Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 9 June 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Scrutiny of EU Legislative Proposals
Before we begin, I ask members, delegates and those in the Visitors Gallery to turn off their mobile phones as they interfere with the broadcasting of proceedings.
We will consider COM (2015) 177, a proposal for an amended Regulation EC 1829/2003 as regards the possibility for member states to restrict or prohibit the use of genetically modified food and feed on their territories. The officials present are from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine which is the lead Department and the Department of Health. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, have also sent representatives.
From the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine I welcome Mr. Dermot Ryan, deputy chief inspector, Mr. Gerry Lohan, agriculture inspector, feedingstuffs division, Mr. Donal Coleman, senior inspector, crops division, and Ms Sinéad McPhillips, assistant principal, EU and international trade division; from the Department of Health, Mr. Gregory Canning, head of food unit, and Mr. David Maguire, deputy head of food unit; from the Food Safety Authority Ireland, Dr. Patrick O'Mahony, chief specialist of food technology; and, from the EPA, Dr. Thomas McLoughlin, senior biotechnologist. I thank all the representatives for appearing before the committee to brief it on the proposal.
Before we begin, I draw to the attention of witnesses to the fact that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against persons outside the House or an official, either by name, or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
As the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the lead Department, Mr. Dermot Ryan will make the opening statement, followed by the Department of Health and the EPA. I will then open the meeting to the floor and call on the spokespersons to put their questions. I invite Mr. Dermot Ryan to make his opening statement.
Mr. Dermot Ryan:
I thank the committee for the invitation to update it on the proposal outlined. This proposal is to allow each member state decide if they wish to permit or ban the import and use of GM food and feed in their territory. The proposal states that such prohibitions or restrictions must be reasoned and based on compelling grounds and must not conflict with the EFSA risk assessment.
Genetic modification is a science-based technology which, in the case of plants, alters the gene structure in a way that does not occur naturally through fertilisation or natural recombination. This modification confers certain traits on the plant that can be advantageous to agriculture and food-feed production. However the application of the technology has proven to be controversial. Current EU legislation defines a GMO as "an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination".
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, 18 million farmers in 28 countries planted more than 181 million ha of GM crops in 2014. Cultivation is concentrated in five countries with 90% planted in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada. The main GM crops cultivated are maize, soya bean, cotton and oilseed rape. While herbicide-tolerance and insect resistance are the predominant traits of the commercialised GM crops, there is an increasing spectrum of traits emerging, which include drought and salinity tolerance, yield enhancement through more efficient use of nutrients, disease resistance, improved nutrition content and improved food safety profile.
The cultivation and marketing of GM crops within the EU is strictly controlled by EU-wide legislation which has been jointly adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. In the past 15 years the European Union has introduced a suite of regulations governing the safety, labelling, marketing and traceability of GM crops, food and feed. Central to these regulations are four main legislative acts, namely: directive (2001/18/EC), which outlines the conditions for the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment and sets out aspects of the risk assessment required prior to their release; Regulation 1829/2003 which sets out the conditions for authorisation, supervision and marketing of GMOs for food and feed use; Regulation 1830/2003 establishes the conditions for labelling and traceability of GM food and feed; and the contained use directive (2009/41/EC), which lays down measures for the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms.
The main aim of the legislation is to give the consumer a clear choice, through labelling, between GM and non-GM products and the confidence that all GM products placed on the EU market are safe for human and animal consumption and to the environment and can be traced back to source.
The authorisation procedure is that GM crops, food and feed are subject to a comprehensive risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority before they are authorised for use in the EU. The risk assessment is designed to ensure GM crops and GM food and feed do not pose a risk to human health, animal health and the environment. Preparation of an application to have a new GM crop cultivated in the EU or to have a new GM food or feed derived from a GM crop authorised for import and use in the EU is the responsibility of the breeder. The application must be prepared according to standard guidelines established by EFSA and the OECD. Experts in EFSA then carry out a risk assessment of the data presented in the application to ensure the GM crop, food and feed are safe for human health, animal health and the environment.
Following a favourable opinion from the EFSA, the European Commission presents a draft proposal to the EU regulatory committee on GMOs, that is, the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, SCoPAFF, for vote on approval or rejection of the application for authorisation in the EU. If no qualified majority is achieved for or against the application, the proposal is submitted to the higher level appeals committee. If no majority is achieved at the appeals committee, the proposal reverts to the Commission for final decision.
To date, no application to authorise a GM crop for cultivation or for food and feed use has received a qualified majority at standing committee level. In general, votes have been split approximately 12 in favour, 12 against and three or four abstentions. The decision then reverts to the Commission which has generally approved the applications in line with standard EU policy. Once a GM product is approved, the authorisation is valid for ten years. To date, 57 GMOs have been approved for food and feed use in the EU. However, only one of these, namely, MON810, an insect resistant maize, has been approved for cultivation. Of the 57 approved, 30 are maize, 12 soya bean, ten cotton, four oilseed rape and one sugar beet.
The GM maize, MON810, is cultivated in five EU member states, namely, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. The total GM maize plantings in the EU in 2014 amounted to 143,000 hectares, with over 90% of this cultivated in Spain. All applications for authorisation by the EU to place food and feed products consisting of or containing genetically modified ingredients in the EU market are considered individually following a comprehensive evaluation of the GMO by the EFSA. In line with Government policy of adopting a positive but precautionary approach on biotechnology, a common voting position is adopted by Ireland for food and feed on the basis of a favourable opinion from the EFSA and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
The comprehensive risk evaluation procedure adopted by the EU has given rise to a time lag between the EU and third country authorisations, thus leading to trade difficulties between the EU and the main global exporting countries of GM crops, namely, the USA, Brazil, Argentina and Canada. New GM crops that are authorised and cultivated in North and South America are generally not authorised for a period of one to two years later in the EU, leading to rejection of unauthorised shipments of maize and soya bean at EU ports. Rejection of these shipments occurs due to the zero tolerance in the EU of unauthorised GM crops. This disparity in authorisation timing, known as asynchronous authorisation, has given rise to considerable difficulties for the Irish and EU trade, and alteration to the EU authorisation process as suggested in the current proposal is likely to give rise to similar difficulties in the shipment of feed materials to Ireland.
Regulation of GM crops in Ireland is shared between the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Health. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has primary responsibility for the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment as governed by Directive 2001/18/EC.
The Department is also responsible for the authorisation of GMO trials, both field and contained-use, including genetically modified micro-organisms. The EPA assists the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in risk assessment and the setting of conditions for the conduct of the trials, as well as conditions for deliberate release. The Department of Health has responsibility for the use of GMOs as regards food. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has responsibility for the import and use of GM feed, as well as control measures for cultivation post-commercialisation, should that arise.
The European Union is only 35% self-sufficient in protein supplies for animal feed. Soybean is the most favoured vegetable protein because of its nutritional efficacy and competitive cost. In Ireland up to 80% of animal feed for ruminants is provided by grass, hay and silage, complemented, where appropriate, by compound feeds. In the case of pigs and poultry, virtually all of their nutrition is derived from compound feeds. The Irish cereal harvest is generally in the region of 2.2 millions tonnes per annum, of which approximately 1.7 million tonnes are used for animal feed, with the remainder being used in the food and drinks sector.
