Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)
TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002
160. I am not criticising your role, which I
think has been very important and, indeed, brilliant! However
in your view, what effect will there be on public opinion if the
crops were genetically modified to deliver health benefits rather
than simply to improve yield? In other words, if it was a health
matter rather than a farming matter.
(Mr Meacher) I think there is a totally different
attitude. In respect of pharmaceuticals and drugs the public is
much more willing to be supportive than in the case of food productionfor
very clear reasons. If you are in pain or dying and if you might
be helped as a result of genetically modified plants providing
some kind of cure, I think almost everyone would leap at the opportunity.
However, food is a different matter. The human race has lived
for a quarter of a million years on this planet perfectly satisfactorily
and people do not want to take risks. That is the problem.
161. We probably began through a genetic mutation.
Minister, what do you expect the public debate to tell you, given
that it is conducted, largely, by intermediaries? Secondly, when
do you determine that the public debate is concluded? Thirdly,
what happens if the public debate merely illustrates that people
(Mr Meacher) Taking the easiest question, the middle
one, we will of course have to say that over the next so many
months we propose to have a debate, if this is the way we decided
to go. I think that is reasonable. It is certainly, I presume,
a long enough period to give people a chance to say
162. So there will be a beginning and an end.
(Mr Meacher) Yes, it will have a beginning and an
163. What will it tell you? What do you expect
it to tell you?
(Mr Meacher) On your first question, it is open-ended
in the sense that people are going to tell us what they wish to
say, and I do not think, when you ask questions, it is necessary
164. This is tautology, if I may say so.
(Mr Meacher) People are going to make comments, they
are going to tell their views and I expect there will be views
right across the spectrum. The issues that we are concerned about,
as I say, are the particular issues we have raised with the AEBC:
cross-pollination, what is an acceptable level of incidental GM
165. With due respect, you do not have a public
debate to find out what is an acceptable level of incidental GM
cross-pollination, or whatever. What do you draw from a public
debate? What are you expecting the debate to tell you, as it were,
and how will it aid you to make your decision? Is there a balance
of people voting yes or people voting no? What actually are you
hoping to get out of it, except time?
(Mr Meacher) You did interrupt me. I do think it is
actually relevant to ask what is the level of contamination within
a conventional organic product which is acceptable to people.
I think that is a serious issue. At the moment there are labelling
provisions which the Agriculture Council in the EU have determined,
which says that if the presence is believed to be below 1 per
cent (in many cases it is considerably below that) then there
is no need to label. One view, I suppose, will be as to whether
that is acceptable. What is the kind of level which people agree?
What do they want to be told? What are they quite prepared to
accept? That is reflected in cross-pollination distances. So it
is a very relevant question. On your main pointare we going
to count heads? Are we simply going to say "Hands up those
who say yes" and "Hands up those who say no"?I
think that is far too crude. It is not that kind of simple exercise.
Anyway, with a population of 35 million adults it can hardly be
done. We are not proposing that. We are proposing, as I say, a
debate which will make it clearer what the public's views are
about the results of the FSE trials, one result of which could
be commercialisation of GM crops.
166. Minister, with respect, the question you
asked about 1 per cent tolerance, that is a technical issue. I
doubt if people coming out of Tesco's, as it were, have a spontaneous
view on whether 1 per cent, or 0.8 per cent, or 0.6 per cent is
the right level; that debate is inevitably going to be conducted
by intermediaries, so it means people who respond by writing along
the terms suggested to them by the Soil Association or by the
Agrochemicals Association or by some other intermediary. Is this
not really going to be a battle of lobby groups and not public
(Mr Meacher) I hope not, and that is not what we intend,
but I accept the point you are making. Clearly those groups who
have very strong viewsand you have interviewed SCIMAC and
you have interviewed the Soil Association, so you can see the
rangeare clearly, I imagine, going to be pressing their
view and getting their supporters to help them in that. I agree
that is exactly the kind of issue that we have got to discuss.
We have not had a debate amongst ourselves about how exactly we
are going to do that. I agree if it is just a manipulation by
intermediaries it does not take you very far, but you raise a
very important point and the Government has not yet decided exactly
how we handle that.
167. As the Minister who appears on the Today
programme more often than, probably, any other minister, what
are your views on the way in which the media have handled GM?
