Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report


Moratoria and voluntary agreements

42. There has been debate and vigorous campaigning on the subject of a UK moratorium on the import or release of GMOs for any purposes for at least five years - the Five Year Freeze - on the grounds of the precautionary principle and levels of uncertainty over the long term impacts of the release and consumption of GMOs. The Government's reply initially was that the imposition of a moratorium would not stand up to challenge under WTO rules.[83] Friends of the Earth and the RSPB commissioned legal opinion which, perhaps not surprisingly, took a contrary view (the conclusions of which are set out in evidence in Appendix 4). English Nature was at pains to make its position clear on the question of a moratorium. Baroness Young told us "what we want is a period of research sufficient to have proper field-scale trials, and have enough time to analyse that data and come to conclusions as a result, and that fuller-scale commercial releases should not happen until that has happened ... The research that is currently under way will be complete by 2003. Depending on what it finds, it may or may not be a simple process of coming to a decision as to what its impact is ... the important thing is that this is going to be done on a stepwise basis because you cannot actually make decisions about what happens next until you have seen the result of what happened at the previous stage." [84]

43. In evidence to us Mr Meacher changed the emphasis of the Government's position in saying that "even if we were able to take unilateral action we do not think that it is the best way forward." Mr Meacher told us that the Government has secured an agreement with industry that it will not proceed to commercial plantings of GM crops until 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."[85] Ministers argued that this achieved the precautionary aims of a moratorium without legal entanglement or stopping the trials because under the terms of a strict moratorium these trials could not go ahead.[86]

44. We remain concerned about the level of certainty attaching to this agreement given its voluntary status. We recognise that it is in the industry's interests to get this right but also that there are significant investments at stake and hence a commercial pressure to proceed expeditiously. The voluntary status of an agreement may become a problem in the event of a dispute arising between industry, Government or other interested parties concerning the interpretation of the data, or, more likely, if disputes arise as to when to call it a day and declare the results sufficiently meaningful to draw conclusions. We asked Ministers about the timescales. 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 Mr Meacher, "considerably longer".[87]

45. In the event of dispute we remain concerned about the ability of Ministers ultimately to stop commercial plantings going ahead. Mr Meacher described the four hurdles to commercial cultivation of GM crops as: approval under Part C of the Deliberate Release Directive; approval as a novel food; National Seed Listing; and approval for a new use of herbicide.[88] However, we remain unclear whether a GM crop - already approved under the Deliberate Release Directive et al, and only awaiting variety listing, or the registration of herbicide change of use - could be prevented from going ahead on precautionary environmental grounds once it has passed either or both of these final hurdles. 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.

83  See Appendix 4 Back

84  QQ24 & 25 Back

85  QQ346 to 351. The Government has agreed with the industry to field-scale trial plantings of spring and autumn sown herbicide tolerant oil-seed rape and maize - 6 to 10 fields this year rising to 60 to 75 next year - to determine the impact of GM cultivation on biodiversity compared with its non-GM equivalent. These trials are outside legislative requirements but are part of the UK's unilateral precautionary approach. The trial plantings will be run under guidelines for management developed by the industry grouping SCIMAC (The Supply Chain Initiative for Modified Crops) to meet Government specifications. Back

86  QQ346 to 351 Back

87  Q332 Back

88  Q341 Back

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