Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
40. True; but there is no evidence to the contrary,
(Mr Holden) It gets back to Gundula's point earlier,
which is evidence; you say it.
(Ms Meziani) It seems just very strange, if you look
at the process, it rather predicts a range of risks; many people
are concerned, there are no obvious benefits, there are clear
alternatives, I think one should proceed on the basis of precaution.
I definitely feel very strongly we are not able to assess all
the risks, and therefore say what sort of level of risk, we are
not at that point. So I think these questions are very, very important.
(Mr Holden) It is interesting that in the medical
sphere a completely different approach has been taken, despite
the fact that their use is confined only to people who are sick,
who elect to use them and the derivatives are non-viable. So why,
if we have adopted that very precautionary approach for medical
use, why are we not adopting the same approach for agricultural
41. Can we turn now to the farm-scale evaluations
and the trials which have been allowed to continue, subject to
a number of conditions. I suppose, one of the most contentious
conditions relates to separation distances, or buffer zones. Now
I think SCIMAC have indicated 200 to 600-metre zones, and you
have indicated that you think that, in some respects, that could
be substantially lower than the EU suggested figure, particularly
for rape, and such; but how wide do you think buffer zones really
need to be, in terms of to ensure that there can be no contamination
into organics, and is it likely that such buffer zones can then
be practical in the size that they would have to be?
(Mr Holden) I think this is known already, but I will
just repeat, very briefly, that we commissioned the National Pollen
Research Unit to investigate precisely that issue, and they came
up with recommended distances which they considered would protect
organic producers against contamination, which was on a crop-by-crop
basis, so different distances for oil-seed rape, for sugar beet,
for maize and for other crops. And our approach to this was that
we felt that those distances should be built into the provision
for the licensing of future trials, and then on a case-by-case
basis a decision would be made, on a farm trial by farm trial
basis, based on the evidence, which would then be assessed; we
have got nowhere, so far, with advancing those arguments. But
while we have been pressuring for those buffer zones to be introduced
some new information has emerged, has it not, from the EU, which
perhaps you can speak about.
(Ms Meziani) Yes. I have not read the full report,
but it just seemed to confirm that the sorts of distances that
have been used in the UK would be inadequate, and you do need
very large distances; and that also follows on from the English
Nature report into the development of the so-called "super
weeds" in Canada, and I think that also concluded that, if
GMOs were introduced on a wide scale in the UK, contamination
and those sorts of consequences are inevitable. So I think we
just stand by the distances; those are based on, I think, a review
of all the scientific literature.
42. The five-kilometre for rape?
(Ms Meziani) Yes. I think it is between three and
(Mr Holden) Yes, six kilometres for rape and three
kilometres for maize.
43. But, given that there is a pretty wide divergence
of opinion as to what these buffer zones, separation distances,
should be, is it likely that we are going to be able to coincide
the interests of the various differing points of view on this,
in order to come to some sort of clear policy on it? Are we actually
going to be able to accommodate those interests, if the different
parties have a different view?
(Mr Holden) With respect, I do not think that that
should be the parameter, or the guiding parameter, for the decision-making.
If you take the AEBC position, they have upheld our position,
which is that the public have the right of choice, in relation
to organic food, and that right of choice should be protected.
And so then it is not a question of whether we can agree with
SCIMAC, it is a question of the science which would inform a decision
about the buffer zones needed to protect that right of choice.
44. So what you are saying is, if you went to
five or six kilometres, on an individual farm, case-by-case basis,
you tested within that buffer zone to see how far any penetration
had gone, then that would be the protection that you got for the
trial, it would also bring out the information necessary for any
future subsequent plantings?
(Mr Holden) We are saying that, from now on, any field-scale
trials, or any other plantings, should be made using that system
of prior identification of vulnerable farms, and then, on a-case-by-case
basis, an assessment made of the likelihood of cross-pollination.
45. So still a minimum of five or six kilometres?
(Mr Holden) Yes, that they should be the distances.
It is all very clearly set out in the recommendations we have
made to Government.
46. I wonder if you can help me. I have been
sitting here in a sort of growing mood of perplexity, because
our perceptions are obviously so different. From where I am sitting,
you seem to be winning this argument hands down; after all, you
have got the Government faffing around so much you have not the
faintest idea what its policy is any more, you have got the European
Union in an absolute blue funk about the whole business, and half
the States in the European Union saying they are not going to
approve it under any circumstances whatsoever. Goodness knows
what is happening with the field trials in the UK, are they sorting
the thing out or are they not sorting the thing out. And yet you
are sitting there, like a sort of group of Jehovah's Witnesses,
with a persecution complex, as if the whole world is against you,
and anybody who says that they are is fired, or is immediately
sent to the Tower of London, or is sort of burnt at the stake,
and pressures are put on scientists to come up with the right
results. My perception is, you are winning this; and your perception
is, you are clearly not winning it. Am I right, do you actually
think you are losing this argument?
