All 19 contributions to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023

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Wed 15th Jun 2022
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Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
Lords Chamber

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Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

2nd reading
Wednesday 15th June 2022

(2 years ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Second Reading
17:28
George Eustice Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice)
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I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.

The UK is home to some of the world’s best agricultural research facilities. For some 70 years, plant breeders have used chemical and radiation treatments to generate random mutations in genes, in the hope that these might provide traits that are useful for plant breeding. For decades we have had F1—filial 1—hybrid breeding techniques, which were designed to create far greater genetic consistency in plant varieties that are grown commercially.

Precision breeding techniques such as gene editing are really a natural evolution of conventional approaches to plant breeding. They are simply a modern way of creating more targeted and predictable changes to DNA within a species than would have been possible using induced mutagenesis or natural breeding. They result in nothing that could not occur through natural breeding processes. In that sense, precision breeding techniques are distinct from genetic modification, which can involve moving genes across species boundaries. It is the recognition of this difference that is the reason for this Bill today.

In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that all gene-edited organisms should be legally regulated as genetically modified organisms. That has hampered our ability to take advantage of precision breeding techniques and of the clear opportunity to help the environment and food producers.

The UK Government disagreed with that 2018 judgment from the perspective of science. Now that we are outside the European Union we are free to consider what a consistent, coherent and science-based policy looks like. What we really need to achieve as we address today’s challenges is a fusion of the traditional principles of good farm husbandry with some of the best technology available to us in the 21st century.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
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The Secretary of State keeps using this language about precision breeding, but he will know that that is neither a specific technology nor a scientific principle. It relies on the creation of a hypothetical class of GMOs that could have occurred naturally. He will know that there is opposition to that definition from everyone from the environmental non-governmental organisations right through to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and to the Roslin Institute. Given that level of disagreement about the very principles of how he is framing this Bill, will he take it away and look at it again?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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We have considered these matters in great depth. We ran a consultation. The overwhelming view of scientists are that these precision-breeding techniques, which do not achieve or do anything that could not be achieved through natural breeding processes, are not in fact GMOs. That is our view. That is why we are bringing this Bill forward today. As the hon. Lady knows, there will no doubt be a debate about these matters in both Houses as the Bill progresses.

Precision breeding techniques give us the ability to produce plant varieties with particular traits far more efficiently than was ever possible with conventional breeding. This opens up huge opportunities for our farmers and growers to produce nutritious food with a lower environmental impact.

Precision breeding techniques can improve crop resistance to diseases, reduce the need for pesticides, increase crop yields, improve resistance to climate change, promote drought resistance and reduce the need for fertilisers.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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I do not believe that people need to fear this technology. This is not about creating Frankenstein’s monster or introducing DNA from another species. From developing disease resistant crops to bird flu resistance in poultry to PRRS—porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome —resistance in pigs, there are significant benefits, including: for food security; for the environment; and importantly, for animal health and welfare. Ultimately, there are also significant benefits for public health, as we are reducing medicines and therefore tackling things such as antimicrobial resistance. Does the Secretary of State agree that, ultimately, this can be a win, win, win for food security, animals and people?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about animal welfare issues in particular, raises some very important points. He will know that livestock breeders have long selected traits for polled cattle, for instance, so that they can avoid the need for mutations such as dehorning. It is also the case, as he says, that these new techniques offer the potential for us to breed poultry that is naturally resistant to avian flu, which is a major challenge, and some other issues that I will come on to.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con)
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As the Secretary of State knows, I have long campaigned against the badger culls, so the idea that gene editing may improve disease resistance in livestock is something that I find really interesting and could be, as my hon. Friend put it, a win, win. However, the Secretary of State will also be very well aware that, with the Department’s view that this could drive animals to faster growth and higher yields, there is significant concern from animal welfare charities that this would exacerbate the severe welfare problems that have arisen through selective breeding for increased productivity. Can he give some reassurances to those animal welfare charities that we are not seeking to produce more eggs, bigger eggs, or in any way harming breeding animals?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is already some work going on to breed natural resistance and to select, for instance, dairy cattle that have a higher level of resistance to bovine tuberculosis, and these techniques will allow that to be progressed far faster.

On my hon. Friend’s wider point, we address that in the Bill, and I was going to come on to it. I have listened carefully to organisations such as Compassion in World Farming; that point was highlighted to me some years ago by its head of policy, Peter Stevenson. That is why we have put in some very specific safeguards to protect animal welfare, so that there can be an assessment before any authorisation is allowed. We do not want to have a situation where there could be more lameness in poultry, for instance, or other animal welfare concerns. There will be a dedicated committee to assess that.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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Has the Secretary of State considered the impact that this Bill might have on public trust? People might be suspicious of GE food products. For those who are worried, what reassurance can be provided that genome editing will only be used where there are no other less invasive alternatives available?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I think consumers want to see fewer pesticides in their food, and technologies such as this open the door for us to achieve that. As part of the notification process that I will come on to describe, we will ensure that there is transparency and that any seed that is marketed is listed in a transparent way. The Food Standards Agency will also conduct a very thorough and comprehensive assessment of any food safety issues. I think that will give people the reassurance they need.

Returning to some other examples of crops, UK Research and Innovation funded a study that has identified promising sources of genetic resistance to virus yellows in sugar beet, a group of viruses that can cause severe yield losses of up to 50% and are at the heart of the controversy around the use of neonicotinoids in sugar beet. Introducing resistance to virus yellows will reduce the need for pesticides, boost our food security and reduce costs to our sugar beet producers.

With food security high on the agenda, we also have the ability to develop wheat that is more resilient to climate change, helping successfully to grow a crop that 2.5 billion people are dependent on globally. Researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used gene editing techniques to identify a key gene in wheat that can be used to introduce traits such as heat resilience, while maintaining high yields.

These technologies also have potential to improve the health and welfare of animals, as some of my hon. Friends have mentioned. Research in farmed animals is already leading to the development of animals that have increased resistance to some devastating diseases. For instance, the Roslin Institute and Genus have developed gene-edited pigs with natural resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a disease that causes mortality and major welfare issues in pig populations globally.

I turn now to the contents of the Bill. It will focus on four key areas. First, we will remove precision-bred plants and animals from the regulatory requirements applicable to the environmental release and marketing of genetically modified organisms. That will remove the necessity of adhering to the onerous regulations imposed by the European Union for plants and animals that could also have been produced through traditional breeding. The Bill does that in part 1.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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The Secretary of State will know that section 20 of the Environment Act 2021 requires him to be able to affirm that this Bill does not weaken any existing environmental protections. Given that he has more or less just said that it precisely does, because it will weaken the EU legislation that we were following and will erode the existing regulatory system, how can he then sign section 20 in good faith?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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As I have set out, as a point of science, the scientific community and the UK Government rejected the legal conclusion of the European Court of Justice. It is important to point out that that was based on an interpretation of the clauses in EU regulations, rather than on any coherent assessment of the scientific evidence. We will assess the scientific evidence, and it is on that basis that we are bringing the Bill forward.

The hon. Lady asks whether I can be confident that this will not undermine the environment, and I can. Indeed, I am confident that it will lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides, which is a key objective that she will share with Conservative Members. It could also lead to a reduction in the use of synthetic fertilisers—currently the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con)
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What restrictions are there around the world on the agricultural products of this technology? Does the Secretary of State think that in the very near future, when the European Union appreciates the benefits that this can bring to agriculture, it may well change its mind on it?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend raises an important point. In fact, I was at the agrifood council when the European Court of Justice judgment came in 2018. Even countries that had some scepticism about genetically modified foods, such as Germany and France, were very concerned about that judgment. It is also the case, as he may well know, that the European Union itself is now consulting on a change to its own laws. The EU will be some years behind us, but it recognises that the ECJ judgment in 2018 was scientifically flawed. He asked what other countries around the world do. The vast majority of serious agricultural producers with the scientific expertise to assess these things treat gene editing and these precision breeding techniques as being distinct from genetically modified organisms.

Clause 1 of part 1 describes what a precision-bred organism is. Clause 2 establishes the scope of what is considered a plant and an animal for the purposes of the Bill. Part 2 introduces two simpler notification systems.

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC)
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On definitions, the Secretary of State may be aware that the British Veterinary Association has expressed some concern that perhaps the definitions have been broadened somewhat in the Bill—in particular, that organisms or techniques that would insert exogenous genetic material could be allowed under those definitions. Can he confirm whether that is indeed the case?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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The Bill defines this quite tightly and lists what classes of animals are to be included. On some of these very specific technical issues, I am sure that hon. Members who have read clauses 1 and 2 will see that there are quite a lot of different processes, which we will all have to make sure that we learn a lot more about as the Bill progresses. I am sure that this will be discussed in great detail.

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)
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There is no doubt that a lot of the Bill is potentially of huge advantage, particularly in terms of animal welfare. However, my right hon. Friend will be aware that concerns have been expressed that people should at least have the right to know what they are buying. Does he have any comments to make about food labelling in this respect?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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There will be transparency in the sense that any authorised product will be listed. No marketing authorisation will be granted for the sale of any food unless it has been properly assessed. However, it is not currently our intention to have some kind of labelling requirement specifically for food, because a loaf of bread might have some of these crops going into it and others produced through other techniques. We do not currently, for instance, require people to label that a crop has been produced using an F1 hybrid technique such as an open pollination. That is the comparison that I would draw my right hon. Friend’s mind to.

Part 2 introduces two simpler notification systems—one for research and one for marketing purposes. Developers will have to submit information to DEFRA that will be published on a public register, and this will support consumer transparency. Clause 3 sets out the conditions under which a person may release a precision-bred organism in England. Clauses 4 and 5 set out the notification requirements for the release and marketing of a precision-bred organism. Clause 6 describes the application process for obtaining a precision-bred confirmation. This will ensure that each precision-bred organism is assessed on a case-by-case basis. Clause 7 sets out the requirement for there to be a report of the advisory committee, with further provisions in clauses 8 and 9 regarding the precision-bred confirmation and its revocation if necessary.

The Bill will not compromise animal welfare standards. As I said, it establishes a regulatory system to safeguard the welfare of precision-bred animals. This system is described in clauses 10 to 15. Clause 10 establishes that precision-bred animals will need to be authorised before they can be marketed. Clause 11 describes the application process. Clause 12 describes the involvement of an animal welfare advisory body. Clause 14 makes provision for regulations requiring information on the health and welfare of these animals once they have been placed on the market.

Finally, the Bill also makes provision to ensure that there will be no compromise whatever on food safety and that there will be a comprehensive assessment of the safety of any products placed on the market that result from precision-bred organisms.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I will give way one more time, and then I will conclude.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier
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I am keen to understand something. Although the territorial extent of the Bill’s provisions is rather limited, what consultation did the UK Government have with their Scottish counterparts? Scotland remains opposed to GE food products being sold there, but legally cannot prohibit it.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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This is a devolved matter, as the hon. Lady says. The Scottish Government have taken a particular position, which is broadly that if the European Union changed its law, Scotland would change its law at that time, but not before, and it would appear that the Scottish Government do not want to move early on that. Of course, many of the leading international research institutes, such as the Roslin Institute and James Hutton, are world leaders in these technologies. They will probably be acutely disappointed if the Scottish Government do not take this opportunity to lead the world, rather than waiting and following the European Union.

Finally, part 3 of the Bill, in relation to an assessment of food safety, sets out the powers for the regulation of food and feed derived from precision-bred organisms and includes a new regulatory framework governing the placing on the market of these products, a public register and a monitoring and inspection regime.

In conclusion, it is more than 30 years since the current GMO legislation was passed. In that time, unnecessary and unscientific barriers imposed by the European Union have stalled the development of the agritech industry in the United Kingdom. Our legislation has not kept pace with our increased understanding of the safety and benefits of technologies such as gene editing. By removing these barriers, we will enable investment in these technologies, which have the potential to tackle some of the great challenges faced by the United Kingdom and the world today when it comes to producing food in an environmentally sustainable way. I therefore commend this Bill to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Before I call the spokesperson for the Opposition, I note that we do not have very much time. It is likely I will have to put on a time limit of about four minutes. I simply issue that warning now so that people can take out six or seven pages of their prepared speeches.

17:48
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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This Bill comes in a week when food, how we produce it and what it does to us and how food production impacts our planet have been at the forefront of public debate. The Bill was an opportunity to tackle one of the great issues of our time, but instead of rising to that challenge, I am afraid that the Government have flunked it. There was a minimalist response on Monday, when failing to set out a proper food strategy for the future, and a minimalist response today on setting up the right structures to enable innovation to flourish. That is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. These issues require a long-term view, and an understanding and appreciation of the wider public good. This Government are now reduced to slogans designed to get the Prime Minister to the end of next week. The country deserves better, and many on the Government Benches know that.

Let me set out the position on this side of the House on an issue of significance for the future. Let me start by thanking the many serious people from learned societies and institutions who have done the thinking and spent time briefing me and my team as we grapple with some very big issues. As an example, I wave the weighty report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Genome editing and farmed animal breeding”, which runs to many hundreds of pages. I can recommend it to Members—it is actually a very good read. Unlike this Bill, which takes the narrowest possible approach, it stood back and asked the bigger questions about our food system, our treatment of animals, where traditional selective breeding has brought us, how we might approach novel foods, and the great changes that we may see in just a few years. The Royal Society criticises focusing narrowly on just one technology and argues for an outcomes-based approach.

There was a big opportunity, but a weak and disintegrating Government could not take it. I understand that, so I turn to the proposals that we have before us, which are a start. For reasons that I will explain, however, they risk having the opposite effect from those intended. Unless public and investor confidence is maintained, research will stall and opportunities will be squandered. Although we will support the Bill’s progress today, we want to see it significantly strengthened and we will propose an array of amendments in Committee, which I genuinely hope the Government will consider carefully.

The Opposition start from a clear principle: we are pro-science and pro-innovation. We want to find ways to maintain and improve the efficiency, safety and security of our food system while addressing the environmental and health damage that the modern food system has caused. That is the challenge that Henry Dimbleby set out in his national food plan, which the Government were unable to meet in their proposals this week.

With that challenge, there is an opportunity for the UK to create a world-leading regulatory framework that others will follow, but sadly this Bill is a rushed job—too thin on detail. With that lack of detail comes a risk, because the public need assurance that those new technologies are being used for the public good, not just for narrow commercial advantage. We have no doubt about the possible benefits. We understand the pressures that are put on farmers when we rightly say, as has been cited, that they cannot use neonicotinoids because of the harm they cause to pollinators. If gene editing can be used to safely ward off virus yellows in sugar beet, that is a definite good that we want to see proceed as quickly as possible.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the public good and commercial advantage are mutually exclusive?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Surely not, but they are not always the same thing, and that is the point.

