Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120- 132)



  120.  Would you end this if you were satisfied research experiments showed they were not as dangerous as you thought at first? Would you end your ban?
  (Lord Melchett)  My Lord, knowledge changes and again I do not pretend to foresee the future so I can only answer on the basis of what we know and understand today. I believe what we know and understand today about this technology tells us that the risks will be unacceptable and inevitable.


  121.  Has a ban been your policy for some time or is it a recent evolution?
  (Lord Melchett)  We have been working on this issue for just under a decade, my Lord. For just under a decade that has been our position.

  122.  Are there any other changes in law that you are calling for?
  (Lord Melchett)  We have recently had a meeting with the Minister for the Environment, Mr Meacher, and with a number of other environmental groups where we discussed in more detail the Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Organisms Directive or at least the proposal for an amended Directive. There are a number of detailed proposals about how the Directive could be amended which the environmental organisations are putting together, and which we think would go some way to ensure that some of the questions which are not currently being considered by the regulatory process could be considered in the future. If your Lordships are interested to have a copy of that paper that would be possible; it has not yet been finalised.

Chairman]  I am sure we would if you were able to send it to us.

Lord Grantchester

  123.  Just to follow Lord Willoughby de Broke's question. If genetic technology improves such that it was far more targeted and did not rely on the scatter gun application, it could be fitted in very precisely, would this advance lead you to change your views at all?
  (Lord Melchett)  My Lord, as I said, I do not pretend to be able to foresee the future but I do not think it would be right to say the scatter gun nature of putting the genes in is the only problem. We simply do not understand what impact inserting a gene into a group of genes will have on the rest of the genes in that group, still less on genes in other groups which are affected by the behaviour of the group that has had the modified gene inserted into it. Nor is there any way that I am aware of under current science of looking at how these things might develop over generations or how they might affect other species to which the gene could be transferred, particularly in the natural environment where these things are not controllable and where the potential for transfer is more or less infinite.
  (Dr Parr)  Can I just add one thing. The idea that we can do more research and elaborate and find out more is an extremely beguiling prospect. One has to look at the warping of the research agenda that can take place by simply examining one approach to agricultural improvement. A Dutch Government laboratory, TLO, have expressed concerns that by purely going down the genetic modification route then effectively, because there is a limited resource and so on, you close the door on other opportunities for developing more sustainable and more environmentally friendly technology. In a particular reference to herbicide-tolerant crops they said there may be a short term gain but in the long term I think it is questionable as to how far this is going to take us. It is like if you want to get to the end point, which is sustainable agriculture, by purely going down the genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops route, you are almost going down a cul-de-sac instead of finding ways forward. I think those are concerns that we would share.

Lord Moran

  124.  Are there any governments in the Community which are pursuing policies which seem to you right and, if so, which are those governments?
  (Lord Melchett)  My Lord, no, I do not think there are any governments which Greenpeace would say are pursuing what we believe are the right policies. Obviously there are differing views in different countries reflecting by and large, but not entirely, the differences in the extent to which public opinion is being expressed in opposition to this technology. Although I think it is worth emphasising that those differences in the expression of public opinion are underlain by concern amongst the public that in most, if not all, European countries is still very similar. I mentioned earlier the most hopeful development from our perspective seems to be taking place in the commercial world—in the market place. Whilst it is not a government, Iceland are developing, with a tremendous amount of energy and determination, their entire range of food products as guaranteed GMO free. They have shown at least that is possible, whereas they had been told by everyone, including their rivals, and all the main food companies, that it was not. Other supermarkets in this country are following behind, not going as far, but Sainsbury's to some extent and Tesco's to a slightly lesser extent. Similar commitments, although not action, have been expressed by many food retailing chains and some food producers in a number of other European countries. I think Iceland are the first to go as far as they have.

