Select Committee on Agriculture Third Special Report


The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—

The Committee has received the following memorandum from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, constituting the Government's Reply to the Eighth Report from the Committee of the 1999-2000 Session, Genetically Modified Organisms and Seed Segregation, made to the House on 26 July 2000.

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1.  The Government welcomes the Committee's report which provides a useful analysis of the issues raised by the Advanta rapeseed incident and helps to identify the key lessons that need to be learned. The Government notes that the Committee intends to look further into this matter in due course but has made the following recommendations for action in the short term:

    "Clearer procedures are required for dealing with incidents of this kind. It was obvious that confusion existed as to which Ministry should lead on the issue. The lengthy internal debates on the incident contrasts with the robust, rapid Swedish disclosure in like circumstances. Planting of the new crop of winter oilseed rape begins in August and it is essential that farmers are able to plant these crops with confidence. This means that this year's batch of seed must be tested and certified as free from GM content. For farmers near the field trials, it is also vital that they can be sure that their crops are protected as far as possible from inadvertent cross-pollination which will require a rapid assessment of the consultation on segregation distances and an equally rapid implementation of the advice which emerges as a result. Similarly, preliminary results from the trials on gene flow should be peer-reviewed as soon as possible. Seed companies too need urgent regulatory guidance from the Government, if only in the interim, in order that the possibility of seeds with GM impurities being planted in the UK be minimised. The question of liability should be addressed in this context. Finally, and above all, the newly-established Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission must be involved in these processes. These judgements will carry little confidence outside a narrow scientific community without broader consideration".

Government handling of the incident

2.  This was the first time that an unauthorised GM impurity was found in conventional seed in the UK. As a novel situation it raised difficult legal and technical issues which had to be considered very carefully before the appropriate and proportional course of action could be determined. At the time the Government was first told of the potential difficulty most of the basic facts of the incident were uncertain but it was understood that they were being clarified urgently.

3.  As soon as it was clear which GM seed lines were involved and the likely extent of the problem scientific advice was sought from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and from three expert committees; the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), the Advisory Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs (ACAF) and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). The FSA advised that oil from the GM line was as safe for food use as that obtained from conventional crops. ACAF confirmed that the GM presence, at the levels reported, did not pose a risk to humans or animals via use in animal feed. ACRE advised that risks to human health and the environment posed by the presence of GM seed were very low, and that there was no evidence that herbicide-tolerant GM rape is any more persistent, invasive or otherwise environmentally damaging than conventional oilseed rape in similar circumstances. The information given to the advisory committees and their full advice to the Government was published quickly. In light of advice from these committees, DETR officials, in consultation with MAFF officials, submitted advice to Mr Meacher indicating that this was not considered to be a safety issue.

4.  Legal advice confirmed that the Government could not order the affected crops to be destroyed, because there was no tangible risk, but highlighted the complex way in which GM legislation and seeds legislation interact.

5.  The Committee pointed to the rapid disclosure of the Advanta matter by the Swedish authorities. The Government agrees that there are lessons to be learned from the handling of this incident and that with hindsight certain things should have been done better, but the comparison with Sweden is inappropriate. By the time it became apparent that the problem also applied to Sweden (nearly one month after the UK), the early uncertainties had been resolved. Looking to the future, the Government is taking steps to prevent a recurrence of this problem but it will ensure that appropriate action is taken should a similar incident occur. This will take account of the experience of the Advanta case.

Seed Testing

6.  The Government agrees with the Committee on the need for arrangements to test conventional seed for GM content. The responsibility for this rests primarily with the seed companies who have a clear duty of care not to import unauthorised GM seed varieties. The Government wrote to seed importers in 1997 and again in June 2000 to emphasise that they are expected to take all reasonable measures to ensure compliance with EU Directive 90/220 which prohibits the marketing of unauthorised GMOs. These measures will include seed testing, especially where material is sourced from countries or areas where GM crops are being grown commercially on a wide scale. At MAFF's request, the British Society of Plant Breeders wrote on 24 October 2000 outlining the action the seed industry had taken to ensure that these obligations are met.

7.  For its part the Government has arranged for the GM Inspectorate at the Central Science Laboratory (CSL) to inspect seed importers to audit their operations and verify that they are taking the action required of them. If CSL believe that quality assurance procedures are inadequate they will take seed samples and undertake their own tests for GM content. Should an unauthorised GM be discovered appropriate enforcement action would be taken under the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. This programme of seed import audits began last summer and focused initially on the seed for this winter's crop of oilseed rape. All the major suppliers have been audited and no problems have been found. The programme will be kept under review in the light of the expected developments in the legislative rules on seed purity (covered below).

Segregation (or Separation) Distances

8  Last August the Government published the findings of the scientific review and public consultation it had commissioned on separation distances (attached at Annex B [not printed]). Ministers are presently considering what changes would be appropriate to separation distances used in future rounds of the farm scale evaluations. They will make an announcement in due course. Appropriate separation distances will ensure that any impact on neighbouring farms, through cross pollination with compatible non-GM crops, is minimised and high standards of crop purity maintained.

