Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
TUESDAY 31 MARCH 2009
Dr Andrew Wadge, Dr Stephen Axford and Mr John Roberts
This report is pretty hard hitting in general and I wondered whether
you think that the European Parliament committee is kind of over-egging
it when they say, for example, the committee "Considers it
highly misleading for the Commission to state, in the absence
of any nanospecific provisions in Community law, that current
legislation covers in principle the relevant risks relating to
nanomaterials". That seems almost directly contradictory
to what Dr Wadge has said a few moments ago and I could quote
from other paragraphs. This is much more critical of the European
regime than you appear to have been. Could you enlighten us as
to whether the committee has got it wrong or whether you have
got it wrong?
Mr Roberts: If I may make one procedural point,
this is a proposal from the rapporteur; it has not yet been endorsed
by the committee. My understanding is that the committee is considering
it today and then the European Parliament will vote on it in the
next week or so. My view is that some of the statements in the
report are absolutely right and some of the statements in the
draft are wrong. The one you have just indicated is one I would
not agree with.
Dr Wadge: John put that extremely well. I have
nothing further to add to that.
Q61 Lord Crickhowell:
I happen to chair another committee's examination of REACH's report
on food so I pricked up my ears when you started talking about
REACH. I think it is probable that if there need to be changes
they will take quite a time. My experience of these things is
that they take a long time to change right across Europe because
everyone wants a say and the industries want a say. How long do
you think it will take to sort out the regulatory changes to make
Mr Roberts: I have a lot of sympathy with that
point. It is going to take four or five years for the European
system to work through the issues and then for the legislative
process to be completed. From the UK Government's point of view
we have been urging the Commission to make fast progress on these
issues. My Secretary of State did write to the Commissioner last
year stressing the importance of addressing nano issues comprehensively
Q62 Lord Methuen:
Can we go back to pesticides? Often these pesticides use surfactants
at the nanoscale but they do not currently use engineered nanoparticles
although there are products, "smart nanoscale pesticides"
in development. Does Defra have a policy in place to deal with
such products once they leave the research and development phase
and enter the marketplace? I also include in this things like
fertilisers which presumably will use the same things and things
which are used by animal feedstuffs.
Mr Roberts: I can answer that question in respect
of pesticides although I am afraid I do not have the information
with me today on fertilisers and feedstuffs so I would need to
respond to that separately if I may. There is a European regime
in place which deals with the authorisation of pesticides which
operates at two levels. The active ingredient has to be agreed
at the European level as having passed the tests included in the
relevant annex. Secondly, individual products are approved for
use in the UK and the Pesticide Safety Directorate does that on
behalf of my department. The advice I have had from them is that
they would regard a pesticide containing a nanomaterial as a new
product requiring a specific authorisation. So if a company changed
the formulation of a pesticide to include, for example, an encapsulated
active ingredient instead of one in solution, then that would
require a new approval and a safety case would have to be made
for the use of that product before it was authorised.
Q63 Lord Methuen:
You will obviously risk assess these products. Is there sufficient
information to understand fully their impact on the food chain
and the environment? This goes for the other products which I
Mr Roberts: That question is hypothetical to
an extent until we get a case because it would depend on the nature
of the case. We would do the normal test that we would do and
we would look at all the scientific evidence that is available.
It is a system of positive approval, so they have to make the
case that it is safe rather than that it can be used in the absence
of any evidence to the contrary. They would have to make a case
and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides would give us the scientific
view about the case that had been made.
Q64 Lord Methuen:
You would get the equivalent for fertilisers presumably.
Mr Roberts: I am afraid I am not familiar with
the authorisation procedure for fertilisers so I would need to
Q65 Lord Methuen:
There must be something similar in place.
Mr Roberts: The regime on pesticides is clearly
tougher because pesticides are necessarily toxic to something.
There is therefore a system of positive approval. Fertilisers
generally are more benign substances so I am not sure they are
tested to quite the same rigorous extent as pesticides but I will
need to take advice on that and come back to you.
May I follow up a little bit on Lord Methuen's question? You said
that the risk assessment would be done by the Advisory Committee
Mr Roberts: They would review the evidence submitted
Does that Committee have on it anybody who is an expert in nanotechnology?