We do not want a gene edit to modify an animal to allow it to tolerate more cramped conditions; we want a regulatory system that ensures that those technologies are used for the right purposes. We recognise that there will be people who are not convinced that it is right to intervene in these new ways, and who are not convinced that it is right for them or wider society, but we believe that if the system is regulated in the right way, most people can be reassured.

Let us not forget that Labour is the party of food safety. We established the Food Standards Agency, which will play a vital role in giving confidence to the public. Whatever it says and does, however, different approaches to food production must be respected with proper safeguards for organic production, for example, and for those who do not wish to go down these new routes. Their rights matter too.

We fully understand that laws designed almost 30 years ago for genetically modified products do not reflect advances in understanding and technology. We also see that many countries are recognising that gene editing should be treated differently. While we understand that, we must also recognise the importance of that distinction being drafted clearly and transparently, as has already been touched on.

The public will want to be assured that allowing the editing of genes in one organism does not also allow the introduction of genes from another organism. I hope that the Secretary of State can clearly confirm that today, because it is very important. Our reading of those complicated definitions, and the advice that we are being given, suggests that that subject is not entirely clear. I hope it can be explored in Committee.

We want our scientists to succeed and use their skills for good here in the UK. We know that over the years, traditional crop development and innovation has brought us all significant gains, but as we enter this new territory we need that strong regulatory framework to make sure that we get it right. As it stands, we are not convinced that the Bill provides that. It needs strengthening.

As it stands, far too much is being left to secondary legislation. We understand why that is always attractive to Government; it largely means, “Trust us.” As we all know, what is brought forward is unamendable and, almost without exception, it is always carried. It is a blank cheque, and on an issue that so relies on trust and public acceptance, that is not a good starting point.

We need more detail in the Bill, not least because this Bill covers both plants and animals, which makes this legislation much more complicated and difficult. In the notices accompanying the Bill, the Government have said they will only introduce new measures for animals after those for plants and after extensive consultation on the right regulatory framework for animals had been established. So far as we can see, there is nothing in this Bill to make that happen. Frankly, it is the wrong way around: sort out the preferred regulatory framework first, then put it into law.

As we have already heard, animal welfare organisations are rightly concerned. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says in its brief that it is “incredibly concerned”. Compassion in World Farming has joined 20 other animal welfare organisations, including the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, in raising similarly strong concerns. Their points are powerful, and Labour will require much stronger tests on animal welfare impacts.

As I suggested earlier, to get this legislation right the Government must provide a proper mechanism to balance the risks and manage trade-offs. Just saying that there is no risk is not that mechanism. In this country, we have always been pretty good at regulation. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is a highly regarded model for dealing with some of these very complicated issues, and a model the Government would do well to consider.

The case for having a strong regulatory framework is not just a matter of giving confidence to the public; that public confidence in turn gives scientists and businesses the confidence to invest here in the UK and sets the example for others to follow. That will be important as many of our trading partners go down the same route. How much better to have something worth copying, giving us first-mover advantage, but also settling some of those tricky trade issues if we end up with different rules.

As part of that framework, we need to recognise that the modern consumer wants and expects good information. Research carried out by the Food Standards Agency and others has clearly found that, while consumers support genetically edited foods having a different regulatory system from that for genetically modified foods, they want clear labelling and effective regulation of gene-edited products. Just telling them that they need not worry because there is no difference just does not cut it in the modern world.

Clear labelling is the way to help deal with another potentially difficult issue, which is the legitimately held views of different Administrations within the United Kingdom. I think it is fair to say—I suspect we will be hearing this in a minute—that the devolved Administrations are not happy with the way this has been handled so far, and I suggest that the Government should tread carefully. Clear labelling is a sensible way forward.

In conclusion, we are in no doubt that gene editing could bring real gains in improving environmental sustainability and reducing food insecurity. The world faces huge global challenges, and although much can be done by reforming global food systems, science and technology used for public good can be a huge boon. We need a regulatory framework that prioritises that. At the moment, as ever with this Government, the approach is to leave it to the market, and that risks repeating the mistakes of the past.

These are big and important issues. They will be explored in much greater depth in Committee and the evidence sessions, and the Opposition look forward to working with the Government to improve the legislation and create the strong regulatory framework that is needed, but currently lacking.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. We have to start with an immediate time limit of four minutes.

17:58
Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble) (Con)
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I am speaking today in full support of the Bill, precision breeding and our outstanding scientists, who are looking to this House to unlock barriers to solving many of the most important problems facing us on earth. I want to see this Bill unleash their capability and energy on those problems, and I hope to be supporting the Bill throughout the whole of its passage.

Let me explain why I stand up with this bouncy enthusiasm. To take the House back to the 1990s, when I was young and thin, I was honoured to be at the Nottingham University life sciences department doing a biology degree. If the House will bear with me, I have a little practical knowledge of DNA editing techniques, as my undergraduate paper was using transgenic Caenorhabditis elegans as a biological monitor for freshwater sediment toxicity.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Hudson
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Hear, hear!

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
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Quite. That is a mouthful, but the key here is “transgenic”. We were putting a gene from Escherichia coli—E. coli—into an itty-bitty nematode worm, an animal, and making a cross-species C. elegans. Those little guys were effectively harnessing natural stress repair mechanisms to produce something that we could measure easily.

I was a scientist; I was fascinated by that, but it did not always sit brilliantly with me, and the mechanisms that were used to produce that transgenic environment were at best embryonic and new. It was effectively taking DNA material in vectors such as plasmid, and pebbledashing a target DNA area. We did not know where it was going to land, and we had a lot of wastage where bits of DNA were going in the wrong place. That is not what the Bill is about, and I look forward to going into that in more detail.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Hudson
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We have heard concerns that people feel that an exogenous species of DNA would be coming in. Does my hon. Friend agree that this technology is not about that? This is not about an external species coming in, and perhaps the Bill could be tightened up by clarifying that, which would appease some of people’s potential fears.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
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Yes. If the Bill contained a way of opening up the transgenic debate, be that in plants or animals, it would not enjoy my support.

While I have put on a lot of weight since the mid-1990s, science has also massively moved on. In response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), this is a bit like comparing a 1997 diesel car with modern zero-emissions vehicles. Yes, they both have wheels, go along in a straight line and are called cars, but the two things are completely different. The British public were right to be cautious at the time, but let us explain why this is different. We now know the genome sequences of other target species and plants, and we have exact tools that are effectively like clever genetic snippers that will go along a genome and only cut in the exact place. There is confidence and science behind that point. We then insert something that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) highlighted, comes from the same species. If we have wheat that does not taste nice but is good at growing in dry conditions, why can we not give it that dry condition gene, so that it tastes nice and is nutritious and can help feed the third world? There are scientists chomping at the bit to have a go at that—I really cannot wait.

As part of my undergraduate degree I went to Rothamsted and saw the scale that has to be put in place for traditional breeding techniques—think fields and fields and fields. Variant 1 has been crossed with variant 2 in a modern way, but it then needs to be tested, because in traditional breeding techniques we basically take the whole genome, throw it up in the air and ask nature to pick one variant out of two. That means we are looking at multiple generations to try to keep the tasty wheat, as well as the dry, coarse wheat. This is a fantastic opportunity to use fewer resources while doing that research, and to use fewer resources from the environment.

Let me highlight some of the extremely exciting opportunities that I have pulled out of the literature: disease-resistant wheat that needs less pesticide, as mentioned by the Secretary of State; tomatoes with a little extra vitamin D; wheat with reduced asparagine to ensure that people are not exposed to carcinogens, especially if, like me, they cannot cook properly and always burn everything; or chickpeas with high protein levels that help those who are making an environmental choice by being vegan or vegetarian. The possibilities for health, climate, environment, farming and our planet are as endless as the natural variation within species that had Darwin so fascinated. We must do this, and I totally support the Bill.

18:03
Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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The regulation of genetically modified foods is a devolved issue. It is important to emphasise that at the start because, as in a growing number of policy areas, the UK Government pay only lip service at best to the powers exercised in the Scottish Parliament, while at the same time running roughshod over devolution with their post-Brexit deregulatory agenda.

Although the intended scope of the Bill may be England only, it is explicit that it will have significant impacts on devolved areas. The devolved Administrations were, however, only informed of this just one day before the Bill was introduced, in a letter from the Environment Secretary encouraging them to adopt the Bill’s principles. A UK-wide approach can, of course, sometimes be desirable, but this invite creates an illusion of collaboration and choice when in fact DEFRA is acting unilaterally once again. Frankly, it smacks of contempt for our democratically elected Government.

If the Scottish Parliament refused to allow gene-edited crops to be planted in Scotland, we would still be prevented from stopping GMO products from being sold in our shops under the devolution-violating United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. This is exactly the kind of scenario the SNP warned against when the Tories forced that legislation through this place. I understand that DEFRA officials have now suggested that the Department discuss the UK Government’s plans to diverge from the common UK-wide GM regulatory regimes. Well, thanks very much, I am sure, but any discussions of that nature should have taken place prior to the introduction of the Bill so that potential policy divergence could be properly considered. The fact that they have not is deeply regrettable and unacceptable.

The SNP is committed to ensuring that Scotland operates to the highest environmental standards, and that we protect and enhance the strength of Scottish agriculture and food production. If we end up with unwanted gene-edited products in Scotland, diverging standards with the EU could cause further damage to our sales, risking damage to Scotland’s reputation for high-quality food and drink.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
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The way the hon. Lady is talking about gene editing implies that one can tell the difference. It brings in variant genes from the same species. It is literally scientifically impossible to identify a gene-edited product if it is done properly.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I accept the hon. Lady’s experience in this area, but there are many scientists who would differ from that opinion.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I am going to make progress.

As previously, where the EU offers new scientific advice and moves to change legislative frameworks, the Scottish Government consider the implications for Scotland and seek to stay closely aligned with that approach where practicable. Holyrood passed the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 before Brexit, committing the Scottish Government to alignment with EU standards and regulations. In keeping with that, we are closely monitoring the EU, including its public consultation which I believe is continuing at the moment, as it reviews its policy on certain new genomic techniques.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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Does the hon. Lady not appreciate that farmers are also businesspeople and that a farmer will not grow something that the consumer does not want to buy? Does she insult the intelligence of Scottish farmers by suggesting that they will grow crops nobody wants to buy?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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This is about the devolved responsibilities of the Scottish Government and our intention to stay aligned with EU regulations, as we have committed to in the 2021 continuity Act. We are in constant discussions with farmers and will continue to be.

Surely it would be practical for the UK Government to follow the approach of monitoring the EU and its ongoing public consultation as it reviews this policy, ensuring alignment and avoiding divergence that could further threaten trade with our largest trading partner. As the European Commission’s formal policy announcement is expected in the first half of 2023, the wait would not greatly undermine the UK’s competitive edge but would ensure minimal trade disruption. The UK economy suffered a 4% reduction in GDP, according the Office for Budget Responsibility, thanks to a hard Tory Brexit. The last thing Scotland needs is further disruption to EU trade.

It is worth noting, too, that the EU’s 2021 study into gene editing and new genetic technologies highlighted that research into animals and micro-organisms is “still limited or lacking”, especially when it comes to safety. The SNP would advise the UK Government to return to the precautionary principle in the deployment of such new technologies, especially those developing produce for human consumption.

There is no doubt that these issues are complex and emotive, with a variety of views across science, industry and other stakeholders. The SNP does not oppose further research in this area and it acknowledges the work of the James Hutton Institute, the Roslin Institute and other Scottish scientists and researchers. The more empirical data available in this area, the better we can understand exactly the effects in crops and animals, and in genetically modified organisms. However, the SNP will always listen to the concerns of the public and producers and take them into consideration in agricultural matters or in scientific development. Indeed, DEFRA’s own consultation last year found that 88% of individuals and 64% of businesses supported continuing to regulate such organisms as GMOs. The strength and range of opposition to the use of gene editing should give us pause to reflect.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
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The hon. Lady is making a lot of points about how this is, of course, a devolved area, but does she therefore disagree with the president of NFU Scotland, Martin Kennedy, when he says that precision breeding techniques such as gene editing, led by scientific expertise available in Scotland, have considerable potential to deliver benefits for food, nutrition, agriculture, biodiversity and climate change?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I thought I had made myself fairly clear. We are waiting for the EU review of this technology to take place, then we will weigh it up carefully and decide whether to continue down that route ourselves. The trouble with farmers and the NFUS at the moment is that they are so desperate to find something in place of the trade they have lost as a result of Brexit that they have seized on this. I think that the precautionary principle should always apply with new technologies of this sort.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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I will keep going for a bit.

Let me give the view of some of the organisations that have listed their concerns. The view of the umbrella group of individuals and organisations, GM Freeze, is that the proposed new approach would take away scrutiny and transparency, and as these are patented technologies, it is concerned that big business will be handed greater leverage and control over what we eat. The Soil Association warns that in the absence of a proper governance framework, gene editing is likely to be driven by industry interests. The question has to be asked: without rigorous democratic forms of governance in this area, how can we stop monopolies forming and companies acting in the service of profit rather the public interest? I hope very much that we will hear that question answered as the Bill progresses and, as the Minister is nodding, perhaps even this afternoon.

Deregulating GE products also loosens the strict controls that allow modified plants and animals to be traced with ease, making the impact on the general animal and plant population harder to track and assess. There are also fears that deregulated gene editing risks displacing high-welfare agro-ecological farming systems such as organic farming. If there is no tracing or labelling, the future of organic and other non-GM farming is threatened. Citizens deserve to know how their food has been produced; that goes to the very heart of food sovereignty.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Is she aware that the last generation of new varieties were often produced using induced mutation, gamma radiation or chemicals such as colchicine, which was equivalent to smashing up DNA with a sledgehammer rather than this keyhole surgery? Varieties such as Golden Promise, which can be grown organically in Scotland and go into the majority of Scotch whisky, have been produced in that way and she has not raised any concerns about them.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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As I say, we are prepared to consider the technology as things progress but we are waiting on the EU, because the EU has the strictest standards in the world—[Interruption.] The EU has some of the strictest standards in the world, and if it is content after it has examined this process and had its consultation, that is certainly something we are prepared to consider.

Ministers insist that no changes should be made to the regulation of animals under the GMO regime until a regulatory system is developed to safeguard animal welfare. However, as has been mentioned, a coalition of 21 of the UK’s leading animal protection organisations has called those safeguards

“poorly defined and largely inadequate”.

Among multiple other concerns, the group cites increased risk of regarding animals as things that can just be modified for human convenience. That, of course, contradicts the central premise of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022.

