Select Committee on European Union Twenty-Second Report


CHAPTER 3: THE COMMITTEE'S CONCLUSIONS

Why is labelling needed?

65. The proposed Regulations seek to extend existing EU legislation on labelling (and hence traceability) of GM crops, food and animal feed, including products containing or derived from GM material. Although we have consciously restricted the scope of this Report to the practical aspects of meeting consumer demands for labelling, taking those demands as given,[51] we will start by briefly running through the case for labelling under several headings. These take into account the considerable variation in consumers' motives in wanting to know which foods are "GM" in one sense or another (see Box 1, after paragraph 0 above).

SAFETY

66. None of our witnesses, either in writing or orally, provided any specific evidence that there was any increased risk to public health in general, or to susceptible individuals in particular, from the consumption of GM products currently available or under development. There has been increasing consumption of products derived from GM maize and soya in the US during the past five years. Our attention has not been drawn to any deleterious effects to the health of individual consumers. It may of course be too early to make any assumption about the safety of these two crops. It would also be inappropriate to attempt any wider generalisation from these two examples.

67. Testing of GM products is considerably more exhaustive than traditional crops and food. This has enabled problems such as the unintended transfer of brazil nut allergenic material in protein-enriched soybeans to be dealt with before the product actually reached the market place. On the other hand the "StarLink" incident[52] illustrates the difficulties of restricting a GM food crop to animal or industrial uses when its non-GM counterpart, used for human consumption, is virtually indistinguishable, as well as the practical difficulties of segregating GM and non-GM crops to prevent contamination or cross-pollination.

NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS

68. Since many GM products are chemically identical to traditional products, no effect (positive or negative) on nutrition can be asserted. While various claims have been made, those products available so far (e.g. yellow rice) are relevant more to countries with large undernourished populations. This is not generally the case in the EU. It seems unlikely that nutritional benefits for developed countries will appear in the near future. Current UK and EU legislation in this area is already very tight, and certainly more restrictive than in the US.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATIONS

69. The inquiry did not specifically address the adequacy of existing legislation to prevent inappropriate releases of GMOs into the environment. No extra benefits in this respect are likely to flow from the present proposals. Some of the earlier experiments in plant biotechnology have, however, led to public concern (coupled with distrust of the industry) about effects on biodiversity and ecosystems. Much greater transparency of information and independence of scientific research is needed to allay this concern.

70. Food is an unusual consumer product. There are many examples where the consumer is concerned not only with the product itself but also with the means of production and the implications for the environment and animal husbandry. These concerns are well demonstrated by the demand for organic vegetables, free range eggs, etc.

71. The fact that a food is determined to be safe to eat does not necessarily mean that it cannot harm the environment. Many crops which are grown for food may themselves be, or contain, seeds (e.g. apples, potatoes, sweet corn etc), which could lead to the spread—whether by accident or design, and irrespective of the scale of production—of novel, including GM, varieties into non-native environments. Good environmental monitoring is needed in order to protect against undesirable gene leakage of this kind, which may compromise identity preserved (IP) schemes.

72. On the other hand there are frequent claims that GM crops can offer substantial benefits to the environment, such as reduced need for pesticides which harm flora and fauna and disrupt ecosystems. The validity of such claims is outside the scope of this Report.

ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS

73. In 1985, the United Nations adopted a series of consumer rights in their "Charter for Consumer Protection". Among these were (i) the right to be informed and (ii) the right to choose. It seems to us that the second follows logically from the first; certainly without information, choice must become more limited.

74. We were interested in the views expressed by the Rev Professor Michael Reiss, who suggested that the market place, rather than legislation, may be an effective way of providing this. Those who wish to have such information will choose those products and suppliers who make it available. This does not of course remove the onus on the authorities to protect the vulnerable, such as babies or those with allergies.

CONSUMER PREFERENCE

75. The principle that consumers are entitled to know whether they are eating GM food or not is already part of existing EC legislation on GMOs. That is why the conclusions of this Report are mainly concerned with the practicalities of extending that knowledge to all types food and feed in which genetic engineering has played a part.