Mr Roberts: I will need to look at the list.
To be honest, I doubt it, but it is clearly an issue we would
need to look at. The issues we would need to understand would
be environment and fate, how the nanomaterial moves through the
environment, followed by toxicology and eco-toxicology from exposure
of humans or animals or plants or eco-systems as a result of that
application. If we did not have that expertise, then we would
need to look elsewhere for it. We have it, for example, on the
Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances and if necessary we
would make a link between the Advisory Committee on Pesticides
and the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances.
Dr Wadge: There are eco-toxicologist and toxicologists
on the Advisory Committee on Pesticides but as I understand it
the point you are making is whether they have specific expertise
in the toxicology of nanoparticles, I doubt that. It would not
preclude the opportunity to bring that expertise in to those particular
May I also ask the same question, whilst we are engaged in conversation,
about the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes? If
a nanofood product were to come through for approval with the
UK competent authority, is there expertise in this area on that
Dr Wadge: No is the answer. Is there access
to toxicological advice? The answer is yes. There is quite a lot
of history of seeking advice from the Committee on Toxicity and
I have included in the evidence some of the reviews which the
committees have done on nanotechnology so far and the recommendations
that they are making around the risk assessments. If there were
very specific points on nanotechnology that required additional
expertise, we would refer that to the Committee on Toxicity and
they would take advice as necessary.
Q69 Baroness Neuberger:
You have already mentioned the issue of public engagement and
this being a key area. What future plans do the Government have
to engage with the public, or conduct research on public perceptions
on the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector? We would like
to know who is going to carry it out and how it is going to be
coordinated across Government.
Dr Axford: I could give a general view. Recently,
in January of this year, there was a renewed ministerial commitment
on nanotechnology overall. They gave seven key commitments overall
but one of those was to develop the programme of dialogue around
nanotechnology involving all key players. That includes, for example,
academia, industry, non-governmental organisations and of course,
critically, the public. That is part and parcel of the strategy
to which I alluded earlier being put forward by the ministerial
committee. We therefore, through a number of mechanisms, for example
DIUS are responsible for a programme of activity called the Sciencewise
Programme, which is all about getting better evidence of what
the public thinks or finding a way of engaging the public in a
constructive way on key issues. That is a process which can be
applied on nanotechnology. There have already been two major goes
at talking to the public about nanotechnology within the last
two or three years. When it comes to the specifics of what is
actually done on food that would have to be something Andrew would
be able to talk about and what would be done in relation to food.
I do not know what level of detail you would like to know about
the general way that Government go about some of their work in
Q70 Baroness Neuberger:
It is not particularly so much about how the Government work.
We know a little bit about the general public understanding of
science-type work. It is really perhaps some of the methodologies
you are going to use for this actual engagement. For instance,
there is very good evidence that with quite complex areas of nanotechnology,
in the food sector would be a good example, things like citizens'
juries may be very useful. It would be very interesting to know,
given that this is part of the strategy, what Government are intending
Dr Axford: Certainly on nanotechnology as a
whole and even more so on food in particular it is a little bit
early to say exactly which techniques we would use. Given what
we have heard this morning about the problems almost of definition,
we need to know what we need to achieve through any engagement
process. Are we worried about the toxicological impacts? Are we
looking at the commercial benefits? Until we know where nanotechnology
is exploited in the commercial sector, it is very hard to know
what to talk to the public about. It is very hard to engage them
at the fundamental science level where a lot of it still is. We
heard earlier that a number of these technologies are still often
in the lab.
Dr Wadge: The Food Standards Agency absolutely
stands ready to engage in public debate and, taking the lead from
Lord Krebs who was our first chairman who really set a very high
standard of public engagement on science, that is something we
are very keen to follow. We do have a number of mechanisms in
place. Perhaps I can talk about what we did on cloned animals
a couple of years ago as an example of the type of engagement
that we might do in relation to emerging technologies more generally.