DEFRA cites the potential for gene editing to address concerns over food security. I held a debate recently on the subject and talked about the need to prioritise sustainable domestic food production and build long-term resilience into our farming system. There is a danger, as the Soil Association points out, that gene editing is used as a sticking plaster for industrial farming systems, targeting symptoms and not root causes. The Secretary of State mentioned porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which, as I understand it, is caused largely by poor living conditions. Why not try to address that rather than using the new technology as, as the Soil Association points out, a sticking plaster? The UK Government appear to be rushing to adopt untested technologies to distract from the real issues in our food system, such as poor soils, lack of crop diversity, intensive industrial farming and falling domestic production.

I will come to a close shortly, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I think you are looking at me sternly. It might be easier to take the Government at their word if they were not abandoning other plans that would have a positive impact on food security and inequality. The food strategy for England, which was published on Monday, has been remarkably watered down by rejecting many of the recommendations in the food system review and dropping the commitment to introduce a food Bill.

In Scotland, the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill, which is making progress, will produce plans that will be scrutinised according to various metrics, including social and economic wellbeing, health and the environment. A draft plan has been published on ending the need for food banks. The Scottish Government’s new vision for agriculture outlines how we aim to support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

If the UK Government are serious in their intention that the Bill will affect the market in England only, they must amend it to ensure that products covered by it are not included in the mutual recognition and non-discrimination provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and that the devolved Parliaments can reject those products outright if they are not content. The Scottish Government think that the principle of devolution should be respected by the UK Government. The Scottish Parliament should be asked for its consent before actions are taken hastily that could undermine our trade with Europe and compromise the safety of our food.

This is our food system. We must surely ensure that every possible safeguard is in place before we adopt this Bill.

18:16
Julian Sturdy Portrait Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con)
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As someone who has a farming business, I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I warmly welcome the Bill. I commend the Government for pressing ahead on a matter that is vital for national and global food security, protecting the environment, supporting the developing world and advancing UK science and prosperity at a time of economic uncertainty.

In the limited time that I have, I want to firmly refute the misconceptions that have been spread, in and outside the Chamber, about how gene editing is allegedly bad for animals and animal welfare. It is right that we proceed with careful additional safeguards for animal precision breeding, as the Bill proposes, but precision breeding can provide animal welfare benefits so huge that to my mind it is actually unethical not to allow it. Stopping diseases such as PRRS in pigs, bird flu, swine flu and mastitis is obviously a huge advance for animal welfare, not a threat to it. Put simply, regulation should follow the science. It should be based on the evidence, not on superstition or political agendas.

I reiterate that gene editing is wholly distinct from genetic modification, so it is totally wrong for it to be aggressively restricted in the same way. Genetic modification is the introduction of new material from one species into another; gene editing is the adjustment of DNA within one species. It simply speeds up, and makes more precise, genetic changes that occur naturally through conventional breeding methods. Food from gene-edited plants is therefore indistinguishable from food produced through conventional methods. Gene editing speeds up natural changes that can otherwise take up to 15 years. Do hon. Members seriously want to wait 15 years to protect animals from horrific diseases, to aid farmers in sub-Saharan Africa or to start producing more affordable healthy food in the UK? I think not. That is why we have to support the Bill.

The Whips will not be surprised to hear that I have some concerns about part 3, which risks undermining the legislation aimed at ensuring that innovation and investment, through regulation, reflects the scientific evidence; that is what we must base it on. There is already disquiet that the Food Standards Agency has been gold-plating the innovation-killing precautionary approach inherited from the EU. On top of that, on current drafting, the ministerial powers on food and feed safety risk assessments and traceability in part 3 risk adding additional safety assessments and other hurdles, thereby piling investment-destroying costs on to the breeding process, which could ultimately deter scientists and businesses from innovating. We must be careful about that.

In essence, however, this is a great piece of legislation and must be supported. I look forward to following its passage through this place.

18:20
Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
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I believe that this is a flawed Bill—it is not strategic, it is not clear and it does not do what it says on the tin. Ministers breezily assert that it will deliver access to wonderful new markets, while failing to acknowledge that it actually risks hindering access to our closest significant market, the EU, as we create a divergent regime for regulating genome-edited products. As we have heard, consequences for trade with Northern Ireland are being ignored. With the Scottish and Welsh Governments currently taking a different approach from that of England, the Bill is a recipe for consumer confusion and significant operational difficulties for retailers across the UK.

These big questions are critical, but in the short time that I have, I shall spell out how the Bill falls down on some core principles that render it flawed and not fit for purpose. Those principles are scientific coherence and clarity, properly defined criteria—or the lack of them—and transparency.

On coherence and clarity, in its title and text the Bill uses the phrase “precision breeding”, yet that is neither a specific technology nor a scientific discipline. It is a marketing term: a vague colloquialism for a number of recently developed genetic engineering technologies, which do not form a coherent group of methods, and do not justify being called “precise”—not when the scientific literature contains reports of genetic technologies such as genome editing creating unexpected and unwanted mutations, genetic errors, altered proteins, and extensive deletions and complex rearrangements of DNA in plants. [Interruption.] I will not give way yet.

The Government give a nod to that uncertainty with their caveat that genetic editing of animals will not take place until animal protection can be safeguarded. Engineering the DNA of animals raises major animal welfare and ethical concerns. A wealth of problems are set out by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on gene-edited farm animals. As I understand it, there is nothing to prevent biotech-created disease resistance being used as a sticking-plaster for the intensive factory farming practices that are the underlying cause of disease emergence in the first place. That is why, given the current drafting, animals should be removed from the Bill’s scope, full stop.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
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Nature makes mistakes; that is how evolution comes about. So the mistakes that are reported in the literature are actually further evidence that such technologies effectively replicate a natural process. Does the hon. Lady agree?

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As has been said, she clearly has expertise, but I am looking at the scientific evidence that has been put before me, and it is being suggested that the mistakes that can be made in this area, especially when it comes to nature, appear very different from those that are seen in nature.

I move on to the principle of properly defined criteria. Using a term that lacks any proper definition looks like an attempt to obscure the full scope of the proposed deregulation. The terms “precision breeding” and gene editing help promote a particular narrative—that the process is just a simple “cut” or “tweak”. The Government are also at pains to stress that any changes might have occurred “naturally” and do not involve the insertion of transgenes—so-called “foreign” DNA.

I have read that this is to some extent smoke and mirrors. The Bill seeks to deregulate all manner of genetic manipulations, and genome editing can sometimes involve the insertion of foreign DNA. As I understand it, the argument is that in such cases the inserted DNA gets removed before the product goes to market. That may well be the intention; but by using poorly defined criteria in the title and wording of the Bill, the Government are asking us to pass bad legislation.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Sir Robert Goodwill
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Is it the case that, if the EU were to allow this technology to go ahead, the hon. Lady would, like the SNP, embrace it?

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not making a blanket statement in that way. I am saying that if a whole load more safeguards were built into the Bill and if it were not based on a set of definitions that are being criticised by the scientific community, I would have rather more confidence in it than I do right now.

As we have heard, several learned organisations have challenged the Government’s creation of this hypothetical class of GMOs that could have “occurred naturally” or could have been created using traditional breeding. The Institute of Food Science & Technology has called the approach “overly simplistic”, and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics was

“not convinced that this is either the most proper or most popular framing”.

The Roslin Institute found it “exceptionally challenging”, while the Royal Society of Biology said:

“No clarity can be achieved using this principle—we would not recommend using it as the basis for regulation.”

In response to last year’s public consultation, there was a clear view that this is a fundamentally flawed and unscientific basis for regulation.

Turning to transparency, there are no provisions in the Bill for the labelling of genetically engineered or so-called precision-bred food, despite this being what a majority of the public want, as the Government consultation made clear. In that consultation, 85% wanted genetic technologies used in farming to continue to be regulated in the same way as other GMOs. There are significant concerns over the commercial drivers of genome editing in farmed animals, for example. This makes labelling really important, not least if Ministers want citizen and market trust, and buy-in to any new regulatory regime. The public register idea is welcome, but it needs to be accessible as well as comprehensive, and it should include all genetic engineering events and organisms used in UK agriculture. Reduced data collection is worrying. Data that is not collected cannot be analysed. Ministers are simply assuming that risks are non-existent or vanishingly slight, but there is nothing scientific about such wishful thinking.

In conclusion, we need a national conversation. Regulation and innovation need not be at odds, but products of agricultural genetic engineering, including newer techniques, should be subject to a robust and transparent regulatory and governance framework. This must include a strong traceability and labelling scheme that protects the interests of organic farms and allows consumers to make a choice in the supermarket. This legislation lets down consumers, farmers, the environment and animals. Rushing ahead with a badly conceived and designed Bill because the Government are simply desperate to claim some kind of success on post-Brexit deregulation is unacceptable, and I urge them to bring back something better.

18:27
Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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I want to speak in support of the Bill. Anyone who comes to the rural idyll of South Cambridgeshire and sees the fields of golden wheat, yellow rapeseed and barley swaying in the wind, or indeed goes and sees the cattle herds in the south-west of England or the sheep in the north, might think that that was agricultural produce as nature gave it to man—and woman, no doubt— but that is not the case. Since agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, people have consistently bred the plants and animals they have been given, and those plants and animals have changed incredibly over the last 10,000 years. For example, there is very little in common visually between a chicken and the south Asian jungle fowl that it came from. All of that breeding was done by the natural mutation that happens randomly in nature, and most of those mutations are mistakes and do not get used.

We now have the technology to speed that up. We have radiation breeding, which various colleagues have talked about, where we speed up the mutation and do not just rely on the random happenstance of nature. We now have precision breeding, and gene editing in particular. We have the technology to do that, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) went into detail about how it works. This technology has huge advantages, but we cannot use it because it is banned by the EU and we inherited that legislation. This Bill is clearly designed to allow us to do it.

This is a huge issue in my constituency. It is not just that I have a lot of farmers; I also have a lot of plant breeders who are chomping at the bit to use this technology, and a lot of genetic companies. South Cambridgeshire is the genetics capital of Europe, and there is huge interest in this there. There are lots of advantages to it that many of my colleagues have mentioned. There is a win for food security as it will enable us to have greater crop yields. There is also a win for the environment because we can use fewer pesticides and fertilisers and there will be less demand on water resources, which is a big thing in South Cambridgeshire.

The technology also benefits humans, as colleagues have mentioned. For example, the Japanese tomatoes that are on sale at the moment will reduce blood pressure, there are US soya beans with less saturated fat, and there are less carcinogenic amino acids in wheat. All of those are benefits. It can bring benefits to animals, too, by ensuring chickens are immune to avian flu and pigs are immune to swine flu, but we need to make sure that this is not used in any way to reduce animal welfare standards—I strongly support the Secretary of State’s assurance that we will not compromise on animal welfare standards as a result of this Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) mentioned the industry’s concern that part 3 of the Bill means the Food Standards Agency will require a full risk assessment for food and feed, as if it is a genetically modified organism with genetics from two different species, rather than the traditional breeding approval process. This adds time, cost and uncertainty. The developers and breeders will not know if their crop will be improved at the end, so the measure will damage investment in the sector.

Such decisions should be based on science and evidence. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, Health Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority agree that there is no difference between the risk profiles of traditionally bred strains and precision-bred strains, and therefore there should be no difference in the approval process. They are, in essence, exactly the same. It is impossible to tell the difference between them.

The irony is that, by gold-plating in this way, we risk ending up with a more restrictive regime than the EU’s regime. This is meant to be a Brexit opportunity, but it could end up with the EU taking the lead. A few amendments may be needed but, with that caveat, I strongly commend the Bill to the House.

18:31
Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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We have heard today of the potential benefits and of how gene editing could have a role to play in reducing our reliance on fertilisers and pesticides and in creating food that is resistant to drought or food that is more nutritious. We have heard about vitamin D in tomatoes, and there has been a long-running conversation about vitamin A being added to golden rice, although it has yet to live up to its billing.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) that the Bill is very thin on the regulatory framework. Perhaps the Government ought to have put those measures in place before steaming ahead with developing these products. His points on labelling were well made, too. The concerns about cross-contamination and support for organic food producers and consumers are valid.

The Soil Association has raised concerns about the commercialisation of crops and tells us that just four companies control more than 60% of the global seed supply. I do not have time to go into detail on those concerns, but they need to be flagged up in Committee. I went to talk to farmers in El Salvador after the Central America free trade agreement, and they want to support organic farms and natural seeds but were told they cannot because, under the free trade agreement, alternatives from Monsanto and others have to be allowed into the market. I would be very concerned if such a situation were allowed to develop here at the expense of people who want to go down the organic route.

The most problematic part of the Bill concerns the gene editing of animals. I accept there are some positives, such as helping to reduce our reliance on antibiotics, but there are other ways to do that. Other countries have been much better than us in restricting the routine overuse of antibiotics.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said the Bill is trying to tackle the symptoms, not the causes. If not for the ever-growing intensification and industrialisation of farming, where animals are crammed together in unsanitary conditions, we would not need to rely on the routine use of antibiotics, as too many farmers do.

We have had an interesting debate on whether we could use technology to suppress the birth of male chicks. At the moment, 29 million male chicks are killed by the poultry industry each year, and 7 billion are killed globally. They are fed into maceration machines—mincing machines—because they do not lay eggs but, again, other countries such as Germany, France and Sweden are already doing things to stop chick shredding without resorting to gene editing.

I am concerned by what the Secretary of State said in response to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) about yields. He did not refute her concern about the Government saying the Bill will enable the development of

“precision-bred plants and animals which will bolster food production”

and “drive economic growth.”

Existing livestock farming methods have already led to the creation of animals that are radically different from their original natural forms. We see turkeys and chickens that are bred to be so heavy that they cannot support their own weight on their legs; the milk yields of cows have more than doubled in the past 40 years, to about 22 litres per day in the UK—that is not natural; and we know that cows, as well as suffering from mastitis, now become infertile extremely quickly from intensive milking. Their life cycle has been reduced from 20 years in the wild to about three or four when raised in intensive farming conditions. Again, the causes, rather than the symptoms, ought to be tackled by the Government as well.

18:35
James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to support this legislation, which is part of the Brexit dividend that gives us the freedom to regulate to support innovation. Unlike the stifling, overly complex EU regime, we have the exciting opportunity to take a proportionate, science-based approach to precision breeding. This is a welcome part of the Government’s focus on science and technology to drive economic growth. My county of Norfolk, and specifically the Norwich Research Park, is well placed to help realise these benefits, as it is home to not only world leading research institutes, but gene editing companies. Of course, it also plays a crucial role in our food production.

