Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report


FIFTH REPORT

The Environmental Audit Committee has agreed to the following Report:—

  GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS AND THE ENVIRONMENT:
  COORDINATION OF GOVERNMENT POLICY

Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations

    1. The Committee's conclusions and recommendations are set out below:

A new approach

      (a)  We conclude that there is a need for a new strategic approach to complement the work on risks to human health and the environment and the case-by-case focus of the existing system in responding to applications. This should be built on the precautionary approach and seek to balance the industry's commercial agenda with a focus on the possibilities of applications of GM technology that will contribute to the mitigation of the environmental impacts of agriculture. Government must develop new mechanisms and ways for working alongside, and influencing, the industry's research effort to this end.

    If necessary Government should re-consider the role of publicly-funded research in this area. (Paragraph 30)

New mechanisms

      (b)  We conclude that there is a need for an over-arching advisory committee for Ministers to consider the development of GMOs from a perspective above and beyond the examination of applications by the existing regulatory system. This should be a committee of experts and lay members and include the chairmen of the individual advisory committees. Its main tasks should include the provision of published advice to Ministers on:

STRATEGY

  • setting the general direction for the role of GMOs in agriculture, defining which impacts will and will not be acceptable and identifying potential for biotechnology to contribute to sustainable agricultural practices;

  • the oversight of new developments in biotechnology that may be expected to have wider environmental, social, ethical or economic consequences;

  •  the identification of the best environmental option to address biodiversity decline through a comparison of GM and non-GM crop management in the context of realising a more sustainable agriculture;

  • liaison with any body set up to look at the health effects of GMOs over the longer term;

REVIEW

  • the coordination and review of the advice of the existing committees including an audit function with respect to how that advice is used by Government;

  • review and assessment of the implementation of the precautionary principle in the advice received, and decisions taken, by Government;

  • taking an overview of broader issues relating to biotechnology across their various remits, in particular issues that the individual committees may not be dealing with such as risk/benefit analysis, generic ethical issues and the environmental implications of international trade negotiations;


ARTICULATING PUBLIC VALUES

  • the incorporation of people's values in the way policy questions are framed as well as in the eventual decisions on GMOs (the values of citizens rather than compromises brokered between interest groups); and

  • the provision of authoritative advice at short notice in response to public alarm over particular issues. (Paragraph 32)

We conclude that a stakeholder forum could serve an important purpose but if it is to be established it should be a distinct entity, but linked to, the committee recommended above. (Paragraph 33)

Public concerns and values

      (c)  We recommend that the advice of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on the incorporation of public values and concerns be applied to GMO policy. We also agree with Baroness Young's personal view that, if public confidence in the Government's monitoring of genetic modification is to be rebuilt, it is a task for concerted effort by Government over 5 to 10 years. We certainly believe that an improved information strategy is required if the Government is to address what Ministers described as "hysteria" in the press. (Paragraph 36)

      (d)  We believe that there should be consistent protocols for the inclusion of lay members on all the advisory committees on GMOs. (Paragraph 38)

      (e)  We recommend consistent arrangements for openness and transparency of proceedings across all the advisory bodies - and we single out the practice of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides as in need of reform. (Paragraph 39)

      (f)  We recommend that the Government pursue agreement in Europe on detailed guidance on risk assessment in terms of both the procedures to be followed and the evaluation of the results. We further support the proposal of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that there be comprehensive explanations attached to every official decision on GMOs. (Paragraph 40)

Moratoria and farm-scale trials

      (g)  The Government has secured an agreement with industry that it will not proceed to commercial plantings of GM crops until the farm-scale trials, designed to compare the impacts on biodiversity of GM and non-GM crops have yielded satisfactory results that there is no significant or lasting damage to the environment. (Paragraph 43)

      (h)  We received assurances that the agreement to delay commercial plantings of GM crops were linked to whatever length of time it took for the trials to produce results; which may be two years, four years or, in the words of the Minister of the Environment, "considerably longer". (Paragraph 44)

      (i)  We recommend that:
  • the Government, its statutory advisers and industry should agree a protocol covering the terms under which the farm-scale trials will be conducted, inspected and concluded and the data interpreted;

  • the protocol should also cover the treatment of the produce from the trials over their life, including disposal; and

  • the protocol should state clearly that the parties agree that only when its terms are satisfied will commercial planting of the relevant GM crops be able to go ahead if still desired.

This protocol should be published. (Paragraph 45)

The international dimension

      (j)  We believe that the explicit subordination of a multilateral environmental agreement, such as the Biosafety Protocol, to agreements on international trade rules would be a deeply unfortunate precedent to set. We recommend that the Government must make every effort to revive the negotiations on the Protocol and bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. (Paragraph 48)

      (k)  We recommend that a Minister from the Department for International Development be appointed to the Cabinet Ministerial Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification. (Paragraph 49)

Labelling

      (l)  We believe that there is likely to be an ever-growing demand for information about the food we eat - both about its constituent ingredients and the processes by which it has been produced and the wider impacts that those processes have. (Paragraph 52)

      (m)  Whilst recognising the difficulties in securing 'labelling for process' we regard it as a valuable goal and we urge the Government to work with industry to achieve it. (Paragraph 52)

Liability

      (n)  On grounds of promoting public confidence alone we see merit in the inclusion in the EC Directive on the Deliberate Releases of specific provisions for the liability of those with responsibilities for the release of GMOs that cause environmental damage. (Paragraph 55)

      (o)  We recommend that the UK seek agreement within the EU for a provision on liability to be part of the EU's mandate for further negotiations on the Biosafety Protocol. (Paragraph 55)


 
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