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GE - Jack Cunningham writes..

Hi All

If the letter you might have received from Jack Cunningham about GM crop
trials made you hopping mad, you might like to read his letter to Charles
Kennedy MP
and the Liberal Democrats excellent response.

Liberal Democrat News - Page 5, 27 August 1999

GM debate hots up

Following the launch of the Liberal Democrats' new policy paper on GM foods,
Keeping the Balance, "Cabinet Enforcer" Jack Cunningham wrote to Charles
Kennedy.  We reprint Mr Cunningham's letter, and the reply from Matthew

Dear Charles, 


You have expressed a number of concerns about the regulation of research into
genetically modified organisms GMOs) in the UK, and in particular the
for farm scale evaluations of GM crops. I think it is important to point out
that these are issues which the Government has already considered, that
much of
what you are seeking is already in place, and that the existing procedures for
regulating the testing of GM crops in the UK are the most rigorous in the
You have called in addition for a five year moratorium on commercial planting.
There is no evidence to suggest that this is necessary or would be helpful in
the evaluation of the impact on the environment.
We believe that biotechnology could offer enormous benefits to the UK, and we
want to ensure that we have the right conditions for taking forward the
development of new products and techniques based on this technology.
However, the Government's priority is and will continue to be the  protection
of public health and the environment. 
Over the last two years we have undertaken a comprehensive review of the
regulatory oversight of biotechno1ogy in the UK. We are satisfied that the
system in place is robust and equipped to meet the challenge of new
developments. We have also been extremely influential in improving the
of risk assessment and regulation in Europe, most recently in negotiations to
amend the Deliberate Release Directive. We will continue to monitor
developments and, based on the advice of independent scientific experts, take
action to ensure we continue to meet our commitments to our citizens and the
environment The seriousness with which we take our commitment to these
goals is
illustrated by the fact that the UK is the only country in the world carrying
out detailed investigations into the impact on biodiversity of growing GM
spring and winter oil seed rape and fodder maize on a commercial scale.
Ministers have repeatedly made clear that there will be no general cultivation
of these crops until we are satisfied that there will be no unacceptable
effects on the environment You have called for research to be "carried out
independently, not by the
company concerned". This is already the case. A consortium of three very well
respected research institutes, the Institute of Arable Crop Research are
carrying out the research. A Scientific Steering Group, whose members include
representatives from English Nature, the RSPB, and the Game Conservancy Trust,
provides independent oversight.  It is paid for by DETR, MAFF and the Scottish
Executive, because they are responsible for the safety of human health and the
environment. The only industry involvement is through AgrEvo, which is
providing the seed and herbicide for this research.
In respect of cross-pollination and gene flow, the Advisory Committee on
Release to the Environment considers these issues on a case-by-case basis.
The isolation distances for GM crops are based on internationally recognised
isolation distances set up thirty years ago to maintain seed purity across the
world.  These distances have stood the test of time and give a seed purity in
excess of  99 per cent Finally, the crops being grown in the farm scale
evaluations have already been subject to research consents for small-scale
trials, and have only been authorised for these larger scale trials after a
careful assessment of the risks they pose to the environment As with all
outdoor trials whether small-scale research trials or farm scale field trials,
regulations require adverts to be placed in the relevant regional papers
planting. Local people are invited to write in with any concerns they have,
all of the letters received are replied to. If legitimate concerns that had
already been addressed were to be identified, they would be carefully
considered before the trial could proceed.
I am sure you agree that it is important to have a well informed public debate
about this important techno1ogy, and 1 hope you will do what you can to ensure
that the facts of the situation are accurately presented.

As ever, 

Dear Jack, 

Thank you for your letter to Charles concerning the launch of the Liberal
Democrat policy paper, 'Keeping the Balance', on genetic modification.
Charles has asked me, as senior  environment spokesman, to respond to the
points that you raise.