On average, Ireland imports 3 million tonnes of animal feed materials per annum. In addition, approximately 1.7 million tonnes of home-grown cereals are used in the production of feed, bringing the total usage of feed materials to approximately 4.7 million tonnes. Some 66% of these feed materials is used for ruminant feed - 16% for pigs, 12% for poultry and 6% for other animals. Of the 3 million tonnes imported, approximately 55% is sourced from third countries outside the European Union, mainly Argentina, the United States, Ukraine, Canada and Brazil. More than 1.2 million tonnes of soy and maize GM products were imported into Ireland for animal feed in 2014, constituting 40% of total feed imports. The main commodities imported are maize and maize by-products, soya bean meal and soy hulls and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soya bean and maize products imported from Argentina, Brazil and the United States is derived from genetically modified crops. Significant quantities of non-GM maize and oilseed rape meal are imported from continental Europe, including Ukraine.
Ireland is especially dependent on feed imports relative to other EU member states in that approximately two thirds of the feed materials marketed here are imported, compared with, for instance, 37% in the United Kingdom, 27% in France and 26% in Germany. The pig and poultry sectors which employ almost 10,000 personnel in production and processing are particularly impacted on, as soya bean is an essential ingredient in the formulation of these feed rations.
The Food and Feed Chain Coalition, FFC, which represents ten EU member organisations from different parts of the food and feed chain has expressed its opposition to the proposal from the European Commission, as has the Irish Grain and Feed Association, IGFA. The animal feed industry in Ireland considers the import of significant quantities of soya bean and maize from North and South America where GMO cultivation is widespread as essential to satisfy the protein fraction in animal nutrition. Trading difficulties have arisen in the past owing to zero tolerance of unauthorised GM crops. Further difficulties with such imports are likely to be exacerbated in the future as an increasing number of GM crop varieties are cultivated in North and South America in advance of authorisations being achieved in the European Union. In previous years the United States has delayed the cultivation of new GM varieties to ensure compatibility with EU authorisations, but this practice is increasingly difficult to implement owing to the widespread adoption of stacked or multiple GM traits in GM crops.
I thank members for their attention and will be happy to answer questions they may have.
Mr. Gregory Canning:
I thank the joint committee for giving the Department the opportunity to speak about the proposal to amend the current regulation and the basis for it. The Commission is proposing to allow member states in certain circumstances to restrict or prohibit the use of authorised genetically modified food or feed in their territories.
It is proposed that member states be allowed to make use of this "opt-out" provision, subject to their being able to justify the restriction or prohibition on a case by case basis.
Under the existing provisions laid down in Regulation EC 1829/2003, only authorised GM food or feed may be placed on the EU market and when present in a food or feed at greater than a figure of 0.9%, it must be labelled accordingly. The current regulation also sets out a centralised procedure for the safety assessment and authorisation of food and feed from a GM source. Even where a genetically modified organism, GMO, or a product derived from a GMO is to be used only in animal feed, its safety with respect to human food is also assessed and vice versa. The authorisation procedure put in place by the regulation ensures the products concerned will not pose a risk to human and animal health and the environment. The authorisation of a GM food or feed in the European Union begins with a safety assessment carried out by the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, a risk assessment body established under the regulation. Each application is assessed on a case by case basis and once the dossier has been deemed complete by the EFSA, it forms the basis for an authorisation or rejection proposal which is then presented by the Commission to member states to be voted on at standing committee level.
As our colleague has outlined, since the entry into force of Regulation EC 1829/2003, a qualified majority of member states has never been achieved either for or against authorisation of a GM food or feed. The applications are, therefore, sent to the appeals committee to try to reach a majority decision. Where this is not achieved, an application is sent to the Commission for final decision. The Commission has stated the reasons given by many member states to justify abstaining in votes or rejecting applications are usually not based on science but on other considerations. Where there is scientific evidence demonstrating that an authorised GM product is likely to pose a risk to human or animal health or the environment, the regulation allows the Commission or member states to adopt emergency measures restricting or prohibiting the placing on the market of the product. This is the only basis allowed to member states to restrict the placing of GM food or feed on the market once a product has been authorised.
The Commission is proposing to amend Regulation EC 1829/2003 to provide that individual member states may, subject to certain conditions, adopt measures to restrict or prohibit the use of GM food and feed on part or all of their territories. There is a series of caveats set out in the recitals to the proposal, which are as follows: the member state must be able to justify the prohibition or restriction on the grounds of an overriding public interest in accordance with Article 36 of the treaty as developed by the case law of the European Court of Justice; the measures must not infringe Article 34 of the treaty on the free movement of goods; the measures must be reasoned and compatible with the principles of proportionality and non-discrimination between national and non-national products; as stated, the reasons for prohibition or restriction cannot be linked with health risks as they are already dealt with centrally by the EFSA and the emergency measures covered in Regulation EC 1829/2003; and the measures cannot be used to prohibit or restrict the placing on the market of products containing less than 0.9% GM material, which products are already dealt with under the existing regulation. Essentially, this means that products containing adventitious or technically unavoidable amounts of GM material are not required to be labelled as containing GM material.
Under the new provisions, the prohibition or restriction of a GM product by a member state may only occur after the GM product has been authorised. This process will thus not affect the procedure for authorisation of GM food and feed which will remain valid for the whole of the European Union. Once a GM product is authorised in the European Union, it may be marketed in all member states, including Ireland. GM food ingredients authorised in the European Union include soya bean, maize, oilseed rape, cotton, sugar beet and starch potato. Under the current regulation, if more that 0.9% of a food or ingredient is derived from a GM source, it must be labelled accordingly.
GM foods are not generally sold in Ireland, a situation similar to that in other EU member states. An evaluation of the EU legislative framework for food and feed published in June 2010 by DG Sanco suggests this is because food markets have evolved towards the dominant use of non-GM supply chains. Monitoring of the Irish marketplace has been co-ordinated by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland since 2001, which ensures only authorised GM foods or ingredients are on the market and that consumers are allowed to purchase or avoid these products by virtue of accurate labelling.
Sampling and analysis of GM foods are mainly concentrated on processed food containing soya, maize or rice as these are foods where GM ingredients are more commonly found. Inspection results are published on the FSAI website and demonstrate that only a small proportion of foods analysed contain GM ingredients but that these are generally authorised GM ingredients and are below the labelling threshold of 0.9%.
To date, Ireland has always adopted a science-based but precautionary approach to GM foods while consumer choice has been ensured by adequate monitoring of the marketplace. This new Commission proposal provides member states with a unilateral means of prohibiting or restricting the marketing of EU-authorised GM food and feed ingredients in their territories without having to resort to emergency measures provided for under article 34 of the regulation. The proposal does not define the reasons that can be invoked by member states other than to stipulate that they cannot be based on perceived risks to human or animal health or the environment. The Department of Health is of the view that the provisions of the legislation currently in place for authorising GM food and feed in the EU provide adequate science-based safeguards in the context of human and animal safety and the environment.
