Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-201)|
TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002
180. What do you reckon you have learned so
far, particularly in terms of administering trials like this?
(Mr Meacher) So far, I think we have made progress
in the last three or four years compared to our policies when
we began. First of all, the notification period has been increased
because there have been complaints that the opportunity for nearby
farmers or local communities to take account of a proposal to
have a GM trial site near them was not long enough. It has now
been increased from four to six weeks between the time when it
is made public and the first sowing. Secondly, as I have already
indicated, there is a demand for information to be able to ask
someone questions and to get an answer, and we now have a policy
that if we receive an invitation from a parish council or some
community group we will do our best to make sure that a public
meeting is held and an official or officials will attend to give
answers. Thirdly, we have tried to provide information on the
website, and more and more people do use itvery detailed,
extensive and lengthy information. We have tried to answer the
main questions that people ask. We have got a document and anyone
who writes in will receive that. Those are all, I think, improvements
in making it a moredare I sayconsumer-friendly process.
181. Crops on Trial gave the impression
it was all rather spatchcock and improvised and that some of the
sites were selected at pretty short notice. Do you think more
could have been done to ensure it was conducted in a more open
and transparent way?
(Mr Meacher) I am astonished at that conclusion, because
I think, under pressure (because there has certainly been pressure
182. "It seems that the trials have been
conceived and designed in a secretive way, with key players not
fully engaged. Some local people have felt excluded from decisions".
(Mr Meacher) I am not denying that is what Crops
on Trial says, I am saying I am surprised because I do not
think the evidence suggests that. The method of selection of trial
sites is not by the Government, it is done by SCIMAC arranging
with farmers to make available a pool of sites, and the research
bodies then make their choice in order to get the range of representative
management techniques and in order to get good scientific results.
As soon as that is decided we make the information available with
four-figure grid references; detailed site locations are, therefore,
publicly available; we post the information on the website as
soon as we can and we write to all parish councils hosting trials.
I do not actually see how we could be more transparent in the
way in which it is done.
183. The Soil Association, in 1999, said that
the field trials of GM organisms were, as they described it, "a
licence to pollute". There have been a lot of stories that
have subsequently come out from that side of the argument talking
about contamination. Are you yet able to give any comment about
whether, in fact, for example, any organic farms which are located
near to a GM site have been contaminated or lost their organic
status as a result of a trial activity?
(Mr Meacher) I can certainly say that no conventional
or organic farm or crops have lost their status as a result of
the FSE trials, as far as I know.
184. Is that because somebody has gone and checked
up or because the organic farm has, as it were, kept their head
down and said "We are a bit close but we will not say anything"?
Have you got any feel as to how that statement you have made could
(Mr Meacher) I am, again, not aware that any trial
site has been so close to a conventional or organic farm as to
cause this problem. The one that did come into the media extensively
over the election period was the Henry Doubleday Research Association
at Ryton. What happened here was that the Soil Association list
of organic producers, which we passed on to SCIMAC in order that
they could avoid those sites, mistakenly (there is always the
cock-up theory) omitted Ryton. The fact, however, is that anyway
the Soil Association did agree that at a 3 kilometre distance,
which is what it turned out to be (3,000 metres), Ryton was not
under any threat from the proposed GM trial. I do not believe
that there is a problem. I repeat, the purpose of the trial is
to test the effect of differential herbicide management on wildlife
and the environment, and we try to control the pollution by the
necessary separation distances to keep the contamination threshold
below 1 per cent. It is also true that crop material arising out
of the trials is destroyed. The term "licence to pollute",
I certainly believe, is quite wrong, but I do not believe that
there has been pollution as a result of these trials.
185. If we can move on, there has been, obviously,
a lot of discussion and various stories around about how far GM
material can travel and as to what actually ought to be the right
buffer zone. In terms of the remaining farm-scale trials, has
the Government had any further discussions with SCIMAC over the
current recommendations? Have they been changed at all to take
into account, firstly, the concerns of the organic industry and,
secondly, if you like, the noise in the background that, maybe,
we have not got it right; maybe our distances are too narrow?
Can you bring us up-to-date on that?
(Mr Meacher) Yes. Crops on Trial did suggest
that we should set adequate separation distances. We did, in the
light of that, then discuss with both SCIMAC and the Soil Association.
I regret to say that their views remained wholly polarised and
I do not think they are going to change in the short-term. So
faute de mieux we have simply maintained current separation
distances. I have to say there is a real problem here over separation
distances, because it is what I understand the statisticians call
a leptokurtic curve.
186. Would you explain that?
(Mr Meacher) In other words, it is normal bell distribution,
but with very low levels of deposition over very considerable
distances. There is not any one point at which one can authoritatively
and finally say that no pollination will get beyond that. The
amounts are probably vanishingly small but there is no absolute
certain one point. That is the problem. So you have to reach a
practical conclusion, which is inevitably messy. Very different
climatic atmospheric conditions prevail which have very different
187. Let us just be clear: at the moment are
the separation distances for the current farm-scale trials the
same as they were when the farm-scale trials started?
