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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Thank you very much for coming, in your case, Patrick, again, we have seen you before, and welcome you, Ms Meziani for the first time, I think, at least, at the front desk. The purpose of this brief inquiry is to update the Select Committee's awareness of the genetic modification debate. We approached the issue last about two years ago, and events have moved on and, arguably, the heated debate that was happening at that time has rather quietened down; but our task is to attempt to nail down where we are going now, and, perhaps more importantly, where we will be going in the future, post the current trials and the outcome of those. So, firstly, one of the issues that the AEBC, which was set up, I think, just after our last inquiry, that their report has since been published, and one of the key issues has been the foundations for a public debate and how that public debate can be conducted in an informative way for the public at large. Do you believe that they have identified correctly the need for that debate, first; and then, secondly, perhaps you have views on how it should be conducted, and what the role of Government should be?
  (Mr Holden) Could you just repeat, who are `they', that you just referred to?

  2. The AEBC.
  (Mr Holden) Yes, I think that the AEBC's report is to be commended, and they have identified the key issues which need to be publicly debated; so we are very supportive of their report and its recommendations. Is it alright, by the way, can we both make contributions to your questions, as appropriate?

  3. Yes, please do.
  (Mr Holden) Do you want to add to that?
  (Ms Meziani) Only that I see a notable lack of a real, genuine debate amongst the farming community, who are obviously going to be the ones taking up the crops; and we have a huge amount of information of how the farming community are experiencing GM crops in America, and I think they should be consulted equally and given the chance to debate the issue as well.

  4. So what timing do you think this debate should follow, bearing in mind that there was a very substantial debate, but not one prompted by any direct Government action, two years ago; what timing do you think this debate should follow, how should it be conducted? And you have already said that the farming community have a significant input, I am sure that is right, but what form should this debate have; do you think the Government has a role in it?
  (Mr Holden) I think the Government has a role and responsibilities in the debate. I think its role is to promote as informed a debate as possible about the issues, and its responsibilities are, where it falls outside the market alone, to guide developments, to make decisions that are in the public interest. And it seems to me that the case of genetic engineering is probably a perfect example of the development of a new technology, which is an example of the capacity of science to innovate in ways which potentially are going to have profound effects on the future of, in this case, agriculture. And, given the fact that this capacity to innovate is almost boundless now, because of the power of technology, this brings upon the Government the responsibility of making decisions on behalf of society; and the decisions which it needs to make need to be based, firstly, on evidence and also on other criteria which are not always evidence-based.

  5. Such as?
  (Mr Holden) Public opinion generally, intuition, I think there is a debate about naturalness, which is very interesting, in historic terms. I think it goes back to the Enlightenment, and I think there is a profound shift of public opinion taking place at the moment about the role, you know, of mankind's dominion over nature, and how we make decisions which involve technology impinging on naturalness, as it were; choice, liability, lots of areas.

  6. But how do you feel that opinion, naturalness, or the concept of naturalness, and intuition square with the harsh disciplines of, how do you square those sorts of concepts with the obligations of global trading rules, for example, where one has to demonstrate a scientific basis, or a health basis, for restrictions on the development of products?
  (Mr Holden) I think that is a very important question, and may have implications for future discussions in the WTO, because it is clear that there is an ongoing debate about what constitutes a trade barrier and what rights signatories to the WTO have to object to trade in commodities, or foodstuffs, that they are concerned about. But I would have thought that there was enough scope within the existing problems associated with GM to erect a legitimate objection to international trade in GMOs and their derivatives; but there needs to be further discussion about that.

  7. The last thing I would ask about is, would either the Soil Association's attitude to genetic modification or your perception of public opinion change, should the deliverables from genetic modification amount to provable health benefits, or substantial environmental benefits?
  (Mr Holden) I do not think one could say that we have rejected the possibility that those outcomes may already be put forward by the proponents of GM; but our objections relate to the range of issues, which we have put in the public domain for some years now, which are to do with the risks, the dangers, of unforeseen consequences, both on the environment and on human health, the denial of choice and the incompatibility of genetic engineering with what we see to be the principles of sustainable agriculture.

Mr Drew

  8. But, Patrick, if the world had been different and you had been faced with not a food alternative but a fuel alternative, or a health crop, it would have been much more difficult to mount—I am not saying you personally, I am saying generally—a campaign. GMOs happened at the time they did happen partly because of the public's complete distrust of some of the things that were happening to the food chain. And does it not say something, and we are going to go on later to look at regulation, about how you need to encompass food within other products, to make sure there is a balanced debate, because possibly you would not have had that full-scale debate if it had been the other way round; would you agree?
  (Mr Holden) Do you mean if it had been a non-food product?

