RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, Minister for the Environment, DR LINDA SMITH, Head of the GM Policy and Regulation Unit, and MR GRAHAM DAVIS, Head of the GM Crops Policy Branch, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.
(Mr Meacher) On the question of the public debate, as you know, the Government asked the AEBC in January of this year to advise on how and when to promote an effective public debate about the possible commercialisation of GM crops. We also asked that advice should cover the whole question of how to determine public acceptability of GM crops, including the key issues of cross-pollination thresholds; and, again, the key question of the thresholds for the GM adventitious presence in conventional and organic crops. We will be considering the AEBC's advice when we get it before we decide on the form and scale of the debate. No decisions have been taken. There is a Cabinet sub-committee which deals with this, as you know; that has still to meet. Of course we have not had the AEBC advice but when we do we will consider it.
(Mr Meacher) Yes. There are problems, as I did indicate in that particular interview, that, despite the fact that Government ministers make the case as honestly, truthfully and fully as we can, we are not always believed over GM; and I think the reasons for that are, that there continues to be a strong polarisation of views about GM; and if you do put a balanced case, as we try to, it is simply often dismissed. Secondly, of course, after the outbreak of BSE and foot and mouth the Government claim that GM is safe is often not readily believed. It is for those reasons, I think, that it can be argued that a debate would probably have greater credibility if it were independent of Government; but I do say that decisions have not been taken on this; they will be taken when we are formally given advice by AEBC, and when Ministers formally meet to decide, and that is not yet.
(Mr Meacher) I would expect within the next month or so.
(Mr Meacher) There are different views in all sections of the population, and it will not be surprising that nuances are quite properly reflected in Government as well as outside. That is not surprising. The important thing is that ministers do meet, and of course there are divisions of view on all sorts of issues; but these are decided within Government in the formal process, and an agreed view is reached and ministers keep to that; that is what collective responsibility is all about.
(Mr Meacher) The whole purpose of a public debate is that there should be an opportunity for a wider discussion about this. As I did say in the House when I was asked at the end of last week about this, there has never really been a balanced public debate in this country because extreme views on both sides have been very strongly put by their adherents, and the general public have not really been able to get an oar in.
(Mr Meacher) First of all, on the question of safety, the farm-scale evaluation trials are not about safety at all. As we have said right from the start, they are about the possible impact on the environment and on wildlife of different forms of herbicide management - that is what it is about. They are not specifically about trans-gene flow, although there is a project to monitor cross-pollination between GM crops and sexually compatible plants nearby; but the main thrust is about herbicide management. It is a limited project, that is perfectly true, but a very important one, because the issues of safety are dealt with in the detailed risk assessments which are carried out routinely, every time there is a GMO release application, by ACRE. Safety is not the issue - although I absolutely agree with you that safety remains probably the uppermost concern in the minds of the public. Many of them confusedly and wrongly believe that these trials have something to do with safety, and that we will be making a declaration to say whether they are safe or not. We are not going to do any such thing at all. We will be talking about impact on the environment exclusively.
(Mr Meacher) I would not say that is true. I would say that GM food has actually very largely been removed from supermarket shelves precisely because supermarkets realise that the public, at the moment, is very anti-pathetic to ----
(Mr Meacher) Indeed, in the absence of a balanced, rational, thoughtful debate, one can use those sorts of words. It is not for lack of trying on the part of the Government, but it has not been handled in an ideal way. This is a very difficult issue on which people feel extremely strongly and it is very difficult to get rational discussion.
(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 production - for 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.
(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 ----
(Mr Meacher) Yes, it will have a beginning and an end.
(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 ----
(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 presence ----
(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 point - are 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.
(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 views - and you have interviewed SCIMAC and you have interviewed the Soil Association, so you can see the range - are 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.
(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 half - a period which has now ended about a year ago - it 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 best - which I do not think is probably adequate, although we have tried - to 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 review 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 were met.
(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.
(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 it - very 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 more - dare I say - consumer-friendly process.
(Mr Meacher) I am astonished at that conclusion, because I think, under pressure (because there has certainly been pressure to ----
(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.
(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.
(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 Wrighton. 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 Wrighton. 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), Wrighton 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.
(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 meiux 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.
(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 results.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Meacher) I am glad to undertake to do that.
(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 liability - which 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 implications.
(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 benefits - if there are and I think there are - does 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.
(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.
(Mr Meacher) You are absolutely right, Mr Chairman, that is a significant issue - the 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 2000/118 (?), 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 together - if agreement could be reached - with 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.
(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 risk - a significant risk - to 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Meacher) As far as I know they do.
(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.
(Mr Meacher) Thank you very much indeed.