(Mr Meacher) Not very well. I have to say I think
it has been largely a propaganda exercise rather than the provision
of factual information or encouragement to genuine debate. I think,
for a period of about a year and a halfa period which has
now ended about a year agoit was pursued at a frenzied
level; most days on the front page of newspapers with at least
one full page behind on this issue, pumping out a particular line.
It certainly raised the profile of the issue, there is no doubt
about that, but for people who have a genuine interest and want
to be given the range of facts and make up their own minds, that
simply has not happened. That is why we are considering this debate.
In the meantime, we have done our bestwhich I do not think
is probably adequate, although we have triedto provide
much more information, put factual information on the website,
provide extensive, detailed summaries of the facts as we see them
to anyone who enquires, and, of course, they are in the backs
of many MPs' letters that I have received. We have provided officials,
including those sitting with me, to go to parish council or other
meetings which are called in community halls where there are proposed
GM trial sites; we have put out detailed documents about frequently
asked questions and tried to give answers. We have done our best
to counter it, but the power of the media is so great that I do
not think we have had more than a relatively marginal effect.
If we can try and get a genuine public debate, we might begin
to counter this. This is an issue which, as a nation, we do need
to try and broadly move forward. It will not be with a consensus,
by any means, but we do need to narrow the degree of polarisation
which exists and we will certainly be appealing to the media to
help us. I do not know whether they will.
168. So you live in hope of headlines such as
"Government takes sane, reasonable and reasoned approach
to GMO" on the front page of the Daily Express?
(Mr Meacher) No, I think that is asking a great deal
too much. What I am looking for is newspapers being willing to
run articles which can give a range of different views.
169. Is there not a problem there, Michael,
inasmuch as one of the antagonisms that those opposed to GM feel
so strongly about is the slippage in terms of the 1 per cent tolerance
level, the problems over labelling and the problems over animal
feed; people think that they are incapable of making their opposition
tell because these decisions have been taken anyway, and the media
just reflect thatthe complete antagonism to the political
process and so on. Is that not really what lies beneath some of
(Mr Meacher) It is true that the 1 per cent labelling
requirement has been set down by the EU and is now being carried
through in each of the Member States. The other issues you raise
remain in many cases open, but it is very important in a democratic
society, where there is an extremely contentious issue, to try
to open it up in a way which reduces the gap between the decision-makers
and the general public. That is what we are trying to do. As I
say, I do not think anyone is proposing, and I do not think it
is practical, simply to say that we are going to have a debate
and at the end we are going to have a poll or a referendum or
citizens panels. It cannot be done like that, but there does need
to be a broad expression of views and opportunity for people to
express what they believe about this. In the light of this, as
in all other issues, the Government has to make up its mind.
170. Minister, do you think that the coverageand
let us take probably the most famous of the expressions "Frankenstein
Food"is a material handicap to you in being able to
take a decision based on objective, scientific advice? You were
suggesting just now that you were hoping for a more balanced debate
and you were acknowledging that just putting it on the website
does not have the same impact as a spread in the Mail.
Have you approached those papers which have taken this vitriolically,
almost ideologically hostile approach and suggested there is another
point of view? If you have, what has been the response?
(Mr Meacher) I do not know the full answer to that.
I do not know how far the press offices in particular departments
have, after a particular day's edition, rang up and said "Hey,
we note what you say. There is a different view, will you run
it?" I do not know how often that has happened, and to be
honest, I do not actually know the result.
171. We know the result because it has not appeared.
(Mr Meacher) I was about to say that my feeling is,
in the light of keeping an eye on these things, if it has been
tried it has not made much of a difference.
172. Is it a material problem? We all emphasise
we have to do this on scientific objectivity. That is not what
is inspiring some of these articles. Is that a material problem
in your ultimate ability to take a decision based on science and
to have that accepted as a decision taken on science?
(Mr Meacher) I think it is very important to explore
what you mean by a decision which is taken on the basis of science.
Science does, in the light of further information, sometimes nuance
its conclusions over time as more information becomes available,
but what science will tell you is the consequences if you do certain
things. It will tell you about the effects of what is sometimes
called "gene stacking", where crops which are tolerant
of more than one herbicide can acquire a resistance. It will explore
issues of detectability of GM in very small amounts; it will clarify
data about cross-pollination. It is that sort of detail. It will
not tell you whether it is a good thing or not. It will tell you
some of the benefits, it may tell you some of the down-sides,
but in the end one has to make a judgment about this. That is
not a scientific conclusion.