  9. Yes?
  (Mr Holden) I do not agree with that. I think that food is probably a more emotive area, because you put it in your mouth; but my view is that the debate is about to start about cotton, the Indian Government recently having given the go-ahead for GM cotton to be grown in India. I would not rule out market rejection of non-food GM crops, I think that is still to come. So, personally, I think that the principles for non-food crops are exactly the same as those for food; the only area where we have differentiated is in the field of medical use, where our Council took the view that, derivatives of GMOs used for medical application, where individual citizens elected to treat themselves, and the derivatives were non-viable, we did not feel that was our territory to pronounce on.

Mr Curry

  10. Anybody who thinks that man has conquered nature is welcome to half a day in my vegetable garden, and they can look at the ravages of rabbits, pheasants, pigeons, partridges and all the other pests; life is one long battle against nature, and on the whole I am losing. So I do not buy that. I am bothered about intuition as one of your criteria. Here we are, if you look at the last five or six years, we had BSE, and what did Government say, we have got to try to judge things on the basis of the most recent, the most available science, the most up-to-date science. If you are trying to settle, let us say, there has been a series of arguments between the European Union and the United States on various food products, they all wrote returns about who has got the right science; if you are trying to arrange trade and acceptability and the mutual acceptability of products, how can you do it on any proper basis, on some form of scientific basis, how can you organise world trade on the basis of intuition? It does not seem to me that it is going to work?
  (Mr Holden) I think that is a very good example, and I would like to cite an example of precisely where we had a problem, in relation to the Soil Association Organic Livestock Standards Committee, which sat in the early eighties, and made a decision about the feeding of animal protein to ruminants. And we deliberated, I was on the Committee at the time, for several hours, and we had absolutely no evidence that there was likely to be any risk from feeding animal protein to ruminants, but we felt, we had a gut feeling, that it was against nature to feed animal protein to ruminants, that the public would not like it, intuitively, we felt that it was not a practice that was compatible with the principles of sustainable agriculture. So, based on those criteria, which were entirely unscientific and non-evidence-based, we made a decision; and later it proved that there were problems. But I do not think that relying only on intuition and gut feeling and commonsense is good enough for decision-making criteria, and that is why I think it is very important not to reject evidence or a science approach but to combine it with a non-evidence-based list of criteria. And, in relation to this discussion, I sent a paper to Michael Meacher, about two years ago, after one of the meetings that we had with him to discuss this issue, proposing some non-evidence-based criteria for this sort of decision-making process.

  11. And what did he say?
  (Mr Holden) Nothing has happened yet; but we submitted the paper anyway.

  12. There is a lot of concern that the precautionary principle, as enunciated here and in the European Union, can be used by people to sort of load in all sorts of objections, which may have nothing to do with the inherent merits of a product but have a particular spin; how do you measure intuition objectively, if you see what I mean?
  (Ms Meziani) I have been following the debate quite closely. I just want to say, my reading of the way in which the Government is guiding the process on GMOs is that it is highly political, and that it is based more on a principle that GMOs are somehow good, rather than any evidence that actually they are; and, to some extent, you could say they are going more by their own opinion, you could say, than the actual evidence. And I think what we are just trying to say is that we are absolutely certain there is a huge range of risks, and the problem at the moment is that it is the same as with BSE, it is an absence of evidence rather than evidence of an absence of risk, and the Government does not seem to have learned from the BSE disaster. So, at the moment, in terms of world trade, you can use the precautionary principle, and if there is not the evidence then what do you have to go on; you have to go on experience, informed opinion and, yes, intuition. If, in 20 years' time, these risks have been dealt with then, fine, we can reconsider, but why go down the road when so many people are sure there are so many risks. And I think what I find difficult, when you suggest, if there are clear benefits identified, would we then accept it, is the problem that those benefits would not actually negate the whole range of risks that had been identified; until those are dealt with, the fact that there might be some benefit from another area does not mean that, as a whole, it is actually going to be good for the world in any way.
  (Mr Holden) To answer your question about the science behind intuition, I do not think it is possible to answer that yet, but maybe in ten years' time we will have the scientific tools to understand more about intuition. But what I think would be fair to say is that most hypotheses, many hypotheses, which were tested by scientists, whose names went down in history later, probably will be ascribed to intuitive feelings, which they then tested, by those that invented them. If it were intuition only that was leading to a decision about a technology, I think we would be uncomfortable about that, but you have got to include it in a range of other criteria.

