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


Memorandum submitted by the Soil Association (G7)

  We are unable to make a full assessment of the role of DEFRA and whether its vision is being achieved. However, we would like set out a few areas where the Department is doing well, should improve and is failing.

1.  Good—Organic Action Plan

  We are very pleased that the Department has decided to develop an organic action plan. This is being done in full co-operation with the organic stakeholders and the discussions so far are addressing all the main issues.

2.  Needs improving—human health and animal health

  DEFRA needs to realise much more fully the fundamental role of food and agriculture in achieving the Government's health objectives and preventing the health budget from spiralling. Food and agriculture policies are a key means of achieving a preventative approach to public health problems, and would balance the Department of Health's focus on treatment once problems occur. DEFRA should take a larger leadership role and be more courageous in investigating how different food production approaches affect the final levels of nutrients in our food. For example, there needs to be an assessment of how nutrient levels have changed since the adoption of intensive production methods, and a reassessment of how the department measures yields from farming (larger yields are often simply the result of greater water intake and do not reflect a great "food" content). Similarly, the Department needs to change its animal health policies so that again, the focus is on prevention rather than simply controlling and treating diseases. For both human and animal health, this would involve a review of similar issues (plant and animal nutrition, management practices and appropriate breeds/varieties).

3.  Failing—GMOs

  We are extremely disappointed and concerned with DEFRA's handling of GM food and crops. DEFRA seems to have taken a strong position in favour of the introduction of GM crops, that seems in complete contradiction with the scientific evidence, public opinion and a sound approach to risk management. The Government seems to be heavily influenced by pressure from the biotechnology industry and is apparently taking their views completely uncritically as "science". We are absolutely confident that the science is far more strongly in favour of those who oppose the introduction of GM food than those who favour it, and the Government risks making a very grave mistake.

  There really should not be a question of introducing GM food and crops in the UK at this stage in the development of the technology. Many risks have already been identified, much of the science remains to be understood, there is little evidence of benefits and many reports of problems from those who have taken up the technology in North America (contrary to the impression given by the biotechnology industry) and there is a serious threat to organic farming for which there is much public support and many established benefits. Moreover, there is no particular problem that this technology can address for which there are not already far better potential solutions with none of the risk. DEFRA should be pursing such solutions instead.

  For example, though we do not favour centralised breeding methods as the ideal approach for delivering health and local adaptability, other modern breeding methods such as genomics ("marker assisted breeding") make use of today's knowledge of life sciences but do not involve any of the risks of genetic engineering as they are based on natural breeding processes. (The reason why this approach is not being pushed by the biotechnology companies is because the multiple traits cannot be patented).

  We urge the EFRA committee to very seriously question DEFRA's handling of this area of policy.

May 2002

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