Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
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
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
(Mr Holden) That is a very strong allegation to make,
but I think there is a difference between intimidation of thethere
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
(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
(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
(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
(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
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
(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.