Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



  460.  On previous occasions when there have been calls for a moratorium you have always argued that you do not have freedom to act in that way under European and World Trade legislation. Is there any significance in the fact that you have not made that point this morning?
  (Dr Smith)  Any genetically-modified product which has approval under the European Union system must be available in the market in all Member States. In order to take action under Article 16 to prevent it going on the market in an individual Member State the particular Member State must have additional evidence that there are consequential effects which was not available at the time approval was granted. The Member State can then take action to ban the product. It must then submit the evidence to the European Commission in order for that to be justified and considered by other Member States. Under our own Environmental Protection Act any product that has approval from the European Community under Directive 92/20 is excluded from the controls under the Act.

  461.  Is English Nature arguing that new evidence has come to light and therefore the United Kingdom is entitled to act in that way?
  (Dr Smith)  That is one of the points that we shall look at in studying the evidence that English Nature has put forward.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  462.  Reference has already been made to monitoring. Monitoring criteria need to be explicit. What would you monitor for? Who would conduct the monitoring? Are you satisfied that post-release monitoring carried out by the commercial companies which produce GMOs is putting the responsibility in the right place? We have heard from several witnesses that they have concerns about this.
  (Dr Smith)  As I said in response to an earlier question, the Government consider that the monitoring should be based on the risk assessment that was made before consent was granted. The purpose of the monitoring is to verify that the assumptions in the risk assessment is correct. Therefore, the assessment that is made forecasts what will happen on release into the environment or marketing of the GMO. It is reliant on information on both the organism itself and the environment into which it will be released. The risk assessment identifies the characteristics which play a role in determining risk. Appropriate monitoring before, during and after release will ascertain whether the predictions are correct and, if not, what measures can be taken. That is why the Government place such emphasis on the step-by-step development of GMOs which builds up knowledge. If the risk assessment identifies the transfer of genes to weedy relatives as one risk that can be monitored post-release to see whether or not that transfer has taken place. For example, if the risk of volunteers has been identified that can be monitored post-release. This kind of monitoring will parallel the monitoring of medicines after they go on the market.

You asked who should do the monitoring. The Government are clear that it is the consent-holder who should do it. Monitoring is already a condition of all experimental releases that are approved in the United Kingdom both during trials and after them. The consent-holder is required to report back to the Government the results of that monitoring.

As to monitoring for marketing consents, under the present directive conditions can be placed on marketing consent for monitoring. The particular regime will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis depending on the particular product to be approved. For example, a marketing consent-holder may need to conduct monitoring of the product as it is released into commercial agriculture; he may need to have an arrangement with the farmers growing the crop in order to report back what has happened. You asked who would do the monitoring. Companies may wish to employ independent bodies to carry out the monitoring; or there may be a requirement that the consent-holder should conduct its own long-term trials post-marketing consent in different ecosystems in parallel with commercial release to verify whether the risk assessment provided turns out to be correct in practice.

In terms of risks to the environment, the Government is in discussion with a number of farming industry bodies about a voluntary initiative that is being developed to regulate the introduction of genetically-modified crops into commercial agriculture. This initiative is called the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops and it includes a monitoring component in which farmers report observations to seed merchants or to this new body. Certain requirements will be introduced and enforced and the results analysed. The outcomes will improve risk assessments and safety regimes in future. As to environmental concerns, the Government do not see a role in funding such work except perhaps in relation to food.
  (Dr Bell)  
The Government are keen to explore fully the possibility of setting up some sort of monitoring system to pick up any public health issues that may come to light in the longer term as a result of the products going into the food supply. I emphasise that this is very much a back-up to the main scrutiny that goes on before anything is allowed into the food supply. They have asked the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes to look into this possibility. From preliminary examinations that it has been able to carry out, it appears that it may be possible to link databases of disease frequency now in existence, and which can be added to over time, with food consumption statistics to pick up any changes in the pattern of human disease and link them back to food consumption, if indeed that is the source. How that would work in practice, and who would do it, still needs to be looked at in more detail. But in this area we see perhaps a rather greater role for government than on the environmental side, simply because the information needed to determine food consumption patterns is very diffuse. It may well be that the Government need to have a co-ordinating role in drawing all of that together. So it may well be that there will be a greater role for the Government than perhaps in other areas as the process will have to involve the food supply chain and all aspects of it. It is still early days, and it is being actively looked at, but it appears as if it will be possible to set up some mechanism the details of which will have to be worked out.

