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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Let me move on to another area. You used a very interesting phrase there, `an informed opinion' and I was glad that you used that; because I want to spend just a moment or two looking at the state of our public debate over this whole matter of GMOs. If you want the public to have an informed opinion, do you think it is helpful that, because of what has happened to some farmers who have been involved in the extensive field trials, inevitably they will feel, if you like, vulnerable and defensive about being too open in identifying where they are, inviting people in to talk about what is going on, to try to have that informed debate, when the reward for the informed debate, for some, has been the destruction of the crop? Do you think that is a fair way in which to have an informed debate?
  (Mr Holden) Do you mean the fact that the whereabouts of the crops were revealed, or the direct action consequences?

  21. I think the answer is, it is a bit of both, because, if we were interested in an objective and balanced debate, we would actually want members of the public to go along and be able to talk to farmers about what it meant to grow a GM crop, actually to see it, feel it, touch it and have that informed debate. But, I suspect, under the current circumstances, some people would be a bit wary about having such an open discussion, because the precedent is that, in certain cases, some farms have suffered, as a result?
  (Mr Holden) We have always been in favour of full disclosure of the information.
  (Ms Meziani) I just want to mention, that it might be the case, that some farmers feel a little intimidated, but I think actually the level of intimidation has been very heavily on the other side, to be honest. If we think about the position of scientists that actually would like to expose something negative about GMOs, how many scientists would really dare risk what now amounts to their whole career and reputation; if we just look at what happened to Arpad Pusztai, who was sacked immediately for trying to show that he had discovered something negative, he was gagged, he could not talk about it, he was discredited, he lost his whole career. That sent a very strong message, and his work has never been replicated, and that was the only Government scientific study into the health risks of GMOs, I believe, internationally; so that sent a very strong message, in terms of having a balanced debate. And then I can think of other examples. We know of somebody in the organic seed-breeding sector in America, who was trying to speak about the problems of GMOs, and Monsanto have taken him to court several times, for, supposedly, slanderous comments, which I believe were factual comments, so that now he cannot even talk about GMOs publicly on the same platform as Monsanto.

  22. I do not think, with respect, that the examples you have quoted have in any way prevented a pretty robust exchange of views, both for and against the particular thing. I am interested in the balanced argument. How do you feel though, and, a moment ago, in your evidence, you were talking about the fact that you felt that the bias, if you like, in the discussion had been to the pro GM camp, but `Mutant crops could kill you', `Is baby food really safe?', `Human genes in GM food' are but some of the headlines which have informed this so-called "balanced debate". Is this the kind of way you think the public ought to be involved in such a discussion?
  (Mr Holden) I know, at its most emotive, some of the headlines fall into the category you have just described; but, if you take the public debate and the press coverage of that debate, in the round, I think it has been responsible and very much in the public interest. And I was interested to hear about a public opinion research poll, which had been done, looking at the degree of opposition to GMOs amongst the readerships of different national newspapers, and, amongst others, they compared the Daily Mail, which I think is regarded to have run a rather emotive campaign, with readers of the major broadsheets, and it was found that opposition amongst broadsheet readers was higher than that of Daily Mail readers. So I think that, by and large, with exceptions, obviously, the press actually have been quite responsible, and they have given the nation a chance to think about the issues deeply, whereas in North America that has not been the case.
  (Ms Meziani) Can I just say that, my comment on advice in favour of the biotechnology industry's information, I was not saying that was the public debate, I think that has been within Government circles.

  23. We mentioned the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission a moment ago; do you agree with them that the period during which the farm-scale evaluations have taken place has seen a sort of cooling-off period, in some of the conflict over GMOs, and do you think that, in itself, might help, in the future, in having this rational debate?
  (Ms Meziani) I just want to mention that I think there have been some very, very interesting developments happening in North America, which I think the Government and this Committee should definitely look at. And, I think, if this programme of trials has bought us time to consider the issues more widely, that is definitely one of the things that we would want to look at, because there are perhaps unexpected consequences and reactions amongst the farming community there; so that is one thing. And the other thing I would just say is that it has enabled time for more research to appear, showing how great the level of uncertainty is about this science.

