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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 64-79)




  64. I think, from my memory of SCIMAC, you make up a variety of different representatives; so it would be just worthwhile you introducing yourselves, for the purpose of all of us, starting from my left?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Thank you, Chairman. My name is Bob Fiddaman. I am the NFU SCIMAC member, and, being a farmer, I happen also to be a farm-scale evaluation triallist, so I am actually doing what I am interested in.

  (Dr Turner) I am Roger Turner. I look after the plant breeding side of SCIMAC, BSPB. I am also a Commissioner on the AEBC.
  (Mr Pearsall) My name is Daniel Pearsall. I am the Secretary to the SCIMAC group, which is an umbrella grouping of organisations, including the National Farmers' Union, British Society of Plant Breeders, Crop Protection Association, UKASTA and British Sugar Beet Seed Producers Association.

  65. Thank you very much for coming this afternoon. You listened, I think, to the whole of the Soil Association evidence, so I will not go through the preamble of the process we are intending to go through. The first question I would put is very similar to the one I put to the Soil Association, which is, the AEBC report, Crops on Trial, indicated the need for an informed public debate on the issue of where we go on genetic modification; firstly, and obviously, in one case, you are a member of the AEBC, so I assume you own the outcome, do you feel that the recommendation is appropriate, and, if so, exactly how should it be carried forward, and what role should the Government have in that?
  (Dr Turner) The AEBC actually meet on Thursday to finalise their views on this subject. The debate we had a couple of months ago was very much along the lines of producing some form of video, based on a kind of citizens' jury type approach, updating the average person in the technology, filming that and then distributing it around the UK, the devolved regions, and encouraging some form of debate, with the participation of, I think the buzz word these days is, stakeholders in all of that debate.

  66. And who do you think the stakeholders are?
  (Dr Turner) It is a huge array. I think you would talk about the public, there would be the technology providers, there would be the farmers, traders, purchasers, consumers, you know, I think it involves Britain.

  67. So, really, when we say `stakeholder', it means everyone?
  (Dr Turner) Yes.

  68. Joking, there is a group you could omit from that list. Do you feel that the companies, and SCIMAC obviously represents the interested parties within the industry, that they have a particular role to play in this debate; and do you feel perhaps that they have missed an opportunity, thus far, to provide better-quality information?
  (Mr Pearsall) Sorry; do I think the technology providers . . .

  69. I mean the companies, do you think they should be providing a lead in this debate and providing more information, and, if so, do you feel perhaps that they have failed, in that respect, up until now?
  (Mr Pearsall) In terms of creating a positive reception for their products, I think we would say, yes, that process has failed. I think, in terms of moving the process forward, SCIMAC has a particular role and an ambition within that process I think we would consider that Government has a particular role within that process, as well. We will play our part, and that particular part is about promoting co-existence, rather than conflict, at the farm level, and moving forward within a sound science-based, regulatory framework. As far as Government is concerned, I think we do consider that it has an important role, which it must not neglect; we feel quite strongly that issues of public acceptability and consumer acceptance are issues for the market-place and for commercial forces, not the concern or responsibility of regulation. Where we do feel the responsibility of regulators is, to provide transparent, unequivocal, consistent information about the regulatory processes, and to ensure that the public communication of risk, whether in relation to human health, food or feed safety, or environmental safety, is proportionate and in its proper context. We feel that it is imperative to strengthen public confidence in the regulations and the science behind them.

  70. Bearing in mind that I think the Government would feel chastened, perhaps, by its experience of a couple of years back, and certainly would want to ensure that in any debate its role was seen as being objective, as opposed to firmly supportive of a particular collection of technologies, surely the key role of argument is going to lie with those who seek to see the provision of these technologies in this country, which means yourselves and your members?
  (Mr Pearsall) I think probably there is a clear distinction between having a framework of enabling regulation which functions, which actually allows products to reach the market-place, and gaining consumer acceptance and a market for those products. SCIMAC, as an organisation, is not a promotional vehicle for the technology. It aims to ensure that the technology is introduced in an open way and, as I said, seeks to deliver co-existence within agriculture. Clearly, the farming industry in this country would not grow the crops or adopt the technology, I am sure Bob would be better placed than me to make that point, if there were no market for them.