Feasibility of testing and tracing of GM content

76. A variety of products produced with GM technology are not merely substantially equivalent to existing products but are actually identical (oils, sugars etc). Not only is there now, but there never can be, any scientific means of identifying their source. This is why the Commission's proposals on labelling would need to rely on an "audit trail". We are not convinced that either for bulk commodities (soya, maize, wheat etc) or for products from countries with less sophisticated supply chains could such a trail be relied upon. We are also concerned that the cost of such surveillance would fall upon producers and consumers with no obvious benefits in nutrition or food safety. We feel that unenforceable legislation could devalue the system, and a higher price would unavoidably have to be paid for enhanced consumer choice.

Derived products

77. We consider that all derived products should be treated in the same way. This would not be the case with the Commission's proposals. Most of the world trade in soya and maize is now in the form of GM or GM-derived and this situation must, realistically, be accepted as unchangeable. Whilst therefore it is realistic to label food and feed which are themselves genetically modified, products derived from GMOs can be identified only by audit trails.

What should be labelled?

78. We were convinced by the arguments of the FSA and the farming and food industries[53] that the Commission's traceability proposals would be largely unworkable, because of high costs, practical difficulties of ensuring universal traceability and the opportunities for fraud or misleading claims. We have therefore concluded (with the FSA) that it would be more practical to go for something like option (b) in paragraph 0 above—i.e. to continue with the existing labelling regime, which meets consumers' wish to know whether they are eating something which contains detectable amounts of genetically engineered DNA or protein, and to couple this with a scheme of identity preserved (IP) products for people who wish to go further and avoid food from any source or process in which genetic engineering has played a part. For reasons which we discuss below, we do not think it would be appropriate to label these products as "GM-free", but they would be presented as having been produced without the use of GM techniques and with every reasonable step having been taken to avoid the accidental presence of GM material.

79. In coming to this conclusion we recognise that a possible consequence might be the creation of a two-tier price structure (as is already the case with organic and non-organic food); but it is unrealistic to expect increased costs to be borne by all consumers, including those who have no wish to pay for audit trails and who have no concern about GM-derived food. We think every effort should be made, working alongside normal market forces, to keep the additional costs of IP and assurance schemes as low as possible.

80. We appreciate that this may be an imperfect response to the aspirations of consumer and environmental organisations. Nevertheless we see encouraging and positive scope for building on existing IP and farm assurance schemes. Evidence from the farming and food industries suggested that such schemes (e.g. the British Farm Standard scheme) could deliver a standard of traceability which should command consumer confidence.

Terminology

81. We were unhappy with the UK Food Standards Agency's proposed use of the term "GM-free". Sir John Krebs envisaged that it would represent, at least initially, a niche market, for which people would be willing to pay a premium, as with organic food, and would be "based on local production systems with short supply chains where traceability could be guaranteed and where the sources could be identified as definitely not having a GM basis" (Q 227). The Commission does not attempt a definition of "GM-free" or similar terms, since its proposals work the other way round—i.e. by requiring all food and feed within the defined categories[54] to be labelled as containing or produced from GMOs.

82. Zero level of GM food and feed is not usually practicable. Therefore in our view the term "GM-free" should not be used unless the seller can guarantee a true zero level. We feel that as long as the adventitious presence of GM matter is tolerated up to a limit of one per cent, the term "GM-free" is unhelpful and, in a strictly literal sense, positively untruthful.

83. Alternative wording such as "non-GM", "contains no intentionally present GM material", or "produced without the use of genetic engineering" were suggested in the evidence. We consider that the term "non-GM" might be acceptable, provided that:

    (a)  it is used only for products in which the presence of authorised (our emphasis) GM material[55] is below the threshold of one per cent;

    (b)  its meaning is rigorously defined; and

    (c)  it is supported by a strenuous campaign of public information, led by the FSA.

Otherwise we fear—as Sir John Krebs conceded (Q 226)—that many consumers would not recognise a difference between "GM-free" and "non-GM". There is a parallel with "lead-free" and "unleaded" petrol. "Unleaded" is the term favoured by the oil industry because during the period when leaded petrol was being phased out there was a possibility that petrol which was entirely lead-free when it left the refinery could become contaminated in the distribution chain. In practice most motorists would regard the terms as interchangeable.

84. We therefore think that the FSA should consider following up the recent report of the former Food Advisory Committee on Food Labelling[56] by arranging consumer research into the form of words that might be most useful and least ambiguous in this area. In this context words like "impurity" and "contamination" have implicit negative connotations, which we think should be avoided.

