Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 820-829)



Paddy Tipping

  820. We talked earlier on about the political targets set for organics, and we heard our previous witnesses talking about the need to protect the countryside. I was interested in your point of reference, the ordinary person in Berlin. One of the big debates here is around new technology in food: biotechnology and GM. What is the debate like in Germany, in Berlin, around these issues, around on the one hand the milder agriculture, organics for example, less intensive farming, and the need to develop the new technologies?
  (Mr Schwinne) The discussion is highly influenced by the discussion in the media at the present time, and the normal German consumer is a little afraid—afraid for health reasons, because it is nowhere clearly said that normally there are no health problems at all—and those who think more about the environmental problem, and the environmental problem could be the bigger problem. One thing I do not understand myself is why it is not possible to publish a simple book, with 150 pages or 200 pages, which the Americans can do very easily—the Germans cannot do that—where they put the problems and the results of science down in a way that everybody can understand, even myself. So I would love to have such a book, but it does not exist. When you discuss this with the American Soybean Association, you ask them where is this book? You write on everything which is very complicated, you write in very simple terms how it is. It is wonderful that you have these books, but, why is there not such a book on GMOs? I do not understand it. I will not condemn GMOs, but people want to know, and they do not know. This, I think, is wrong. Nobody helps them.

  821. So there is a public perception problem?
  (Mr Schwinne) And a security problem.

  822. Around the environment, cross-contamination?
  (Mr Schwinne) Yes.

  823. Would you see further investment in biotech, GMOs?
  (Mr Schwinne) At the moment, no. We have a moratorium in Germany and the EU. It will be discussed in the Community. The Community will try to decide before October. There has been a threat of the United States to introduce a panel on GMOs. Also I read this morning, I think in the Financial Times, that President Bush said that world nutrition should be secured through GMOs. These are points where we have, of course, in Germany difficulties in putting this all together, because if and when we introduce GMOs we have to be very careful and do it step by step.

  824. The parallels of discussion seem very similar. One of the discussions here at the moment is about food labelling. There are enormous demands to put things on a food label, which might eventually come to your 150 pages of a book, or 100 pages. How far does the EU, do you think, and more particularly WTO, constrain food labelling? Do you think that the demands that have been made are too heavy, too rigorous?
  (Mr Schwinne) On the GMO food labelling there will be a decision this autumn, I hope, on labelling. There are relatively strict rules in the WTO and in the TBT agreement, but we do not have many decisions or pending decisions on TBT, so we do not really know how these rule will be interpreted. What we learned not on GMOs, but on wine labelling, is simply the WTO rules have implications for all of us, because if you exempt one country from labelling a something, then you do have to give this privilege to all the others. But I cannot be very precise on the WTO position on labelling.

Phil Sawford

  825. You mentioned earlier the dislocation between people's perception—the violet cow syndrome. It is interesting to hear how people in Germany see German agriculture. How do they see British agriculture, with BSE and foot and mouth? Is it seen as efficient, inefficient, dirty? This is the person in Berlin. Is it seen as bad?
  (Mr Schwinne) I would not say so. British agriculture—what would they say? If they have been in England once or so, or in Scotland, they would see meadows, hills, sheep, fog, rain, good meadows, and I think BSE is widely forgotten. What is not yet forgotten are the fires where animal carcasses were burned, but the normal human being forgets relatively quickly. My first idea, if you would ask me on British agriculture, would not be BSE or foot and mouth. I would not see British agriculture very positively. French agriculture is looked upon much more positively, and Italian agricultural products too. If you look at these ideas they have, they are determined by the general view they have of the country. Britain is not considered to be an agricultural country by an average German, so he would not look at agriculture. When you ask them for a product, they might say lamb and mint sauce, but most Germans would not say anything. On Italy they would know a number of products. But if you asked an Italian on Germany about the products of Germany, the only thing they might know would be "Wurst."

  826. It is interesting that they really do not see Britain as an agricultural country, is that right?
  (Mr Schwinne) The Berliner. You asked me about the Berliner. A German farmer could see this differently.

  Phil Sawford: Thank you.


  827. Director General, I have just a couple of final points, if I may. We had in front of us last week a company called Whitbread which runs chains of restaurants—relatively fast-food restaurants—in the UK and in the rest of Europe. It said that in its German chains it supplied Argentinian beef because it could not get the quality it needed, or the consistency and quality, in Germany. When the Committee went to New Zealand recently some of the New Zealand farmers showed us with great glee the menu card from Lufthansa which specified that they were serving Australian or New Zealand beef and not European beef on their menus. Do you think the reforms and the changes you have outlined, which might well deliver to the public goods people want, however we define them and however we might identify them, would actually mean that our farmers are likely to produce something the consumers want more than they do at the moment in terms of food—back to food, the number one item of agriculture?
  (Mr Schwinne) Let me put it this way. One could dream about further development. We would have the grassland premium, but we would have the assurance and the efficiency. We would then realise that the farmers would not have anymore young bulls in stables with little daylight, but would have steers on the grassland, on the hills or at the coast or wherever, and the prices for land would go down. The prices could even go down the same amount the premiums go down, so that it would be the same for the farmer. It would be very high ones in the West German case. Then you could come to the situation where Argentinian beef from steers would be as expensive in Europe, as German beef—or you can also take other Member States—but as German beef from hillsides in northern Baden Württemberg or wherever, and the quality would be the same, because the animals would be reared the same or almost the same way.

  828. Finally, we have found, I think, that the debate in Britain and Germany is really quite a similar debate. There are some parts of the debate which we are quite sympathetic to, and there are other parts of the debate which I suspect we might not be quite so sympathetic to. When you look at the Council of Ministers, how wide an echo do you think we would find amongst other Member States for the debate we are having in Britain and Germany?
  (Mr Schwinne) Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands—they are looking in this direction—partly also France. The problem is how steep the percentage shall be, how fast the premiums will go down. This is the problem. Spain has different problems. I learn from Portugal that Portugal is interested in using much more money for rural development, which is due to the structure in Portugal. So there is something going in this direction. How fast we can decide was a question I was asked at the beginning. It is very difficult to say, but I think in 2005 or 2006 at least we should go in this direction, with the decision taken perhaps in 2003. There is a rumour that we will get the formal proposals in June, but I have learnt that only in November will we get them. Then we really will decide in 2003, and it will enter into force at the earliest in 2004 or at the beginning of 2005.

  829. Herr Schwinne, thank you very much for coming. You have given us some very valuable insight, with a great deal of humour. I know that it is not easy operating for an hour like this in a foreign language, so we are going to award you a doctorate! We are very grateful to you for the memorandum you sent, the information you have given us and your courtesy in coming here. Thank you very much indeed.
  (Mr Schwinne) Thank you. It was an honour for me to be questioned by Members of the Mother of Parliaments.


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