Lord Jopling]  Is it not wholly inappropriate to have the companies who introduce the GMOs carrying out the monitoring? Do you agree that the example of the tobacco companies who succeeded unbelievably over decades in shrouding the effect of tobacco on human health has been one of the disgraces of the age? Surely, it is better to have this crucial task carried out by an independent body financed by those companies who wish to introduce these organisms. Is it not best to pass legislation so that it does not cost the Government any money and so that the public know that the monitoring is carried out in a truly independent way?

Lord Moran

  463.  My Lord Chairman, before the witnesses reply, I agree entirely with what Lord Jopling has said. As I understand it, you suggest that monitoring should also be done by farmers. One wonders whether farmers are competent to do it. It may be that certain matters do not affect the farmer directly, such as effects on wildlife and so on. Should that not be done by scientists? Is that not another great defect in the proposals?
  (Dr Smith)  I am sorry if I gave the impression that the Government intended that farmers do the monitoring. That is not the intention. The requirement would be on the consent-holder to carry out the monitoring. In placing conditions on the consent it would be possible under the legislation to require the monitoring to be done by an independent body. The point I sought to make was that the experience of the farmer would be in addition to the statutory monitoring on a voluntary basis, but the consent-holder would be required to do the monitoring. Indeed, the consent-holder would need to employ appropriately competent scientists to carry out the task. If the monitoring was to see whether the trans-gene had translocated into wild relatives a scientific assessment would be required to verify that. Monitoring to see whether there were volunteers in subsequent crops might be something on which farmers could report as part of the arrangements. It is important that the monitoring requirements are dealt with on a case-by-case basis such that monitoring specific to a particular product is wholly appropriate to the potential risks of the particular product.

Lord Jopling

  464.  Can I have an answer to my question about the inappropriateness of having the companies carrying out the monitoring? Should it not be done by an independent public body financed by the companies?
  (Dr Smith)  That is not the arrangement at present. The present arrangement is that the companies are required to do any monitoring. We could make a requirement that it should be done by independent bodies. The Government are carrying out some of their own research on the introduction of genetically-modified crops. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has a research contract in place to monitor the introduction into the United Kingdom of any crops that are given marketing consent. But at present we do not have any arrangements for doing this work and recovering the cost from companies. Clearly, that is something that can be considered as a future requirement.

  465.  Why do you think that the companies are competent to do this, given the example of the tobacco companies?
  (Dr Smith)  Because the monitoring would be scrutinised by the competent authorities, unlike the situation with the tobacco companies the process would be a statutory one. It would impose conditions on the consent, such that the Government would need to be satisfied that the monitoring was being carried out appropriately and fulfilled the conditions imposed under the consent and scrutinised the results.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  466.  Dr Smith, does that answer go far enough in addressing the concerns that we have heard expressed by consumer organisations and others who make the point just made by Lord Jopling? They no longer have faith in the ability or competence of companies who promote seeds, sprays or whatever to carry out the post-release monitoring procedures. Do you not think that the department should be looking at it much more urgently in view of the big public debate now taking place on GMOs? It is reasonable to expect some sort of response to the widespread public concern on this matter particularly in regard to post-release monitoring.
  (Dr Smith)  I shall certainly take that message back to the department for consideration.


