursuit of any trade disputes with the European Union
in particular as far as genetically modified crops are concerned?
You provided some details about the import of corn into France.
There was another case in which imports of corn into Spain and
Portugal were in jeopardy.
A. That is an
issue that we are following very closely and are concerned about.
France's failure to grant final approval on these two corn varieties
has meant that we have not been able to ship any corn to Portugal
or Spain this year. Because of that we estimate that we have lost
about $200 million in corn sales to Europe in the first six months
of this year. In our view this issue must be resolved in about
the next two weeks if we are to have an opportunity to ship corn
prior to Spain's grain harvest; otherwise, we shall lose all sales
opportunity for the year. We will not have an opportunity to recover
410. You have not yet received any indication
as to whether or not you will be able to move it in the next fortnight?
A. We have not
received a final determination.
411. If not, will you be pursuing compensation
claims and, if so, against whom would those claims be made? Who
would be conducting them?
A. I cannot say
here today that we are threatening to pursue a trade dispute.
All I can say is that we view the matter very seriously. We are
very concerned by the potential loss of $200 million in trade,
but are hopeful that it will be resolved over the next few days.
412. I want to ask about the general question
of consumer confidence. You will know that we have had a hugely
damaging and costly problem with BSE in this country and to a
lesser extent a problem with E coli 0157. As a result,
there has been a great diminution in consumer confidence in food
products and a reluctance to accept official assurances. This
applies not only in this country but throughout the EC. Do you
have a view as to how that should be communicated to the consumer?
Have consumers in the US been persuaded that GM technology benefits
them and not just benefits producers and big companies? Do you
think that acceptability would be affected by nutriceuticals and
plants containing animal (including human) genes?
A. A number of
things come to mind. We are aware that the BSE crisis has probably
done a great deal to undermine the confidence of European consumers
in the ability of government to protect consumer health. We are
very sympathetic to your predicament in that respect. In the US
we are fortunate that consumers tend to have a great deal of faith
in the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection
Agency and the Department of Agriculture. Perhaps that is why
our consumers do not express any apparent concern about biotechnology.
It is interesting and ironic that if you asked our consumers what
example of agricultural biotechnology they were most aware of
it would probably be Dolly the sheep. It is ironic that Dolly
was produced here where the concern about agricultural biotechnology
is greater. I am not sure why it is that Dolly has received so
much attention in the US. Perhaps because she is so cute and it
makes for a good photograph. But that is an issue of which everyone
is aware. In the US there is acceptance of that technology but
it is viewed as more dramatic than genetic modification of plant
species. Even though the technology is different, it is all agricultural
biotechnology. I think that the average consumer would view cloning
as a much bigger and more dramatic step than altering the specific
genes of plants.
413. Particularly if it involves human genes?
the concern in that regard is greater. But I question just how
different the concern over genetic modification is here in Europe.
As you may know, three or four weeks ago there was a referendum
in Switzerland. Up until that time it was assumed that the Swiss
public was opposed to that sort of technology. That referendum,
which was anti-genetic modification, was defeated two to one.
Clearly, in that case the public examined the issue and endorsed
the technology. Perhaps there are real opportunities with further
education and greater transparency in the whole process to increase
public confidence and acceptance of the technology.
414. Concerns have been expressed here by
quite serious people. For example, today, English Nature, which
is the Government's own adviser on nature conservation, has called
for a moratorium on the commercial planting of genetically modified
crops until 2002 to allow research to take place. That reflects
a degree of public anxiety.
A. I understand.
Related to that, certainly the statement of Prince Charles three
or four weeks ago also received a lot of attention in the US.
415. There are various environmental concerns
apart from those mentioned by Lord Moran. Witnesses have referred
to concerns about the creation of a super weed and the possibility
of the escape of genes from genetically modified plants into their
relatives in the wild. In that context, one witness drew attention
to the fact that in the United States genetic modification would
take place in native species and it posed a huge risk for the
US. He did not understand why United States' consumers were not
more concerned about it.
A. That is a
legitimate issue to raise and examine, just like the issue of
resistance, but in the end the question is: What steps are the
regulatory agencies taking to guard against any adverse effect?
I have to fall back on our confidence that the regulatory agencies
are examining those very issues and concluding before they approve
any product that the risks are minimal or non-existent. The issue
of introducing non-native species is a very broad and important
one. It goes beyond the whole question of genetic modification
or traditional plant breeding. I recall seeing an article in the
papers just a week ago about how a non-native species of fishthe
northern pike - had been introduced into a lake in California
and it killed all the native trout. The whole issue and risk posed
by the introduction of non-native species is something that we
face regardless of whether or not the non-native species is the
result of genetic modification.
416. If I understood the witness correctly,
he was more concerned with the modification of native species
of crops in the United States and the greater likelihood that
genes could cross with weeds and so on and produce problems in
A. That may be
a legitimate concern, but I hope it is one that is fully taken
into account by our regulatory agencies before they approve a
417. In any event, it is not an issue that
has been widely raised by environmental groups or consumers generally?
A. It is raised
but, like the issue of resistance, it is one of the matters that
is methodically examined as products are submitted for approval.
418. One of our witnesses, Professor Beringer,
who is an expert in this field, raised the question whether there
is a hole in our regulatory system in that no Government advisory
committee here is looking specifically at the impact of changing
agricultural practice on wildlife populations. Is that a concern
in the US? Which US regulatory organisation is responsible for
that? Is it a real problem?
A. We have not
found that to be a particular problem in the US with respect to
genetically modified commodities. There is great interest in maintaining
or increasing wildlife numbers. We have been quite successful
in the US in increasing our bird and deer populationto
the point where deer are much more of a nuisance in the US. If
we look at black bears, bald eagles and other species, wild life
numbers have increased dramatically over the past 20 years because
we have a conservation reserve programme that has converted millions
of marginal acres of farmland into conservation uses, permanent
grassland and so on. All of that has helped wild life numbers
to recover. There is an opportunity here with genetic modification
because that could increase the diversity of crops. It provides
an opportunity to support increased numbers of species. I have
an article here which talks about the interest on the part of
farmers to "break from the shackles of producing no.2 yellow
corn". No.2 yellow corn is such a standard commodity that
today farmers who want to maximise their income are very interested
in trying new and different commodities. That is why they feel
that genetic modification is exciting. It may offer opportunities
to diversify their production. That is part of the reason they
are embracing the technology.
419. One of the problems with the technology
is that if something goes wrong and, for example, a superweed
is created, it may be unstoppable. Would that be the responsibility
of the Department of Agriculture in the US? Who would foot the
bill? Would the cost be met by the insurance companies of genetically
modified crop producers?
A. I am not sure
that if a problem developed it would necessarily be unstoppable.
One might be able to control some of the problems that occurred.
Generally, it is up to our Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service to try to go out and eradicate any particular weed species
that may develop and cause problems. Typically, that agency co-operates
with state governments on those kinds of eradication programmes.
It may be that someone would have a basis for bringing suit against
the manufacturers of a genetically modified product, but it is
hard to say if that person would prevail in such a case.