It is important to be clear what this Bill is about and what it is not about. Precision breeding is about enabling DNA to be edited much more efficiently and precisely than current breeding techniques to produce beneficial traits. Crucially, these traits can occur through traditional breeding and natural processes. Indeed under clause 1 that is a requirement in order to be classified as a “precision bred organism.” As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said, this does not involve adding DNA from a different organism, so this is not about genetically modified organisms. Of course, people will want reassurance about the safety of these techniques. The expert independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment has stated that precision bred organisms

“posed no greater risk than their traditionally bred or naturally arising counterparts.”

By adopting a more agile regulatory approach, the time taken to comply with existing GMO regulation for getting precision bred crops to market will be cut from an estimated 10 years to just one. That is a huge win to accelerate innovation, and secure productivity and efficiency gains in crop production.

The real world benefits are significant, as we see if we just think about the disease-resistant crops that reduce the need for pesticides and fertilisers. In my constituency, the yields of sugar beet have been wiped out considerably in recent years, as the Secretary of State said. The UK Research and Innovation-funded study has identified sources of genetic resistance that would reduce the need for neonicotinoids—for pesticides—thus helping to protect the environment, increase food production and reduce costs to farmers. There is also the potential for crops to withstand changing climates, and there are also health and nutritional benefits. Colleagues have referred to the pioneering work that the John Innes Centre is doing to produce precision bred, high vitamin D tomatoes. In addition, tomato leaves are usually only waste material, but by editing the genes, those leaves could be used to make vitamin D supplements, thus reducing waste.

The disproportionate approach by the EU led to advanced breeding being moved outside the EU, and now we can take a lead in catalysing food science and innovation, and attracting inward investment. We can do so on the basis that precision bred organisms that have occurred naturally, or through conventional methods, should not face unnecessary layers of regulation. That was the original rationale of the Bill. As others have said, there are real concerns among crop and plant breeders that the power to introduce sweeping new regulations under part 3 of the Bill could see the introduction of additional new hurdles that are not scientifically justified—new requirements that do not apply to conventionally bred crop varieties. That would be a major disincentive to bringing these new techniques in. It is essential that we do not remove the EU bureaucratic rules only to allow the FSA to reimpose requirements that are not proportionate or necessary. Otherwise, what is the point in diverging from the EU approach?

In conclusion, I look for an assurance from the Minister that this opportunity to boost our agritech sector will be based firmly on a proportionate approach, and that during the passage of the Bill commitments will be made and included in the legislation to ensure a light-touch, low-cost and pro-innovation approach.

18:39
Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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In broad terms, I support the idea of encouraging a science-based approach to technologies such as genetic editing for precision breeding. In general terms, I accept that such methods will be helpful in the fight against climate change and excessive antibiotic use, among other things, and that they have the potential to reduce the need for pesticides in farming. I welcome that the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and the European Food Safety Authority have advised that no more risk is attached to precision-bred foods than to those from traditional breeding methods.

I would like clarification on some other implications of the Bill. First and foremost, I am concerned that it is a slight distraction from the current crisis facing British farmers. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s assertions this morning, Liberal Democrats are broadly supportive of the concept of the environmental land management scheme and the sustainable farming incentive, and we welcome a replacement for the basic farm payment. However, the farmers we meet, such as those I met on Friday, tell us that the reduction in the farm payment this year, when the replacement scheme is not yet in place, is causing genuine hardship. They would like to get on board with the new schemes, but the up-front costs make it unlikely that they will bother. A deregulated environment for precision breeding will not help them, because they might not be in business to benefit from it. We need to back farmers with a smooth transition between subsidy schemes to make sure we still have farmers who can benefit from the changes the Government propose.

The Bill is a bit light on detail on the new regulatory requirements for these crops and animals. Will the Minister clarify how the Government will identify any unforeseen environmental consequences once these products are released into the environment? It would be useful to understand how unintended downsides will be dealt with if they happen.

As many Members have suggested, there are concerns about animal welfare. While editing the genes of a pig, for example, to make it resistant to the worst types of disease is welcome, that must not be a shortcut to allowing pigs to be reared in less hygienic and more crowded conditions. Not only must their welfare continue to be protected; it must be continuously improved.

Given the amount of rhetoric over the past couple of years from Government Front Benchers about a bonfire of regulations, how can consumers be reassured that the Bill is not a back-door route to reducing animal welfare and environmental standards, in which our farmers have led the world? It certainly makes no provision for food labelling, that would allow consumers to decide whether or not they prefer a precision-bred product. Those concerns are a direct consequence of the fact that it is not at all clear how the precautionary principle outlined in the Environment Act 2021 and the Government’s environmental principles policy statement of 12 May will be applied in this area. At points, the two seem to be directly at odds with each other. I ask for clarity from DEFRA on that point.

We are proud of the progress our farmers have made and the high standards they have achieved. We do not want all that effort to be wasted now through a back-door watering down of standards. I am worried about the impact that any reduction in confidence in British food and agricultural products would have on the export of our excellent food products to the EU, which we know takes a more cautious approach to gene-editing technologies.

I would like a complete overhaul of food labelling so that consumers know exactly what they are buying. Then, if there is a Union Jack on the package, they can be confident that the animal has been reared on a British farm by a British farmer, or that the carrot has been pulled from a British field, and that they have not just been butchered or peeled here. If the animal or carrot has been bred through a gene-editing process, that should be clearly marked on the package, so that the consumer can make the choice. It is vital to empower consumers with as much information as possible, so that they can make informed choices and have trust in the quality of the food they buy.

In conclusion, I support the Bill, but with qualifications. We need to build trust and confidence in our food chain. Transparency in labelling, appropriate regulation to provide readiness for unforeseen circumstances, and maintaining and improving animal welfare standards would help deliver that. I urge the Government to consider those points in Committee. As I said, the priority at the moment must be the viability of our family farms in the short term. They need short-term support—

18:43
David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It has been said, but it bears repetition, that gene editing is different from genetic modification, because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species. Gene editing creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by traditional natural breeding processes. Without this legislation, that process would continue to be regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms.

The Bill will introduce simpler regulatory measures to enable these products to be authorised and brought to market more easily, but not without the appropriate controls. The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and however the legislation is progressed and scrutinised in Parliament, and whatever final form it takes, we can be assured that it will be more fit for purpose for our country than the EU regulations it replaces.

I am, of course, aware that the legislation will apply only in England, but I welcome the UK Government’s invitation to the devolved Administrations, particularly the Scottish Government, to take part in this process on a UK-wide basis. Although disappointed that the Scottish Government have so far declined to accept that invitation, favouring rather to remain aligned with the EU, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that that door remains open for them to take part. I am hopeful that, ultimately, they may welcome the opportunity to participate in that programme.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is clear that the Scottish National party would like to move at the more pedestrian pace of the European Union, some two years behind us on the introduction of this technology?

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I may be tempted to agree with that, but, in my experience as a Scotland Office Minister, I think that it is much more productive to work with Scottish Government Ministers behind the scenes; outside the sometimes febrile mode of this Chamber, we can work together on these things. Again, I encourage the Scottish Government and my SNP colleagues in this House to come to the table and work on that basis.

From talking to farmers and food producers in my own constituency, as well as to the National Farmers Union of Scotland, I know that gene editing technology in food production is not only desirable, but one of many crucial tools that can be made available to all British farmers. I quoted the president of NFU Scotland, Martin Kennedy, earlier. He did go on to say that the NFU of Scotland

“is disappointed that the Scottish Government has chosen not to partake in the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in favour of a European ruling on gene editing.”

In my regular ongoing discussions with NFU Scotland over the years, one of its major concerns—not its only concern, to be fair—is maintaining the integrity of the UK internal market, which is something that I very much hope will not be impacted by any divergence in legislation across Great Britain.

Gene editing, as has been said, can improve crop yields by allowing scientists to modify crops to be more resilient to the changing climate and produce more nutrient-rich produce. I therefore believe that such a Bill will advance the UK’s crop resilience and agricultural economy for years to come.

I am glad to see that the UK, including the Roslin Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, are leading gene editing technology across Europe, promoting agricultural development in an environmentally sustainable way, and prompting, we hope, an increase in investment in United Kingdom businesses. I therefore believe that this Bill will help to energise the UK’s agriculture and food production industry.

I welcome this Government’s commitment to establish a proportionate regulatory system for precision-bred animals, which will allow the UK to retain its high animal welfare standards while increasing livestock resistance to health issues, such as respiratory syndrome in pigs, improving their welfare and quality of life. I do not think that it is an either/or proposition. We can be improving living conditions for animals and using this technology.

In conclusion, this Bill is a valuable piece of legislation that should benefit our food production industry right across the UK, and I look forward to seeing its progress through Parliament. I again express my hope that, at this early stage of the Bill, the Scottish Government and SNP colleagues in this place—with their customary challenge and scrutiny, of course—decide to take part in this process for the good of farmers and food producers in Scotland as well as across the rest of the United Kingdom.

18:47
Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition this interesting debate on gene editing. I must say that the level of input has been high quality, with important points made across the House.

I trust that the Minister was listening carefully to the words of advice and guidance given to her by hon. Members across the House, but in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who has led on this topic for the Opposition for several years.

Labour is pro-science and pro-innovation. We want to find ways to maintain and improve the efficiency, security and safety of our food system while addressing the environmental and health damage that the modern food system has caused. We also recognise, as has been said, that laws designed 30 years ago for genetically modified products need to be updated and that most countries are recognising that gene editing needs to be treated differently.

We are more than willing to work with the Government to achieve real gains in improving environmental sustainability and reducing food insecurity. We want the Government to prioritise innovations that would provide public benefit and prosperity. We want our scientists to succeed and use their skills for good here in the UK, and we know that crop development and innovation has brought us all huge gains. But that requires a strong regulatory framework to get it right, and this Bill does not provide that. It needs substantial amendment. We need a strong regulatory framework that will give scientists and businesses the confidence to invest here in the UK, while giving confidence and knowledge to consumers so they can make informed decisions—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made eloquently.

We welcome the research and innovation currently under way, but to get this legislation right, the Government must have a strong plan to balance the risks and manage trade-offs. Of course we cannot afford to let risks paralyse our course of action, but we do need a system that manages those risks and provides security and transparency for businesses and consumers alike.

The Bill provides for the deregulation of genetic editing of vertebrate animals and includes a provision to establish a welfare advisory body. That advisory body must report to the Secretary of State to inform them whether the originator of a genetically edited organism under consideration has identified any adverse impacts on animal welfare and made an appropriate risk assessment for their proposals.

However, the Bill as it stands does not specify which adverse impacts on animals would be grounds for a GEO application’s being denied, nor does it lay out what evidence the advisory body will consider with regards to animal welfare. Several non-governmental organisations and civil society groups have criticised that element of the Bill.

The Government’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 made provisions for an Animal Sentience Committee to scrutinise and consider the impact of legislation on animal welfare, but the committee has not yet been fully established. Can the Minister explain in her wind up why she is pressing ahead with this legislation before the Animal Sentience Committee has had time to consider it?

Research has overwhelmingly found that consumers support genetically edited foods having a different regulatory system from that for genetically modified foods, but they want clear labelling and effective regulation of gene-edited products so they can choose the products that suit their lifestyle. Surely that is not an unreasonable ask.

Here we have a much-needed Bill, given the need for agri-innovation and scientific development, and of course the Opposition welcome the concept. But why oh why is this legislation being rushed in? We need strong and robust regulation of this important and developing field. We need clear scientific evidence and strong protections to safeguard animal welfare. We need clear and transparent labelling to protect and inform consumers. Yet again we see truth in the saying “Legislate in haste, repent at leisure”, and I urge the Government to consider our concerns and those of stakeholders and consumers and be open to constructive criticism in Committee. If they are prepared to do that, we will not push for a vote on Second Reading.

18:51
Jo Churchill Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jo Churchill)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), for North West Norfolk (James Wild) and for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). I also thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) and the Opposition for the constructive way they have leaned into this debate today. I would immediately say, “Yes, we need to work together on this.” I think the majority of those in this House see the huge opportunity we have here.

“The emergence of genome editing is a significant moment, as it represents a possible step change in introducing a new generation of potentially transformative biotechnologies into the food and farming system.”

Those are not my words; they are from the Nuffield report.

Ruth Edwards Portrait Ruth Edwards (Rushcliffe) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome this Bill, which will hugely enhance our future food security. May I draw the Minister’s attention to pioneering new genetic editing techniques being developed at the University of Nottingham’s Sutton Bonington campus, and invite her to join me on a visit there to see that groundbreaking research in action?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend very much. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble is an alumna of that august institution, as indeed am I, so I would be delighted to visit it. That intervention raises a key point that, because of the limited time, I will address in a general sense.

We do have some of the finest institutions, and many of them are lodged in Scotland. The James Hutton Institute and the Roslin Institute are beyond good in this space. They need to be supported. They do not need to wait for others to follow. Our door is open. We want to get this right. We want to work with the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). Professor Colin Campbell of the James Hutton Institute has said that it is right. Professor Helen Sang from the Roslin Institute has given evidence to say that this is what we need. She is working on ensuring that we can beat avian flu, which attacks both animals kept inside barns and those kept outside.

We have the opportunity to improve animal welfare here, and I would like to address that point full on. Animal welfare is currently of a high standard in this country, and it is not true to say that this Bill will affect it. Our animals are protected by comprehensive and robust animal health welfare legislation, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007, passed by Labour. These provisions help to reinforce the fact that the welfare of animals is a key priority, and it is simply not true to say that the Bill will lead to a diminution in those standards.

The Bill allows us to take the opportunities that have been presented to us through leaving the European Union. It is important to celebrate our country’s strengths at Rothamsted, James Hutton, John Innes and Roslin, all of which I have visited, and I hope to go to Aberystwyth soon. It is important that we move on this as a country. By encouraging greater research and development in the use of precision-breeding technologies, we are supporting that drive. Innovation is key to enhancing the sustainability and resilience of our agricultural systems by harnessing the benefits of precision breeding to eradicate disease, as we have discussed.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer addressed the issue of section 3. The Bill provides the Food Standards Agency with an opportunity to build from scratch a tailor-made framework that is proportionate for the UK. This will allow swifter progress for businesses wishing to market precision-bred organisms while still ensuring the safety of our food.

I could not agree more that safety, transparency, proportionality, traceability and customer confidence is what we are building here. The EU is currently reviewing its systems and has acknowledged that its current system is not fit for purpose. I would indeed be happy to share that documentation, which is publicly available, with the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith. It is important that we move ahead in this area, and our scientists, farmers and researchers all want us to do it. It is simply not true to say that this will allow multinationals and conglomerates to drive forward in this space. Actually, in the countries that have already driven PBOs into their system, we see democratisation, with a greater proportion of precision breeding patents being held by smaller and local businesses.

