GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS AND
COORDINATION OF GOVERNMENT POLICY
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
and deliver similar traits sought from genetic modification to
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;
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
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
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
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
Report from the Select Committee on the European Communities (Sub-Committee
D, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food),1998-99, HL 11-I Back
to be published as the First Report, 1998-99, HC286. Back
to be published as HC427-i, 1998-99. Back
Audit Committee, Press Releases: 8 and 10, Session 1998-99 Back
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
includes the rearrangement or deletion of existing genes or the
insertion of genes from another organism. Back
example, where an embryo produced from two normally incompatible
plants, which would normally abort, is artificially preserved
- "embryo rescue". Back
example, herbicide tolerance, see Q287 Back
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