We commissioned work in 2007-08 which took the form of reconvened
workshops. We brought members of the general public together,
we had a range of experts from all different parts of the debate,
talking about their work and we reconvened the group after they
had gone away to think about it and they had an opportunity to
It worked very well in terms of eliciting a rather broad consensus
as to what the general public's concerns were. They were less
concerned, interestingly, with how the technology and the science
worked and their focus was much more on the why and the consequences
and the benefits from the technology. That is perhaps not surprising,
given what we learned from the GM debate which got very polarised.
What we would want to do through citizens' juries, and we have
a number of citizens' forums available which we regularly use
and debate a range of issues that are topical for us, is to make
sure that we are not simply finding out what the people on the
extremes of public opinion think but actually what the general
public feel once they have had a chance to be really informed
about a technology. We do have the methodology available and we
stand ready to engage in that debate.
You have already raised the GM issue and obviously some of that
was extremely uncomfortable in many ways. Presumably one of the
things you are saying therefore is that the engagement with the
public will happen relatively early in order to avoid that kind
of extreme view. I am not sure whether you are saying that.
Dr Wadge: If we do not, then it seems to me
then that we have failed to learn one of the key lessons. It is
important that there is an engagement and recognition of the role
of everybody, not just Government but food businesses a well,
to engage and talk about the types of technology and make sure
that there is a general understanding and acceptance of technology.
Q72 Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
This is a question which also bears on public engagement but it
really arises out of the DIUS submission which very usefully brought
together evidence from a number of different countries. Brazil
is quite startling and of course lies outwith the three big groups
that we have discussed and one meets ready-to-eat edible bioplastic
coating and pallet sensors for quality control apparently aimed
at increasing the quality of Brazilian wine. Then there is a statement
that Brazil does not seem to have any dedicated regulatory framework
for nanotechnology research. There is a big player with a lot
of research and there is free trade and it is quite complex to
keep out products which do not meet certain standards. Do either
DIUS or Defra or the Food Standards Agency have a reaction to
the Brazilian evidence?
Mr Roberts: I am not familiar with the Brazilian
situation but I can talk about the attempts at regulation of nanotechnology
on the global level, if that would be helpful.
Q73 Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
That would be.
Mr Roberts: If I may take one step back and
look at chemicals, broadly speaking there are very few global
rules restricting chemicals. The only ones which are restricted
at the global level are 12 persistent organic pollutants which
include substances like DDT and PCBs. Attempts for a broader regulatory
framework for chemicals generally have not been possible to agree
politically until recently. A big attempt to have a strategic
approach to international chemicals management in order to deliver
the WSSD, the World Summit on Sustainable Development objectives
on chemicals had to be on a voluntary approach because some countries,
not least the United States, opposed global regulation. The global
community has attempted to regulate chemicals such as mercury
for the last decade and in fact we had a breakthrough last month
and there is now agreement to have international regulation of
mercury emissions and that reflected a change in the approach
of the United States and countries such as China and India were
quite reluctant but in the end came along. In terms of nanotechnologies,
we will be discussing that at the SAICM, the Strategic Approach
for International Chemical Management meeting, which takes place
in Geneva in May, where it has been identified as an emerging
issue. We will be raising awareness there. It would be wrong to
say there is scope for international global regulation of nanotechnology
in the immediate term. We are trying to raise awareness of the
issues in countries, not only those producing nanotechnologies
but those which may also import products containing nanotechnologies
and therefore have to deal with waste streams that may require
specialist handling; at least raise awareness, spread the science
and begin to get cooperative action going.
Q74 Baroness Neuberger:
May I move on to the question of labelling and consumer information?
Again this is mainly for the FSA. You said in one of your additional
reports that there is a need for consultation on declaring the
use of nanoparticle ingredients or additives in food products
but in your main evidence you say that you do not have information
on whether UK consumers would value information on the use of
nanotechnologies in food and what sort of information would meet
the necessary criteria. What are the Government doing to obtain
the information about what the public feels about that?
Dr Wadge: We need to address that through the
deliberative research with consumer forums, once we are a bit
closer to products being on the market. At the moment it is a
little bit difficult to do it in a vacuum in a way. Consumers
need to know what specific products we are talking about that
are now about to come onto the market and how that might benefit
them or benefit others. Certainly that is how we would carry out
that research, through our citizens' forums, to really gauge a
sense of what information they would find useful and whether particular
types of labelling would actually be helpful to them. At this
stage, it is still a little bit too early to say.