In response to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is no longer in her place, I agree that food security is a top priority. We have taken account of the Nuffield report and public concerns, and we are constantly in dialogue with our stakeholders. On Monday, we met animal welfare stakeholders to talk about the declaration and how they can feed into that. I agree that consumers need clear labelling, but the FSA will authorise products for sale only if they present no risk to health and do not mislead customers.

As this technology brings no safety risk, labelling will not be required to indicate the methods used in breeding. It is unnecessary because, as has been repeatedly pointed out, it is the same as traditional breeding. The countries that are already in this space—Canada, Japan, the United States, Brazil and Argentina—do not do that. A public register will be available on gov.uk to ensure further traceability.

There is a great deal more that I could go into on the particular things that were brought up, but I want to finish by saying that this is a huge area of advantage. We need to go forward as a country making sure that we take our scientists with us, enhance our research and breeding practices, and enable consumer confidence. Ultimately the key aim of the Bill is to ensure that precision-bred plants, animals, food and feed products are regulated proportionately to their risk so that we can fully embrace the benefits and advantages of scientific progress that has been made over the past 30 years. The Bill is good news, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill: PROGRAMME

Programme motion
Wednesday 15th June 2022

(2 years ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 Read Hansard Text
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
Committal
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 12 July 2022.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
Other proceedings
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Amanda Solloway.)
Question agreed to.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill: Money

Money resolution
Wednesday 15th June 2022

(2 years ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 Read Hansard Text
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:
(a) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Secretary of State or the Food Standards Agency; and
(b) sums payable out of money so provided under any other Act.—(Amanda Solloway.)
Question agreed to.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill (First sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Esther McVey, † Graham Stringer
† Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
† Brock, Deidre (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
† Churchill, Jo (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
† Clarke-Smith, Brendan (Bassetlaw) (Con)
† Duguid, David (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
† Fletcher, Katherine (South Ribble) (Con)
† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)
† Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
† Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)
† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)
† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
† Jones, Ruth (Newport West) (Lab)
† Lewis, Clive (Norwich South) (Lab)
† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)
Abi Samuels, Huw Yardley, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Witnesses
David Exwood, Vice President, NFU (National Farmers Union)
Dr Helen Ferrier, Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs Adviser, NFU
Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Adviser, DEFRA
Professor Robin May, Chief Scientific Adviser, Food Standards Agency
Professor Jim Dunwell, Chair, Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 28 June 2022
(Morning)
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
09:25
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We are now sitting in public and the proceedings are being broadcast. I have a few preliminary announcements: Hansard colleagues will be grateful if hon. Members could email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk; I ask hon. Members to switch electronic devices to silent; and a reminder that tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings. I have also been asked if hon. Members may remove their jackets: you have my permission to do so—it is quite warm in here.

We will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper, then a motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication and a motion to allow us to deliberate in private, if we so wish, about our questions before the oral evidence session. In view of the time available, I hope that we can take those matters formally. I ask the Minister to move the programme motion standing in her name, which was discussed yesterday by the Programming Sub-Committee.

Ordered,

That—

(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 28 June) meet—

(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 28 June;

(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 30 June;

(c) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 5 July;

(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 7 July;

(e) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 12 July;

(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table:

Date

Time

Witness

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 10.10 am

NFU

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 10.35 am

Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Advisor, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 11.00 am

Food Standards Agency

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 11.25 am

Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 2.35 pm

The Royal Society; The Royal Society of Biology

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 3.15 pm

Angus Wheat Consultants Ltd; Rothamsted Research

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 3.50 pm

Organic Farmers & Growers; Soil Association

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 4.30 pm

NIAB; Crop Science Centre

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 4.50 pm

British Society of Plant Breeders

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 5.10 pm

The Center for Aquaculture Technologies

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 12.15 pm

The Roslin Institute; Genus; The Pirbright Institute

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 1.00 pm

Nuffield Council on Bioethics; Dr Madeline Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Interactions and Ethics, Royal Veterinary College; Compassion in World Farming

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 2.20 pm

RSPCA

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 2.50 pm

Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 3.30 pm

Professor David Rose, Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems, Cranfield University; Michael Edenborough QC, Serle Court Chambers; Professor Sarah Hartley, Associate Professor, University of Exeter

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 3.50 pm

Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC)

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 4.10 pm

Paul Temple, Farmer, Member of the Science Agriculture Advisory Group

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 4.30 pm

Benchmark Genetics

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 5.10 pm

NIAB; John Innes Centre; KWS



(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Tuesday 12 July.— (Jo Churchill.)

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room and will be circulated to Members via email.

Resolved,

That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Jo Churchill.)

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Informally, I discussed with the Minister and the shadow Minister whether the Committee might wish to sit in private to consider the structure of the questioning, but both agreed that there is no need for that, so I will not put that motion. We can therefore now commence the oral evidence session. If Members have any relevant interests to declare, now is the time to do so. No.

Examination of Witnesses

David Exwood and Dr Helen Ferrier gave evidence.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We will now hear evidence from David Exwood, vice-president, and Dr Helen Ferrier, chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, both of the National Farmers Union. Thank you for coming this morning. I can see that you are both there—both our witnesses are appearing via Zoom.

Before calling the Minister to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We must also stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. This session will finish at 10.10 am. With all witnesses, I will first call the Minister and then the shadow Minister, before opening up to questions from others in the Committee.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jo Churchill)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning, David and Helen, and thank you very much for attending this morning. I will start with a broad question, if I may. What are the views of farmers on precision breeding and how the Bill is likely to impact across both the crop and the livestock sectors? Perhaps we will go to David first.

David Exwood: I think farmers welcome this Bill, because of the possibilities it offers. I am really clear that the big gains, the big changes, in farming are all around breeding. Yes, there are gains in productivity around my machinery, but really the exciting things in the future are all around breeding and the possibilities that brings, and the Bill will help with that.

For all my farming career, I have used pesticides as part of the process. I am very happy about that, but we now genuinely have an opportunity to produce as much food as we do now but with much less impact. So I think farmers welcome the Bill, which opens a world of possibilities and addresses the challenges we face at the moment. There is so much pressure on land use, and the ability to produce the same amount of food as we do now but with less environmental impact and more sustainably is something all farmers welcome.

Dr Ferrier: Ultimately, the market will decide whether this technology is adopted here, but I think that, before that happens, the regulatory system and the legislative process will decide whether farmers and growers have access. The technology is clearly being developed around the world, and regulatory processes are being reviewed and put in place around the world. Farmers and growers are not going to be able to access the products of the technology and realise those benefits that David has talked about if companies are discouraged or regulation is not enabling. So the impact of the Bill depends on how well it is written and whether it will be proportionate and fit for purpose and will therefore encourage the investment of breeding companies that then enables farmers to adopt the products of the technology.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have other questions, but I would like this process to be collegiate, so perhaps we should go to others, because they may ask the same questions as I will.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our witnesses. I would like to go straight into a real-world example. One example cited of a possible real benefit is in the sugar beet sector. I come from the east of England; I am sure you are familiar with the issues in that region about neonicotinoids, virus yellows and so on. Could you talk us through the potential there, but also comment on the issues that might arise in trade terms if our friends, our European partners, take a different view and what the risks might be?

David Exwood: Virus yellows in beet is something carried by aphids into the sugar beet crop in the spring and it can have a dramatic effect on yield. We saw two years ago reductions of up to 80% in the beet yield in affected fields. So that is a real-life example of a pest that can dramatically affect the productivity of a crop. We produce about 1 million tonnes of sugar beet in this country each year, and that can be dramatically reduced through virus yellows.

Through precision breeding, we have the ability to breed in genes resistant to virus yellows so that the plant just will not be impacted and all the issues of neonicotinoids and using synthetic insecticides to try to control the aphids and control the impact of virus yellows will disappear. That is a real gain in an industry that clearly needs support and could be really impacted. That is the really clear gain and potential of this technology that the Bill will allow. And there is the point about the sustainability of that business. It is such a concentrated business in a certain area of the country.

To move on to the trade environment, this technology absolutely has to be one that is used widely. I am really clear that the EU is moving on gene editing and precision breeding; it is very clear about that. Actually, my greatest worry is that the UK gets left behind on this technology. The rest of the world is moving, and we need to move with it. We absolutely live, work and trade in a European environment and a world environment, but, given that the EU is moving, my concern is more that we get left behind, rather than us moving ahead of them and nobody coming with us.

Dr Ferrier: Obviously, it is very difficult to predict, but the indications from companies are that, should this legislative change happen, it would be at least five years before products start come on to the market for farmers and growers to use. Clearly, the international trade impacts will depend on the harmonisation across trading partners in terms of the legislation in their jurisdictions. I believe that within the period necessary for those products to come on stream commercially, there will be much more harmonisation. As David said, that will also happen in the EU, which plans a legislative proposal by quarter 2 of 2023. We are not concerned about imminent trade issues, because no products are available for us to use at the moment.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. I call the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, Mr Stringer. Mr Exwood, the Minister asked you about your members’ views. Have your members been surveyed on the Bill, and if so, what did they say? Is there a difference in views on this matter between, say, organic farmers or small family farms, and larger farms?

David Exwood: Absolutely. We run our consultation process and work up our policy as one organisation that brings in all sectors—organics being one of them. I think everybody recognises the advantages of technology; everybody recognises the benefits that breeding brings. That goes for organic farmers and smaller farmers as well as large farmers. We have to co-exist alongside organic farming in all circumstances—we are very clear about that. We do not see that as a challenge; we already run slightly separate systems and it does not significantly alter business in any way.

The key element of the Bill for small farmers is that it is drafted in such a way as to make it as widely available as possible. It needs to be open to as many farmers as possible—that is how it will bring the most benefit. Breeding actually brings benefit to all farmers, and a good variety of wheat or sugar beet, say, is something that all farmers will benefit from, regardless of their size.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Do you agree that sufficient safeguards can be put in place to protect organic farms from what they might see as a sort of contamination—if I can call it that—from those products?

David Exwood: Yes, I do. As I said, we run existing codes, and conventional and organic already co-exist. This does not change that in any way. We have to make sure that we are able to do that. There has to be a co-existence—I am very happy about that—which is a key part of our policy and our ask. I do not see the Bill as being a challenge to that.

Dr Ferrier: The market for organic versus conventional or other systems currently enables segregation for different specifications that the market might ask for. We see that continuing to run as it does at the moment. When a buyer has particular specification, there is certification for organics. As we understand it, the certification for organics would not currently allow the use of precision bred organisms. Obviously, that could change, allowing for segregated supply chains, just as with food-grade versus industrial-grade oilseed rape, or with sweetcorn and forage maize, which are kept apart.

If you are getting a new variety of a particular crop, for example, and you grow a crop for seed multiplication purposes, the high-purity requirements for that seed are there and are managed within the supply chain. We see that continuing to apply for organic farmers.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Earlier, you were asked about our relationship with the EU on this matter, and you mentioned progress in precision breeding across the world. How does that fit together, where is most of the research taking place, and which countries should we look at to make comparisons with the UK?

Dr Ferrier: Certainly, the most recent development in countries reviewing their legislation, and one that I think would be really useful for you to look at, is what Health Canada, the Canadian authority, has done. It has recently reviewed its legislation and put out some technical guidance. The key thing is that it confirms that precision bred organisms do not pose any additional safety risks compared with conventionally bred plant varieties. That is driving Canada’s regulatory process. It is not proposing different authorisation and risk-assessment processes. It does not believe that that would add any significant benefit for consumers or the environment, because the science does not show any additional risks—that is very similar to the European Food Safety Authority opinion from the end of November 2020.

Argentina is certainly a very interesting case. Since it has put in place proportionate and enabling regulations—such as those that the Government propose in this Bill—it has seen a real increase in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises and public-good breeding R&D activities taking products through that regulatory process, so that it is not just the preserve of the largest companies that are able to pay for and absorb any uncertainty in a less ideal or dysfunctional regulatory process.

Japan is another example of where a product—a tomato—has been through that process. In countries that put in place proper regulation, the actual process is functional and works well for the companies. Those countries then see investment in R&D and into commercial companies. That is bringing through the products. South America, North America and Japan are investing in this. It is interesting to see how quickly the science develops into commercial opportunities once the regulations are right.

David Exwood: The challenges that we face as farmers in the UK—sustainability, climate change and so on—are the challenges faced by farmers across the world, and we are all looking for solutions to those problems. It is interesting that across the world, there is a move on this technology, which we are seeing quite widely. That is because everybody is looking for answers and solutions to the challenges that we all face.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I thank the witnesses for their time. I want to turn to animals specifically, which some people are surprised to see included in the Bill so early on. Animal welfare charities are anxious that using gene editing to improve productivity and disease resistance could lead to more intensive farming. What would you say to that?

Dr Ferrier: There is no evidence that that would be the case, but we understand that people have concerns about existing farming systems. We see that expressed, and we work hard to address it. To me, that is a separate issue from the Bill. We can have discussions about how to improve animal welfare, but I really do not think that it would be sensible, I guess, to design special elements of this particular Bill to address general concerns about farming systems.

The other important thing to be aware of is all the existing animal welfare rules and activities within Government and industry. Obviously the Animal Welfare Act 2006 applies, so we need not duplicate elements of that in the Bill, and there are codes of practice for each sector that are being reviewed all the time. Also, the action plan for animal welfare is in place, and the animal welfare pathway is being developed. We therefore think that concerns in the area, which are freely expressed, are being, and can be, dealt with through appropriate parts of legislation and industry action.

The Bill, which relates to just one particular technology, is not the place to address those areas. We have talked about the challenges. It is not just a challenge for growers of crops; there are a lot of difficulties that are climate change-related, and disease, health and welfare-related production challenges for farmers. There are genetic solutions to some of those challenges that we would like to see explored. We would like farmers to have the benefit of them, but we will only be able to explore them if the legislation enables companies to invest in the technologies to work out whether some of them could help. We can only see benefit from using this technology to address some of those problems.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Mr Exwood, do you want to add anything specifically on gene editing and animal welfare?

David Exwood: I understand the concerns about animal welfare, but it is really important to say that with animals the ability to produce sustainability with less impact applies just the same as with crops. I have dehorned thousands of cattle in my farming career, and the ability to breed out horns in cattle is a clear gain for people and livestock. It would be good for everybody. I would be very happy if I never had to dehorn another calf again. I understand the nervousness, but there are things that this Bill will offer that are clearly a gain. It is wrong to assume that it will just lead to an intensification of production.