  125.  Could I ask a supplementary question on a slightly different aspect of it. It does seem that there is generally much more concern about this matter in Europe than there is in the United States. Why do you think that is so?
  (Lord Melchett)  I am sure there are a number of reasons. I think one clear difference is that BST, the genetically engineered product to enhance milk yields, was rejected by European farmers when companies attempted to sell it here some years ago, and in particular by British dairy farmers who wanted nothing to do with it. There was strong opposition. It was introduced in the US and, therefore, the number of genetically engineered food products, or foods that have genetically engineered organisms in them, is much greater there and has been for some time. I would not myself rely on the US consumer remaining as happy with the technology when something, as it will inevitably, goes wrong. We know from previous experience in the US that when there is a food scare there it tends to take a grip of even greater force than the food scares in Europe.
  (Dr Parr)  Can I just add something there. You have seen from our evidence, towards the end of the evidence, we do talk about the state of public opinion in the United Kingdom and Europe. I am aware of no similar research that has been done in the US to establish what underlies consumer attitudes and approaches. If you look at some opinion polling data on, say, labelling of genetically modified foods the figures are actually very similar to those in Europe. There is a certain passivity in the US which may well be to do with other features that have come up in discussions with people, like the supportive nature that Americans have towards their home based companies like Monsanto and so on. Because we do not understand, as far as I know nobody understands, what underlies citizen views in the US, the possibility, as Peter outlined, about there being some kind of backlash has to be present.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

  126.  Can I ask an additional question? We have now seen fairly significant releases in a number of countries, including the US, Canada and Brazil. Are there signs of things going wrong?
  (Lord Melchett)  Yes, there are a number of instances where things have gone wrong and I will ask Dr Parr to comment on that. I would just emphasise as a farmer, to say nothing of being an environmentalist, the scale of the sacrificial areas which the companies themselves are now recommending after two or three years of use in the field does seem to me absolutely staggering. If somebody tried to market a new conventional herbicide on the basis that you could use it on half your crop and the other half you could not spray because it is going to induce herbicide resistance, they would not have much chance of selling it to many farmers. That is a clear indication of the very substantial problems of this technology.
  (Dr Parr)  I will add a few things to that. One of the features, as has already come up this morning about the scientific investigation, is if you are monitoring you have to know what you are looking for. If you are looking for something going wrong then you have to be seriously looking for it. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the States dealing with the assurances of safety from field trials that have taken place there said it was not a case of showing safety, it was more a case of do not look, do not find. Secondly, I would say that if you develop an environmental problem as a result of ecosystem incursion, gene flow, or whatever, it could take place over quite a long period of time. Sometimes exotic organisms have taken over a century to get really established and start being a problem. The very short period of time that we have had so far does not demonstrate safety, it demonstrates that there has not been a problem that we have not actually been looking for. Finally, as Lord Melchett said, there have been a number of instances where things have unexpectedly—and that is the important point—gone wrong. Those range from microbes that have been released that have out-competed their parents' strain; there have been mix-ups of genes which have led to very costly seed recalls because the genes could not be tracked through the different varieties that were being commercialised, and so on. These are outlined in Annex 2 which you may not have had a chance to look at.

  127.  Coming to a different issue now. There are some who are saying that unless we can get substantial use of genetically modified crops we will be unable to feed the world. How do you answer that?
  (Lord Melchett)  Firstly, I would say what evidence I am aware of indicates that the main problem we have currently in people having insufficient food is uneven income distribution, not lack of food. Genetic engineering as far as I am aware, and even the most fervent advocates have not suggested this, is not going to help redistribute income more evenly in the world so that people can afford to buy food who cannot currently afford to buy food. That is the problem that needs addressing to address starvation and malnutrition. There is no evidence that the alternatives which we would advocate, particularly organic agriculture, will be capable of feeding the world, but then there is no evidence that genetic engineered agriculture will be capable of feeding the world either. As Dr Parr said earlier we do not want to try to pretend we can predict the future, but what we do need to think more carefully about is what route we want agriculture to go down in the long run. Genetic engineering is not environmentally sustainable, it is not ecologically friendly, it is not going substantially to reduce, and it may even increase, the use of chemicals in agriculture. We think that there are real potential benefits in going down a route which is much more environmentally sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Baroness Young of Old Scone]  Thank you.