  24. Let me ask you one final question about this. In our other major inquiry, into the future of farming without subsidies, we heard some very interesting public affairs information from the Whitbread organisation about what information the public wanted, and the public, when they are buying in supermarkets, seem to want to have lots of information, lots of labelling information, they want to know everything; when it comes to going out to eat, they seem to be a lot less interested in what it is, where it has come from, whether it is GM. Can you explain this sort of schizophrenia between the public, on the one hand, when they are buying the ingredients for their own preparation, and, on the other, when they are having, what was described to us by Whitbread as, an "eating experience", there, they seem to be more interested in the experience than anything about what they are eating? Does that not show a little bit of an oddity about the way this debate is being conducted?
  (Mr Holden) I think that is a very interesting observation, that the food service sector seems to be less sensitive to market preference than the retail sector. But I would say that I do not think it operates under a different set of laws, it is just that there is a time-lag, and we saw that, actually, with GM, but also we are seeing it with organic food. It is very interesting that, now, the market for organic food is growing quite strongly, nearly 50 per cent of baby food is now organic, and other sectors are growing to the point where they are no longer regarded as niche. But, if you look across to the restaurant trade, you will find that there is a very small number of restaurants that have an organic offer, but, as more and more people are electing to become committed organic consumers, they are increasingly asking questions about sourcing, when they eat out, and I am certainly one of those, I now want to know about the sourcing policy of restaurants I eat at. And I think the same applies for the GM issue; there seems to be a time-lag. But I think people, eventually, once they get seriously interested in an issue, it will transfer into the eating out, which, as you say, is more of an experience, but, nevertheless, eventually the same criteria start to apply.


  25. The science of this has remained rather elusive and uncertain, and the Soil Association has played its part in at least one of the recent events in that, and that is the publication of the Nature article by Quist and Chapela, a piece on the possibility that genes from genetically-modified crops had migrated into the gene pool of the natural crops of Mexico. And I think that the Soil Association commented on the initial publication of the article by Nature, at the end of last year. Has it made any comments on the later announcement by Nature that they feel that the publication was unjustified?
  (Ms Meziani) I cannot help smiling a bit, because I feel, occasionally, when something is a little positive for the biotechnology sector, it is very quickly spun as completely acting in their favour. I do not think Nature have themselves withdrawn the article, all they have done is published a critique from one of the reviewers who had suggested that perhaps it should not have been published. So they are just allowing a debate, it does not mean that the other peer reviewers did not still stand by the article; it is just a debate, it is not Nature . . .

  26. I think Nature said it a little bit more forcefully than that, actually. The quotation from the magazine that we have is that "in the light of criticisms and advice from referees, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify its publication of the original paper." And, I have to say, I am not a regular reader of Nature but an occasional one, that is certainly an unusual event in academic publishing. So did you feel that—
  (Ms Meziani) That is a bit stronger than I understood then. But I feel personally that there is an enormous amount of political pressure; the biotechnology companies have invested, economically, very, very large amounts, and I do not think the scientific community realise the pressure coming from the companies to make sure that all research is positive. And we see this time and again; they are doing all they can, I think, to prevent any exposure of any negative research, to intimidate scientists who might want to suggest there is a problem. And I think this falls into that category.

  27. So you think that the referees involved may have been intimidated to produce negative appraisals of this particular article?
  (Mr Holden) That is a very strong allegation to make, but I think there is a difference between intimidation of the—there are different ways of interpreting the word `intimidation'. I think there is a climate, Gundula mentioned earlier the difficulty of putting your head up above the parapet in scientific circles, in relation to showing an interest in opposing GM, because, certainly in academic circles, there is a huge funding preference in plant sciences; if you look in the plant science research in this country, there is a massive prevalence of research in that area. I have no evidence to substantiate the theory of intimidation, but I do think these pressures do exist within the academic world.

  28. It is a collective pressure that you feel is there?
  (Mr Holden) I think there is a tremendous pressure, huge pressure, people's professional lives depend on this.

  29. The more substantial point, that I think your press release went on to make, was that the message of this article was that GM crops can pass genes to non-GM plant. Now what evidence do you have that actually that is true?
  (Mr Holden) I think what we were assuming, from our release, was the veracity of this research. We have not got the resources to . . .

  30. When it says, "We have proof that GM crop pollen can spread to neighbouring farms," which is a statement by the Soil Association, that statement would be restricted to the fact that, as we know, pollen can travel some distance and can land on neighbouring farms, but the—
  (Mr Holden) No, it is more than that.

  31. Can you say how much more than that it is, because, obviously, the key message of this particular piece of research, which is now being questioned pretty severely, was not just that the pollen travelled but the genes actually travelled into the plant life, which is a very significant step beyond the pure travel by wind, or insect, that I think we have all recognised is established?
  (Mr Holden) Sorry; just to clarify your question. There is plenty of evidence that cross-pollination can occur.