  467.  Do you consider that the net environmental effect of GMOs may be beneficial? We have heard evidence from the United States about the tremendous savings in the use of herbicides and pesticides as a result of the growing of genetically-modified crops, although those claims are treated with considerable scepticism by witnesses and others in this country. On the other hand, here the concerns centre largely on the loss of biodiversity. Do you not consider that biodiversity is already being lost to the same or possibly a greater degree as a result of the current use of conventional herbicides and pesticides? Therefore, do you think that any assessment of the risks of genetically-modified crops should be made in the context of the risks from growing non-genetically-modified crops and their associated chemicals? If that is the case how do you think it may be done?
  (Dr Bell)  The Government are aware of reports from countries where GM crops have already been grown on a large scale, principally the US and Canada, that there may be significant environmental benefits from cultivation particularly in terms of reduced inputs with perhaps better targeted and environmentally-friendly herbicide use, for example those that break down very quickly after use. Although a lot of the claims are viewed with scepticism by some of the pressure groups and environmental organisations, it must be accepted that there are gains of this type; otherwise, it is hard to see why farmers should sign up in such numbers in those countries to plant such crops. As you would expect, they are most interested in the benefits to themselves commercially. Those benefits must accrue from some savings in inputs. The fact that we are told that up to one third less herbicides are used on some of these crops therefore appears to have some substance to it, although the figures may be debatable. It is also true that some of these crops provide higher yields than conventional ones, but evidence suggests that that is a fairly minor aspect (two or three per cent). If it is the case that the result of planting these crops means less inputs one can see some very definite environmental benefits flowing from them, given the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides in intensive agriculture. The Government are aware of that and feel that that factor should be taken into account by critics of these crops. The weight to be given to it is a matter for debate, but that some potential benefits arise from the use of these products cannot be ignored. On the down side, there has been considerable argument—which we have all seen in the press and elsewhere, and departments receive representations in writing and personally from those who remain concerned about it - about the pressure on biodiversity resulting from the widespread introduction of these crops. That needs to be taken very seriously. But it must be looked at in the context of farming at the present time and how it may develop in future. It is already a very intensive activity for the most part and involves quite large inputs. The view of the Government is that cropping areas are not considered to be the main reservoirs for wild life; they are already heavily treated with pesticides and herbicides. Usually, it is the aim of farmers to keep them as weed-free and pest-free as possible. That is the present situation. Field margins, hedgerows, wooded areas and other wild- life reservoirs of that type are considered to be far more important in terms of support. The Government wish to see that situation continue if these crops come into widespread use. The impact that they are likely to have on wild life needs to be viewed in that context. It is really a matter of replacing existing intensively-reared crops with other crops of this nature, not necessarily moving into less intensively farmed areas or affecting hedgerows, wooded areas or general wildlife reservoirs that now exist. That is one aspect of it. In terms of biodiversity, there is no reason to believe that the introduction of these crops will necessarily replace all other types of crops or that the position which prevails in the early years of having modified crops will necessarily be the position for all time. These crops will be developed and perhaps crossed with conventional crops very much in the way that has happened over many centuries by way of conventional breeding. We have moved from varieties hundreds of years ago to something totally different now. It is expected that genetic modification will be another tool to be used to move things on further. That does not mean that everything we have now will disappear; rather, that there may, in fact, be greater diversity. It may be diversity that does not occur through natural processes but diversity of a different sort that nevertheless brings benefits comparable to that that we have experienced through conventional plant breeding thus far. It needs to be viewed in the wider context, but the weight that is given to various aspects of the debate is something that must be considered. The Government are looking very closely at that. One must weigh up the pros and cons of all these matters in the wider context of the changes to the agricultural environment and how the Government wish to see agricultural development take place over the coming years, not so much in the field of safety which is being viewed specifically in its own right.