  71. Do you think there is a market? Is this really a pretty academic process, we are doing some field trials on some things that people perhaps do not even want?
  (Dr Turner) No, I do not think so. Vegetarian cheese is produced by GM processes, and that is hugely popular, people buy that. You talked a little bit earlier about the GM tomato; that outsold its conventional equivalent by about two to one. So I do not think there is any inherent anti up there; but, I think, as Daniel was saying, there is a responsibility with information and awareness.

  72. The particular crops that are being trialled at the moment, do they have a commercial viability?
  (Dr Turner) I would imagine so. I think, if you looked at one, in particular, say, sugar beet, if there was an environmental benefit shown to biodiversity in those trials, you could see the same sort of attributes for a beneficial environmental factor in sugar which you would see, say, in dolphin-friendly tuna.

  73. The crux of this is going to be the benefit, is it not, and it has to be a benefit which is perceived by the consumer, or by society at large; if it is just a benefit that is in terms of greater productivity, which is not passed on to the consumer, or other outcomes which are enjoyed only by the producers, then it is hard to see what possible value these products are going to have to the consumer, who will have to decide whether to buy them or not?
  (Mr Pearsall) I do not think, as an organisation, we are in a position to pre-empt or prejudge the commercial basis on which these crops and their derivative products might be introduced. It might be a price benefit, it might be an environmental benefit. I am speculating here, but, with respect, I think it is not the role of regulation to determine whether or not there are tangible consumer benefits, but to establish whether they are safe and whether a clear choice can be provided for the consuming public.

  74. To provide a sort of commonsense benchmark, which is, to me, they are looking, just in concrete terms, at the particular crops on trial at the moment; what substantial benefit is there that is being demonstrated which would make it valuable to the consumer and society at large? I can see why it might have some marginal value to a farmer, perhaps, but, really, for us to go through this debate and come out the other side, saying, positively, "Yes, we endorse large-scale production," I would have thought that at least you are going to need to demonstrate a substantial gain beyond the producer interest, and yet we are not hearing that?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Yes. The comment, in a sense, in the crops we are currently looking at, is a very valid one, in the sense that there is no obvious consumer benefit, in the sense that it is a production management benefit, at the moment, possibly, and this is what the trial is about. It is the first time ever that biodiversity, even in a conventional cropping, has been looked at in such detail. And, if nothing else, as a person who has taken part in the trials, I have seen certain things, from my point of view, but I want the scientists to tell me whether I have observed the things correctly, in the sense of the results they will eventually come out with, and I have no clue which way it is going, one way or the other. So, from the point you were asking on, is there any benefit in the current crops, simplistically, the answer is, probably not, from the consumer's point of view. It is the technology that is partly being challenged during this process. Now, you say that, but, having said that, from my own current experience, and I can only say my own current experience, so other farmers taking part in the trials might find differently, my suggestion is that probably I would be able to produce the crop cheaper than I can produce the conventional crop, assuming that the price they charge for the seed and the chemical is pro rata, it is what you would expect, because of the benefits I have seen so far in the farm-scale evaluation trial. It is not strictly scientific, but we have taken some fairly broad, simple methods of showing what the results might be. So the answer is that there is a possibility of seeing a cheaper product, which therefore potentially could have a consumer benefit; more importantly, it might equally make sure that, and mention was made earlier on about us staying in business, as farmers, we have to compete in the world market, and if it is a mechanism that would enable us to do so, if we are doing it with possible other benefits, then, obviously, that is not unimportant. But I think perhaps the real benefits are still to come, in the sense of areas where we already know the potential benefits will be, which is specialist oils, or whatever.