85. We have already commented that in our view all GM-derived products should be treated in the same way. We consider that meat etc from animals fed on GM feed and any products (wine, cheese, etc) made with GM processing aids should be no more eligible to be labelled "non-GM" than the highly refined oils and sugars referred to in paragraph 0 above. We recognise the particular problems that industries with lengthy production processes—notably the wine and spirits trade (paragraph 0)—would face if the Commission's proposals were to be adopted.

Clarity of information

86. We were concerned about the impact on the size and legibility of labels if the requirements for what should appear on them compulsorily were too detailed or prescriptive. A label is only one way of conveying information to consumers. Much information is already provided that in practice is not readily accessible to the average consumer. We think that the FSA and producers throughout the food chain should explore alternative and more user-friendly means of getting information to those customers who want it. This information needs to provide as many details of the methods of production (including husbandry) as possible. Only rarely is commercial sensitivity a valid excuse for non-disclosure.

87. For instance, it would be open to cheese producers to include labels or other forms of information voluntarily which explained to customers why chymosin was preferred to natural rennet as a processing agent.

The moratorium on approvals of GM imports to the EU

88. We support the ending of the present ad hoc moratorium, which we consider to be an unfortunate abuse of Community procedures and could expose the EU to international litigation. Quite apart from averting major potential difficulties in the WTO forum, it would help to resolve the growing problem of unapproved products finding their way on to the EU market. The Commission's current proposals envisage an expert committee conducting safety assessments of GM material which has not yet been approved by the EU but is contained in food at a level below the one per cent threshold. The FSA describes this as "unsatisfactory".[57] We think it is unacceptable and adds weight to the case for unblocking the moratorium.

Developing countries

89. The Sub-Committee's call for evidence (Appendix 2) included a specific question on the implications of the Commission's proposals for developing countries. There are two aspects. The first is whether the proposals would inhibit trade with countries who have already embraced, or might wish to embrace, agricultural biotechnology on an extensive scale. The second aspect is the possibility that exploitation of a technology that appears to benefit their agronomy may be retarded. Deaths from organophosphate poisoning in China have dropped dramatically since the advent of Bt cotton[58]. We believe that EU legislation on tracing and labelling would probably have only a neutral effect on developing countries' economies, but it is likely to be perceived by them as restrictive.[59]

90. We are concerned that traceability and labelling requirements for exports to the EU should not inhibit developing countries from developing GM technology, if they consider this would be appropriate for meeting their needs for food security and improved nutrition and can satisfy themselves that it there are no potentially harmful implications for their environments.[60] We welcome the Department for International Development's initiative for capacity building in these countries,[61] but are convinced that far more resources will be needed to provide adequate levels not simply of technological know-how but also the capacity to take decisions on social and environmental grounds. However it would appear that little progress is possible until the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is ratified.[62]

91. We recognise that difficult issues are involved here. In the final analysis developing countries will have to make up their own minds on whether to embrace food and agriculture biotechnology. We do not think that the EU should seek to influence decisions without recognising the imperatives of developing economies.

Handling of GM issues within the UK Government

92. We find the allocation of responsibilities for GM policy issues within Government confusing, even after cross-questioning the Minister and Sir John Krebs on the matter (QQ 178-82, 208-15). We recognise the pivotal role played by the FSA but are puzzled that it should describe itself as a "Government Department" and we remain unclear as to its relationship with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when formally its accountability is to Health Ministers. We note that there is a Cabinet committee, currently chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons, whose remit is to pull together the various interests within Government. Its proceedings, however, fall short of full transparency and we would like to see the lead responsibility being held by a senior departmental Minister.