  468.  Why do you think that the environmental benefits of GM crops are accepted in the US even by environmental pressure groups but not here?
  (Dr Bell)  That is an extremely good question to which we would all like to have the answer. I do not think that we have a better answer to that than anybody else. It may reflect a difference in culture between people on each side of the Atlantic and the way they view new technology. One can speculate about these things; it is difficult to pin it down. It may be that it turns on the general debate about intensive agriculture as a whole rather than perhaps this particular aspect of it. We have seen indications of that in a good deal of the arguments that have been put forward so far. They are arguments that can be applied to agricultural intensification generally and are not necessarily specific to these particular crops. Perhaps intensification of agriculture in other countries does not give rise to the same concerns as here. It is hard to pin it down. We are not really in a position to say that it is for one reason rather than another.

Lord Moran

  469.  Do you think there is a danger that if genetically-modified crops are introduced and are very successful it may lead to the production of monocultures with the disadvantages that that entails? We have the example of Round-up ready soya in the United States. From the point of view of the farmer it is immensely satisfactory and is grown very widely. If one has a single crop spreading through the country and anything goes wrong obviously it will be a very serious matter. Are you worried about that?
  (Dr Bell)  The Government would be surprised if that was the overall outcome of developments in this area. Undoubtedly, the first one into the market gains the biggest toehold. That is perhaps what one sees now with the particular crop developed by Monsanto. It would be extremely surprising - our knowledge of what is in the pipeline confirms this - if it was allowed to dominate the market in quite that way in the medium to long term. There are many other companies who are developing alternative products in this area. Obviously, they also wish to have a share of the market. What we see is that one has reached the market first, but others are coming along. It is very unlikely that we will end up with a monoculture. At the end of the day it may well be that this particular type of technology, which can move beneficial genes around in a freer and quicker way than can be done by conventional technology, will gain a fair hold in terms of the way that these crops are developed in future. Perhaps conventional breeding will therefore be of lesser importance over time. But generally the Government would be surprised if one particular trait, as in the soya bean, totally dominated the market and created the sort of monoculture environment to which you refer.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  470.  It has been suggested to us that one of the reasons for the difference in attitude between the Americans and Europeans is confidence in the regulatory system. It is said that the American public see theirs as an open, clear and certain system in which they have great confidence. Do you have any comment on that?
  (Dr Bell)  That is an argument that is often heard. It may have some truth in it. One does not wish to deny it. In response, this Government are keen that we should take as many steps as possible to open up the regulatory system in this country in a variety of ways, certainly by making information more available, the work of the expert committees more transparent, holding open meetings wherever possible, publishing minutes and making annual reports available on the Internet. All of these kinds of things are happening now and will be taken further in due course. We are in the process of setting up the Foods Standards Agency as a way of focusing responsibility for the controls on food in one particular body. The intention is to make that an open body from the beginning, to make access very easy and to make full use of modern technology, such as the Internet, so that people can become involved in the process. There is a good deal either going on or in the pipeline to try to open up the process. Having said that, in the field of GMOs we can argue that in this country we have rather more detailed scrutiny arrangements in place than perhaps in the United States. It may well be that the American public have more confidence in their institutions. But in this area I would argue that we have a very thorough pre-marketing approval system which is more detailed than is operated in the States. If you like, there is a rather more liberal regime in the US. One can argue that such a system has advantages and disadvantages. But if anything I believe that our system should command greater public confidence in that respect. Whether or not it does is an open question, but we are very thorough about the way in which we scrutinise these crops and the products that come from them.