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have already spoken this morning and asked a question about regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU. Your response was that you were not concerned about that so much as you were about the UK being left behind. Some of us are quite concerned about areas of the United Kingdom being left behind, given the Scottish Government’s reluctance thus far to look at doing the same sort of thing that we are doing, so I want to ask our two guests: do you have any concerns about regulatory divergence within the United Kingdom?

David Exwood: Yes, we do have concerns. The main concern is that farmers across the UK should have access to this technology. I would urge that the gains we see are available to all. I understand the politics of the situation, but again I think that the fact that the EU is moving on this and has made clear signals about the direction of travel gives us some reassurance that across the whole continent we are moving to a different position on this technology. Therefore, the other countries of the UK should be looking to where everybody is moving and our market is moving, and think about how they might want to be in line, alongside what we could do in England.

Dr Ferrier: To be honest, I think it is a real shame, because clearly some of the best scientists and geneticists are operating in Wales and Scotland. There is a real strength. A lot of investment goes on under our devolved Administrations to invest in the science, but in order for there to be a return on that investment, it needs to lead to some kind of commercial adoption. It is a real shame for those scientists to consider that their work will not go beyond the lab if those Administrations’ positions remain the same. I do not think this should be a political issue, because it is about recognising a technology that has a lot of potential to do good things for the environment, society, animals, and farmers and growers; it would be a shame if it were a political issue. We will see. Time will tell whether movement within the EU—which certainly for the Scottish Government, as you know, is a key place where they are looking to see what approach they should take—will change the position. It would be a shame if this were derailed for political reasons when the issues are not political.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Would gene editing give us the ability to grow things in this country that we currently cannot? I am thinking particularly of the situation as we adapt to climate change. Is it the case that there are there crops that, because of weather conditions, soil conditions or whatever, do not flourish in the UK, but where this would mean we might be able to enter those markets in the future?

David Exwood: A key example might be soya beans. The current situation is that people have tried over a number of years to grow soya beans. Clearly, it is desirable to grow more of our own homegrown protein, but given that that is quite difficult, it is the sort of opportunity that this technology could give us—the opportunity to make varieties better adapted to our climate, so that we can grow such crops. I do not want to promise too much, but clearly breeding, as I said, offers some of the big solutions in the future. It is those sorts of solutions that we perhaps cannot quite see yet but that may well help us to be much more sustainable in what we do.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Is the UK is geared up for research into that side of things? We do not put an awful lot of money into food research and research on crops. I do not want to put words into your mouth. It is one thing for the opportunity to be there. Do you think that we are actually geared up for making the most of the opportunities?

Dr Ferrier: We have really excellent scientists. We have some really world-leading plant science organisations here. An example is NIAB in Cambridge, as Daniel Zeichner will know very well. The scientific capability is certainly there. Obviously, it needs funding, and increasingly research funding is seeking to enable impact from research—impact beyond the academic world, but on society and the economy. Based on that, if research funders see that there is a route to market eventually for the science that they are funding, that will increase the investment in research and development. Of course, the statutory instrument passed a few months ago will enable and make easier the R&D for these particular technologies, which is a good first step. Then, if we have a clear route to market, that will be a further incentive to explore those funding streams.

Of course, with funding comes greater capability, because research organisations are then able to recruit the best researchers. When we were doing our consultation of our members on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation last year, we had scientists come and talk to our members, including a wheat scientist from the John Innes Centre, who explained the science he was doing and the potential for that to address some of our members’ challenges. We have seen in the food White Paper the reference of protein crops and finding ways to get sources of plant-based protein. Some considerable investment in R&D is required in order for that to become a greater commercial proposition for growers in this country.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Organic food was mentioned earlier. In shops and supermarkets, organic food tends to attract a higher price than other food. Where would the costings of genetically modified food sit? Would it sit between those two or lower than the current standard food price, if you will?

Dr Ferrier: I guess we are talking about a new, not genetically modified food. I have not done a comparison of current GM foods on the market—the chocolate bars and the oils, for example—so I am not sure where they sit. Organic commands are premium partly because of the greater cost of producing organic. Maybe David could talk about that. On potential products that might come through precision breeding, it depends on the product. I think there is potential, as we have already seen with some conventionally bred products, such as a broccoli with higher antioxidant levels or eggs high in nutrients, for some premium products that have nutritional benefits, but initially there may not be any difference in the final price in shop.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q When you say any difference, is that from “normal” food or from organic food?

Dr Ferrier: From conventionally produced wheat, for example, for baking a conventional loaf. It depends on the products that come through. It is difficult to judge, but there are examples, such as a heart-healthy tomato in Japan that has an extra benefit that may command a premium in shops. It is very difficult to tell. I think organic always has that premium. As I said, currently that premium will include the fact that they do not use biotechnology. They do in some of their veterinary medicines, for example, but I mean in the actual production of organic food.

There is a premium for organic. I do not know whether there is a premium for GM or if it is cheaper. Clearly, if it is easier to grow a food product, there is potential to pass that on to the consumer. One relevant element that we may come to later is other requirements around the marketing of precision bred organisms. For example, extra labelling always increases the cost of getting food on a shelf. That could be a cost for the final consumer.

David Exwood: Could I just add to that? It is worth pointing out that, rather than perhaps massively increased yields, what this will increase is the sustainability and reliability of crops. Being able to grow crops consistently with less volatility is the real gain here. You will not see wild swings due to crop impact, or maybe a pest impact such as we were talking about with sugar beet earlier. Its sustainability is the great offer, and that is clearly a real advantage at a time when the global food supply chain is under pressure. That is probably one of the main advantages offered by this technology.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Just to finish off on that point, then, obviously worldwide prices of grain and wheat—whichever staple it may be—have grown considerably with the situation in Ukraine. Would this actually disassociate itself from those prices, or is it still totally reliant on world events, no matter what the sustainability and yield may be in the UK?

David Exwood: It is really interesting. What is happening in the world grain market is a coincidence of problems: the political situation in Ukraine, obviously, but also production problems in the rest of the world. We have serious drought in the US midwest and problems in India, so it is that combination of climate and politics that has created the current spike in prices. Clearly, for example, if we can breed varieties that are more drought-tolerant, that will help with the food supply chain. Again, it has the potential to offer quite significant gains in the sustainability of our food supply.

Dr Ferrier: It is many years away, but I am sure these kinds of shocks will return. Obviously, whatever happens with this Bill, we are not going to have an immediate silver bullet to answer our current issues and shocks within the supply chain.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I have three Members indicating that they want to ask questions, and we have nine minutes left, so the time allocation is fairly obvious.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you to the witnesses for the excellent information so far. Obviously, you represent NFU England. This is an England-only Bill, and we welcome the opportunity for devolved Administrations to take part in the process, but I was wondering, from an NFU perspective—this is for Mr Exwood—what engagement have you had with your counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for example? Is there any divergence at all between the different NFUs?

David Exwood: I can make you aware that my counterparts—the presidents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—wrote to their respective Ministers in support of the Bill, and urged them to support this legislation. I hope that gives you comfort that farmers across the UK see the benefits of the Bill, want to have access to this technology, and are urging—as Helen said—that politics should not override the clear gains here. Yes, we have consulted: we all agree as the four unions, and we would all like to see this technology adopted and available to all farmers in the UK.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I have another question, if I may, for Dr Ferrier. I think you said something earlier in response to Deidre Brock’s question about being able to keep gene edited crops separate from organic crops, for example. Are the quality control measures that are already in place—separating seed barley from feed and malting barley, say, or different varieties of seeds and suchlike—enough to provide the safeguard that people may be looking for?

Dr Ferrier: Yes, they are. We are having to ensure that at the moment, as I said, the certification requirements are obeyed and can be delivered on. It is the same as for other things that the organic sector cannot use that the conventional sector can, or for certain specifications, so I definitely believe that the current segregation arrangements would also apply here, enabling that certification rule to be followed.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I would like to come back to the labelling, which Dr Ferrier touched on. Why is the NFU opposed to this? I have heard the argument about costs being a key issue, but I would have thought that, with a new technology, you would want to achieve public confidence. Transparency and—dare I say it?—genuine consumer choice would be something that you would want initially, as the public came to terms with something scientifically different from anything else that they may have come across in recent years. Why would you be opposed to that transparency?

Dr Ferrier: We are definitely not opposed to transparency, and we are very much in favour of the notification arrangements that are set out in the Bill. That is something that we worked with Government on over a period of time—to be able to have a system within the supply chain, from breeder all the way along, as far as it needs to go, so that the supply chain is aware of the particular breeding technology used. That enables the transparency and the traceability to be there.

We are also not opposed to labelling, as such, because a lot of voluntary, market-led labelling exists already, outside of the statutory system, enabling a retailer, manufacturer or producer to alert the public to something that it particularly wants them to see to try to persuade them to buy that product. Market-led labelling is definitely something that could be achieved, if the market demanded it at the point where products were being used, because we have the notification transparency system within the Bill.

We are opposed to statutory labelling—I guess that position is in line with DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency—because there is no scientific basis for statutory labelling for products that could have been produced through conventional breeding or natural mutations. We therefore believe that, actually, it would be misleading for consumers to have products that were labelled as different when they are not different from their conventionally bred counterparts. We are pleased to see that in the Bill—that any marketing of these products must not mislead the consumer. Of course, the food information to consumers regulations mean that producers of food cannot mislead consumers anyway. So, there is not a scientific basis for statutory labelling, and it would not benefit the consumer. It is really about the safety of the food, so it would not apply to this particular technology because all of those authorisation processes would be in place.

On consumer surveys, which are often quoted, if you ask, “Would you like this particular thing to be labelled?” consumers will generally want that. However, with lots of other breeding techniques, such as radiation-induced mutagenesis, polyploidy induction—don’t ask me to explain what that means—or somatic hybridisation, if you asked consumers “Would you like to see that on a label if it is being used?” they would say yes. We need to be led by the science of whether these products are actually different if you are going to put a statutory labelling requirement in place. If the market wants to label when the time comes, that will certainly be possible with the transparency arrangements in place.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q There is an argument for greater transparency in food production, not less. I am struggling with the NFU’s position of leaving it to the market. Markets can do lots of things, but the reason we are here, as regulators and legislators, is to try to ensure that this has public confidence. I would have thought that the NFU would want public confidence on this. If this were the same as other food production mechanisms, I could just pack up and go home now because I would not need to be here, but clearly there is an issue. I am trying to tease out why you do not think that transparency is needed. You have made your case and your arguments, so nothing more needs to be said, unless you want to add anything in the 15 seconds you have left.

Dr Ferrier: I just do not think labelling is a way to deliver policy. It is very blunt.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you, Dr Ferrier and David Exwood, for your time and valuable contribution. We now move on to our next witness.

Examination of Witness

Professor Gideon Henderson gave evidence.

10:10
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We have before us Professor Gideon Henderson, the chief scientific adviser at DEFRA, who is on Zoom. For this session, we have until 10.35 am. Professor Henderson, would you like very briefly to introduce yourself for the record?

Professor Henderson: Hello, I am Professor Gideon Henderson, and I am chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Apologies for not being in the Committee Room with you.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you for giving us your time this morning.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning, Professor Henderson. Are you content that this Bill is based on the best available science? Would you like to explain the input you have had into the Bill?

Professor Henderson: Yes, I would. I think I can reassure the Committee on both those questions. I have been involved since the very early stages of the preparation of this Bill in consulting widely with the scientific community, advising Ministers and officials in my Department and others, and talking to stakeholder groups about the science and its implications. The Bill has taken into account the science and the most expert views of it in a very diverse way. I am personally content that it is fit for purpose and will ensure the continued safety of the environment and food.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning, professor. It is very good to see you. You will appreciate that one of the big discussions about this Bill is likely to be about definitions. I want to go into some of them, because you will be aware that some of the learned societies—the Royal Society of Biology, for instance—have questioned the very existence of the concept of a precision bred organism. Can a precision bred organism contain exogenous genetic material? If so, can you explain how that is different from a genetically modified organism?

Professor Henderson: There is an interesting question about how far deregulation into genetic technologies ought to go in one step. Some groups of scientists would certainly favour a model in which you relax the regulation much more widely and base all the outcomes on the traits that are produced through that technology—the outcome in the product—rather than having any view about the technology or the process by which the product is made. That is certainly a view that some scientists would hold.

The view of Government—this has played out in a number of stakeholder groups— has been that moving more cautiously to deregulate or lower the regulation of some aspects of genetic technologies first is a cautious and stepwise way to move. That takes account of the science, enables us to be aware of the issues as they arise, and most importantly builds the confidence of the public as those technologies are used more widely in food production. That is the justification for moving first into the use of technologies only to mimic breeding processes through precision breeding, as described in the Bill.

There is a difficulty in describing the limits of what is possible with breeding. It is clear that some things that are possible—we know they are possible because we have done them—are very similar to things that have been done, and they are therefore clearly in scope. There are other examples that are clearly not possible through breeding. In between those, there is something of a grey area. There is now detailed advice from an expert group—the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment—that lays out the definition of the circumstances in which something would be considered possible through breeding, and therefore would be considered a precision bred organism, to define the line within that grey area.

You also asked about exogenous material, by which I take it you mean material from another species. That sort of material can occur entirely naturally, and it can occur during breeding processes as well, but in general it does not lead to any functional change or any phenotypic change. The Bill is designed not to allow exogenous material, if it has any functional or phenotypic outcome in the product. In that way, it does mimic the action of traditional breeding. I hope that answers your question.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It starts to answer it, yes. I have the technical guidance from ACRE in front of me, which I will pursue with a subsequent witness. Most of us have understood that the Bill has been brought forward in order to preclude the inclusion of exogenous material. However, I think from what you are telling us that the Bill, as drafted, does not do that.

Professor Henderson: The Bill is designed to exclude the intentional inclusion of exogenous material, or the residual accidental inclusion that has any outcome that matters. That is probably the shortest way of summarising it. If there happens to be a bit of exogenous material in there that is similar to what might happen through the natural breeding process, or entirely naturally, but it has no functional outcome—no phenotypic change on the crop or the livestock—that is not considered an issue. Any intentional or accidental change that leads to a phenotypic outcome—the crop being different in a way that could not have been possible through traditional breeding—is not allowed under the terms of the Bill.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I think we will probably be coming back to that as we discuss the Bill line by line. Finally, what is your definition of the difference between what you have just described and a GMO?

Professor Henderson: GMO is a broad church of definition. A thing that is clearly outside of the terms of the Bill is the intentional insertion of a transgene—genes from another species—in order to create the effect that you wanted. That would be in order to make the product different in some way by bringing in an—[Inaudible.]