9.  The scientific review by the National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) raised one point requiring immediate attention. This was the advice that varietal associations and partially restored hybrids of oilseed rape are more susceptible to cross-pollination than ordinary rape and require a greater segregation distance to achieve the same cross-pollination limit. In response the Government asked both ACRE and SCIMAC to reflect urgently on the NIAB findings. ACRE's advice, which has been published, was that these did not alter its previous opinion on the safety of releasing GM oilseed rape. SCIMAC voluntarily agreed to apply an extended segregation distance to reduce cross-pollination of any neighbouring varietal association rape by the GM rape in the FSEs sown last autumn, pending further consideration of the issue by Ministers.

10.  Preliminary data on gene flow from the FSE trials will be released as soon as it is available. The data will be placed on DETR's web site and be open to scrutiny by the scientific community and other interested parties.

Seed Purity Rules

11.  The Government agrees that urgent rules are needed to deal with the possible adventitious presence of GM impurities within conventional seed. This was a key part of the action plan that the Government announced in its initial response to the rapeseed incident. Because of the nature of the trade in seeds it is essential that appropriate rules are established on an international basis. The Government has therefore pressed for action within both the EU and OECD seeds fora.

12.  As the Government informed the Committee on 10 October, the European Commission published a set of interim seed purity measures to facilitate harmonised action by EU Member States on a voluntary basis, pending agreement on legislative proposals. Under the interim measures a zero threshold is stipulated for GMOs which do not have a marketing consent under Part C of Directive 90/220, and a 0.5% threshold for GMOs which have such an authorisation. This is less than the 1% threshold already approved for GM material in foodstuffs.

13.  The interim measures provide a temporary framework which helps to control the incidental presence of GM impurities, protect consumer choice and allow the legitimate trade in seeds to continue. The Government has made certain that seed companies understand this situation and is taking appropriate steps to ensure that the possible occurrence of GM impurities is minimised.

14.  MAFF has emphasised the importance of this issue to the Commission, and the need to take forward action swiftly. The Commission has now taken matters a stage further by circulating a Working Paper (attached at Annex A [not printed]) outlining possible proposals for the legislative control of adventitious GM impurities in non-GM seed lots. These can be summarised as follows:

  • GM material which is not covered by an EU authorisation under Part C of Council Directive 90/220 would not be permitted as an impurity within conventional seed. In other words, a 0% threshold would apply.

  • GM material which is covered by a Part C authorisation should not exceed a threshold of 0.3% in the case of cross-pollinating varieties and 0.5% in the case of self-pollinating and vegetatively propagating crops.

  • no GM plants of the same, or closely related species, may have been grown in the land used for seed production of a non-GM variety for five years in the case of small seeded legumes (fodder plants), oil and fibre plants, two years for other plants.

  • the distances currently applicable to the isolation of seed crops of conventional cross-pollinating varieties should be doubled in respect of neighbouring sources of pollen from GM plants.

  • all packages of seeds must carry the following declaration on the required labels: "EU-unauthorised genetically modified organisms not present".

  • packages of seeds of genetically modified varieties covered by an EU authorisation under Part C of Council Directive 90/220/EEC must carry the following declaration on the required labels: "genetically modified variety".

  • examinations required for compliance would be carried out either officially or under official supervision but this would not be necessary if the seeds have been produced in areas where GM varieties of the same species, or of a closely related species are not grown.

15.  The Commission has made clear, however, that these represent only working propositions. They have asked the EU Scientific Committee on Plants for its view of the scientific validity of their ideas and have also pledged to consult the EU Standing Committee on Seeds and the EU seed trade organisations before reaching a final view.

16.  MAFF is consulting widely on these outline proposals. In doing so, it has made clear that it has an open mind on them and that the Government will not form its opinion before taking into account all the views that are expressed.

17.  The Commission has already held meetings to discuss sampling and testing methods for the implementation of GM thresholds, and further meetings are planned. The aim will be to produce clear and workable protocols for both the industry and Member States' enforcement agencies.

18.  The adoption of new legal standards for GM presence should provide seed companies and farmers with a clear framework in which they can operate with a high degree of confidence. In the longer term, the European Commission has issued a White Paper on the general issue of environmental liability and has undertaken to bring forward legislative proposals later this year which will cover GMOs. The Government recognises that there may be a case for some form of EU action in this area and has responded to the Commission's White Paper accordingly. The Government is examining the current position on liability under domestic legislation

Involvement of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission

19.  The Government agrees that the AEBC has an important role to play in bringing a broader perspective to bear on GM issues, in particular in relation to public acceptability of the new technology and the interface between scientific opinion and the public's understanding of a highly technical subject. This was the impetus behind the Government's decision to establish the AEBC and is reflected in its terms of reference. In the light of the rapeseed incident the Government has asked the AEBC to consider the specific question of gauging public acceptance of levels of GM impurity. It is hoped that the AEBC will provide advice on this in due course.

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

January 2000

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