We are available for any questions members may have.
Dr. Thomas McLoughlin:
Ar an chéad dul síos, ba maith liom buíochas a tabhairt duith a Chathaoirleach for inviting the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss COM (2015) 177 pertaining to GM food and feed. At the end of this opening statement, I would be happy to answer any questions that members might have and if I am unable to provide answers today, I will arrange for the relevant information to be forwarded to the committee.
The EPA is the competent authority in Ireland for the implementation of the genetically modified organisms, GMO, regulations on the contained use in laboratories and the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. This could be for a field trial or a clinical trial in hospital. The agency was nominated as the competent authority to administer the regulations in Ireland and the commencement date for implementation was 1 January 1995. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is responsible for national policy for GMOs and the environment. I think one of the previous papers said that it is the EPA which gives consent for both contained use and field trials. Other regulatory agencies involved in the regulation of GMOs in Ireland include the Food Safety Authority of Ireland; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; and the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, which is the body for GM medicines and medicines derived from GMOs.
What are GMOs? GMOs are defined as bacteria, viruses, fungi, plant and animal cells, plants and animals that are capable of replication or of transferring genetic material in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. In the last 39 years, the development and use of GMO or genetic engineering, GE, technology has brought many useful applications in health care in the form of new pharmaceuticals, vaccines and new methods of diagnosing disease. An example is insulin which has saved millions of lives over the past 30 years. Insulin is important for people who suffer from diabetes and 100% of it is now made using GM technology. This technology is also making a major impact in the investigation of crime, waste treatment, environmental clean up and other areas.
The EPA's remit is to implement the GMO regulations in Ireland pertaining to the contained use and deliberate release into the environment. What does the licensing of GMO users in Ireland mean? In practice, what this means is that anyone who wants to use a GMO in a laboratory or in a field or clinical trial, which involves deliberate release into the environment, must first obtain a licence from the EPA. By 1 June 2015, there were 579 entries on the register of GMO users in Ireland, more than 95% of which are contained users. A total of 98% of this use relates to genetically modified micro-organisms, GMMs, that are used in laboratories and are categorised as low- risk categories - class 1-2 GMM - and GM animals which are used for medical research. Quite a number of researchers in Ireland use GM mice. Class 1 encompasses researchers looking at bacteria that produce antibiotics.
The class 2 category includes the use of genetically modified viruses for the production of vaccines.
Currently, there is one GM field trial that has been ongoing since 2012. This relates to a GM potato which is tolerant to the late potato blight fungus. This has been planted for the past four years and next year will be the last year of planting. This work is being conducted at Oak Park by Teagasc and is part of a larger European-funded project called AMIGA to assess the impacts of GM crops on the agro-ecosystems. Dr. Ewen Mullins from Teagasc was a speaker at our 2013 conference, details of which I will outline presently. He has updated the relevant slide. Committee members can see the slide on the right, which shows the position after two years of planting. On the left side members can see the devastation caused by the late potato blight fungus. To combat this disease Irish farmers would have to use approximately 15 to 20 sprays of fungicide per year. The slide on the right shows the GM plant. It has a single gene from a wild potato. I imagine committee members can see the potential of this technology. Every picture tells a story, mar a deirtear.
The EPA has no remit for GM food and feed in Ireland and, therefore, the agency has no comment to make on this proposal. However, I wish to inform the committee of some of the outcomes of a conference held by the EPA in 2013. The outcomes are still pertinent to this day. The aim of the conference was to emphasise the relevance and importance of GM technology to Irish research, industry and the economy. An EPA report, "Synopsis of issues arising from the conference - Regulation and Use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in technology in Ireland" was sent electronically to all Members in January this year for information purposes. No doubt all committee members have read the document. I re-sent it to the committee last week in electronic form.
What were the main outcomes? We had several international speakers from the European Food Safety Authority and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment in the United Kingdom. From the United States we had an NGO speaker and we had a speaker from the IFA as well and so on. I will summarise the main points. It was evident that Irish farmers rely on the importation of animal feed derived from GM soya and corn. In 2012 more than 50% of imported grain was derived from GM soya and GM maize. In fact, the EU is only 35% sufficient in animal protein and the remainder must be imported. This means approximately 1,800 million ha must be planted outside the European Union to provide vegetable protein, an incredible area of land. Irish farmers were concerned that they might become less competitive because they had to pay a higher price for imported commodity crops. This is still pertinent for the current proposal before the committee.
Another outcome of the conference was the evidence that the use of GM technology is helping to drive Ireland's exports. GM technology has the propensity to create more jobs in the bio-pharma sector. For the first time Irish researchers now have the capability to carry out clinical trials on patients in hospitals using GM vaccines and other medicinal products. Basically, this derives from Government policies in recent years. The money has been spent on research and much of this has now been transferred to hospitals to determine whether those vaccines or drugs have any efficacy.
Nine of the top ten global pharmaceutical companies are located in Ireland and this has created over 24,000 jobs. Fully 50% of our exports derive from the life sciences, including the bio-pharma sector. The sector is very important. Many companies are moving away from chemical synthesis of drugs in favour of biologics. This is more efficacious and environmentally friendly because the companies are not using chemicals.
A further outcome was the general agreement that the EU regulatory system pertaining to GM crops is cumbersome, expensive, not proportionate to the risks and not functioning properly for the workings of the Internal Market. Already there is evidence that this dysfunctional regulatory system is responsible for bio-tech job losses in the European Union. Two multinational companies have already given up on the EU regulatory regime for cultivation purposes. In 2012, the German giant, BASF, announced that it had halted the development of commercialisation of GM crops in Europe and moved its bio-tech research and development operations lock, stock and barrel, including growth chambers, greenhouses and laboratories, to the United States.
The firm cited consumer and political resistance to transgenic plants or GM crops in Europe for its decision. Two weeks ago I heard from my German colleagues that Bayer and KWS have moved from Germany over the past year and a half. KWS is a more traditional plant breeding company and it moved half of its research and development facilities to the United States. The German authorities did say they were very concerned about the potential for job losses.
I will outline another conclusion. There was a discussion on why Ireland should support a product and phenotype-based regulatory system, rather than the current process-based regulatory system. It was felt the former might better serve EU farmers and SMEs. Such an initiative would make sense, bearing in mind that there are herbicide tolerant crops in the EU at present that are unregulated even though they have the same potential concerns as their GM counterparts. These conventional herbicide tolerant crops are now available to Irish farmers. They are also called clearfield crops. Basically, it means one can select herbicide tolerance using traditional plant breeding. However, they have the same potential concerns with the fallout from the GMO regulations. Canada uses a product-based regulatory which regulates everything, if one knows what I mean.
