Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 33)



Lord Moran

  20.  The Committee has been told that very few applications for the commercial use of GM crops in agriculture have been approved in Europe. The process can take a long time even though there are very strict time limits on consideration by the country in which the application is first made and on subsequent consideration by the other 14 Member States. Can you tell us what the problem is and hopefully how the situation could be improved.

  A.  I am not sure what the problem is because I am not all wise. I think it is fairly clear from discussions with industry and American colleagues that it is the regulatory environment in Europe which is a major stumbling block. I believe the main reason for this is that the regulatory process here is derived on the basis that if you are genetically modified you must be subject to regulation, the implication being that genetic modification inherently makes something potentially unsafe and therefore requiring a strict regulation. Whereas in North America, particularly in the United States, the decision was made: "We must use existing product legislation because what we are interested in is whether or not this new product is safe. If it is safe then fine, it does not matter how it is made, it is irrelevant, it is safety which is important." I think the big problem we have here in Europe is that we still do not properly understand that what we need is to determine the safety of what we are doing. We are getting major delays in the system because there are concerns about whether or not we should be using the technology; the socio-economic issues that may or may not be involved; and a very weak, ineffectual and (I would even use the word) incompetent system in Brussels, which is allowing various delaying tactics to be introduced, which is making marketing so very slow. If I were an American I would not begin to think of marketing in Europe until this was tidied up. I think it is a serious impediment for us. It is a serious impediment for European industry. It is something we have to try and resolve. But it goes back to something I said earlier, which is this gap we have in terms of agricultural policy and the environment. At the moment, Directive 90/220 provides an opportunity for people who want to look at socio-economic issues to do something about it. I believe that is wrong because I do not see them as safety issues, but I do see them as very important issues.

Lord Jopling

  21.  Some people think the Americans much too lax, free and easy in giving consents. Is that your feeling?

  A.  No, it is not my feeling. I know the people very well. I actually think that they have been more critical and more careful than the great majority of them would choose to be, because they have sat down and looked very carefully and asked the question: "If I put this gene into the crop what is the potential for harm?" If they have not been able to identify harm then they have decided that releases should proceed. We are still on the basis of saying that if we do something new, what are the unexpected things that might happen that we cannot predict? We assume that a genetically modified plant is unique in our inability to predict what could happen. However, all of you who have anything to do with farming will know that a new variety of any crop coming on the market is unpredictable. You get a different season and suddenly it does not do what you predicted. There is nothing new here. Somehow in Europe we have not grasped that. We still think that if you cannot say that a genetically modified thing is totally predictable, it is therefore unsafe and different.

Lord Grantchester

  22.  Taking up that point as well, Professor Beringer, about safety, can it be compared at all historically to the United States' practice over drugs safety? Several times within my experience in agriculture, when talking to vets, they say: "You can get such and such product if you are in America but not here. It is relatively untried and untested, rather risky, and it is not licensed in this country." Is it a similar situation with the licensing of genetically modified food?

  A.  I have to say that I am not competent to judge in terms of drugs safety. What does interest me enormously is that the United States is notorious for litigation. We somehow talk about the Americans agreeing to do things that are unsafe as though they did not care about the consequences. In fact, the likelihood of an American company ending up with abnormally high legal costs and fines or whatever, through the result of doing something wrong, is enormously greater the other side of the Atlantic than here. I do not believe this often stated comment, that they do not take as much care as we do. They may do things differently but that does not make them unsafe. It does not make us more safe or less safe. For each and every product there will be differences. Sometimes they will be more careful and sometimes we will be. That will reflect the expertise which was available for those risk assessments. That is inevitable.


  23.  Do I take it from what you say that you, therefore, would not be in favour of developing more elaborate monitoring arrangements in Europe?

  A.  You are entirely right. I think the suggestion in the modification to Directive 90/220, that there will be a seven-year monitoring period, is absurd. I do not think it will add at all to safety. I do not see how it can be done. I can see it will offer immense opportunities for critics of the technology to say that monitoring has not been done adequately. For the people who sell seed for them to say: "But we could not monitor because to monitor everything properly anyone might want us to monitor is too large a job. Therefore, we can never deliver." So I think this is simply going to set up another point in the system over which there will be endless controversy.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  24.  May I follow up that argument a little bit. I agree entirely with your view that we have come at this thing the wrong way round in Europe and assumed that there is something inherently wrong with interfering, but we have been interfering, as you so rightly said earlier, with nature and the development of plants and breeding techniques ever since time began. None of us would have survived this long if we had not done it. Why do you think it is that there is this concern about the process rather than the result in Europe? Where did we—probably not at the very beginning—present gene technology in the way that showed it in the more positive light? Why do we have these concerns and what can we do to address them more effectively?

