Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)|
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
80. Have you had a sort of warm and friendly
reception from your neighbours, or are they in out and out war
with you about this; what has been your local reaction, have you
had a large rising in the village hall?
(Mr Fiddaman) Not a large rising. I have a very active
pressure group that obviously is against the technology.
81. But they are well-behaved, are they?
(Mr Fiddaman) Most of them are very well-behaved,
to be fair to them. They have put their point. When I had the
first trial, they were invited on the farm and we had a full discussion;
and, as I pointed out to them, they had not persuaded me that
the views I held would prevent me from actually planting that
82. But, given that you are known about, in
your local area, have members of the public beaten a path to your
door to say, "What is it you're actually doing? Tell us about
(Mr Fiddaman) Very few deliberately doing that, but
where we have met some, I have various activities take place on
the farm, where actually the public come in, I actually allow
working-dog trials to take place on the farm, so therefore quite
a number of public come on, and they are aware of what I am doing.
Most of them, their common reaction is, "Well, at least we
need to have the information so we can make some real comment."
Those that are against the technology are against it, and I would
recognise their right to be so; but the majority I meet, in actual
fact, are ambivalent, and most actually say, "Well, we need
to get the information out, and then we can make some judgement,
when we hear what's happening."
83. What size is your farm?
(Mr Fiddaman) Altogether, but the area that is being
involved is about 260 hectares, so I farm about 500, all told.
84. So roughly half down to trials?
(Mr Fiddaman) No, the area is much smaller, the trial,
certainly than the size of the farm; the trials themselves, this
year my trial size is 16 hectares of crop, but it is a field-scale
size, as you can well recognise. But I have spring as well as
winter, and I have also hosted other site trials.
85. Although we must get on to talk about perhaps
the public debate, I was quite interested in the yields, because,
if that is the principal driver, those farmers that have been
getting more and more yields of milk out of their cows are now
being paid the lowest price they have ever had, I think, so if
you think, in fact, yields is going to be the driver. Can we just
think now about the public debate, and the way in which the public
get informed, and suchlike. I think it has been argued reasonably
fairly that the media have not been necessarily the best informants
of the public debate, and suchlike; what is your view of the sort
of quality of the way in which the media have dealt with this
subject? How do you think that perhaps the media can be more educated,
in the way in which they handle it, and in order to try to improve
the whole public debate area, because what you have been saying
just now is that people want to know the various bits of information?
(Mr Fiddaman) That is my reaction, yes.
86. I think that is why a lot of people are
saying, "Well, give me the information." How do you
think we can get the media, rather than have rather lurid headlines,
perhaps actually to get to a more balanced view and try to inform
the public, as opposed to frighten it, perhaps?
(Mr Fiddaman) Certainly, obviously, I have had a lot
of media contact, because I have been prepared to be seen and
talk about it, and there are some elements in the media which
have taken a very balanced view, I feel, in listening to the argument
and wanting to put it across to their readership. Obviously, I
have not spoken with the likes of the Daily Express, because they
had a view to put; they have now stopped putting that view, obviously
they have moved on to other issues. And this is the problem, is
why it was being used. But I think the actual discussions, for
example, within the farming press, and it was mentioned earlier
about is there a debate within the farming community, the answer
is, there is a debate, a lot of people are saying, "Well,
actually, until we see there's any opportunity then we're interested,
but that's as far as it goes." And even my involvement will
depend on what opportunities I continue to see, because, obviously,
I need to create a living, the same as everybody else, in the
sense I have got to have something that is going to be profitable.
But the debate that we need to start having is whether there is
genuine benefit which the consumer can see, whether that benefit
is not necessarily very clear but is going along with the trend
of things. And I think this is where some of the current trials
might actually show that, because if there is a real potential
benefit of using this technology in the way that biodiversity
might be improved then that surely is part of what is currently
in the consumers' general interest, is how we are handling the
environment. If it is a product that we are using which is a lower
environmental risk than the comparative products that we are using
on the conventional crop then that must be adding into the plus
side of the environmental discussion.
87. How does that sort of get into the public
(Mr Fiddaman) I think it will start getting in when
the trial results are formally known. At the end of the day, if
there is either no benefit or a disbenefit then, obviously, that
is going to have one effect; but if the benefit is positive then,
obviously, one would wish to build on it. Certainly, from my own
perception, and it is only subjective rather than objective, obviously,
because I do not see the trial data, and they are doing the counting,
not me, I can see, the way that I am seeing the crops, that, yes,
there are more weeds around for a longer period in the GM one,
because I do not have to tackle them early, which I do in the
conventional so, therefore, they just do not exist, or I try not
to have them exist, because that is the way you grow the crop.