The word "proportionality" is key when it comes to the implementation of the GMO deliberate release directive 2001/18/EC. It was the opinion of some of the speakers at the conference that the EU is overly concerned about the potential risks from using GM crops and is not sufficiently concerned about the environmental harm that invasive species do to ecosystems. The two species of Gunnera or wild rhubarb and Japanese knotweed are a huge problem. I have no doubt that they have caused environmental harm. They have adversely affected biodiversity by affecting whole ecosystems and habitats, especially in some parts of the west of Ireland. If one drives from Achill Island, which is my own part of the woods, up to Bangor Erris and south to Clifden, one will see that wild rhubarb has completely taken over ecosystems. Japanese knotweed has done the same in Kerry, Wexford and other counties and is very dangerous. Unfortunately, it appears that no one is doing anything to eradicate these invasive species. Twenty years ago people were concerned that GM crops would be released into the ecosystem. Ireland has a problem with invasive species and we seem to have taken our eye off the ball.
Another matter of paramount importance is how the new techniques for plant-breeding and the genetic modification of microbes will be regulated at EU level. The relevant EU directives are 25 years old but GM technology has come on in leaps and bounds. At present scientists can turn a gene on or off in a plant or microbe without the insertion of new DNA or protein in the plant. The big question in Europe is how can we regulate such products. If we regulate them as GMOs then other jurisdictions, such as the United States, will probably deregulate. Such a scenario would leave SMEs in the European Union with huge concerns, as I alluded to previously.
It is likely that some of the new techniques currently under scrutiny will not be regulated as GMOs in other jurisdictions. The product or phenotype-based regulatory system might overcome the problem of how to regulate the new techniques. Changing to a product-based system would bring the EU regulatory system in line with our main trading partners and would not distort trade.
In conclusion, I hope I have given the committee an overview of GMO regulation in Ireland. I am happy to answer any questions from committee members. Míle buíochas daoibh go léir.
I welcome the various representatives from the two Departments, the FSAI and the EPA.
GM foodstuffs are not new. Genetic modification is an emerging theory which brings potential but also limitations and dangers. The use of GMOs is a concern for consumers. It may not be the topic of many conversations but, ultimately, it will reflect in the foodstuffs that consumers eat, whether that is in the form of animals fed with GM processed foods or the GM processing or engineering of human foodstuffs.
There is a cultural dynamic at play here also. As humans do we want to eat food that is natural and that comes from traditional agricultural methods or do we want to eat food that is engineered in some other way, through human, technological or biotechnological intervention? This is the question for consumers. While we can dress up the issue as providing the consumer with a choice, we must reflect on the cultural dynamic before moving on and saying that by providing GM foods, we are giving consumers a choice.
If we accept that argument, we are in some way giving in to the major companies, Monsanto and other global institutions, which are positioning themselves on the world stage to be larger than countries, by acquiring the possibility of feeding nations through genetically modified food and feedstuffs, whether for human or animal consumption, in the future. This scares me. I come from a food science background and am well aware of some of the research which has been carried out over the past 15 or 20 years by companies such as Monsanto. I have friends who work in that sector, in biotechnology and elsewhere, who are making a healthy living from it. However, what scares me is that we do not know where it is going to end.
Much research has been done in this area by PhD students and others, some of which has been positive and some negative. The ship is out in regard to the future. I agree there will be a huge global demand for food because of increasing populations. How are we as policy makers to prepare to meet that demand? Should we give in to the fact that multinational players can provide food or should we consider more conventional, traditional methods of providing food? As a committee representing the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I presume we would promote the more traditional system of providing or developing foodstuffs first.
I will now put some questions to the witnesses, in particular to the representatives from the Department. Reference was made to the demand for genetically modified feedstuffs. The last slide shown by Dr. McLoughlin showed that more than 50% of imported grain here is derived from GM soya and GM maize products. Is that the case? To what extent do our feed and grain manufacturing plants use GM sourced raw materials currently? In the eyes of the Department, what is the current situation and what does it expect it to be in future, taking on board the available agricultural land here? What efforts are being made to try to promote and protect our traditional farming, grain and tillage farmers, in developing their enterprises rather than import grain? Has the Department considered doing this? What is the position regarding issues such as the environment, health, ethics and declining rural areas versus the importation of GM sourced grain? These are just general questions.
In regard to the European proposals, the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health seem to have taken the view that the proposals are somewhat prohibitive. Is that due to the fact that they are predominantly more process specific than product specific and that countries have difficulties in opting out?
Article 34 states:
member states may adopt measures restricting or prohibiting the use of products referred to in Article 3(1) and 15(1) authorised pursuant to this Regulation provided that such measures are:
(a) reasoned and based on compelling grounds in accordance with Union law which shall, in no case, conflict with the risk assessment carried out pursuant this Regulation;
(b) proportional and non-discriminatory.
I presume if both Departments are not accepting where the Commission is coming from, submissions have been made to the Commission. Has either the Minister for Health or the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine raised a concern at Council level ? What has been the level of dialogue? Is there a view within the Department of Health on health implications of genetically modified sources or processed foodstuffs coming into the human food chain in Ireland? Ultimately, it will end in the human food chain if we are sourcing raw material to be fed to animals. What is the view of the Department of Health on some of the conflicting research material, both within Europe and the United States, with respect to the implications for human health from that?
These are a few general points but it is a large and evolving area. It is a financially lucrative area, which worries me. While accepting that we need genetically modified foods to feed our animals in this country because we are not self-sufficient in Europe or Ireland, we are only providing ourselves with one option. Have other options been considered, such as helping our own grain farmers and industry to develop? I touched on what Ministers have done at Council level as I would like to know what has been happening there.
A proposal came before us at the last committee, COM 2015/0093, but has there been any initial feedback from the Departments of Health and Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the Commission on that?
I thank everybody for their contributions today. Like many citizens, I share concerns about this at the outset. There are two aspects, with the first being the safety of genetically modified produce, while the crucial issue is the motivation behind many of the main producers of genetically modified foods. When we consider the five countries involved - the United States, Canada, India, Argentina and Brazil - and the companies, such as Monsanto, as named by Senator Ó Domhnaill, with a control factor, the food chain of the world could be in the hands of a few people. That may be the motivation. The consequences for generations to come could be startling.
The Department of Health is responsible for examining the use of genetically modified organisms for food purposes. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has responsibility for examining the import and use of genetically modified feed and the control measures for cultivation post-commercialisation if that arises.
Is there joined-up thinking? Is there a forum whereby there is a linkage between the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine regarding the safety aspect of it?
On cross contamination, trials have been carried out in this country on growing GM produce alongside the natural production of food with regard to cross contamination, the effects of it and how it affects the natural produce. What is the percentage of the contamination as a consequence of that? I believe Spain produces 90% of GM production in Europe. Again, we are talking about very low income economies being very vulnerable to being, perhaps, exploited for that purpose. Also, there is the fact that climate would be a factor, because Portugal is one of the bigger producers as well. There is also Romania and the Czech Republic. Countries such as Germany, France and the more affluent countries of the European Union have severe restrictions on it. That poses a question. Abuse is probably the wrong word, but the weaker and more vulnerable economies are being used for production and perhaps being exploited for that purpose.
