Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report



2. This Committee is charged with reporting to the House on the contribution of Government policies to environmental protection and sustainable development. The potential risks and benefits of biotechnology and genetic modification raise significant issues for sustainable development.

3. In 1996 the non-segregation of genetically modified and conventional soya beans in the United States raised the profile of a longstanding debate over the benefits and risks of genetic modification.[1] In February 1998 the European Commission published proposals for the revision of the European legislation which governs the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) across the Community (EC Directive 90/220/EEC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms).[2] In February 1999 multilateral negotiations on rules to govern international movements of GMOs foundered on the objections of exporting countries to the level of obligations and liability to which they might be subject.[3] Over the last couple of years there has been mounting public concern in the UK and Europe about the implications of genetic modification for food safety and for environmental protection.

4. Against this background the Government announced in October 1998 the establishment of a Cabinet sub-committee, the Ministerial Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification (hereafter 'the Cabinet Committee') with the aim of ensuring that Government's policies develop in a coordinated way.[4] In December 1998 the Government announced two initiatives. The first was a consultation exercise on the people's attitude to biosciences (awareness, understanding and priorities). The second was a review of the framework for overseeing developments in biotechnology, focussing on the Government's advisory and regulatory committees. In addition the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has been examining the social and ethical dimension of genetic modification and is set to report in May 1999.

5. Parliament has not stood idly by. The House of Lords European Communities Committee (Sub-Committee D) reported on the revision of the Deliberate Release of GMOs Directive and related issues (the 'Lords report') in December 1998.[5] The Science and Technology Committee also intends to report on GMOs as a case study in its wider look at the provision of scientific advice to Government.[6] There has also been scrutiny by the European Scrutiny Committee and debate of the revision of the relevant Directive in European Standing Committee. Most recently the Agriculture Committee examined Ministers on 5 May 1999 in the light of the Government's response to the Lords report.[7] Our report draws upon all available material.

6. Our inquiry, announced in February 1999, was aimed at the arrangements within Government for coordinating policy on the development and use of genetically modified organisms in the light of the implications for environmental protection within the context of sustainable development. We highlighted a number of questions in relation to: the need for a more strategic approach to the environmental implications of GMOs; the necessary elements and mechanisms of such an approach; the incorporation of public concerns and values into policy; the provision of consumer choice as it relates to environmental policy; and the scope Government action within the EU and WTO obligations. We also asked whether there were adequate arrangements for civil liability on GMO-related environmental damage.[8]

7. Our inquiry focussed on the Government's approach to these matters rather than attempting to assess the available evidence for and against the use of GMOs. We have not examined policy on GM food and human health in detail. This report is intended to complement the environmental dimension of the Government's forthcoming conclusions on genetic modification. Given this aim the inquiry has been necessarily a short one with oral evidence restricted to Ministers and their advisers on science and nature conservation as set out below.

8. We received memoranda from a range of sources: the Government, environmental groups, the industry and the scientific community.[9] We took oral evidence from Baroness Young of Old Scone, Chairman, and Dr Keith Duff, Chief Scientist, English Nature, (the Government's statutory adviser on nature conservation in England); Sir Robert May, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Office of Science and Technology (OST); Rt Hon Dr John Cunningham, MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chairman of the Ministerial Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification (MISC 6); and Mr Jeff Rooker, MP, Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) & Rt Hon Michael Meacher, MP, Minister for the Environment, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR). We were grateful for the advice of Ms Julie Hill, The Green Alliance and member of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and Mr Derek Osborn CB, Chairman of the European Environment Agency.

9. Many of our submissions, and of course the Lords report, set out a great deal of the background, history and detail of the science involved.[10] Genetic modification is a branch of biotechnology involving the alteration of the genes of an organism so as to produce a new or 'modified' organism capable of producing new substances or performing new functions.[11] Current usage implies the manipulation or introduction of genetic material which could not have been achieved using traditional breeding methods (although accepted techniques can in some cases both defeat sexual incompatibility[12] and deliver similar traits sought from genetic modification to date[13]). The current generation of GMOs, and of particular focus in this report, are GM crops (predominantly maize, soya, oilseed rape and sugar beet) modified to be either: tolerant of a particular herbicide; able to resist insects by the production of toxins; or both.[14]

1  Sixty per cent. of processed foods contain soya or soya derivatives. The US is an important source of Europe's soya. The decision not to segregate the US crop has been described as "having few competitors for top prize for the most spectacular strategic business misjudgement of the 1990s". Environmental Date Services Report, August 1999, p18. Back

2  'Genetic modification' and, where applicable, 'GM' and 'GMOs' are used throughout this report. Equivalent terms used in evidence to us include: genetic engineering; genetic manipulation; and DNA recombinant technology. Back

3  These rules were contained in the Biosafety Protocol of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. An Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention (ExCOP) (in Columbia in February 1999) was suspended without conclusion. It is to reconvene before the next ordinary COP in May 2000. Back

4  See Note 5 below, HL 11-II, Q603. Evidence to this Committee from Ministers indicated that the proposal for the Cabinet Committee originated in May 1998, Q282. Back

5  Second Report from the Select Committee on the European Communities (Sub-Committee D, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food),1998-99, HL 11-I Back

6  Likely to be published as the First Report, 1998-99, HC286. Back

7  Likely to be published as HC427-i, 1998-99.  Back

8  Environmental Audit Committee, Press Releases: 8 and 10, Session 1998-99 Back

9  A full list is set out at the back of this report. The written and oral evidence taken by the Committee is published in a separate volume, HC384-II. Back

10  Passim Back

11  Alteration includes the rearrangement or deletion of existing genes or the insertion of genes from another organism. Back

12  For example, where an embryo produced from two normally incompatible plants, which would normally abort, is artificially preserved - "embryo rescue". Back

13  For example, herbicide tolerance, see Q287 Back

14  There is currently no commercial cultivation of GM crops in the UK. About 300 hectares were under cultivation for trial and research purposes in 1998. Three GM products have been approved for sale in the UK: slow ripening tomatoes used in a paste (since 1996); and herbicide tolerant soya and maize used in a wide variety of processed foods (since 1996). In addition a number of genetically modified enzymes have been used in food production since 1990. Back

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