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It is beginning to sound to me like the difference will come down to whether it is intentional or unintentional.

Professor Henderson: It is to do with intentionality, but it is also to do with the outcome—[Inaudible.]

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are losing you, but I get the drift. I will leave it there.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Professor Henderson, I do not know if you can hear me, but you are frozen on our screen.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Perhaps we can ask Professor Henderson to dial off and dial back. Let us see if we can retrieve him.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

You are back, Professor Henderson. We move on to the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Scottish Government have stated that they will wait to assess the outcomes of the EU consultation on gene editing and GM. Some feel that the UK Government are rushing ahead with the Bill, potentially to the further detriment of trade with the EU. The UK Government are clearly very confident in the evidence they have received on this, because they are pushing ahead with it. Will you tell us about the peer-reviewed evidence that the Government are relying on that supports the claim that gene editing can make farming sustainable and environmentally friendly? Can you point to that evidence?

Professor Henderson: I can. There is a very wide range of peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the benefits that can arise from the use of gene editing for precision breeding, for building better crops. The list is long and I would be happy to share a long list of some of the references. There was a review paper published in Nature in 2019 that I often refer back to, which summarises the many routes by which we can use gene editing to enhance crops.

I am wary of time, but I could talk at some length about the different sorts of crops that might be beneficial in this context. There is also an extensive peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the safety of these technologies and the fact that the unintended consequences through precision breeding are generally lower than those through traditional breeding, and particularly some of the more extreme mutagenic forms of precision breeding. There is very extensive scientific literature.

You started your question by pointing to the differences of opinion politically on the different sides of the national borders within the United Kingdom. I should say that scientifically, there is not a difference of opinion as you change nations in the country and certainly leading scientists in this sector in Wales and Scotland have also been very instrumental in the peer-reviewed literature that I have mentioned, and they agree with the sense of direction of this Bill, although their political leaders do not.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q And the potential impact on trade with the EU?

Professor Henderson: As a scientist, trade is less my area of expertise, but to some extent you could argue that this Bill would enable more trade, because it will enable better crops and more crops to be produced, and therefore they could be more readily traded overseas, giving more market opportunities for UK farmers and markets. [Inaudible.] Therefore, I do not see an immediate problem with any trade with the EU, either.

It is also true to say, as I believe your previous—[Inaudible.] Sorry, are you still there?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We are. We missed a little towards the end there, Professor.

Professor Henderson: I am sorry; if it happens again, I will switch wi-fi on to my phone. I do apologise.

I was saying that, from an EU perspective, the final thing to say is that the EU itself is of course consulting on changing the law in a way similar to the way that we are considering, and it is quite likely to change on the same timescale that we will be producing marketable crops.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, Chair, and thank you, Professor Henderson, for your time this morning.

I note in the Bill that the definition of “animals” is not restricted to farm animals; therefore, it follows that it is obviously not just farm animals that we are talking about here. I just wondered what you see the Bill actually covering in terms of applications beyond farm animals—what sort of areas do you see the Bill taking us in?

Professor Henderson: I am sorry; could you repeat the question, please?

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, okay. In the Bill, the definition of “animals” is not restricted to farm animals. Therefore, it follows that if we are not just talking about farm animals, we are talking about animals outside farms. What sort of applications you were thinking of? As you said, you have been involved in the development of this Bill. What sort of areas are we looking at in terms of the application of gene editing here?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Did you hear that question, Professor Henderson?

Professor Henderson: I heard something about—[Interruption.] The application for animals outside the farm is something that will need to be addressed before secondary legislation can be enacted. It is not something that I am willing to discuss now, because I—[Interruption.]

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sorry, Chair; I cannot understand the answer.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand, Gideon, that you are on a visit. May I suggest, with the Committee’s indulgence, that we slot you in on Thursday, if people are agreeable and you have the time? Your evidence is both welcome and vital, and we would like to hear from you.

Professor Henderson: Again, I can only apologise for the bad wi-fi I have here. I would be happy to come back to you at any time that suits the Committee.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We have 10 minutes left in this session, so let us have one more try. If that is unsuccessful, then, with my co-Chair, we can consider changing the programme motion. We have agreed a programme motion so it would have to be formally changed. Will you ask the question again, Ruth?

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Did you hear the question, Professor Henderson?

Professor Henderson: I think your question was to do with animals that are not on farms—non-livestock animals—which I take to mean things like pets. In that area, there is a piece of work still to do to ensure that animal welfare is looked after and continues to be well looked after following the passage of any Bill on precision breeding. That is a piece of work that scientific information will need to feed into.

There is a body of evidence on animal welfare, including on-farm and off-farm welfare. That is a process that I believe will have to take place before secondary legislation can be enacted. The process for that is laid out in the Bill, and the timescale will be something like two to three years where scientific input will feed in.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Just to be clear, did you say this piece of work will take two to three years to take place?

Professor Henderson: That is our expectation.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Continuing on the animal front, we know that some animals, such as pets, including some of the brachycephalic dogs, are bred to have traits that are not desirable from a health point of view. There is increasing concern about the popularity of pugs, French bulldogs and creatures like that. On the farm animal side, you have poultry that is bred to an immense size and cows where the milk yields are going up year on year—they are bred to produce more than they would naturally.

What do you see as the parameters of that? How will the Bill protect animal welfare? Because of the popularity of those dogs, breeders may make use of the new technology to breed even more extreme examples. Would that be desirable? How can we prevent that from happening? You may have answered that in response to my colleague and said that it needs more time, but how do you see that in terms of the desire for increased yields and increased production on farms? Is there not an argument for not including animals in the Bill while this further research takes place?

Professor Henderson: Scientifically, the application of these technologies to cross to livestock or other animals is identical in terms of the changes it can cause. It can mimic the impact of breeding more efficiently, effectively and rapidly. In the livestock and animal area, this has identified more clearly a problem that was already there and the fact that we know, with respect to animal welfare, there are some negative outcomes that come from traditional breeding processes. If we are able to speed that process up through precision breeding, those negative outcomes may occur more quickly.

The passage of this Bill has pointed to those problems in animal welfare and made them clearer, and made it necessary to deal with them quite explicitly before we can enact legislation about precision breeding for animals. That is not because the science is different but because the existing regulation around animals differs from that needed around crops. That is why the instrument is set up as a secondary instrument, so that there is time to fully consider and deal with the animal welfare processes before that is changed in law.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you, Professor Henderson. We will end the session there. It has been a difficult session because of the technology. I will consult the Front-Bench spokespeople and we will consider whether to change our programme motion and possibly invite you back, if you would be good enough to return. Thank you for the information you have given us and for your time.

Examination of Witness

Professor Robin May gave evidence.

10:30
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We now come to Professor Robin May. We have until 11 am, so we have gained five minutes. Thank you for giving us your time and expertise this morning. Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Professor May: Certainly. I am Robin May, chief scientific adviser at the Food Standards Agency and a professor of infectious disease at the University of Birmingham.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning, Professor May. I will start with a broad question. Why is it necessary to create a new regulatory framework for precision bred food and feed products, and how will the FSA balance safety in doing so?

Professor May: There are probably two answers to why this is necessary. Currently, precision bred foods and feeds will be encapsulated within the existing GM framework. If they are moving out of that framework, it is important to be sure that those products are safe. The key difference here with traditional breeding is one of pace. The entire point of this technology is to do things that could have been achieved through traditional breeding, but much faster. It is important that we have safety checks along that pathway.

On your question about balance, I think the key balance to strike here is between supporting innovation and ensuring safety. At the moment, our thinking around this is to have a two-streamed process for regulation, where there is a very light-touch process for anything where there is unlikely to be a substantive change in the food and more scrutiny of anything where the final food product is different. I think that is quite appropriate for this blend of technology.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning and welcome. You may have heard some of the previous discussion around labelling. Indeed, it is something the Food Standards Agency has looked into. Could you tell us what work the Food Standards Agency has done on assessing the public view on labelling and what conclusions you have come to?

Professor May: We have undertaken quite a lot of consumer research in this area, as have many others. There are various take-home messages from that. The first is that there has been a perceptible shift in public views over the last 10 or 20 years, and there has been more interest in the potential benefits of this technology. That is mirrored by a really strong view that the public want some level of regulation and safeguards in this and other genetic technologies.

Specifically around labelling, there is a very strong majority of the public that we have polled, and that others have seen, who would like labelling of these products. There is some difference of views about what that labelling should entail, but there is a strong feeling around it. From an FSA perspective, we would in principle support that, because we stand very strongly for transparency. The problem, sitting here as a scientist, is that this is not really achievable for this particular group of foods, because the entire nature of the precision breeding legislation is to consider things that could have been produced traditionally.

Consequently, you may end up in the future with two apples, for instance, and one was produced by precision breeding that involves gene editing and the other was produced by traditional methods. It would be scientifically impossible—at least, at the moment—to tell those two apart.

Then, from my perspective, my view is that a label that is not enforceable and that might be misleading is actually worse than no label at all, because you then start to spread doubt about the validity of other labels in the food system: allergen labels, nutritional labels. While in principle I think labelling would be a good thing, the fact that we cannot enforce it makes me feel that this is not appropriate for this type of food.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Could you say a little bit more about distinctions between the new nutritional labelling and the other labelling? I think that is important for the Committee to understand.

Professor May: Labelling in the UK is quite a complex system. There are different legislative responsibilities in the different devolved Administrations, for instance. Broadly speaking, there are a whole variety of things, as we know, on a food label. The most obvious that most of us look at are things such as calories, fat content and salt content. There are very tight legal guidelines around what must be present on the label and that it must be accurate. Clearly, if you say that it contains 6 grams of salt and it contains 7 grams, that is not legal.

That holds also for other aspects. There are safety aspects of labelling, such as allergen information, which is critical for many of us, and country of origin. Then there are a raft of labels that may not have a legal framework, but which have recognition under guidelines—Red Tractor and animal welfare standards, those kinds of things. There is quite a lot on the label already. Under the current legislation, any food that is approved as a genetically modified food is labelled as such.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q May I press you on one final example that has been brought to my attention? It is one of a tomato that could be genetically edited to boost vitamin D content, for instance, and then the cases where some people sadly have an issue with vitamin D. Is there a danger that we could end up not alerting those people to those problems if we do not label properly?

Professor May: That is a good example of somewhere where I think we would have a different approach. Just to go back on the approach we are currently proposing—I stress that there is nothing set in stone yet. This is an approach that we are working quite closely on with our advisory committee on novel foods and processes to develop firm guidelines. At the moment, our thinking is around this two-tier process. Tier 1, for instance, would be foods where there is no compositional change in the thing you eat. A strawberry with a different root system, but the strawberry itself is identical, would not need substantial regulation. In contrast, with the vitamin D tomato that you mentioned, the thing you eat is now different; there is vitamin D in there. Those would be risk assessed and under that risk assessment the key issue there would be one of safety.

In an example such as that one, where there may be a subset of the population for whom this is dangerous, absolutely, we would incorporate that into the risk assessment and our guidance to Ministers then would be that it would be entirely right and appropriate to label that food, possibly with a label that says, “Not suitable for certain groups.” You could imagine a scenario where a food is not suitable for pregnant women, for example, and we would certainly stand strong on the fact that the bottom line is that the food needs to be as safe as it is today. Anything that might compromise safety should clearly be labelled as such.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q All that is very interesting and very good, but I do not actually see that this is covered in the Bill as it stands. This is all going to have to follow through secondary legislation, is it not?

Professor May: That is correct. At the moment, part 3 of the Bill encompasses the direction of travel, but not the details. That is something we are working on at the moment.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Food Standards Scotland produced a paper in March of this year that pointed out potential for regulatory divergence between the four nations of the UK and that the Bill could result in Ministers in England taking decisions on the approval of genome-edited food and food products with little or no involvement from Food Standards Scotland or, indeed, Ministers in Scotland. It is an independent authority, as you know. Can you tell us how that relationship will be approached and managed, if the Bill becomes an Act?

Professor May: Happily, I am here as a scientist, so I can say that, scientifically, we have an extremely close working relationship with FSS and other regulators around the world, but the closest is with FSS.

If I give an example, at the moment, risk assessments that we might do in FSA are shared very closely with FSS. All that process is done together. Often we are using the same sets of experts—for example, to provide information. Once the risk assessment is done, it passes to a risk management process. I cannot think of an example where there is a difference in the risk assessment part between nations, because the science is the science.

Where there are sometimes differences is in the risk management area. A current example is raw drinking milk, because the science around the risks of drinking such milk is the same, but England and Scotland have different views on how much risk is acceptable. Under this framework, I would fully intend that we would share all the science around the risk assessments of a precision-bred product. Ultimately, though, the decision on a risk management basis and whether to authorise it would fall to Ministers in each of the individual countries.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is helpful. Thank you.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you for your time this morning, Professor May. We heard from a previous witness that the EU is likely to develop its work on gene editing along similar timescales. Given the need to share information, how will the FSA and the European Food Safety Authority share information as we go down this path?

Professor May: Previously, prior to Brexit, everything was handled at the European level. As I just mentioned, we share informally the scientific advice, which is very international. Often the people who are providing evidence for a risk assessment are the same people—they may not even be within the EU, but wherever that expertise is available in the world—so there is quite a lot of sharing at that level. Currently, our only formal arrangement with the EU on food safety is around alerts. An alert for a food safety issue that may have an impact on the UK is passed to us, but something that affects countries outside and has no impact on the UK would not necessarily be shared.

I think all of us hope that there will be a reciprocal arrangement for sharing information in future. It is in everyone’s interest to share as much evidence and data as possible, but that is obviously not in my gift to control. There is recognition in the EU that the current GM framework is not fit for purpose for these kinds of products, so the process is already rolling in the EU to look at how it might be changed. How long that will take, and what the outcome might be, will obviously be very different. I would anticipate that it is going to take longer than it will in the UK to get resolution on that.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You mentioned alerts. Obviously, nobody wants to leave it until there is an alert situation, but what about developing more formal mechanisms as we go forward, rather than relying on the good will of scientists?

Professor May: Sitting here as a scientist, obviously I hope very much that there will be good sharing. As I said before, it is in everyone’s interest to share the best science and the best evidence around this. Happily, building those relationships is not in my purview to organise, but I hope that there will be sharing, particularly around the horizon-scanning function. For us as a regulator, it is really critical to think about not just what is on our desks now, but what will be there in two, three or five years’ time. What is the science that we will need to assess the potential risks of products that I have not even thought of yet? Collaborative agreement around what might be coming down the road is really critical for all of us.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Something occurred to me when I was looking at the Bill again last night. Do you feel that you have sufficient capacity to be able to cope with the extra responsibilities that you are taking on? Have the Ministers given you further guarantees that you will be supported in that?