  471.  To return to the differences between the effects of GM and non-GM crops where comparisons are not being made and perhaps should be, we know that there has been a good deal of fuss about the bacterium Bt being incorporated in maize and other crops. However, we understand that the Bt bacterium is widely used in organic farming. It is sprayed on crops as a pesticide and, as a consequence, it may have a more serious impact in relation to building up resistance than when it is incorporated in a genetically-modified crop. Do you believe that such factors should be taken into account?
  (Dr Bell)  That is certainly a possibility and must be taken into account. The use of that particular organism as a pesticide is regulated under the Control of Pesticides Regulations. Its use is subject to evaluation of safety and efficacy. Inevitably, the use of any of these things will lead to a build-up of some resistance. That is the nature of these substances. There are obviously downsides to the use of organisms like that as a natural pesticide in the same way that there are in the use of other kinds of pesticide. They are by no means free of drawbacks. For instance, they can attack organisms other than the pest; they are not necessarily specifically targeted. Making a comparison between conventional use and building it into a plant is perhaps a more difficult concept, but such a comparison could be made. I do not think it can be said that the benefits come out all one way or all the other. There are advantages and disadvantages in using those types of organisms to control pests, whatever the means of doing so.
  (Dr Parish)  I reinforce what Dr Bell has just said. The only difference in exposure to an organism is the way that the toxin is delivered to the target pest. When Bacillus thuringiensis is applied as a spray it can be argued that it is being delivered to the pest in a somewhat less targeted form than if it is in the plant tissues of the crop which will only target the pest that is chewing the material. Exposure to Bacillus thuringiensis if applied by spray will be episodic; it will be applied only at intervals when it is perceived to be a problem with the pest, whereas with Bt being incorporated in the tissues of a GM crop it will be there all the time and will affect only the organism that chews it. Therefore, the Bacillus thuringiensis that is applied by spray cannot be considered to be necessarily benign; it has the same potential to have non-targeted effects as if it is in the tissues of GM crops. There are still potential problems for eventual resistance arising from the overuse of Bacillus thuringiensis.

Lord Moran

  472.  I wonder whether the environmental risks associated with the continuing use of genetically-engineered animals and fish had been taken sufficiently seriously. What regulations are in place to ensure that a comprehensive assessment of the risk of escape from containment and the impact of that escape has been undertaken and the risk minimised? How is this likely to change when the regulations under a modified Directive 90/219, which applies only to micro-organisms, are prepared? We have had helpful written evidence from the Scottish Office on an experiment to breed transgenic salmon. Although they were bred on the banks of a loch they were contained. We understand that the Health and Safety Executive made numerous visits to ensure that the containment was satisfactory. Initially, it was not but it was subsequently improved. The experiment had come to Scotland from North America. I believe that it has been discontinued for it was not very successful. But it had the potential to put these transgenic salmon into a loch that contained wild salmon, with all the very serious consequences that might have flowed from it.
  (Dr Smith)  You are right that Directive 90/219 applies only to genetically-modified micro-organisms. However, the Health and Safety Executive's regulations predate the directive by a number of years and have always applied to all genetically-modified organisms in containment as far as human health is concerned. When the regulations were made to implement the directive they were intended to cover genetically-modified micro-organisms because there was power under the directive to make such regulations. But the Government have taken very seriously indeed the possible escape of larger organisms. In addition to the control of GMOs in containment, which provides protection for human health, the Government have extended the legislation to protect the environment from genetically-modified animals and plants in containment. To explain how it works, it is an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to release any genetically-modified organism into the environment or allow it to escape without prior consent from the Secretary of State. By regulations made under the Act anyone keeping genetically-modified animals must carry out an assessment of the risks to the environment. That assessment must include the risks arising from the escape of such animals. That risk assessment enables the keeper of the animals to put in place suitable containment measures to minimise damage to the environment resulting from such an escape. Under delegated powers from the Secretary of State the Health and Safety Executive's inspectors inspect the appropriateness of the controls when visiting premises normally for HSE purposes. If having considered the risk assessment carried out by the person keeping animals the inspectors feel that the controls are unsatisfactory and escape is possible the keeper will be told to improve his containment facility to prevent escape or be required to apply for a consent under the deliberate release legislation. Therefore, it is an offence to allow the animals to escape and people must take appropriate precautions to prevent that. When Directive 90/219 as amended is brought into United Kingdom law it will still apply only to micro-organisms but during its implementation the Health and Safety Executive and the department will frame legislation so that it continues to provide for human and environmental protection but has additional provisions for notification by anyone intending to keep genetically-modified animals and plants, such that we will be able to be better informed as to which premises are doing this.

