Examination of Witness (Questions 188
WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE 1998
188. Good morning, Miss Hill. Thank you
very much indeed for coming to give evidence to the sub-Committee,
to help us with our enquiry into genetic modification in agriculture.
You are, as I understand it, a member of ACRE, but I wonder whether
I could ask you to introduce the Green Alliance. We know something
about it from the paper you sent us. Could you say what the origins
of Green Alliance are and how it comes to have the title of Green
Alliance. What is its history of involvement in this particular
(Miss Hill) Of course. The Green Alliance is an
environmental charity or non-government organisation: NGO, to
use the usual jargon. The Green Alliance was formed in 1978 with
the purpose of influencing all the political parties to have an
environmental agenda. So it was formed explicitly to be cross-party,
not affiliated to the Green Party or any one particular party,
but to try and elevate the position of the environment on the
political agenda generally. I think, 20 years ago, the position
of the environment was fairly low on the political agenda and
that was a specific job which needed to be done. The original
Green Alliance: the alliance referred to an alliance of individual
people, eminent in a range of fieldsincluding scientists,
politicians, media peoplepeople who had some standing in
public life and who were willing to lend their name to the cause
of elevating the environment on the public agenda. So that was
the alliance. We are not, in a formal sense, an alliance of other
environmental groups; but in an informal sense we do a lot of
work with the other major environmental groups including Greenpeace,
Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the RSPB,
the CPRE. We have very strong links with them and on quite a number
of topics, including this one, we act as informal liaison and
co-ordination for those groups. However, they are not formally
signed up to us in any mandated sense. Our history of involvement
in this issue: we came across it first in 1987. The Royal Commission
on Environmental Pollution was doing an enquiry on the possibility
of regulating biotechnology. Also, the European Directives were
going through their processes at the time. We helped host a visit
for a United States campaigner, Jeremy Rifkin, on this subject,
as a way of raising the awareness of the environmental implications
of genetic modification in the United Kingdom. Subsequent to that,
we felt it was a subject we should continue looking at, (the policy
development), partly because there were not many other NGOs strongly
interested at that time; but partly because it fitted very well
with Green Alliance's skills in terms of looking at regulatory
process and administrative process, which has always been part
of our particular expertise. So we did quite a lot of work on
the Environment Protection Act 1990, Part VI of which implements
the EC Directives. That was going through Parliament. Shortly
after that I was asked to join the Advisory Committee on Releases
into the Environment, which was formed in 1990, as the Statutory
Committee which advises the Secretary of State for the Environment
and others on the implementation of the law. I should stress that
I speak, of course, for Green Alliance in this context. I cannot
speak for the Committee. I do not speak as a member of the Committee
in this context, but a lot of my experience is drawn from those
deliberations. Thankfully, I think enough of them are public and
have been analysed academically and politically for me to be able
to say quite a lot of how the regulatory process works, without
that being a special privilege from my being involved in the Committee.
Chairman] Thank you
very much. Perhaps we can proceed to the Green Alliance's views.
189. Ms Hill, do you think that on balance
GM crops will have a harmful or beneficial effect on the environment?
A. I do not think
we are in any position to make that judgment at the moment. One
of the reasons for that is because to make that judgment we will
be weighing up very different kinds of environmental impacts.
There are the ecological impacts of the movement of genes. There
are the possible environmental impacts of the use of chemicals.
There are the possible environmental impacts of changes of land
use. We do not know enough about those three types of impacts,
about how they will progress in the long-term, to make any kind
of judgment on that yet.
190. Has your organisation made any attempt
to assess a timescale when such a judgment could be made?
A. No, not a
timescale when we can make the judgment. We are continually asking
for information which I hope will help us eventually to come to
that kind of view. Our message is that there should be full environmental
audit of this technology so that we can come to a judgment. Our
main problem is finding an acceptable way of weighing up those
different kinds of things. Some people are very concerned about
the concept of genetic pollution in itself. Others may be more
concerned about the use of chemicals. There are such different
kinds of things that it seems to me that we have to have a politically
acceptable way of assessing them, and deciding whether they can
be balanced against each other or not.