(Mr Holden) I think we have won the public argument,
but I do not think we have won the struggle to prevent commercial
planting. And, if you look across to North America, I think there
is a catastrophe unfolding there, with a scale of cross-pollination
and other forms of contamination which is going to be very difficult
to deal with, which is already seriously affecting markets, international
markets, for the crops that have been grown from GMOs.
47. Can I ask you, leaving aside whether you
think it is a good thing or a bad thing, or any sort of judgmental
question, do you think that GM crops will be grown commercially
in the UK within, let us say, seven years, to choose a figure
absolutely with no particular relevance? Do you think they will
be grown, not whether you think it is a good idea or a bad idea,
but do you think that, pressures to do so, which you have described
at some length, and which you would argue the Government is supporting,
and your interpretation of the Government, actually, is that the
Government is gung-ho for GM, do you actually think we will see
commercial planting in the UK?
(Mr Holden) I do not think the Government is gung-ho
any longer. I think it has taken the report from the AEBC quite
seriously. I would say, the answer to that question hangs right
in the balance, at the moment. I think it is far from certain
now that commercial crop plantings will go ahead, but the pressures
are still very considerable, because there is a view that Britain
will fall behind the rest of the world, if we resist commercial
planting, and that the result of that will be that we will lose
an opportunity to be world-class in plant biotechnology.
48. The approval process in the European Union
is a complex one, as you know, but already it looks like a number
of European Union States have decided that they are not going
to approve, in any circumstances; do you think that will persist,
or do you think that, at the end of the day, the pressures will
be such that those countries will cave in, if you like, and the
UK will sort of row along behind them?
(Mr Holden) I am a great believer in public opinion,
and, obviously, badly-informed public opinion, which is the fruit
of the wrong kind of information campaign, or whatever, can be
dangerous, but I think it is the best means we have of arriving
at practices which are in the long-term public interest, and I
think that public opinion is not likely to shift from the position
that it has got to now. But I do not think that we are out of
the woods, as it were, in the struggle to stop commercial planting
going ahead, because of the very considerable commercial pressures,
which are also backed by an element of Government opinion which
is very pro scientific innovation.
49. You give the impression, if I may say so,
that you do not even want experiments, or tests, which might give
us an answer, one way or the other, to go ahead. Now, if the Government
said to you, "Okay, we realise that we're in a bit of a bind
here, we realise that there are pressures on us from one side,
commercial pressures, international pressures, from the United
States, some within the United Kingdom, to plant, we realise that
we've got a public opinion problem, we've got yourself, with some
fairly high-profile allies, where you are saying, `We don't want
to do this'; help us devise something to see if we can get ourselves
out of this bind," what would you suggest they did, so that
they could come up with an answer which people would accept, a
bit like the disposal of nuclear waste, if you see what I mean?
What is the process, the procedure, which would enable you to
feel that, whatever the outcome was, it had been fairly arrived
(Mr Holden) I think that the public would not be happy
if they felt that the results of the sort of opinion that we are
expressing meant that it was impossible to look at the technology
at all. But I think that the public would be happier if any experimentation
was done on a contained basis; and the critics of that would say,
"Well, you've got to put them in the open air to find out
what will happen on the environment, otherwise how would you know?"
But I think we are far too early to do that, even if you accept
the role of the technology. And contained trials should be the
rule, as they are in medical research, and, in parallel with that,
long-term feeding trials; and, I think, if they went ahead, it
would be difficult for us, even though we do not see any place,
as I have already said, for the technology in agriculture, to
object to that. But it is a question of, if you are going to do
something in your garden and it does not affect me, that is fine,
but if you are doing something in your back garden and it affects
me, and I do not want that, then that is another issue. And it
is a question of one set of rights against another; and, when
you have that friction, you need to take into account the overwhelming
body of public opinion, which is against them.
50. Equally, you give the impression that, after
all, you represent organic producers, in a sense, you are the
sort of genesis, as it were, of organic production, your organisation,
and if you were saying, "Well, our job is to make sure that
the position of our producers is not compromised in any way,"
one would say, "Fair do's, that's what you're there for,
that's what you're paid for, that's what people pay their subscriptions
for." You give the impression though that you are on a crusade
which actually is rather more than that, that you just do not
believe they should have a role in agriculture, full stop, whether
it affects your members or does not affect your members, whether
you can work out separation distances or not. Is that unfair?