  32. Yes; but whether it actually gets into the genes of that particular plant is the next step, is it not?
  (Ms Meziani) In my understanding, cross-pollination means then the genes are transferred into that other plant; whether it is the same thing, I do not know.

  33. The research, I may have misunderstood it, I have not read the piece myself, so I admit that straightaway, but the research implied that this had affected the gene pool of native Mexican crops. Now that is a significant movement from just simply that cross-pollination had taken place; at least, that is my understanding?
  (Mr Holden) Our understanding is that this event is entirely possible, because, cross-pollination between similar varieties of species, there is no debate about whether that can take place; what we took this article to conclude was that it is taking place. Now, if the science or the data on which that article was based now call that into question, as to the degree to which it has taken place, we will accept that, but we think it is already—

  34. Fair enough; but is there any further evidence you have got to add to the suppositions of—
  (Mr Holden) Plenty; but from other examples in North America.
  (Ms Meziani) I would just say that in North America we have seen contamination happening at very many levels, in many aspects of food production, both at seed production farms, between GM farmers and neighbouring non-GM farmers, at food processing levels. I read that article quite carefully and I am pretty sure I remember that, actually, the process that they suggested was wind pollination, but I think what was different was the significance of it, that it had actually transferred to a country which had a policy of not growing GM maize, and, moreover, that it had infected not just a normal commodity crop but a significant genetic resource.

  35. I thought the message was that, actually, a fundamental alteration had been made in the gene types within the plant?
  (Ms Meziani) That is what cross-pollination is though.
  (Mr Holden) That would only follow if cross-pollination had occurred; so the issue is whether the evidence is there that is has.

  36. So the supposition is that we have to demonstrate that first step, and you are satisfied that that is demonstrable, but this particular piece may be flawed, or may have been withdrawn, for other reasons?
  (Mr Holden) Exactly.

  37. The other issue relating to science has been the issue of, if you like, almost "So what?", in terms of human consumption of genetically-modified food, that, if we consume crops that are genetically-modified and have some curious gene within them for either improving productivity or taste, or whatever, the assumption that this may affect a human being has not been demonstrated, and indeed we consume loads and loads of things, but it does not make us change genetically to correspond to the things we eat, that the act of consumption does not make any difference to us. What evidence is there, on that; certainly, the evidence we have had drawn to our attention indicates that that does not happen, or it has not happened to date, and we have had millions of years to see it happen, although not millions of years of science to demonstrate it?
  (Ms Meziani) One thing that I think we find very difficult is that, very often, when health concerns come up, the biotechnology industry says, "Look at America; people have been eating GMOs for several years there, they seem alright." And nobody has actually done any monitoring at all of what is going on there; we have no idea. Presumably, if there are something like 300 million people in the country, there must be three million people, or so, dying every year. How much has this rate changed, how much have food-related illnesses changed since GMOs have been introduced? Actually, no-one has attempted it. This would be another example of absence of evidence, rather than evidence of absence of risk. And, my concern, I do not think there is a general concern, there is perhaps a bit of a concern that the inserted gene could somehow transfer to other organisms, and humans, if you consume them, and that is because there is something very different in genetic engineering, compared with normal breeding, and that is that, to introduce the gene, typically, part of a virus is used, because viruses are adapted to introduce genetic information. And it is for that reason that it is thought that there is no actual means of controlling this genetic part, this viral part, and so the gene could actually transfer out again; and this has been found to occur in bacteria in bees, which have consumed genetic GM pollen, that the genes have transferred out into the bacteria in the bee's gut, and also I believe into soil bacteria. So, actually, I think it has been proven in the laboratory that these genes can transfer, so there is no reason to think they could not.

  38. But it has not altered the genes of the bee?
  (Ms Meziani) It has altered the genes of the bacteria.

  39. Inside the bee's gut?
  (Ms Meziani) Yes; yes, I believe so. But this is just an example; there are so many of these risks. The science, if one understands it, seems to predict these sorts of things could happen, and, at the moment, we have no evidence that they cannot.
  (Mr Holden) So it is a question of horizontal transfer into bacteria, there is evidence that this can occur; and, despite what is sometimes referred to as "the North American human feeding trial", since there is no control, if, for instance, there was some increase in allergies that could be related to a GM derivative, there would be no means of knowing whether that was the case, because it is not a controlled feeding trial. So it is impossible to draw conclusions about the effect of the North American experience in informing whether it is producing side-effects, because it is not a controlled trial.

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