(Mr Meacher) I think there has been a modest change,
has there not? We did go to the National Institute of Agricultural
Botany and we looked at the relationship between separation distance
and the possible likely degree of contamination. There was a small
extension in one or two of the crops, but there has not been a
significant change. I do have to say that in respect of organic
crops there are larger distances in order to try and protect organic
crops, where the contamination threshold is set at 0.5 per cent
for maize and 0.1 per cent for oil seed rape.
188. Minister, so I know where we are now and
how far we have got to go, could you set out for me the stepping
stones to an eventual approval of commercial production, even
if at any one stage you might decide you do not want to go from
one stepping stone to the next? Could you give me the map of what
has to be gone through to get there so I know where we are now?
(Mr Meacher) I cannot because those decisions, I repeat,
have not been taken. I would expect in the next month or two that
there will be a decision taken on this and whether to go ahead
with the debate, the parameters of that debate and the time-scale,
the form of it and the scale of it. All of those are issues which
we have to decide. What I can say is that farm-scale evaluations
will conclude with the autumn sowings this year and that the first
scientific results will come out in the summer of next year. Beyond
that I cannot go at present.
189. When you can, would you make sure that
you send a note to the Committee setting outeven if there
is more than one scenariowhat the scenarios are?
(Mr Meacher) I am glad to undertake to do that.
190. Given the current regulatory regime here
and in Europe, can you see that, if you like, in a way we are
putting the less-developed world at risk because, clearly, companies
will take the line of least resistance and if they cannot get
the developed world to get its act together and give them what
they want, they will go off to the third world and begin to exploit
possibilities there? Have you an inkling of sympathy to those
governments who are going to beas already has taken placeput
under a lot of pressure over the coming months and years?
(Mr Meacher) Of course, over the impact on developing
countries, as indeed over the impact in the industrialised world,
there will continue to be divided views. It is certainly strongly
assessed, and I believe this to be true, that genetic modification
of crops can make them more resistant in saline or salty conditions
or in very dry climates and it may extend the shelf-life of the
crop/food once it is harvested, but it is also alleged, for example,
that it would lead to less use of pesticide. That itself is often
disputed. So there are different views. It is sometimes, again,
said that this is going to save the starving millions of the world.
I, myself, think that view is rather exaggerated. I think the
whole question of land distribution, land ownership, family planning
and population control are at least as important as the question
of either the Green revolution, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s,
or GM this time round. However, I do think that in certain conditions
genetic modification can make a useful contribution. In order
to ensure that countries get the benefits with the minimum down-side
risk, you are quite right, we do need to do more capacity building.
This is true of so many areas of policy with regards to the environment
and health. We talk a great deal about it, but I am afraid we
still do far too little about it, although I hope that the World
Summit in Johannesburg may actually make some major policy recommendations
to significantly improve capacity building. There is also the
bio-safety protocol which governs international trade in GM and
which aims, again, to provide some improved capacity building
and, I think, by the fourth meeting of the parties, to make provision
on liabilitywhich is, again, another highly controversial
but very important area, who is responsible if things start to
go badly wrong? So you raise a very important question, and I
do think there does, again, need to be more debate about the full
191. Do you think one of the handicaps we have
is that the particular collection of crops we are trialing in
this country is extraordinarily unsexy and unexciting and offers
no quantum benefits to consumers or the medical profession (because
you referred earlier to very different attitudes towards potential
medical exploitation), and that that has coloured this debate
to some extent?
(Mr Meacher) I think that is a very important point.
I think that the biotechnology companies have very largely concentrated
on producer benefits rather than on the consumer benefits. As
you say, oilseed rape, maize (which is largely used for animal
feed) and beet are not directly relevant to the consumer. Therefore,
making the consumer aware that there are benefitsif there
are and I think there aredoes need to be propagated much
more strongly if we are going to get a proper balance between
potential consumer benefits and the down-side risks. There are
certainly down-side risks as well and we need to be open and clear
on both sides.
192. Do you feel that we can make progress on
this divorced from the views of our European partners? David explored
the relationship and it is reasonably clear a consent in one country
applies in any other, but clearly relationships with other Member
States and their different attitudes are critical to the resolution
of many of these issues. Are they not?
(Mr Meacher) That is certainly right. I should make
clear that there is an application which is made to one country
and the competent authority, as it is called, in that country
then carries out an investigation as to impacts on health, environment
and safety. It makes that information available to the Commission,
the Commission then circulates that information to all other Member
States and they see the evidence on which the decision is made
and they can comment on it or disagree with it, and if there is
disagreement it will then go to the scientific community of the
EU. If need be it comes back for a final decision in Council,
although that is exceedingly rare. So it is not as though other
Member States are pre-empted by one Member State; they all have
an opportunity before a decision is finally made.