And, certainly, and it is one of the things that we need to build
on once we get the information, if you like, it is the agrological
advice that will benefit the best use within the whole of the
farming community; but, therefore, are there better times at which
these products can be applied. Now, personally, I have found that
I go late, and by late I mean January, February, because that
way I can get in and get what I want as the control, the crop
itself is well-established; and then you have the benefits of
leaving behind material which has grown, and, yes, you have killed
off, that is lying there as a dead mass. But if you go back some
six or eight weeks later it is not no weeds, the weeds are there,
but the crop itself then acts as the controlling mechanism, which
is all, obviously, as you are intending to do. So there are benefits
that can be built on. What we do not know, and we have not got
a handle on yet, and cannot, for a while, is being able to show
environmentally those benefits, and, therefore, if you like, get
consumer acceptance of the technology, as something in which they
are quite interested.
(Mr Pearsall) I do not think we come from the viewpoint
either that there is outright consumer rejection of this technology.
I think there are various pieces of market research which have
been done, which you can point to, which suggest that there are
consumers willing to buy products containing GM ingredients, if
they are clearly labelled. And our position would be that the
only way really to determine public attitudes and consumer perception
is by delivering a choice in the market-place and providing a
framework of enabling regulation which allows that choice to be
provided. I think, from an agricultural perspective, there are
a number of aspects of the technology which fit into future priorities
for the agricultural industry that were identified by the Curry
Commission, in terms of moving towards more integrated systems
of farming and seeking to produce crops more in sympathy with
88. We spoke earlier on about the fact of the
hostility of a couple of years ago, and such, and it was all in
the papers, and everything else; but, to a certain extent, the
trials are now at a sort of period of time when I suppose there
is a cooling-off really of the whole sort of hostility and conflict
on GMOs. Do you see that that might arise again, when the crop
trials are finished and the results begin to be published, and
they are going to be analysed and exposed, and everything else;
are we just in a bit of a lull before another storm, or what?
(Mr Pearsall) I do not know. I think I would like
to think that the debate has moved on. Clearly, the process of
farm-scale evaluations is an important demonstration by industry
of a commitment to ensuring decisions about the technology are
based on the best available scientific evidence, and industry
has put its technology, free and unfettered, to the scrutiny of
the independent scientists involved. Now, if that has had a part
to play in defusing and moving the debate more constructively
forward then that is to be welcomed.
89. But do you think that, in this period of
time, until that happens, if you like, you can contribute positively
to try to assist this informed public debate, or is it just, keep
your head down and we will see what happens later on?
(Mr Pearsall) I think, far from it.
90. Are you going to be proactive, or are you
going to react, and something else, are you actually going to
be proactive, in terms of trying to inform public debate during
this period of time of the trial, or what?
(Mr Pearsall) I think that SCIMAC should not be seen
as the protagonist for every element of biotechnology and its
promotion; we have a very specific role, which is at the farm
supply level, to seek to deliver co-existence, rather than conflict,
between different systems of agriculture. I think, wherever possible,
we have adopted the most open and transparent approach to that,
in the way we have provided details of the sites as soon as practically
possible, in attending public meetings, in sending information
about the trials. Where it comes onto, I think, the wider discussion
that you are referring to, which is a more generic debate about
the technology generally, there are other organisations, I think,
beyond SCIMAC, that have a more pertinent role for that.
91. I want to touch on a couple of the scientific
publications that have come out in the last six months; one you
heard aired at some length in the previous discussion, which was
the Nature article. Firstly, are you familiar with that
(Dr Turner) Yes.
92. And what is your perception of what has
been demonstrated, or what has not been demonstrated, in that
(Dr Turner) I think, what has been demonstrated is
that the analytical techniques used in that particular study were
flawed, and that the means by which those genes may or may not
have got into that particular plant are questionable. My understanding
is, it is probably to do with international trade in maize, moving
from the US into Mexico, rather than gene flow per se,
that has caused that. Having said that, I think the understanding
of what is a landrace and how it will be affected by gene flow,
I think, that is slightly cloudy there. My own view is that landraces
have been subjected to gene flow for millions of years, and that
a GM construct will have the same effect as anything else, it
is not going to be beneficial, it is not going to be negative,
there will still be a source of genetic diversity; and there is
no guarantee that, even if the gene is found, it will transfer
back into another variety. You have to recognise, a variety is
a finished product, it has a legal set of standards that it has
to meet, in terms of its content, its purity, etc. A landrace
is a breeding population that is extremely diverse.