With regard to unauthorised GM crops, is there any mechanism to prevent them finding their way into what is described as the authorised sector? We saw what happened across Europe when there was the scandal last year with horse meat in the various different chains and how easily that could be done.
Regarding the tests being carried out by the European Food Safety Authority and so forth, who carries out those tests on behalf of the food safety authority? Who has the contract for doing that? Who pays for it? If companies are carrying out tests on behalf of a food safety authority, there is the issue of the bona fides of the people who carry them out. Where does the funding for it come from? Is it paid for by the European taxpayer? Do any contributions come from the sector itself, such as the big production companies in GM production? Again, with regard to the safety point of view, can the Department of Health representatives, in particular, say in absolute terms that they are quite satisfied with the safety of that food, be it in the food chain or the feed chain? The fact that it is in the feed chain automatically means it finds its way into the food chain because we are eating it. Will they give their views on that?
I welcome the witnesses. It is hard to know where to start with this except to be direct in my approach. I have severe reservations about genetically modified material for a number of reasons. I qualified as a biochemist and at that stage, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the human genome was sequenced. I did a PhD on homology modelling, which was something similar to what we are considering here. When one talks about the genome people get the impression that it is one straight line of sequences, but it comes together in a three dimensional model. The issue I have is that when we tamper with sequences at one part of the genome it could touch, promote, start or do something with the sequences on the other end, which are far away from each other but come close together in three dimensional structure.
We know the potential of virus sequences, which are short, but there are many sequences which, because we do not know what they can do, are redundant. While GM enables us to identify and put in traces that are beneficial we could at some stage, because we do not fully understand it, open up something that we do not want to open up. The point I am trying to make is that we are not long into GM in terms of the polymerase train reaction having been only developed in the 1980s. While there are many advantages to GM we need to be cautious to a certain extent.
In regard to the statement that we must not conflict with the EFSA's risk assessment, if we cannot conflict with its risk assessment are we not then operating with one arm behind our back? It was also stated that GMO is as "safe" as conventional use but, by way of illustration, there were many statements made a couple of years ago to the effect that our banks were fully capitalised. One cannot enter into something by putting down constants that may not be correct. In regard to the availability of GM crops on which glycocate can be sprayed, the argument has been made by many people that glycocate, or roundup as it is often called, if used on soil for long periods ruins the structure of the soil. I am a farmer. I would use glycocate only sparingly bearing in mind soil structure.
Reference was made to labelling. We cannot even get our country of origin labelling right. I would suggest that we get that labelling right before entering into this area. Another statement made earlier is that experts in the EFSA carry out a risk assessment of the data presented. Is the EFSA provided with all or only part of the data?
Reference was also made to trade difficulties. I am a tillage farmer. The current difficulty for the tillage industry is the recent production of three of the largest ever world harvests, as a result of which farmers are going out of business. The price of grain today is lower than it was 25 years ago. There will be no need to worry about grain production in Ireland into the future if this continues. That is a sad fact. Tillage farmers in Ireland are relying on high yields to survive. Only for the single farm payment many tillage farmers would be gone out of business. That is the reality of grain production in Ireland. In regard to the suggestion that we achieve higher yields to ensure lower prices, in a country like Ireland higher world production will put us at the mercy of importers and out of business.
It was also stated that the EU is only 35% self sufficient in proteins. Thankfully, following negotiations on the new single farm payment, a supplement of €100 per acre is now being paid in respect of crops such as beans. For the first time ever, I now grow beans and protein crops and will continue to do so. Perhaps we should put more effort into growing protein crops in the EU rather than looking to America and other areas to supply us with GM products. If we could manage to produce enough protein what is being proposed would be worthy of consideration. Currently, no effort is being made to protect our tillage industry. No effort is being made to make us different. We cannot compete on scale but we can compete on quality. We are about to accept the potential GM argument without first doing everything we can to increase protein production within the EU.
It was also stated that member states must be able to justify prohibition on the grounds of overriding public interest, in respect of which five grounds are listed. In my view, this restricts individual states' ability to object to GM foods if they have a concern. I do not like the headlong rush into this. The submission from the Department of Health ended with the following: "The Department of Health's view is that the provisions of the legislation currently in place for GM feeds provide adequate science-based safeguards". I am not convinced the safeguards we have in place are adequate.
With regard to the EPA presentation, I agree that our biopharm industry is very valuable.
I do not have a difficulty with that. It was stated that Irish farmers are concerned that they might become less competitive. As matters stand, we are already less competitive. Once one is losing money, it all becomes relative. I do not believe that growing GM crops will lead to tillage farmers being any better off. As a tillage farmer, I am of the view that the position will be quite the opposite.
In the context of proportionality, there appears to be a headlong rush into GM production. Reference was made to potatoes and I am aware of the fabulous work being done at Oak Park. However, it must be remembered that three or four years ago we were lucky to be in a position to export potatoes because there were just too many of them being grown here. I would have welcomed it if representatives from the pesticide control service had been invited to appear before us today. That service does great work and I would have liked to have heard its view on this matter. In a nutshell, we like the country to be perceived as having a green image. If the US and other countries throughout the world had segregated GM crops, there would be no problem. What would be the position if we presented those who buy food for their families a distinct choice between whether they would prefer to buy a bag of regular potatoes or a bag of clearly labelled GM potatoes? The concern that arises - be it right or wrong - is that people would go for the safer option. We must be very careful in the context of rushing headlong into promoting GM production. I remain of the view that there are still health concerns but I am willing to be persuaded - over time - that this is not the case. I will only be convinced when we have a proper understanding of the science involved.
From a purely business point of view, increased world production will mean that there will be no cereal industry left in this country. Our cereal industry is dying on its feet at present. I am of the view, therefore, that Europe should be seeking to produce more and more protein in order to give us something which we badly need. There was a fodder crisis in this country a number of years ago, which related to the fact that we were in expansion mode rather than that we were running out of protein. The price of soya remains quite high and people have been complaining about that fact. Perhaps by ensuring that we have an industry in this country, we can protect our selves from the vagaries of the markets in this regard. It must be remembered that speculation in respect of cereals - including proteins - is what adds vastly to the price in many cases. However, I accept that political instability also plays a part. Those are my views.
I thank our guests for coming before us and sharing their expertise. This is an emotive issue and it is the use of the word "modified" that frightens people. Genetics have been use for some time in the context of the development of crops and animals. In the context of human health, superbugs have emerged against which existing antibiotics are useless. As a result, new antibiotics have had to be developed and this has been achieved by means of modification.
We must ask whether there is a need for GM crops. I am here to be enlightened and persuaded in that regard. Will our guests indicate whether the world's population can be fed without the use of GM crops? It was stated that we import 66% of the protein feeds we require for our animals. Deputy Barry made the point that the price of crops in Ireland is being forced down as a result of the fact that other countries are in a position to produce GM crops. In circumstances where existing regulations do not allow GM crops to be grown in a particular country, are the people who live there being placed at an unfair disadvantage? Technically, it should be cheaper to produce a GM crop as a result of the need to use fewer pesticides, to engage in less husbandry, etc. Under COM (2015) 177, it will be left to member states to decide whether they wish to allow the use of GM products.