191. Paragraph 5 of your paper seems to
me to strike quite a sceptical tone in this matter. You say that
the biological companies are arguing that the GM crops "will
lead to a decrease in the use of damaging pesticides, but as yet
they have provided very little independent evidence that this
is the case." Would you say you were sceptical about these
claims, or are you neutral on them? Would you be interested in
knowing whether they are correct or not?
A. I am certainly
interested to know whether they are correct. I am presently sceptical
because we have seen very little independently assessed evidence
that takes into account all the factors I have just mentioned.
Also we have had hardly any commercialisation of GM crops yet
and some of these things are quite hard to assess except on quite
a large scale of growth. It is very early to have evidence, but
my feeling is that the data that does exist has not been collected
in a way that is going to give us a great deal of intelligence
about these issues.
192. And an environmental audit would be
a means of collecting this evidence?
A. Yes. There
needs to be an agreed approach to judging the environmental impact
that takes into account the wide range of issues.
193. Could you tell us how you think the
indirect effect of genetically modified crops on biological diversity
should be taken into account in the regulatory process, both at
national level and at community level.
A. The first
step is making it explicit that indirect effects should be taken
into account. The interpretation of damage to the environment
should include indirect forms of damage. Both the Directive and
the United Kingdom laws are actually quite broadly framed, but
in both there is a fairly narrow interpretation of what constitutes
environmental harm, which has been arrived at through the process
of implementing the Directives. That could be reversed. The draft
revision of the Directive is on the table at the moment and has
wording which says that indirect effects, short and long-term
effects, should be taken into account. In a way, it is a simple
matter of making that explicit and providing some guidance about
what those indirect effects are. Again, I think that is relatively
straightforward. Indirect effects may be the effects of any chemical
used in conjunction with the crop. There are the effects on target
and non-target species of plants and animals; the likely cumulative
effects of the crop being grown on a commercial scale; the likelihood
of resistances evolving, and possible changes in land use pattern.
All these things could be assessed if you gathered the right kind
of data. They could be assessed and judged.
194. You think the draft Directive is satisfactory,
from your point of view, on this?
A. It is a beginning.
I would not say it is satisfactory in terms of providing guidance
for Member States on how to do it. It is a beginning that the
language is there, that could lead to an agreement that this an
important part to consider the indirect effects, but there needs
to be much, much more in terms of detailed guidance about what
it is the Member States are meant to look at when they make their
195. At national level. Is this something
which should be incorporated into a change to the remit of the
existing committees, or should there be a new body?
A. It would be
most effective to change the remit of the existing committee,
Lord Wade of Chorlton
196. Before I ask my question, could I ask
a question which follows on from Lord Moran. When you talk about
these indirect effects, what is your view on the balance between
what might be, on the one hand, from an environmental point of
view, to be a not good effect; but from another point of view,
the use of the GM products which could bring enormous benefits.
Where do you put the balance? Is there a balance, in your mind,
or in the view of the Green Alliance, or is there no balance?
Is it that if it is against the environment it is wrong and you
do not do it? Or do you think there might be certain areas where
we have to sacrifice environmental changes in order to achieve
certain other benefits, as we have done since time began.
A. I am not sure
it is for us to make those judgments, especially when neither
the environmental harm nor the other benefits are very clear.
197. So how would you make the judgment?
A. I think that
belongs in the political realm. We have international biological
diversity objectives. We have, as a society and as a nation, signed
up to fairly strong objectives protecting biological diversity
across the world. In that sense we have, as our objective, protection
of the environment.
198. We also have an objective to improve
the benefits to the whole world: to make less people starving,
to create more food opportunities, to create jobs and industrial
development, to improve the economic needs of the people. These
are also very strong objectives.
A. Indeed, and
in the end Governments and Cabinets make those decisions but we
have an environmental
199. What would be your view?
A. Well, as I
said earlier, I do not think we are in any position to judge the
relative balance between those things. As an environmental organisation,
our concern is that there is not environmental harm. That we do
our best to protect the environment and that we take a precautionary
approach. My view is that there is no point in accruing other
benefits if they are not sustainable. It is all very well to say
there may be benefits in terms of food production, but if they
are not environmentally sustainable they will be benefits which
will be short-lived, so I do not think there is much point in
that. Economic benefits, no-one can deny the need for, but we
can derive economic benefit from a great number of things other
than GM technology. Therefore, our primary concern is that this
technology does not carry unnecessary burden on the environment.