Recommendations

93. We now make the following recommendations (references in brackets are to supporting paragraphs in the Report):
(a)Consumers have a right to choose between GM and non-GM products on the basis of the best information that it is practicable to make available (0);
(b)It is not practicable to legislate for the degree of traceability envisaged by the Commission for bulk commodity imports from the United States and elsewhere (0);
(c)Identity preserved (IP) and farm assurance schemes already exist and should be encouraged as a means of meeting consumers' demands for products which do not involve the use of GM technology (0);
(d)Rather than imposing indiscriminate burdens on producers and consumers at large (as the Commission's proposals would imply), we believe that it should be for the market to determine the prices of non-GM products from IP schemes, although we would urge that these should be kept as low as possible (0);
(e)Use of the term "GM-free" should be restricted by law to those products for which 100 per cent absence of GM material (including use of processing agents) can be guaranteed at all stages of production (0);
(f)We accept that, for practical reasons, the present threshold of one per cent is necessary to allow for the unintended presence of GM material in the generality of products which might otherwise be described as "GM-free" (0);
(g)This threshold should however apply only to GM ingredients which have been through the full EU authorisation procedure (0);
(h)For products to which the threshold applies, the term "non-GM" may be appropriate, but it is liable to confuse the consumer: we recommend that the FSA, following the advice of the former Food Advisory Committee, should conduct consumer research to establish more user-friendly terminology (0);
(i)In any event, we consider that all GM-derived products should be treated in the same way: we endorse the proposal to extend the labelling regime to animal feed; it follows that meat etc from animals fed on GM feed should not be classified as non-GM (0, 0);
(j)Although products obtained through use of GMOs as processing aids fall into a different category, we feel the same principle applies: it would, however, be open to producers to use voluntary labelling to explain the advantages of the processes and the trace quantities involved (0);
(k)Whatever terms are chosen, they need to be backed by better information for the consumer, on which the FSA should take the lead, supported by all other parts of the food production chain (0-0);
(l)A sensible balance should be set between what can be put on a label and what needs to be communicated by other means, such as in-store notices or company websites (0-0);
(m)Every effort should be taken at Ministerial level to persuade other Member States to lift their veto on GM approvals in return for a more pragmatic approach to traceability and labelling which should nevertheless go a long way in meeting their current concerns (0);
(n)The EU should not seek to influence developing countries' decisions on whether or not to adopt food and agricultural biotechnology practices without recognising the imperatives of developing economies (0);
(o)There should be closer and more transparent co-ordination between the FSA, the Cabinet Office and other Government Departments, with one departmental Minister having overall responsibility for all aspects of policy on GMOs and related biotechnology issues (0).

Recommendation to the House

94. The Committee considers that the European Commission's proposals on labelling and traceability of genetically modified food and animal feed raise important issues of policy to which the attention of the House should be drawn. It makes this Report for information.


51   See paragraphs 7-11. Back

52   StarLink™ was a proprietary variety of maize, modified to contain insecticidal properties. During the period 1998-2000 the US Environmental Protection Agency approved its use as animal feed but not as human food, because of suspected allergenic effects. Fragments of the modified DNA were subsequently found in a popular brand of taco shells sold in the US. It was thought that this had arisen from physical contamination of seed corn but cross-pollination from GM crops could not be ruled out. Voluntary action was taken to withdraw manufactured products at risk from similar contamination. (See Friends of the Earth at Q 96.) Back

53   See paragraphs 33, 47, 50, 48 and 52. Back

54   See paragraph 14. Back

55   See paragraph 17. Back

56   Food Advisory Committee, Review of Food Labelling 2001, Food Standards Agency, FSA/0354/0102, January 2002. Back

57   p 56 at paragraph 5.3. Back

58   Cotton seeds genetically modified to contain a common bacterium (bacillus thuringiensis) which protects against bollworm, the main pest that attacks cotton crops. Back

59   In the hope of getting first-hand evidence on these issues, follow-up letters were written to the Brazilian, Chinese and Mexican Ambassadors and to the Indian High Commissioner asking for statements of their governments' views. In response to the first of these the Committee was told that the Brazilian Government had not yet decided on its policy in this area and therefore would not be making a submission. The High Commission replied that it was seeking information from the relevant authorities in India, but at the time of reporting this had not arrived. It is apparent from the Indian Government's recent decision to approve the introduction of Bt cotton that policy on biotechnology has been undergoing review in India, and no doubt in other countries too. No replies were received from the other embassies. Back

60   We note that the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report 2001, Making new technologies work for human development (http://www.undp.org/hdr2001/), concludes that many developing countries might reap benefits in reducing malnourishment through the unique potential of GM techniques to produce new biotech foods and crops, although these have be balanced against challenging issues of risk management. We have also noted recent statements by the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Professor Gordon Conway, about the potential of benign uses of biotechnology for tackling world food shortages. He believes that biotechnology's potential is currently seriously threatened by "a polarized debate that grows increasingly acrimonious". (See, for example, G Conway and G Toenniessen, "Feeding the world in the twenty-first century", Nature, Vol 402 Supp, 2 December 1999, p C55.) Back

61   Q 186. Back

62   See paragraph 16 and Box 3. Back


 
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