Mr Jack

  13. Can I just explore with you for a moment the question of how you deal with risk; we live in a risky world, there are all kinds of risks that life-threatening events will occur. In previous evidence from the Soil Association, we have heard of the risks that you see with genetically-modified crops, particularly various forms of contamination. What work have you done to identify what an acceptable level of risk would be, if somebody said, for example, that a separation distance of X would stop, as far as you could work out, a crop contamination occurring, and you could apply to any absolute statement an element of risk that something was wrong with it? Have you done any analysis as to what level of risk in a situation like that you would be prepared to accept, or are you arguing for an entirely risk-free scenario, in terms of the debate on GM?
  (Mr Holden) I will say something about that, and Gundula may want to add to it. I think that the buffer zone debate, which is not yet resolved, resulted from our acceptance that, despite our principled opposition to the trial plots, they were going to be planted, but we had to come up with a reasonable proposition, which could be implemented by the Government, to protect organic producers who are producing crops for a market which wishes to purchase a product which is completely free of contamination by GMOs. So we commissioned a third party to do some research on contamination, and we stuck by their recommendations. So, risk was not exactly the right word, I think, that I would use in that case, because what we were trying to do was to ensure that we could uphold what we regarded as our responsibility to deliver to the public what they expected from organic food.
  (Ms Meziani) I think what we are asking for is the minimum risk and the maximum level of possible benefits.

  14. But let me ask you what you mean by the word "minimum"; is that an event that is one in a million, one in 100,000, never?
  (Ms Meziani) I will explain. I think it depends on your alternatives, and, in terms of GMO, we would have to say what is the certainty that something negative is going to happen; and, if I list in my head just the range of possible risks, I would say, there are ten to 20, plus unknown risks. What are the chances that any of these are irreversible, quite high; what is the certainty of any benefit, why are we doing this at all.

  15. You are giving me a—
  (Ms Meziani) No, we have not got a figure. I am saying, you have to look at all of these factors and compare them with the alternative.

  16. The line of questioning before was to try to probe the science that lies behind the assessment of risk, and I am always very interested to know how people rate risk, and what you have described to me is a whole series of descriptions of risk. And that was why I was interested to know, in the context of—
  (Ms Meziani) I was just going to say, I do not think it is a science, I think the decision has to be a—

  17. No, the decision about it may not be scientific, but the statement, the odds on an event happening are mathematical, like actuaries predict, in general population terms, when people are going to die.
  (Ms Meziani) That is, if you have enough knowledge of the actual scientific processes.

  18. So you are saying that we will never have, in your judgement, enough knowledge—
  (Ms Meziani) I did not say `never'. In the current situation, we are absolutely sure, and scientists have said this themselves, that we do not have enough knowledge to assess the level of risk, and that is the problem.

  19. The public were given a real-world opportunity, when Sainsbury's and other supermarkets sold a genetically-modified tomato paste. When you looked at the way that that argument was presented to the public, what did you think was wrong with the way that the arguments were presented, because quite a lot of them rather liked the product, until, in the nicest sense, alternative arguments were put to them, where not only perhaps some of them shied away but the providers ran like mad? I am interested to know though, in the first instance, what you thought were the failings of the argument that enabled people actually to say, "Yes, I know there's a risk, but I'll buy this product"?
  (Mr Holden) I think, the fact is that the tomato paste product sold, in the early days, was partly to do with price, because it was attractively priced, but, more significantly, it was to do with a lack of information-most of the people who were buying the product were buying it unaware of all the issues, which subsequently became the subject of public debate. And if I take me, as it were, as a focus group example of that, when I first encountered this debate, which was at the beginning of the nineties, I was agnostic about GM, I thought, surely, there must be some benefits, and we should treat the introduction of the technology on a case-by-case basis. And it was not until two or three years after I personally had been exposed to the arguments for and against that I reached the conclusion, in parallel with the Soil Association Council, it was the trustees that debated this, that, firstly, there was no place for the technology in organic farming, and then, in 1997, that we saw no place for its application in agriculture at all; and the evolution of the opinion was based on facts, and then making an informed decision. And I believe that if you trace the evolution of public opinion in the UK it follows the same course, and America is just a bit behind.

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