  75. Just to turn back to my original question, about this debate that will take place, it will be in the interests of SCIMAC, and also the members of it, to have this debate at a fairly conceptual level about the uses of technology and the importance of regulatory frameworks which allowed freedom to develop technologies, rather than the actual concrete outcome of these particular trials, and the crops in question. Because, to be honest, it is going to be hard to persuade consumers that this particular group of technologies delivers anything of any great substance to them; and I am just suggesting to you, this is going to be a tough old debate to win, if that is what you are saying, is it not?
  (Mr Fiddaman) With the current crops that are available, it is only because those are the ones that are being looked at during this trial and because it is an environmental effect; none of the other potential benefits of the technology are actually under observance, at this point in time. It is quite interesting to think that the Mail was one of the strongest arbiters against the technology, early on, that only a few days ago I was reading a piece in there, they were quoting about rye grass, where they have identified the things that cause hay fever, that they are producing anti-sense genes to turn it off, so that there is a potential benefit, and there was the hay fever group saying, "What a benefit." Now these are the benefits of the technology; the questions that were being asked about the technology were, was it safe, and therefore could it be grown in the environment. But the questions that we are seeing are that, certainly, on a farm-scale basis, there is no obvious disbenefit, to me, at the moment, and this is what the trial is going to show.

  76. By listening to the evidence of the Soil Association, you have already heard some of the points that would be made in opposition. Another point that would certainly be made, I would have thought, by someone who perhaps did not take their argument entirely at face value, would be simply just to say, whatever the merits are, or not, the particular crops in question have very little benefit, so why should we wish particularly to sanction their exploitation in this country, bearing in mind the potential risks that may or may not be there, it does not seem worth it. If you look at the sort of cost/risk issue, what benefit is it going to deliver against the supposed potential risk that may be there, speculatively. Now, if you were producing very significant benefits, people might well say, "Well, there's a trade there, that's fair enough"?
  (Mr Fiddaman) If you want to take that discussion, then if we are looking at the biofuel discussion, the fact that there should be 2 per cent non-fossil fuel in transport fuel by 2005, one of the ways is through oil-seed rape fuel, to increase that area, about three-quarters of a million hectares would need to be planted with that in the UK. If the technology made it cheaper to do that, and therefore to make the product more available, then that would be a possible benefit.

Mr Jack

  77. You have actually touched on it. I just wondered if Mr Fiddaman was able just to quantify, in savings per hectare, the benefits which he alluded to in his earlier answer?
  (Mr Fiddaman) In strict cash figures, the answer is, no, because I do not know what the technology companies will charge me for the technology and the chemical that is allied to it. That is being absolutely honest with you, because the product is at the moment under a research release and it is no cost to me. I can give you the yields that I have had, with the similar inputs, but for the technology and the chemical, and last year I was showing a 10 per cent improvement in the GM cropping, so, therefore, one could argue that if the costs are similar then I have a potential benefit.

  78. It would be helpful to have some idea, because certainly the Curry Report does talk about the use of technology, albeit fleetingly, in its pages; and, although the Chairman of the Committee has illustrated some of the factors that may be making it difficult, if you like, to "win" the argument in favour of current GM crops, farming is always looking for ways to improve its performance. So some indication of the measure of gain will actually be helpful, certainly in understanding why you are sort of doggedly determined to carry on with all this trialling, in spite of the flack you are getting?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Thank you for that comment. But, as I have indicated, if I could show a 10 per cent increase in yield for very similar input costs, because everything else is the same, apart from the difference in seed and the difference in the herbicide control, that I am using within the crop.

  79. Is it an oil-seed rape crop?
  (Mr Fiddaman) Mine is an oil-seed rape crop, yes, crops. So, in that sense, every other cost is similar because we are using the same inputs; so I can show, therefore, by increased yield, obviously, you can show there is a potential benefit.

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