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

Examination of Witness (Questions 140-151)



  140. So they are alright for the moment but you do not know whether they will or will not be if we get to commercialisation?
  (Professor Grant) No, I think that commercialisation involves a series of choices. Should there be commercialisation then those choices are around the question of management, and management includes the separation distance question. The critical issue is the issue of coexistence of different farming types in the UK.

  141. If there is any debate at all then much of that debate is focussed around that in rural areas where they are close to crop trials. Just briefly on English Nature's claim that "the SCIMAC code is probably inadequate to prevent gene stacking happening in Britain", do you have a view on English Nature's comment?
  (Professor Grant) No, that report came out more recently than the publication of our report. We have taken it into account, but just noted it, in fact, in a recently published horizon scanning report. It is a technical question which ACRE, I know, have already commented on.


  142. You set out, very laudably, the extremely open way in which AEBC have conducted its affairs. One of the criticisms of the farm-scale evaluations has been the secretive (in the view of the critics) way in which those have been carried out. Indeed, you yourself made remarks about the understandable commercial sensitivity of some of the work. Do you feel that that process is consistent with the openness of debate that has been sought here?
  (Professor Grant) The secrecy of which we were critical was that which was widely reported to us around some of the early farm-scale evaluations. We heard at some of public evidence-taking sessions, particularly in Norwich, quite profound and serious criticisms of the way in which the local communities felt that these farm-scale evaluations had been rather sprung on them out of the blue; and that they were given far too short a period in which to express their views. Also our sub-group, which prepared this report, visited the Munlochy site in Black Isle and heard from people concerned and other local community groups about their worries, about the shortness of the consultation period and the secrecy of the process, so we have reported that.

  143. Do you think the latest batch of sites chosen pass that test in terms of the process of notification of communities?
  (Professor Grant) Certainly there seems to have been a distinct improvement. We recommended certain steps to the Government in Crops on Trial and, so far as I am aware, they have been observed and there seems to be less concern.

  144. References in the Crops on Trial report particularly to unfortunate sites are a matter of history now, and there is no continuation of sites that clearly cause conflict to arise?
  (Professor Grant) There are no simple sites; but I think that you are correct to conclude that our criticisms are historical rather than current.

  145. Finally, and you delicately touched on this, the range of different bodies that advise in this area is large. To the untrained eye the picture might appear extremely confusing. Do you feel that there needs to be any clarification of the role of your Commission based on the experience you have to date?
  (Professor Grant) No, I think not. It is a very heavily populated regulatory landscape. What we have done, very carefully right from the beginning, is make sure we did not get wires crossed. In other words, we coordinated our activities quite closely with the Human Genetics Commission and with the Food Standards Agency. We found very little overlap with the Human Genetics Commission; potentially quite a lot with the Food Standards Agency, because people in their minds do not have clear distinctions between food safety and crop management. Through open discussions with Sir John Krebs and myself, and also liaising at a secretariat level, we have been quite successful at keeping the balance. We have also maintained open discussions with the other regulatory bodies, with ACRE, ACNFP and the Animal Procedures Committee and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, just to make sure that they know what we are doing; we know what they are doing; there is no competition and there is no conflict. Our terms of reference are deliberately broad. Ministers do not tell us what to do. We define our own work plan. We submitted that work plan in 2000; it was approved by ministers; and we have now just published a new work plan based on an horizon scanning study we undertook, and that is after consultation. Subject to approval by ministers it will set out the programme of work for the Commission over the next two years.

Mr Drew

  146. Can I take you through a scenario based on this complex area of a number of different bodies—I am not sure whether you call yourself a regulatory body?
  (Professor Grant) No, we are an advisory body.

  147. Purely advisory?
  (Professor Grant) Yes.

  148. Let us say for the sake of argument that one of the bodies says that the 1 per cent tolerance level is too high and unacceptable. If we are talking about GM-free we should mean GM-free. How would you handle that in terms of the AEBC? You may actually make that proposal, but I want to tease out what the relationship is with all these bodies. I can quote four bodies and you have got six sub-committees, and you might want to say what they do and who they report to?
  (Professor Grant) I think on the question you have put to me it would depend very much on what body it was. If it was a regulatory body then it has full sovereignty to decide what it wants within its legal framework. If it has that responsibility and makes that decision it is a matter for it. However, that has been the one decision that governments across Europe have shrunk away from making. We have that, of course, in relation to the labelling of foods; but what we do not have is it in relation to crop management. That is one of the reasons why you have an AEBC to give strategic advice to Government as to how it handles decision-making, as opposed to itself taking regulatory decisions which we have no capacity to do.

  149. The six sub-groups, can you give us a feel for what they are doing?
  (Professor Grant) Do you mean the six sub-groups of the AEBC?

  150. Yes. Do they draw from the other bodies at all, or are they self-contained and merely report to the AEBC?
  (Professor Grant) Every report is a report of the Commission as a whole. The sub-groups do the preliminary work. The range of work they are currently engaged on is a major report which we hope will be published in the summer on animals and biotechnology, because we quite quickly came to the view that animals were the new crops; there were as likely to be polarised and difficult issues arising as biotechnology in relation to animals becoming more widely applied. We have, and hope to publish by the end of the year, a developing report on liability. Liability issues are quite fundamental to the management of GM crops. If, for example, an organic farmer faces decertification of a crop as a result of contamination from a GM crop, who is liable and for what, and for how much? That group is now well underway in its investigation of liability principles. We also have a group working on consumer choice which will report next year. What we have proposed in our recent work plan is that we should take up some of the following themes: first, an exploration of the balance between public and private research in relation to biotechnology, which you will find outlined in Crops on Trial; secondly, and we think an extremely important subject, on environmental footprints. What are the differences between different approaches to crop management; because we should not be looking at GM crops as if there were no other management techniques in existence—of course there are. What is necessary is a comparative view of environmental differences. We have another proposal for a review of competitiveness, by which we mean competitiveness of British agriculture in an international market and the role of biotechnology in that forum. Finally, a study of trans-boundary issues and impacts in other countries. We all understand the problems of adventitious contamination, and the recent Mexican land race example is an interesting one. However meticulous we may be about preserving separation distances in this country, adventitious contamination, in a changing world market, is going to become an increasing problem.


  151. You certainly have a number of highly controversial issues still to tackle, and one cannot see an end to the work of your Commission; so you have clearly volunteered a significant proportion of your life for this activity. Obviously your advice to the Secretary of State will indicate that this Committee will have plenty of work to do in the future in monitoring the process of that debate and its outcome. Thank you very much for coming this morning; it has been extremely informative. I am sure we will see you again.

  (Professor Grant) Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. I would just say, the work of the last two years has not been easy. You and your predecessors on this Committee accurately forecast that it was going to be difficult. I would like, however, publicly to commend the time, work and the expertise that my members have brought to this task, for which I am extremely grateful. I hope that the Government may, in due course, be grateful as well.

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