Q75 Baroness Neuberger:
I completely take the argument about it being early and therefore
very hypothetical, but I just wonder whether there is not an argument
for at least beginning that discussion, simply to make it clear
that there will be transparency in this area.
Dr Wadge: Certainly we will be starting the
process of talking about nanotechnologies with our citizens' forums
in the autumn this year. I can ensure, given this conversation,
that the question of labelling and information is included in
those sorts of discussions.
Q76 Lord Methuen:
Mine is an unrelated question. Mr Roberts mentioned these 19 tasks
of priority research projects and five taskforces and he also
mentioned 14 nanomaterials which were under investigation. It
would be useful if we had details of what those were.
Mr Roberts: Certainly.
Q77 Earl of Selborne:
I want to go back to the process of public dialogue, public engagement.
I think everyone recognises and admits that the GM debate was
a bit of a disaster quite frankly, because of the polarisation
to which you referred. What are the lessons learned from the GM
debate, even if they are only negative ones, as to how this debate
should be structured?
Dr Wadge: That is a very big question, is it
not? I am not sure that necessarily everything from the GM debate
translates and transfers to this particular issue. Having said
that, there clearly are some very important lessons and the first
is to engage with the public at an early stage to ensure that
a range of debate and dialogue takes place around the types of
technologies which are being used or might be used in producing
food and what the implications are for consumers of those different
types of technology. Early engagement and bringing together scientists
and the general public and groups such as the Food Standards Agency
can play a facilitative role in encouraging that sort of debate
to raise awareness to begin with of the sorts of issues and then
specifically to tease out some of the very specific questions
around acceptability and requirements for information and labelling
and so forth.
Q78 Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan:
Perhaps I should declare an interest as Chairman of the Nuclear
Industries Association. A consultation was conducted by DTI which
subsequently fell in the courts and they had to undergo the same
process in a rather modified fashion to secure acceptability.
Really what I just want to say is that the GM consultation was
not the classic example we would want to follow but there are
other failures as well. There is the potential pitfall of the
litigious opponents and some of the people who are already on
the fringes of the debate, having a higher bar of standards, wanting
to pull more things into nanotechnology than perhaps the current
definitions will allow. These are the kinds of people who might
well be standing in the wings with lawyers ready to require judicial
review. I merely make this additional cautionary point that the
unfortunate experience of GM is as nothing compared to some of
the subsequent failures of the Government's consultative processes
which were expensive both in time and money to correct.
Dr Wadge: Yes.
Q79 Lord Crickhowell:
As we approach the end of the session, I am extremely grateful
that I have a very much clearer idea of what the Food Standards
Agency and Defra are about and what is going on. The big gap I
have at the end of this session is in understanding what the Government
are really doing to close the big gaps we have in scientific knowledge.
I have a big gap in my impression of what drive is being put,
what money is being put behind the research programmes, behind
what the universities are doing. I just do not have an impression
that there is as much effort going in to really stimulating the
research that is needed as I think there should be.
Dr Axford: We can respond to that in a broad
sense. Looking at nanotechnology overall, setting aside the food
specific for the moment, across the research councils there is
something like £50 million across all programmes generally
in the area of nanotechnology and a further £50 million in
the specific cross-council programme on nanotechnology projects.
There is actually a lot of investment going on in the broad area
Lord Crickhowell: May I ask thenI
really do have a black hole herewhat is actually going
on here? I am afraid you have not given me any clear picture at
all in your answers to questions; even that last answer does not.
We really do need a pretty detailed report from your department
as to what they are doing, what the programmes are, what money
is being spent where and what you hope to achieve by it.
Chairman: Particularly in the area of
risk assessment which is what concerns us rather than, say, development
of new TV screens or something like that. If you could help us
with a bit more detailed information on that area.
27 "This answer is not entirely correct. The
Participants were in fact presented with information about the
technology by the research company and not by a range of outside