  A.  My own belief is that it goes right back to the very beginning of this technology when the scientists concerned at the Asolomar Conference said: "We believe there are risks which at the present time we cannot determine. Therefore, there should be a moratorium." The way we resolved that was to say that genetic modification would be done under containment similar to that of comparable pathogens that would be handled in a hospital. For release it has always been the problem, in my mind, that what we are now saying to people is: "Not only does it no longer have to be handled in a laboratory, but you must put it in your mouth." Many people are now saying: "I do not want to put it into my mouth. I do not know whether it is genetically modified or not, so I do not even have that choice." So I think we have gone through an enormous change and I do not think it is at all simple. Within Europe also we have the problem that we are not so keen on new technologies as the Americans, so it has been harder. There are not as many hungry people as in China so there has not been the incentive to develop the technology further. I do believe, as I will say again, that there has been this gap. We are all worried about what is going to happen to the environment. What is our agriculture going to do in the future? We see this, many of us, as another turn of the screw that may alter the environment around us in ways that we do not desire. We do not see any way in which these can be articulated and carried forward in any planning in the country. Those, as I say, are entirely personal views.

Lord Redesdale

  25.  Following up on that point, to what extent, if a gene which had harmful effects did start to be pollinated throughout other crops, how easy would it be then to control the spread of that?

  A.  If it was a gene that is, let us say, for frost tolerance, that escaped to oil seed rape, which would not be needed, (I am trying to think of one I can answer simply), that could get into related weeds and if it conferred a selective advantage it would remain in those populations.

  26.  So it would be almost impossible to eradicate?

  A.  Exactly. Although that would be exactly the same as any gene that comes in, at the moment, from wild weedy relatives through normal breeding, which are also entering the gene pool of our native varieties which cross-pollinate these crops.

Lord Grantchester

  27.  I declare an interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire. I do not know whether there is any genetic modification in dairy farming, although I understand that a good deal of gene mapping is going on for inheritance purposes. No doubt changes in the characteristics of milk may well soon be on the horizon. An application could be made to any of the competent authorities of any Member State in which an organism is to be released. Are you aware of the reasons for the choice of a particular country?

  A.  The choice is meant to be the country in which one expects to have a major proportion of one's sales. I have experience of only one case where I believe a company, Plant Genetics Systems, came here as a result of discussion. Patrick Rudelsheim, its regulatory affairs director, and I attended an international conference where there was discussion as to where PGS might go with its application for oilseed rape. I believe that I managed to convince him at that time that our Competent Authority here was excellent. I believe that PGS came here with its application partly as a result of that. I do not know why people go to other countries, although I am pretty sure that there are some countries that are not attractive because one would not expect the system to be as efficient as others.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  28.  I want to ask about the bulk shipment of crops. Genetically modified products deregulated in the USA and Canada are now part of bulk shipments of commodity crops about to be imported into Europe. Many of these will not have received European regulatory approval for environmental release or for food use. Is this a cause for concern? Do you see this as a factor that is likely to decrease public acceptance of the technology?

  A.  I do not see it as a cause for concern from the point of view of safety but it is a potential problem from the point of view of public acceptance because it exacerbates the difficulty that some people have. They want to know whether or not their food may contain some component that is derived from a genetically engineered plant. The difficulty is that this situation can only get worse. At the moment in a number of countries farmers are growing genetically modified crops from seed that they have personally moved across borders. It will therefore not be possible even if one obtains grains from Brazil or Argentina—to pick two large countries - to be absolutely certain that none of it is contaminated. We have to get down to the nitty-gritty of this and point out the dilution factor and absolute safety of what is happening. If we lose this debate and public confidence in the safety of food—it is safety that is important, not emotion - we will be in a serious situation. Emotion will override international trade. It will result in enormous complications in terms of the movement of food. If we ban all imports from America and any country in which there is any possibility that a genetically modified crop is grown we will have food shortages. That is a terribly serious issue that I do not believe has been tackled.


  29.  Does that mean you do not believe in the long-term feasibility of segregation, although some retailers believe that that should be possible?

  A.  I regret to say that I have a greater belief in human nature. If there is a niche market to be obtained by selling something that is not genetically modified I am quite certain that a number of people will ensure that their material carries that label.