193. Going back to the start of our discussion
this morning, it does highlight that our own national debate is
one which is a small element of a decision-making process which
may be completely derailed by the attitudes of quite a number
of other Member States and, indeed, eventually challenged in court.
As we know, some Member States have just simply said they are
not going to grant any more licences regardless of what the scientific
merits may be, at least in the current circumstances. How is the
Government grappling with that?
(Mr Meacher) You are absolutely right, Mr Chairman,
that is a significant issuethe so-called unofficial moratorium
which has stalled GMO applications since 1998. We have always
believed, in the UK, that that was not legal. However, that has
not prevented, I think it is now, seven countries keeping to that
moratorium and refusing to advance consents. The Commission's
view, with which I think we agree, has always been over the last
two or three years that we should bring in place, by agreement
between ministers, the tighter conditions applying to applications
and consents which are in Directive 2001/18/EC, which becomes
operative, I think, on 17 October this year, but that in the period
prior to that we should agree that those tighter controls should
be in place togetherif agreement could be reachedwith
labelling and traceability. That has still not persuaded these
other countries to forego a moratorium. We are now, of course,
quite close to the point at which all of those increased controls
will actually be in place and there will certainly be a major
discussion about this around that time within the EU. I do not
think one can carry on with this indefinitely.
194. We can assume that the UK will be holding
to a view that science and an adherence to reasonable decision-making
processes will be paramount?
(Mr Meacher) Our view is that there is a set of rules
for testing applications. No one has suggested that that set of
rules is inadequate or inappropriate and our belief is that those
rules should prevail. If at any point any evidence is provided
which suggests that there is a riska significant riskto
human health or the environment then under Article 16 of the 90/220
Directive the matter can be raised. If that evidence is considered
justified, then action can be taken to prevent the marketing or
continued use of that particular crop.
195. The other issue which is running parallel
to this is the one of traceability and labelling, which again
lies within the EU domain to resolve. How are you progressing
(Mr Meacher) There is an attempt to negotiate it.
I think we would be strongly in favour of those negotiations being
drawn to a conclusion. The Commission, again, is doing its best
but, of course, there are strong international views about this
which have been made known to the Commission. The Commission is
in a difficult position. Basically, the audit trail involved in
traceability and labelling, if it is practicable, it does seem
sensible that, as a basis for labelling, it should be in place,
but there are real problems about negotiating it.
196. Is there a genuine prospect that a lot
of these issues will end up being resolved either in court or
through a WTO process, or both, if we end up stalling these decisions
at EU level?
(Mr Meacher) Obviously, that remains a last resort,
and I think you would need to discuss that with, for example,
the representatives of the US because, presumably, it might well
be they who would be considering launching it. I am quite sure
that they would have considered it. There are, of course, wider
implications in raising the profile in that kind of debate. It
would be far better if this can be resolved within the EU.
197. In the United States, one of the most litigious
countries in the world, they have had wide-scale acceptance of
GM. If people had been frightened by it they might not have done
anything because of the legal risk. Why do you think there has
been such an easy acceptance against a background of potential
(Mr Meacher) That is a good question. I cannot give
you any better answer than anyone else to that. One real advantage
the United States, or the North American continent, has is that
it is vastly greater; it has a population which is about four
times our size but the landmass is vastly greater than four times
our size, and there is much more opportunity for separating out
whole prairies of GM with minimal effects on other forms of farming.
There is, of course, still the safety issue, and why the safety
issue has risen so strongly here and not in the United States,
to be honest, I am not sure what the answer is.
198. Finally, the AEBC has set out to us a challenging
work programme, which I think has been shared with the department.
Has the work of the AEBC highlighted any need to reconsider the
regulatory framework for GM crops, because that was a concern
of the Agriculture Committee when it reported three years ago?
(Mr Meacher) We did, of course, consider this extensively
when we set up the AEBC. There did seem to be a gap there to have
a statutory body advising us on ethical and social issues. I think
the scientific regulatory framework is satisfactory. I do not
think anyone is actually saying that that should be fundamentally
changed. There is the Independent Scientific Technical Committee
with regard to the risks to human health and the environment from
GMO releases; you have got the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods
and Processes which looks at non-GM as well as GM and you have
got the FSA, which is responsible for all aspects of the safety
of GM food.
199. There is a large number of bodies, and
you are reasonably comfortable they all know their separate roles,
and they all talk to each other about the areas that overlap?
(Mr Meacher) As far as I know they do.
200. I have to say Professor Grant did say he
(Mr Meacher) I am happy. I do think we have a range,
or a network, of bodies which do a good job, and I think there
is communication between them. We did have a gap, which I think
has now been very well filled by the AEBC.
201. We are dead on time for your opportunity
to test out the travel system within London to get to your train.
Many thanks indeed for your attendance again, Michael. I am sure
we will see you again on this subject in the future.
(Mr Meacher) Thank you very much indeed.