I would welcome the views of the panel on whether the use of such products should be regulated by individual member states? In such circumstances, the interpretation of regulation on the use of these products would be very open-ended.
Reference was made in the EPA presentation to herbicide-tolerant, HT, and to GM. Does herbicide-tolerant not technically also mean genetically modified in some way? As I said earlier, in terms of food production, particular breeds of animals are being constantly improved through genetics, as are crops. Years ago the only barley available on the market here was midas barley, in respect of which one got approximately a tonne and half per acre. We now also have hybrid crops, such as spring barley, which is a genetically modified food, in respect of which production is approximately three to three and a half tonnes per acre. Can the world survive without GM crops? If not, should member states have the right to regulate on the introduction of such crops in their country?
I agree with Deputy Barry's remarks in regard to GM on all food products. Technically, beef produced here and enhanced through the use of imported protein, which is genetically modified, should be labelled as such. Would that affect our green image and our standing as the best country in the world in terms of food traceability? As I said, genetics results in better breeding.
Reference was made to the major players in this area, including the US, Canada, Argentina and Brazil. It was also stated that Spain produces 90% of the GM maize MON81-10 produced in the EU. Is that product exported from the EU or is it used in Spain in the production of feedlots and so on? As I said, this is an emotive topic. We are all aware of the many multinationals that engaged in trials in this area and were destroyed. It is important all research in this area is completed and then made available to the public so that people can make up their own minds. In my view, labelling in this regard is the way forward. As I said, I am here to be persuaded. I believe GM has a future in the world because I do not believe we will be able to feed the world population without additional production, which into the future will require genetically modified foods.
Deputy Barry has spoken about many of the issues on which I had intended to focus. I thank all of the witnesses for their presentations, which were illuminating as well as informative. I thank them for the effort they put into their presentations.
I have many reservations and bountiful scepticism about GMO based food and food crops. I always believe that when dabbling with the unknown one must err on the side of caution. Deputy Barry used his technical knowledge to outline what can happen when one intervenes in sequences and so on. In such circumstances, one never knows what the outcome will be, which is a matter of great concern.
Deputy Barry is correct that the reason poor grain is being imported is profitability and that but for the single farm payment most grain farmers would be wiped out altogether. Approximately 3 million tonnes of animal feed material is imported into Ireland each year. More than 50% of this grain is derived from GM soya and GM maize. Does anybody ever refer to this?
We talk about food labelling. Is that referred to in any way in the context of labelling, given that a significant amount of feedstuffs for cattle and livestock already contains significant amounts of GM ingredients? Where is that? My colleague is right. Trying to get the label of origin here has been something that defeated the European Commission. Even though we have a new EU Commissioner I have no doubt that, regardless of how hard he tries, there will be obstacles in that regard.
We have received submissions from various groups saying that there were 17 varieties caught up in the system in the last Commission and that it is an incredible failure of the EU's GMO regulations and a disregard for the scientific opinion of the EFSA. However, one must be very careful of opinions. Is everything independent or is there a mad rush by strongly financed, muscular and well heeled companies because it is in their interests to promote this? We must be very careful as one can throw out the baby with the bath water with respect to always trying to advance technology. For whose benefit will it ultimately be?
Senator O'Neill asked a relevant question regarding where this fits into feeding the world's population. It is an interesting question that somebody should try to address. Is this what it is about or is there a different motive altogether? A financial motive might well be driving this.
I have grave reservations, but this is a useful forum for the information being imparted by the witnesses today. I remain sceptical and I would be difficult to persuade as to the merits, particularly given the rush. We must know more and we must tread carefully before a final decision is made in this country. Regarding our voting record at Commission level, how do we vote? Do we vote in accordance with the science or do we make up our own minds? What are the criteria that drive us to make our decisions? Are they made on an individual basis or do we have a bloc view on this going forward? Is it a policy view or is it individual? It is important to know that as well. I thank the witnesses for the presentation.
The witnesses have heard the observations and questions. To be clear, the proposal we are dealing with is to allow the individual member states to nationalise their decision on approved products that are GMO feeds for animal feed that are approved by the EFSA in the first instance. We must be clear on what this COM is about. There is a wider argument, but it does not have anything to do with products for the health or biopharma sectors, even though there are many in that area. It strictly relates to feed of greater than 0.9%. The fear from the IGFA, as I see it, is that it would un-level the playing field for member states if some states or administrations of the day might have a more restrictive approach to it than others.
It is inevitable that it will lead to more questions, as members have mentioned here, about any effort on the part of the EU to produce more proteins for animal feeds, non-GM proteins, in crop rotations and everything else. It is inevitable that the discussion would go that way. Nonetheless, the specific COM is about whether member states should be given greater autonomy with regard to the licensing of feedstuffs for use in animal feeds and the impact that would have on a member state. That is the background, and it is important to make that point.
Incidentally, I do not think anybody recommended whether Ireland should vote to accept this COM or not. It is not the role of the experts here to do that, just to explain it. It is for us to determine, following our hearing, whether we support the COM.
It is something we will discuss at our next meeting. That is the way it will work.
Mr. Gregory Canning:
I would like to add a further clarification to the Chairman's. The communication proposed by the Commission is simply about allowing member states to make a decision to prohibit or restrict the placing on the market of an approved GM product. The product will have gone through the assessment process with EFSA and the risk will have been examined, and, therefore, if this is adopted by the Council, by the time a product gets to this process, it will have been centrally approved. The communication then says that at that point a member state can decide to allow the product to be placed on the market within its territory. It is at a further remove. Senator Ó Domhnaill and Deputy Barry asked about this not conflicting with the EFSA recommendations. In making the decision not to allow a product to be marketed, a member state cannot use a justification around a health risk because the product will have been assessed by EFSA.
I am sorry but could I get clarification on this? Does Mr. Canning not consider that this is handing over a huge element of our objections and, therefore, we would find it difficult to object because EFSA is regarded as the expert and our concerns would be overridden?
Mr. Gregory Canning:
That relates to the original regulation when it was developed. That was the decision taken at that time. Whatever view any member state has on that issue, it is not up for discussion under this communication. The way it works is that the Commission has the right of initiative. It presents to the member states what is to be discussed. Whatever position a member state might have on GM, it is not up for discussion under this proposal. The Commission has presented the proposal in a particular way and we can only address it in that way.
Mr. Dermot Ryan:
Senator Ó Domhnaill raised a question about the volume of imports. Ireland imports at total of 3 million tonnes of feed materials approximately per annum, of which 1.2 millions or 40% is made up of GM feed materials - soya bean and maize by-products, which are distiiller's dried grains and corn gluten. The protein content of soya bean is more than 40% and the protein content of the other products is more than 20%. These materials are used specifically to bolster the protein content of compound feeds. The soya bean is particularly important for pigs and poultry. One cannot use the distiller's dried grains or the corn gluten and, therefore, the pig and poultry industry is dependent on the soya bean. That is a European wide situation regarding pigs and poultry.