Lord Jopling

  128.  Can I ask a question on that very point? I think you quite rightly say that you think that food depends on income, there is the assumption that food depends on income, and therefore cheaper equivalent food must be advantageous to people in developing countries where income is not assured. An example which has been before the Committee in a statement made by Safeway on 29 May points out that their genetically modified tomato puree "have now been sold at 29p for 170g which compares with 29p for the equivalent of a 142g can of normal tomato puree". Therefore, that evidence seems to demonstrate that genetically modified food can be produced cheaper for the benefit of the consumer, especially in developing countries.
  (Lord Melchett)  My Lord, I do not think that canned tomato paste is going to make a major contribution to the problems of world hunger and malnourishment, nor indeed the other crops which are currently the focus of the agrochemical companies involved in this technology. Potatoes that do not go brown after they are peeled, the Flavr Savr tomato, enhancing the taste of food, the things you heard about this morning which companies are focusing on. This is frankly propaganda and it is propaganda not supported by any discernable evidence whatsoever.

  129.  If you were a hungry person and you had the opportunity of that propaganda, as you call it, meaning that you could buy genetically modified food cheaper than you could buy ungenetically modified food, I guess that hungry person would say "Well, give me the propaganda".
  (Lord Melchett)  Yes, my Lord, it would be a guess at this stage, would it not?
  (Dr Parr)  Can I make one observation on that which is that the nature of genetically modified crops is that when applied in developing countries they are most certainly going to be more capital rather labour intensive. One of the lessons from the Green Revolution is that when that occurs you might increase your yields but you will also increase the level of hunger because you increase the inequity in particular countries. It is counter-intuitive that you increase the amount of food but you would increase the amount of hunger at the same time, but that is broadly speaking what happened. The move to genetic modification is a similar move towards capital intensive crops that are very intensive in research and development, not the sort of crops that are going to be afforded by small landholders in developing countries.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  130.  You mentioned that perhaps this would not benefit the consumer in the developing world but I understand that China is the second greatest user of genetic modification. That must be some argument for saying the developing world thinks it is beneficial at the moment to try and enhance agricultural production and hence feed people better through the medium of genetic modification. Would you disagree with that?
  (Lord Melchett)  Yes, my Lord, I would. Maybe it would be useful to think of an analogy with the nuclear industry. The nuclear industry was a new technology introduced 50 years ago or so with huge promises made for the potential benefits. It was going to provide electricity for the world which would be too cheap to meter. The nuclear industry is now, to all intents and purposes, dead in the Western World, in Europe, Western Europe and North America. There has not been a new nuclear reactor ordered in the United States for 20 or 30 years. However, the nuclear industry is still trying to push its wares in South East Asia, in countries like China and other parts of Asia. Of course it is doing so on the back of significant public, government money, provided by governments in a number of countries, Canada, France and so on. I do not think the use of an inappropriate and failed technology in a developing country is evidence that the technology has any potential benefit to the country concerned.


  131.  I think that brings us to the end of our questioning. You have made the uncompromising position of Greenpeace extremely clear. We are very grateful to you for that. I dare say that you have enjoyed today one of the quieter mornings in your active life. We are extremely grateful to you for having come along and spoken to us. We would be very grateful if you were able to send along as soon as possible the other proposed amendments you have put forward to the Directive amending the release directive so that we have them to work on in subsequent sessions.
  (Lord Melchett)  My Lord, thank you very much. Thank you for your time. We would be happy to do that. I wonder if it would be possible for us to see a copy of your Specialist Adviser's paper that was referred to this morning. I think that may have some relevance to the additional points we wish to make.

  132.  Certainly.
  (Lord Melchett)  Thank you very much.

Chairman]  Thank you very much for coming.


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