The Government have been concerned about the possible escape of genetically-modified fish into the environment. We are considering the Otter Ferry salmon which were being kept on land in containment. Health and Safety Executive inspectors on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland visited the premises many times to ensure that the containment facilities there would prevent the escape of those fish into the wild. If there were a proposal—I stress that there has not been so far - for anyone to keep genetically-modified fish in, say, a cage in a loch in Scotland in the way that farmed salmon are kept the Government would view it as a deliberate release and approval would be needed by the Secretary of State before the fish could be allowed to be kept in cages. We would assume that they could escape from the cages and it would be a deliberate release. We do not know whether or not such a release consent would be granted, but certainly no one would be allowed to put genetically-modified fish into a loch until the case had been considered by the Secretary of State and consent had been granted.


  473.  Presumably, that would have to go through the EC procedures?
  (Dr Smith)  If it was for experimental purposes it would be just judged in the United Kingdom and our own advisory committee could consider it. If the fish had obtained marketing consent that would have gone through the European procedures. We have published some guidance on this matter.
  (Dr Parish)  The Government have been considering genetically-modified fish for some time. Much work has been carried out in laboratories. Work is taking place in countries like China, Japan and Norway. It is viewed by the Government with a considerable degree of concern, especially in the case of species like salmon that can cross-breed with native populations. Problems have been observed in Norway with farmed salmon breeding with native salmon in different fjords and the genes integrating into different native populations. We published guidance in 1996 on genetically-modified fish. That sets out very clearly the principles of risk assessment and the way that we believe fish should be regulated. It makes very clear that anyone intending to farm fish in a sea cage must apply for deliberate release consent if he wishes to carry out that work. You referred to the role of other countries. There is another scheme set up by the International Convention for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), whose secretariat is based in Denmark. It sets out a very detailed code of practice for introducing non-native and genetically-modified sea organisms into situations where they can spread to other countries. Under that system members of ICES may make applications for independent scrutiny by the ICES secretariat with experts before they carry out release. Many countries are members of the convention, including the United Kingdom. Indeed, genetically-modified algae were released on the north coast of America only after ICES had given its approval after scrutiny by other countries. There is a forum in which decisions are made in addition to our domestic and European legislation.

Lord Moran

  474.  The interbreeding of farmed salmon and wild salmon is not taking place only in Norway; it occurs in this country. As to the Otter Ferry experiment, I quite understand that it followed the procedure which you have described. As I understand the Scottish Office paper, when the Health and Safety Executive inspectors visited they found some aspects of the containment unsatisfactory and it was modified. That happened two or three times. But what struck me as odd about the whole thing was that it was an American company, AF Protein, who licensed the original organism and Canadian scientists who did the work. Yet they had to go all the way to Scotland because they were not allowed to do it in either the United States or Canada, though I accept that they may not have allied for a similar containment experiment in those countries. Does that strike you as strange?
  (Dr Smith)  It seems strange that one has to go to another country. However, the way that United Kingdom legislation is written means that organisations are allowed to keep and work on genetically-modified organisms provided they can satisfy the authorities that the safety precautions are satisfactory. In this particular case, after several inspections the inspectors found the containment facilities satisfactory. I am not sure what the Canadian authorities said, but the level of containment was considered satisfactory such that the fish could not escape.