With regard to the cultivation of alternative crops, as has been mentioned, there is a financial incentive of €250 per hectare to grow beans, peas and sweet lupins. A number of feed compounders are geared up to process those products. They can be used to varying extents in the diets of animals. Peas can be used for pigs and poultry and beans and lupins can be used for dairy cattle.
Of course, the relative use of those protein supplements versus soya bean, corn gluten or distillers grains always is a cost factor. There is another issue of the quantity of peas and beans that one can grow in Ireland, given the harvest conditions and given the soil conditions that are required. I believe that deals with the aspect the Senator raised in this regard.
The Senator asked a question about any submissions that might have been made at this stage. This current proposal is relatively new and only came out on 22 April. It will come before the Council next week and that will be the first stage. It also will come before the European Parliament next week. Following on from that level, the procedure is that it will go down to a working group from the Council and it will go down to a rapporteur from the Parliament. We will then be in a co-decision process, which will come later on. If one likes, it is a rather long process and at this stage, and we are only at the very start of it. We already have received the views of the Irish Grain and Feed Association which has made clear its views on this proposal. Obviously, our Department will be interested in the views of this joint committee when members finish their deliberations. At present, we are at the early stages. In common with many other member states, we have a lot of questions for the Commission. Other member states and indeed the European trade have raised international trade issues regarding the World Trade Organization and so on. We are examining the proposal at present and obviously we will wish to get clarification on a number of issues and that is a process that will be gone through.
Very well. The joint committee decided this warranted further scrutiny to keep it under observation with a view to what were the implications, and members are trying to ascertain this with the aim of making a contribution to the process, be it to the Minister, the working group or to the Council at that level, on the implications therein. It is interesting that the IGFA has made a recommendation to stick with the status quobecause while it is often less than happy with the status quo, it perceives this proposal potentially to be a little more restrictive from its perspective.
It is important for the members that we understand the process here because that is important in respect of how we would feed into it and to understand the context the witnesses have given to the joint committee today.
Deputy Deering has not-----
I wished to ask a question to which the Chair also has been trying to get the answer. While I am aware that it is in consultation with the Department of Health, as Mr. Ryan mentioned the Minister for Health, and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government also appears to be involved, who actually decides on Irish policy? Is it the Minister on the day and in consultation with whom, aside from the Ministers for Health and the Environment, Community and Local Government?
Perhaps Mr. Ryan might exert influence. How long has the consultation been ongoing and how long has the Department been considering the matter?
Mr. Dermot Ryan:
The proposal was only published on 22 April. The opening discussion will take place at the Council of Ministers on 16 June. The process will continue for a considerable length of time before Ireland or any other member state formally declares its position. By that point, the Ministers for Health and the Environment, Community and Local Government will have been consulted.
It is a ministerial process. Mr. Ryan was unable to set out a timescale. The process could take one year or five years. When the Ministers reach their decision, will the matter have to be referred back to the European Parliament?
Mr. Gregory Canning:
The current position is that the Commission has come forward with a proposal. As part of the co-decision process, the proposal will go before the European Parliament and the Council for consideration. Usually the Presidency of the day decides which Council formation should consider the proposal. In this case, it has decided that the Agriculture Council is the appropriate forum. However, regardless of the Ministers involved, the Council acts as one. The Agriculture Ministers will, therefore, act for the entire Council. The Commission will present its proposal to the Council of Ministers and explain the rationale behind it. It will then be sent to a Council working group comprising the attachés and officials of relevant Departments. We will liaise closely with our agriculture colleagues and departmental policies will develop alongside the negotiations. This is a relatively small proposal, but its brevity does not mean simplicity. It will have to be worked through. Eventually the Council will reach an agreed position through negotiations. It will pass from the Council working party to the group of permanent representatives of member states who will decide whether they have reached an agreed position that can be put to Ministers. Once Ministers sign off on an agreed Council position, the Council will engage formally with the Parliament to exchange views and the member states and the Parliament will try to reach an agreed position. The process takes a certain length of time, but it is iterative.
Mr. Gregory Canning:
Similar to the process in Ireland, the European Parliament will decide which committee should consider the proposal. It will probably be either the agriculture and rural development committee or the environment, public health and food safety committee. The committee will appoint the rapporteur and shadow the rapporteurs of other committees will follow the process.
It was important to have this explanatory discussion. It is fortunate that we do not scrutinise every Commission proposal, but this proposal is important for a number of reasons. A wider issue arises in that genetically modified crops give cause for concern in respect of health, property integrity and biodiversity. Although the issue of biodiversity tends to be forgotten, it is more closely related to cultivation and cross-contamination than anything else.
In this particular case and as matters stand, the Irish grain and feed business and the systems we use to feed our animals - pigs, poultry and, in the main, ruminants - are dependent on it. Regardless of whether we like it, that is the problem. Ireland will face an ongoing dilemma in this regard until an alternative is put in place.
Granting member states autonomy in respect of the decision relating to this matter is, at this point, a considerable step towards renationalising certain aspects of the decision-making process. The committee will be obliged to discuss this matter - I imagine that will be an interesting meeting - before making a formal submission to both the Parliament and the Commission with regard to our position and views on it. From that perspective, it was important that we obtained an indication of the context and scope of what is involved. It all seemed quite simple until matters began to be thrashed out during the toing and froing between members and our guests. This discussion has been useful for us in terms of understanding how the process will work and how - though probably slowly - it will proceed.
I thank our guests for attending-----
Before we conclude, may I obtain the opinion of the members of the delegation on the importation of protein-rich GM food ingredients, whether they be soya beans or whatever? They account for some 40% of imported products and, therefore, GM ingredients are already in the food chain. In the context of the Irish beef and poultry we buy in the supermarket and then bring home to cook and eat, we are consuming - by default - foods that have been produced using GM ingredients. What would be the implications in this regard if COM (2015) 177 were brought into force? Has the trade agreement between the European Union and Canada which is currently being progressed, albeit very slowly, had an impact in terms of the development of the proposal we are discussing? As I understand it, COM (2015) 177 has been doing the rounds of the Commission's offices for quite some time. Ultimately, it takes matters coming to a head before issues of this nature are referred to the Council and the Parliament. Is the trade agreement between the European Union and Canada in respect of many matters, particularly agriculture, a factor in this regard?
Mr. Dermot Ryan:
I will deal with the first question and Ms McPhillips, who is our trade expert, will deal with the second. The Irish Grain and Feed Association has outlined its concerns to the effect that if some regions, countries or parts of countries in the EU favour this proposal and take the option of deciding to ban GM feed, for example, this will lead to a disruption in trade, especially in the context of arranging shipments. In that context, parts of shipments are unloaded in ports in different countries and if one country or a part thereof decided not to accept GM feed, this could result in smaller shipments coming across the Atlantic to, for example, Ireland, which would result in an increase in the cost of feedstuffs.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is taking the lead on this matter. After next Wednesday, 16 June when the Ministers meet, could the officials give us an update on the policy and what way it will look from the perspective of each member state? It would help us in our work.