In section 3.5 of the policy document, we spell out in detail why we re-affirm
the policy, adopted in September 1998, of a five year moratorium,
preferably at
the EU level, on the commercial growing of GM crops.
The government's programme of farm scale trials is not due to be completed
until 2003 at the earliest.  The minutes of a meeting of the  Scientific
Steering group, who oversee the farm scale trials, state that: 'Until a
sufficient sample size has been accrued, no conclusion can be safely drawn.'
Why then are the government likely to- proceed with commercial growing as
as Spring 2000 before the results of the farm scale trials are made public?
Surely we need to have conclusive evidence of the effects on the environment,
cross pollination and human health  before we proceed with what may well be
irreversible. In accordance with the precautionary principle, we believe the
trials should be completed and assessed before any commercial growing takes
place in the UK.
The British Medical Association and nearly eighty other organisations are
calling for such a moratorium on the  commercial growing of GM crops. .

Following a review of the regulatory framework surrounding biotechnology it
announced in the Commons on 21st May 1999 the setting up of an 'Agricultural
and Environment Biotechnology Commission'. This commission will cover the use
of biotechnology in agriculture and its environmental effects and be
to you.
Has this commission been set up ? The House of Commons Library has no
record of
A report commissioned from the government's Chief Medical Officer and Chief
Scientific Adviser on the public health  implications of GM food found that:
'there was no current evidence to suggest that GM technologies used to produce
food are inherently 'harmful' but it stopped short of guaranteeing the safety
of GM foods already being consumed. It also concluded that: 'there is a
need to
keep a close watch on developments and to continue to fund research to improve
scientific understanding in this area.' It recommended the setting up of a
National Surveillance Unit to monitor population health aspects of GM and
novel foods.
Has this unit been set up? Or do you intend to set it up? How will it

Only four farm scale trials out of a total of 150 trials of GM crops being
grown are government funded and designed to look at the impact on biodiversity
and the environment. Most trials are industry initiatives looking at
benefits such as yields. Clearly the vast majority of research into GM
crops is
being conducted on a commercial basis by the companies concerned. To state in
your letter that a far as independent research is concerned: 'This is already
the case,' is misleading.
Of the research being carried out, how much of the findings will be available
in the public domain? Will the meetings drawing up the conclusions be minuted
and available for public scrutiny? You will understand the public concern that
some individuals in the various research institutes appear to have a vested
interest in the biotechnology industry - the public have a right to know how
individuals came to their conclusions.

The government's farm scale trials have yet to set benchmarks against which
they will be measured. At present GM crops will only be compared to
conventional crops using intensive agrochemical practices. Given that
'conventional' farming has led to massive decreases in biodiversity and
birdlife over the last 20 years, we feel that GM crops should be compared to
organic crops as well.

You mention the 'comprehensive review of regulation' since coming to
office. We
are very concerned that the Supply  Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural
Crops (SCIMAC) guidelines will only be a voluntary code of conduct and could
lead to a poor take up and low awareness within the industry.
SCIMAC's own guidelines show that only 1 in 10 growers will be inspected by
year 2003. Hardly a robust  regulatory framework.

A key issue the government have not even begun to address is liability. How
GM crops be grown commercially when liability for any environmental/health
problems caused as a result has yet to be established? We are in danger of
another BSE type scenario whereby everyone points the finger at someone else
and no one is held responsible.
The recent revision of the 90/220 Directive on the deliberate release of GMOs
into the environment provided the  government with a great opportunity to
address liability. It failed to do so.
The government has a clear opportunity to address the liability issue in the
forthcoming Biosafety Protocol talks in  November. What position will the
government take? Are they prepared to accept a substantially watered down
Protocol to appease the US? What is the minimum position the UK government are
willing to accept?

Recent research from the John Innes research centre showed that cross
pollination of crops would be 'inevitable', and that the present isolation
distances between GM and non GM crops would do nothing to change this. Organic
farming  would be particularly affected if wide scale GM crop planting was
allowed to take place. We have consistently stated that GM crops should not
threaten the viability of organic farming.

The present consultation arrangements are far from adequate. We believe there
should be a legal requirement to consult with all farmers likely to be
by cross pollination including non GM, organic, and those farms in the process
of converting to organic. This is in addition to genuine advance consultation
with local communities taking place a lot earlier to enable views to be better
taken in to account when considering the application.
For your information I enclose the policy paper that will be debated at our
Autumn conference. It sets out in detail our  concerns, which reflect those of
the public at large, and the policies to address these issues. I trust that
will recognise that the public are far from satisfied with the approach to GM
food thus far.