173. You are not going to say to the public
"We have come to this conclusion and, of course, there is
no scientific base for it"? If I can quote the first two
lines of your responses, which you have alluded to, the first
two sentences are: "Our policy is as scientifically based
as it can be. We believe in sound science and its application."
I was just asking do the headlines make it difficult to rest your
case on that basis?
(Mr Meacher) Can I just take up what you said? I am
not suggesting that we take a decision on the basis of desirability,
irrespective of science. We should use all the scientific data
we possibly can and we should not take a decision which flies
in the face of what the scientific evidence is telling us. That
would be, I think, quite wrong. No one is proposing to do that.
All I am saying is that whilst it is a necessary condition for
reaching a successful conclusion, it is not a sufficient one;
there are other factors which we also have to take into account.
174. Just turning to the farm-scale evaluations
and what they might ultimately give us in terms of real evidence
as such, last week Mr Pearsall, SCIMAC's secretary said: "The
farm-scale evaluations are asking one single question: does the
management of the GM herbicide-tolerant crops, in direct comparison
with the equivalent non-GM crop, have a positive, neutral or negative
impact on farmland biodiversity." Given that the farm-scale
evaluations are addressing, basically, one question with three
possible answers, have you got three alternative responses in
place so that as soon as those trials are finished you can provide
an assurance or announce the way forward in response to what is
actually going to happen? Otherwise those trials will come to
an end and you are going to be presented with those scenarios.
What is the way forward that the Government is going to take?
(Mr Meacher) First of all, I do not know what the
conclusions are going to be. These are trials which have been
carried out by various prestigious research bodies overseen by
a scientific steering committee and the first reports will, I
understand, be in peer- reviewed scientific journals in the summer
of next year. I have not seen any preliminary results, and as
between those three broad alternatives (and there are, obviously,
permutations) I do not know what the conclusions are going to
be. I do not suppose it will be quite as simple as to say A, B
or C; there will probably be quite a lot of qualifications, I
would imagine. The purpose of the debate is to take account of
public opinion before the Government has to reach a decision based
on whatever evidence is presented to us.
175. That evidence will be part of the public's
ability to make up its mind, and as they were initiated by the
Government you will have to give some view as to the results,
as to what they have concluded.
(Mr Meacher) That depends, of course, on the timing
of the debate. If the timing of this debate, if we go ahead, is
to be before the summer of next year then it will not include
the results of the farm-scale evaluations.
176. Just one other aspect. You may be aware
that there is concern that some commercial seed companies are
already applying for listing of genetically modified seeds. What
will the Government do to adhere to its commitments on protecting
the environment if the results of the farm-scale trials show negative
effects on the environment, given that some commercial seed companies
have no obligation, legal or voluntary, to refrain from marketing
that listed seed? Whatever happens, all they have said is that
they can do it when the trials have finished, not subject to any
results of those trials.
(Mr Meacher) I think a good deal does depend on the
results of the trials. If the trials were to show that GM crop
cultivation had certain specific detailed disadvantages for the
environment or for wildlife we would have to reconsider our policies.
177. De-list that seed?
(Mr Meacher) I am not saying what we would do. I do
not think it would be de-listing a particular seed, it would be
to put in place procedures to ensure that the environment was
protected, in regard to the respect in which there is a problem.
We are certainly concerned to ensure that if GM cultivation goes
ahead it does not cause any significant risk to the environment
or to wildlife.
178. So GM seed which might have been listed
and capable, therefore, of being planted might somehow be conditioned
or prevented from being planted prior to any clear results from
(Mr Meacher) First of all, I am talking about when
we have got the results of the trials. I am not talking about
the period up to that point. I am saying that if in the light
of the trial results there was an indication that there were particular
problems for the environment, we would have to revise our policies
in order to prevent that risk developing. Any question of seed
listing or GM crop cultivation would have to be revised and it
would have to be a condition of marketing that those new conditions
179. You used the word "significant"
in the context of risk a moment ago. What is your definition of
(Mr Meacher) I did, as I said it, wonder whether there
might be that response. The point I am really making is that there
can be, I suppose, very small, trivial or insignificant impacts,
and to revise policies to take account of that might be considered
to be excessive or unreasonable. By "significant" I
did not mean that we are seeking to impose a high threshold and
that up to that point we are not going to do anything about it.
We have carried out these tests in good faith, and if they say
that there are risks, unless they are trivial, we will take account
of that and revise policies as may be necessary.