(Mr Holden) No, I think it is fair. I think the position
we are advancing is shared by the vast majority of the public,
and applies equally inside and outside organic farming. The difference
between the position that we have and that the non-organic sector
has is that we happen to have standards which include the exclusion
of GMOs, whereas the rest of the agricultural community only has
the market; but if you look at the way that the market is reacting,
it is also excluding GMOs, it is just not backed by, in our case,
the force of a regulation. So I think we are representing public
opinion, not just organic opinion.
51. Do you think that trashing GM experimental
sites is wrong?
(Mr Holden) We have always been against direct action;
we have not changed.
52. The answer is, you do believe that is wrong?
(Mr Holden) Yes.
53. We ought to give you credit for that, because
I do not want people to have a misleading impression.
(Ms Meziani) I would just say that, personally, I
find that quite destructive to the debate. I think it certainly
kept alive public interest, and that has helped us to put forward
our issues, but, I think, actually, to some extent, it has not
helped a full debate. You asked a little while ago what the Government
should do, in terms of this dilemma, how it should legally take
54. How would you help it?
(Ms Meziani) I would just say, three things have jumped
to mind. First of all, just to say, I do not think the trials
programme is anything to do with establishing the facts about
GMOs, all the concerns that we have would not be addressed at
all by this trials programme; and that is the big reason why the
GM opponents have been not supporting the trials programme, it
is not because we do not want to know about the technology. So
our issues are things that can be discovered in the laboratory,
and they are mainly to do with the health and the process. So
I would say, first of all, spend ten years learning about genetic
processes. We know leading researchers, for example, Craig Ventnor,
who discovered the human genome; he himself said, "We know
nothing about biology." So we arrive at a situation, we can
actually look at the processes involved, and therefore establish
risk. Health; if we have GMOs that seem to be stable, long-term
feeding trials, monitor the effects of that. And establish a proper
liability regime, so that, at the end of the day, should the Government
decide to introduce GMOs and we have overlooked something major,
then neither the Government, nor innocent farmers, nor the food
industry, nor consumers, will actually be exposed unreasonably,
financially; this could well happen at the moment.
55. So your answer to the question how do you
reconcile openness in, for example, the identification of the
allocation of sites for trials, with security for the farmer concerned,
that is actually the wrong question, because these trials are
actually going down the wrong direction.
(Mr Holden) They are flawed, yes.
56. The process of testing and proving and finding
out all the implications of this should actually be taken down
different directions; and the Government is ahead of itself, the
Government has taken the final step before it has taken the first
step. And would you say that was correct?
(Mr Holden) There is that, and the fact that we do
not accept open-air trials because we are worried about deliberate
release and the consequences which cannot be contained; also we
are heavily critical of the research parameters for the open-air
trials, we do not think they are going to tell the public what
it needs to know about the risks, or potential risks, because
the right questions are not even being researched. So I think
those are the two issues.
57. The trials of GM in the United Kingdom,
as far as you are aware, have they led to contamination of other
(Mr Holden) I think the honest answer is, we do not
know, because they have not been monitoring. There are oil-seed
rape trials which have been grown within easy cross-pollination
distance of other oil-seed rape; so, given the fact that bees
love the stuff, it is highly likely that there would have been
low-level cross-pollination. But, as far as I know, testing has
not been done.
58. People have talked about, I think, `particularly
unfortunate' sites, they have described. What is a "particularly
(Mr Holden) A `particularly unfortunate' site will
be one where these risks are very high. I have been to quite a
few of the public meetings which have been organised in various
village halls. I do not know whether you have attended any of
them; but I would strongly recommend going to one, if you want
to find out what the public really thinks about them. Because
these are not GM campaigners that fill these village halls, these
are local inhabitants of the villages, who are really deeply upset
about the fact that these trials are being imposed on their local
community without any consultation.
59. You are known to be extremely rigorous in
the standards you require for people to be certified as organic
producers by the Soil Association. Have you had to withdraw organic
status from any of your members because of contamination?
(Mr Holden) No; but we have had, she said, near-misses.
There have been a number of farms where there has been a very
active debate, in one case, in the Ryton case last year, the crop
was removed, and then there was, I think he was called Colonel,
I have forgotten his name now, but the Wiltshire case, where,
again, the family pressure resulted in the trial being sprayed
off. But we have not had a case where the threat of contamination,
or actual contamination, has resulted in us decertifying, if that
is what you are asking.