Examination of Witnesses (Questions 64-79)
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
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
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
(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
(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
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
(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.
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
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.