Lord Jopling

  30.  We have been provided with the notes on the recent Agra-Europe Conference in Brussels on this issue. I note that a Mr Thorne[2] from the United States Department of Agriculture states: "Segregation on a large-scale basis is flat out impossible." Yet a little later in the same document one sees the comment by a Mr Wadsworth,[3] technical manager of Iceland Frozen Foods, that recently his company had "negotiated the supply of GM-free soya beans from Canada and Brazil but care had to be taken to ensure continuing segregation during transport." While it may not be your field, my guess is that it is absolute nonsense to say that segregation cannot physically be achieved. After all, it is well known in the field of malting barley and hard wheats where there is a very clear definition of quality wheats which command various prices from North America. I cannot for a moment see why it is not possible to segregate genetically modified grains when the material can be analysed to see whether or not it has been genetically modified?

  A.  I accept what you say for small quantities. Iceland somewhat overrates itself if it believes that it is a major player in the world movement of cereals. If one wants complete segregation of major commodities such as soya bean or maize it will cost billions of dollars. It could be done. On the other hand, if one is a small niche marketer one can always expect people to segregate on a small scale and pay a premium for that. I have no problem with that. If one knows anything about malting barley one knows that primarily it is the nitrogen content that is important. It is not a bad thing to dilute it if you have very low nitrogen and some high nitrogen to boost up the value of the high nitrogen crop. I am quite sure that equivalent things will happen with commodity cereals because that is human nature. My point is an absolutist one. It will not be possible to say that there is absolutely no contamination unless one is a small importer with extremely high controls.

Lord Jopling]  For the record, I notice that in the same extract Iceland talk about 60,000 tonnes of soya bean shipments a month. That is not huge on the world scale but it is significant.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  31.  I agree that these materials can be segregated, but given the world trade movement of such products and the enormous increase in their production in the United States, the main producers and also China and other parts of the world, the cost of segregation could be enormous. As the expert on these matters, you have made clear that at the end of the day both products are perfectly safe to eat. The perception is an emotional one; it is based on bias and prejudice and not fact. Would it not be more sensible from the point of view of world trade and world food needs to spend the money on teaching people about the value of these new products rather than spend the money segregating products which there is ultimately no need to segregate?

  A.  My biggest concern is that the great majority of people in this country have absolutely no interest in what we are talking about today. They are interested in not spending too much money in supermarkets on food. I would be deeply distressed if we designed a system which forced through a United Kingdom requirement for specially segregated crops which would undoubtedly cost more as commodities and raise the price of food, because a small minority of very articulate people had pushed it through. I am entirely happy that there is a niche market for labelled materials that are not genetically modified, but I think that it would be totally wrong for the general public to pay more for food because of an issue that has nothing whatever to do with safety.

Lord Grantchester

  32.  Therefore, do you see the labelling of food as containing genetically modified organisms as fundamentally misconceived? Do you say that in any event food must be safe and therefore the labelling would apply only to the niche market that you have identified?

  A.  I look upon the issue of labelling as an emotional and political matter. I do not see a safety problem which requires that there be a label to say that certain food may contain say one per cent of a genetically modified crop. I see it as a very important issue in terms of people who look at food as something that should be natural and therefore want something that is not genetically modified. I am strongly against the labelling of bulk commodity foods for the sake of it. I am very much for the labelling of material that has not been genetically modified, if that is what people really want.

Lord Redesdale

  33.  Should regulatory approval in one country automatically apply worldwide? How would it be possible to police a system where deregulation in one country had made the growers, producers and exporters unaware of its status in another country?

  A.  I am afraid that my interactions with the United States and EU trying to talk to each other has made me feel very leery about saying that there should be international approval of each other's agreements. That is a sensible way forward. It is probably the only way forward looking ahead 25 years, but at the moment it is not reasonable to expect that we can do that. I am actively involved in helping to draw up international procedures and such like. The advisory committee was involved in international guidelines on biotechnology. We are concerned to try to find ways in which things can move around so that countries know what is happening. It is a long step from that for us to agree Chinese, American, Portuguese, Greek or whatever risk assessments without any second thoughts. But it must happen because this technology will not go away; it will be pervasive. In many, many countries it will be accepted as an entirely normal plant-breeding process. We are not going to live in a vacuum; or if we are we will find it very strange and difficult.

Chairman]  That is a very good note on which to end your evidence. Thank you very much for your valuable and authoritative comments. It was a fascinating combination of comment and facts and will repay thorough study when we see the transcript. I have received a request for you to stay for the first of the questions to be put to Professor Burke.

2   See oral evidence of 8 July. Back

3   See oral evidence of 10 June. Back

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