Ms Sineád McPhillips:
Reference was made to the trade negotiations. There should not be any direct impact from the Canadian trade agreement in place under the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or the US negotiations under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which are ongoing. There should be no direct impact in respect of the EU's system. This is because one of the principles of the trade negotiations on the EU side is the equivalence principle. This does not mean a mutual harmonisation of standards but an equivalence, and it is always up to the importing side to determine whether equivalent standards have been met by the exporting side.
If the COM document on the TTIP negotiations went through as originally proposed by the Commission the US side might have concerns about the implications in the sense that rather than exporting to a single market in the EU, there could be different rules for different member states. As Mr. Ryan has explained, there is a long process that a COM proposal must go through and there are several stages to be reached. This is something that will come up in the TTIP negotiations. However, the TTIP of itself will not influence the outcome of the COM proposal. That will be a decision for the EU.
Mr. Gerry Lohan:
I wish to point out again that we import approximately 700,000 tonnes of soya bean, meal primarily. The pig, poultry and high-performing dairy herds are not in a position to replace that with an alternative protein source from within the EU or anywhere else in the world. Over 90% of the soya bean cultivated in the USA, Brazil and Argentina is genetically modified. The option of sourcing non-genetically modified soya bean from there is not available. In addition, the amount of soya bean grown within the European Union at the moment is relatively small. It is mainly grown in Italy, Hungary, France, Austria and one or two other countries. They utilise all the soya bean that they grow themselves. In the case of the pig, poultry and high-performance dairy herds, there is no option to replace that protein with any other protein source because there is only a given supply of oil seed rape or beans, to which Deputy Barry referred. Beans are an excellent protein source for ruminants, particularly for beef cattle etc. However, it is not of the same quality of protein as soya bean. From the point of view of the livestock industry in this country, in the short to medium term there is no real alternative source of protein available. Perhaps in the long term we may be able to work on something like that but at the moment it is not available.
Dr. Thomas McLoughlin:
Some points were raised in respect of the EPA. Senator Ó Domhnaill raised the matter of bio-safety research. Over a 25 year period the EU has spent €300 million of taxpayers' money looking at bio-safety research in respect of food safety, environmental safety and safety in laboratories. The research was published in 2010 by the then Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. Some of this research was carried out by universities in Ireland. It was all independent research. The results showed that GM technologies per seare no more dangerous than conventional crop breeding.
Another point was raised in respect of field trials and gene flow. We had a number of field trials with herbicide-tolerant sugar beets in the 1990s.
The EPA looked very closely at the results in subsequent years when the sugar beet was planted. We did not see the emergence of any tolerance to related weed species. Unfortunately, we have no sugar beet industry now.
The current Teagasc trial is looking at indicators for biodiversity. Again, this particular trial is funded by EU taxpayers. The trial is comparing different types of management, i.e. integrated pest management. It is also looking at Sarpo Mira, a naturally tolerant potato variety, compared to GM and non-GM varieties. The results will come out in 2016 or around that time. Of course, that gene came from a potato. It was what is called a cisgenic potato.
A committee member asked whether this was new. GM technology has been occurring for thousands of years. I am referring to genetic modification per sein plants and animals. Let us consider the wheat crop we have today. It is not comparable to the wheat crop from 100 years ago, for example. Again, there is intervention by plant breeders and the use of technologies like chemical mutagenesis. As I mentioned, I believe these new techniques will circumvent the acronym GMO. This is because we will not be able to differentiate between whether the resulting apple from an apple tree will have any new trait. There will be no new DNA protein because of how the technology has moved.
Someone mentioned feeding the world. Certainly, we need every tool in the toolbox. We are experiencing climate change. Certain pathogens are emerging in Ireland, including Schmallenberg, the virus that effects abortion in sheep. That came in approximately ten years ago. There is also ash dieback disease. Can we actually manage without this technology? Let us consider what has happened with the Ebola virus and how it was treated. It was by using GM technology in Sierra Leone. We need to look very carefully at it. GM technology is not a panacea for all our ills but it is certainly an important tool in the toolbox.
It has been a very interesting conversation. Mr. Lohan mentioned that we do not have alternatives for protein at present, and he is correct. We met the Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine one year ago. He shared our concerns about protein production in Europe. That arose from the point of view that we could not get protein from America at the time because there were various restrictions. Whatever price we wanted to throw at it, we could not get it. There was a necessity that we should look long-term at increasing our production of protein.
Mr. Lohan is correct. The essential amino acids in soyas are better than in beans. I was in Hungary last week as part of an Oireachtas delegation. Those we spoke to shared many of the concerns we have. They are not fans of GM produce. They are concerned although they might be persuaded in future, like all of us. It struck me that in the long term we should consider encouraging the profitable production of the likes of soya in countries where it can be done GM-free. We would produce far more beans in this country if we were encouraged to do it. It is very easy and the market will follow it. If farmers believe there is profitability in a crop, they will grow it well. Some parts of Europe could produce it. All I am saying is that in the long term we should look for the possibility that we could have certain production without GM technology if it is perceived among the people who buy our products that they would prefer to have non-GM products. At the moment there is such a mixed bag that we cannot make out what is what in respect of what is coming over on ships. We are feeding GM crops. What is the view of the delegation? Let us suppose we were to label all our products at the moment, including baby food products, as GM products? There is GM technology in them. Would that be beneficial to Ireland? I am simply wondering what the position is.
Mr. Gerry Lohan:
I agree absolutely, but the reality is that if products contain GM at a level greater than 0.9%, they must be labelled as GM. That is the law as it stands. If it has more than 0.9% it must be labelled as a GM product. Let us consider all the imports at the feed end, which I am involved in.
We have always required that they state whether it is GM or non-GM in their import notification form. The vast majority of the imports we get from North or South America are GM and are labelled accordingly.
I am aware of it and in fairness, it is very well done. However, should we stick a label on the end of the meat that comes as production or the milk that comes after it stating that it is GM as well? Should we quantify that as moving down through the food chain?
It is very difficult. There is an argument, which has not been said here for balance, that if GM is taken on board, it should reduce the amount of pesticides we apply. That is why I said that it would have been interesting to hear the opinion of the Pesticides Registration and Control Division on that because it is the expert on it. It is a very emotive and interesting topic. I am pleased the witnesses presented today and I thank them.
I thank the witnesses. The briefing has been very informative for all of us in forming an opinion and the committee making a political contribution, which I presume is agreed by the remaining committee members. Senator O'Neill had to raise something on the Order of Business in the Seanad.
This exercise has been very useful. Dialogue as it evolves has given us a better insight into how the process works and the implications of it in the context of the Irish agriculture industry. If an EU proposal had come forward saying that member states had the right to restrict GM products coming into the pharmaceutical or medical industry, we would not be discussing it but various Departments would and jobs would be one issue. One must look at everything in its context. As things stand, Deputy Barry's point about whether we can feed the world without this unless there is an alternative must be considered.