Lord Jopling

  475.  I have the paper here from the Health and Safety Executive, paragraph 2 of which says: "It was apparently blocked by the Canadian authority due to the concerns about environmental safety." It is my conclusion that the company then thought that the Scottish Agriculture Department was a soft touch and came here to do the next step-by-step work following the laboratory trials carried out in Scotland. I suppose that, anticipating that they would find it difficult to release those salmon here, they said that they would be released in Chile. It seems to me that the Scottish Agriculture Department was treated as a soft touch in that these people could carry on with their work which was potentially enormously dangerous environmentally. If one is to breed salmon that are able to live in waters much too cold for native salmon and can grow at 22 times the normal rate, with 10 times being the average, the effect on existing fish stocks could be tremendous. Did ICES make an assessment of the effect of the release of these salmon on fish stocks and the general ocean environment?
  (Dr Smith)  As to the first question, the inspection by the Health and Safety Executive requires the containment facility to be adequate. These fish were being kept in tanks on land. The Government were concerned to ensure that these fish would not escape. Therefore, the containment level was increased before the fish were allowed to be brought into the country such that we were satisfied that they would not be able to escape into the wild from the experimental station. We would not permit these fish to enter our own natural environment. The way the legislation is framed is that provided the person keeping the animals can provide satisfactory containment facilities such that they will not escape we have no grounds to prevent them from being kept.

  476.  That is a matter of argument, is it not?
  (Dr Smith)  That is a matter of judgment on which we seek advice from the committee on the containment of animals. There are many organisms kept in containment that should not be allowed to be released into the environment. It is possible to engineer suitable containment such that the likelihood of escape is minimised.
  (Dr Parish)  ICES was aware of the work being carried out on the Otter Ferry salmon. Its primary concern was that the level of containment was sufficient to prevent any release into the environment. Its interest would have been increased in this case if it was felt that the level of containment was inadequate. It is hard to draw a comparison with why the Canadian authorities refused to allow the work to go ahead. One does not know under what circumstances the work was proposed. The proposal might have been that the experiment should be carried out in sea cages to mimic salmon farming conditions, whereas if a facility already existed where there was adequate land-based containment perhaps it would have been judged that that was the best option for continuing the work rather than building a separate facility in another country. It is difficult for us to make comparisons and decide why the Canadians refused to sanction it. We do not know the circumstances of the application to carry out the work.

  477.  That does not answer the whole question. The background is that there was a proposal to breed a new type of salmon that could have a devastating effect on the whole oceanic environment. Did the Government consult ICES? Were the Government wise to allow the work to proceed at all? I remember years ago that certain breeds of cattle were smuggled into this country. It was perfectly simple. Having bred this type of salmon, it is perfectly easy to smuggle in fertilized eggs and then breed commercial quantities, with potentially devastating effects. How much thought was given to allowing this work to go ahead at all bearing in mind the devastating the effect on the ocean that may follow?
  (Dr Smith)  The Government considered this extremely carefully. A great deal of thought was put into this matter before the salmon were allowed to be brought over here and placed in containment. The containment facilities were designed such that the fish could not escape. If they cannot escape into the environment they do not pose a threat to the environment. The trade that you speak of would be illegal under United Kingdom law. We cannot cater for people taking part in illegal activity, but these fish were in tanks on land and the HSE inspectors were satisfied with the containment such that they could not escape into the environment.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  478.  Do you not think that it is precisely this kind of concern, with the ramifications that Lord Jopling has described, that has given GM its current bad name? Surely, the Government should be more proactive (to use that terribly trendy word) in spotting deliberate error. These experiments cause an enormous amount of alarm for the very reasons given by Lord Jopling. Should not the department be more aware of and sensitive to such concerns in future?
  (Dr Smith)  Recently, there has been more concern about work on genetically-modified organisms than perhaps there was when the Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1990. But the basis of the Act is that companies are permitted to keep and do work on genetically-modified organisms provided they can satisfy the safety requirements to ensure safety for human health and the environment. Those detailed requirements are set out in the regulations. Whether that piece of legislation needs to be reviewed is a decision for Ministers.


  479.  Would one or other of the advisory committees normally be consulted, and did that happen in this case?
  (Dr Smith)  Two advisory committees would have given advice. One was the Health and Safety Executive Committee on Genetic Modification and the other was the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. We are able to ask them for advice. I am unable to tell you at this minute whether they were consulted in this particular case, but I can write and let you know. But it is always open to us to consult those advisory committees on any of these issues. In any case that is to do with releases into the environment the Secretary of State is required to consult the appropriate advisory committees.

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