93. So your reaction would be, firstly, the
piece of research was flawed; but, secondly, that, the main message
of the piece, your answer would be, "So what?" to some
extent, which is, "Gene flow happens now, has always happened,
there is nothing particularly wrong with having GM genes going
into other plants, there is no obvious reason why we should be
(Dr Turner) I think it would depend a little bit on
which particular gene; so I would not say that is a blanket yes/no.
94. That is interesting. How would you qualify
that, when you say it depends which particular genes? And there
is a secondary question, which is, if there is a qualification,
how do you try to make that qualification meaningful in nature?
(Dr Turner) The genes that are being used at the moment
in herbicide-tolerance, insect-resistance, as the main ones in
North America, I think, used properly, they will not have a negative
impact on the environment and on the dynamics of "nature".
Whereas I think you could dream up all sorts of theoretical possibilities
of things that might go into a plant that could be transferred
out there; but my own feeling is, that is unlikely to happen for
95. Which, if then placed in a rather different
environment, might be negative?
(Dr Turner) Yes.
96. So to lead you on slightly, there is a genuine
point of potential concern there, as to how you manage that relationship
between genes from GM crops and the natural habitat around them
and other plants, which you accept; and, to some extent, presumably
you would argue that these trials and other trials around the
world are partly to identify how one can manage that relationship
(Dr Turner) I would come back and talk about conventional
plant breeding, and that sort of thing has been going on, genes
have been flowing in and out; and my own view is that we are measurably
better off, thanks to plant breeding, and the impact has always
tended to be beneficial, rather than negative.
97. Turning to the other one, which is English
Nature's published research on the gene stacking, what is your
reaction to that? There, they say, at some point, I am looking
for the carefully guarded, but generally, "the SCIMAC code
is probably inadequate to prevent gene stacking happening in Britain."
How do you respond to that?
(Dr Turner) The author of the report disagreed with
English Nature's view on that area, and, I think, again, you come
down to what you were talking about earlier, about separation
distances and buffer zones, and my own view is that you can manage
them that way. My understanding, in North America, is they did
not have the same sort of SCIMAC guidelines and separation distance
in that market-place, and therefore the chances of getting something
like gene stacking would happen. But, again, I do not have any
negative vibes about that; there are ways that that can be managed.
Bob, as a farmer, will say you can manage stacked genes by mechanical,
rotational, chemical methods; so I do not see that it is a major
(hurdle ? ).
98. So your answer, again, would be a bit "So
what? Well, it happens, but we're not particularly concerned"?
(Mr Pearsall) I think it is worth pointing out, we
were concerned at a discrepancy between the press release, which
reported the report, and what the report actually contained, which
is, I think, what Roger is referring to. Because the report contains
a significant paragraph which highlights the existence of the
SCIMAC guidelines, and says: "Both UK gene flow data and
Canadian experience suggest that this would be effective in reducing
significantly the occurrence of gene flow to other canola crops
that are not varietal associations or possible partially restored
hybrids, and perhaps both the practicalities and the data suggest
that there is little benefit in aiming for a greater separation
99. So you are actually saying that the press
release which criticised your separation distances does not tally
with the report, which actually says that they are probably just
(Mr Pearsall) Exactly. And I think there are other
measures specified within the SCIMAC guidelines, in addition to
separation distances, in relation to encouraging evenness of maturity,
in relation to monitoring for volunteers and in relation to volunteer
control, which would also help in ensuring this was not a significant
agricultural issue. I think the other point we would make is that
gene stacking in relation to GM crops would only happen if more
than one crop of the same species, with different tolerances,
were approved for commercialisation. I think it is important to
point out that English Nature is a statutory consultee in that
approvals process. Clearly, we are not in a situation yet in which
any crops have been approved for commercialisation.
Mr Curry: Listening to you give evidence is
rather like watching Leeds United play football.
Chairman: Not many goals scored, if that is