Professor May: That is a very good question. It is hard to predict based on the estimation of what might be coming to our desks. On the one hand, the Bill will remove a tranche of products that would otherwise have been assessed as GM products. We already regulate GM products, and there is the capacity. On the other hand, the purpose of the Bill is to stimulate development in this area, so we may end up with a lot more applications, in which case we are going to need additional resource. We have taken steps in that direction, including recruiting independent experts in this area to provide scientific expertise, but if there were a large volume of applications needing consideration, we would need additional support.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning, Professor May. To return to the discussion that we were having a few moments ago about information for the consumer, to what extent does the Food Standards Agency have a role in providing general public information and education? If that is not the role of the FSA, who should be doing it and how important is it?

Professor May: Our statutory mandate is to protect consumers and represent their interests as they pertain to food. That includes a communication role ranging from allergy alerts and food withdrawals through to a more nuanced understanding of the food system—food security, food poverty and those kinds of questions. At the moment, we do a fair bit of public communication around issues that we know consumers are interested in. Precision breeding, on which we have done some work, is a good example. An explainer on what genome editing and precision breeding are, and what impact they might have, is available on our website, for example.

We do a limited amount of work with schools—particularly in some regions of the UK—mostly on food hygiene. There is an opportunity to do more to explain to people the honest truth about food, and to help them to make decisions about safety and their purchasing decisions in that space. There is always room to do more. There is a lot of consumer interest in this class of foods, and I anticipate that we will do more to make sure that people have the facts about it that they will want.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q To what extent would it be your responsibility to intervene in the event of misinformation? We are particularly concerned now about online misinformation.

Professor May: That depends very much on the type of misinformation. Local authorities usually enforce in that area. When a product is not what it says it is, for instance, it gets seized or withdrawn from retailers at local authority level. We issue alerts, and we have a national food crime unit that is very actively involved in looking at deliberate crime in the food sector, including people selling things that should not be sold or that are misrepresented. We also do quite a lot in the detection and enforcement of large-scale issues, including supply chain problems, incorrect labelling and so on.

In the case of precision breeding, it will clearly depend on what Parliament decides, but if there were a regulation on labelling, we would need to look carefully at how that responsibility goes out to the different regulators. We would undoubtedly have a view, and we would issue information for local authorities to enforce on what should and should not be on a label.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I have two sets of questions. First, I want to go back to labelling, because I have been mulling over your response. Is the objection to labelling the two apples that you cannot, at the moment, have a test to tell them apart? Is that, in principle, the reason for not labelling, or is there another reason?

Professor May: That is exactly right. As the legislation stands, you might introduce what is called a single base pair chain—a tiny, one letter change in the DNA code of that apple. Those single letter changes happen all the time. If you have a field of apple trees, they will all be slightly different, even if you cloned them all initially, so we would not be able to take that apple, sequence the DNA and definitively say, “This one was created by someone using genome editing, and this one just turned up by chance in the field.” As you cannot tell those two apples apart, if there were a label on one saying “Precision bred” and a label on the other saying “Not precision bred”, I could not, as a scientist, say that that was true. That therefore raises questions in my head about why you would have a label if you cannot be sure, in the first place, that what it says is true.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I get that, but if there were a genetic marker that you could identify, would that give you a mechanism for doing that?

Professor May: In principle. There are ways that you might do that. One way that some developers are thinking of—in the context of protecting their intellectual property—is to make that single letter change in a background of lots and lots of other single letter changes that you already know, as a kind of barcode. Then, the concept would be to mount a defence, so that if someone steals my apple, I would be able to say, “But this apple that you are selling has that single letter change, and the other 15, all of which were in my original stock apple, so this is my apple, not yours.”

That is a reasonably good way of protecting intellectual property if you are trying to claim that something is yours. It is very difficult to use that the other way around and say, “That is definitely precision bred.” I could be growing my apples and say that those 15 changes occurred spontaneously. Again, it is not currently possible to say definitively that they cannot have appeared naturally.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, that is helpful. My second question is about the register established by the Bill, which the Food Standards Agency is required to maintain. The Bill is fairly light on explanation as to the purpose of the register. Could you explain what you think its purpose is and who is likely to use it?

Professor May: The idea behind the register is to have a public awareness of the products that are going through this pathway and are ultimately out on the market, in a similar way to the public registration of foods at the moment. To take a current example, if you applied to us with a novel food, you would apply with a dossier of data that says, “This is the food. This is how I produced it. Here is how I have considered safety risks.” At the point that we say the dossier is complete and sufficient for us to consider, we publish and say, “This company has put its proposal in. We are now considering that product.” In the fullness of time, we will either recommend approval or not for that product. If we recommend approval, that will get registered publicly as well, so people can see what this novel food is and where it came from, and be reassured that there has been a due process behind it.

My view as a scientist is that this should be the same for precision breeding. We should have a register that says, “Here is a product that has been considered. We have looked at it; it hasn’t rocked up without any kind of due diligence around it.” It is there in the public domain for people to see what process it has gone through and be reassured that those products have had some level of scrutiny.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I am slightly sceptical here. I imagine one of my constituents going into a garage and buying a chocolate bar that was produced with some genetically edited sugar grown in eastern England. I am not convinced that they would check the public register to find out whether that product had been produced in this kind of way. Is the register really aimed at consumers?

Professor May: It is aimed at some consumers, and that is true now. On average, most of us spend less than six seconds considering each food item we purchase in the supermarket, which is not enough time to consider the label. Some consumers, depending on their concerns, spend more time looking at labels. If you are an allergen sufferer, you spend a lot of time looking for allergens. If you are a vegetarian, you check that the label says it is vegetarian. We know most consumers are a bit uninterested in some of these issues, so they probably will not stop in that garage and check whether the product is on the register or not, but there will be some consumers who have strong views on this, and they may or may not wish to purchase something accordingly. It is important that the information is available for them, so that they can pause if they want to and find out. Even if most people do not, it is available, should they wish to do so.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But that is the difference between having it on a label and on a register, isn’t it? A register requires a bigger effort to check, frankly.

Professor May: There is a slight threshold—yes, that is true. That is not unique to precision breeding. People are quite rightly demanding more and more information about their food. The labels are not getting any bigger, and certainly my eyesight is getting worse, so there is already a shift, and we see that. Many of us are doing more and more of our purchasing online. We actually never look at the sticky label on the food item because it is on a webpage instead. People are getting more used to looking elsewhere for information, so it is not the hurdle it used to be. You are quite right: there is a limit on how much we can fit on a physical label, and it is jostling for space with allergen, nutritional and the country of origin information, so there is limited real estate on the back of the label to get this information across.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But as far as you understand it, the purpose of the register is to give that public reassurance. It is a public information issue.

Professor May: That is correct, yes.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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Q What learnings have you taken from looking at countries that already have taken this technology forward? I am thinking in particular of Canada, Japan and Argentina—places where we holiday and are very comfortable with eating foods there. What have we learned from looking at other countries across the world, and how have you referenced that learning in the proposal you have put forward?

Professor May: There is a range of approaches across the world. It is probably true to say that no two countries have exactly the same approach at the moment. Perhaps I may give some examples.

At one end of the scale, you would have the current approach in the European Union, where all genetic modification, even genome editing that would fall within precision breeding, is regulated as GM and goes through a full risk assessment, often involving toxicology and quite a lot of analytics. At the other end of the scale, you have the US, for example, which has a default setting: if it is similar to something that was traditionally bred, there is no regulation.

Perhaps in between, the Canadian example is an interesting one. In Canada, they regulate the product and not the technology that has created it. They ask—let us go for an apple—“If you have created this apple, is it different from an apple I can buy currently?” If it is not different, it is not a novel food and it is not regulated; if it is different, it is a novel food and it gets assessed, regardless of how you made it. If I made that apple by precision breeding and it is different, it would be regulated; if I made it by crossing two apples in my orchard and creating a new apple tree that was different, it would still be regulated through that process. Scientifically, that is a very valid approach, but it means that you encompass within it all of traditional breeding and all the things that are done but not regulated in that way in this country.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

That brings us to the end of this session. Thank you for your time, Professor May, and for the contribution that you have made.

Examination of Witness

Professor Jim Dunwell gave evidence.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Good morning, Professor Dunwell, and thank you for giving us your time. We will finish this session at 11.25 am. Will you introduce yourself briefly?

Professor Dunwell: I am Jim Dunwell, professor of plant biotechnology at the University of Reading. I am also chair of ACRE, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, and have been for the past nearly three years.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Welcome, professor, and thank you for coming this morning. One of the challenges is that people hear that this will be swifter, and that concerns them. However, does the increased speed of the precision breeding method make the technologies less safe?

Professor Dunwell: Absolutely not. Some people suggest that speed, when it is applied in this kind of science, somehow has an intrinsic risk attached to it. That is slightly strange, as in most areas of science and innovation we are striving towards efficiency, whether it be in producing better vaccines or better batteries for electric cars. We are in a competitive world, and we can be sure that, as a nation and a scientific group, we are up against people who are having the same discussions elsewhere. If you are a plant breeder—not that it is a particularly profitable business—the ones who are successful are those who make genetic gains more efficiently and more quickly. Ever since we have known how genes control plant development, there have been advances in plant breeding to try to go through generations more quickly, so that people can capture, create and select genetic variation more quickly, and get their products to market more quickly. This is another element in that, which allows further increase in efficiency. Therefore, I have no intrinsic doubt about it.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Have you identified any greater risks involved in precision bred organisms, when compared with traditional organisms?

Professor Dunwell: No, not at all. It is something that ACRE as a group has had discussions about in the past decade, saying that the traditional methods of regulation were not really keeping pace with the change in the scientific information. Some 10 years ago nearly, we produced a report leading the way on that. Some of those issues have now fed through into the present proposal for regulation. Something you do with gene editing is to make slightly different, smaller genetic changes—that is the precision—enabling you to take a good variety and make it slightly better, just by making an existing change. In the past, you would have to put together different hybrid combinations. You would then have to go through massive selections of the best progeny, and that takes time. In terms of breeding a new variety, it may take five, eight or 10 years. That, now, can be cut back substantially.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I hope the Committee will indulge me as I ask my final question. Is this a good time to be bringing this legislation forward, given that you have highlighted to the Committee that we perhaps needed to look at our regulation a decade ago?

Professor Dunwell: I think it is very appropriate. Obviously, it follows on from our removal from the EU. As for the legal case that created this, I suppose, concern, most scientists in the UK and the EU realised that it was a sort of perverse judgment when it comes to traditional so-called mutagenesis, where you apply chemicals or radiation—that is considered a traditional method and has been for 50 years. If you go back to the ’50s, there was a society of atomic gardening. That was when atomic energy was “good”. There was a very popular and interesting character who set up the atomic gardening group. She used to demonstrate her plants at Chelsea; she used to have dinner parties and carry round irradiated peanuts to offer to people. It was considered a good thing, but it was a complete unknown. But there was no evidence of any problems relating to it. We can now make particular small genetic changes in a much more precise way, and I think it is a good time for the UK to take a lead and apply the best scientific principles that we have at our disposal.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Welcome and good morning, Professor Dunwell. I am going to try to pursue some of the vexed issues of definition at the start of the Bill, and I will ask you first the question that I asked Professor Henderson earlier. Can a precision bred organism contain exogenous genetic material, and if so, how is it different from a genetically modified organism?

Professor Dunwell: I think this comes back to our understanding of genomes. Some of the wording in here comes out of the discussions that we have had within ACRE and the recognition that, probably 20 or 30 years ago, we assumed that one crop had one genome and that was it, but we now know, because you can sequence genomes very easily and quickly, that in fact there is an enormous underlying diversity of genetic material. The number of genes in one variety of maize or corn is different from the number of genes in another. There are also structural rearrangements. You can have great pieces of chromosomes interchanged or moved; it is still a maize plant. These so-called structural variations are an intrinsic part of plant breeding—and also animal breeding. The more we see the diversity of this variation, the more we pick up the fact that many, many plants have DNA that has come from other organisms throughout their evolution; it is the same with animals. Plants have segments of DNA from, say, virus infections hundreds or thousands of years ago perhaps. They have been incorporated into the genome and so, in old-fashioned definitions of GM, those organisms would be considered genetically modified organisms, because they have material from another organism in them. But we accept now that that is the baseline—that many, many organisms have small parts of DNA from many, many organisms. We have nematodes that have plant DNA. We have insects that have plant DNA. These have been moved around during evolution. They do not change the purity of the species. In evolutionary terms, they create the diversity that enables evolution to take place.

That is the background in which the term “natural transformation” has been created. The simple presence of a small fragment or a bit of DNA from another species, which might have been there anyway, is not something that has any impact on hazard or risk.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q That is helpful. The problem that I and others have with the Bill is that it was explained to us at the outset as addressing a particular issue—allowing gene editing within one specific species. The assurance given was that it would not open the door to transgenic material being introduced, but I have to say that from hearing the evidence of you and others this morning, and from looking at the Bill, I am not entirely sure that is what it does.

I want to press you a bit further on some of these vexed issues of definition. We have “precision bred organism”, “qualifying higher plant”, and the EU now has “new genetic techniques”. We have three new definitions, which the learned societies have suggested in their evidence do not really mean very much. I may be being slightly unkind, but they are not very precise in their definition. The evidence that your committee, ACRE, produced to give guidance, which unfortunately came after the statutory instrument a few months ago, makes for very interesting reading. I will not read it all out—I assure you, Mr Stringer—but it is a very nuanced account of how you might go about coming to conclusions about what any of these things are, but it lacks precision and certainty. As legislators, we are trying to put into a Bill some fairly precise definitions. Am I wrong about that?

Professor Dunwell: No, it is a nuanced approach. It is nuanced because it takes account of the developing science. That is something that our committee does; part of the responsibility of all committees is horizon scanning. We want to see where techniques that we think of as traditional now are in a few years. There will be even better means of changing not just bits of DNA, but perhaps epigenetic effects, which is where you change not the sequence of the DNA but whether the DNA is expressed in a particular cell. That can also have an advantage.

What you see in these definitions is something that takes account of the advance in science. As I said, it takes account of the background genetic variation that exists. There were a couple of papers recently in Nature, for which something like 50 potato genomes were sequenced, and something like half a million quite big genetic variations were identified, in terms of the position of genes. It is against that background that this definition is pitched. That is where we have to take account of the variation. You cannot say now that one particular fragment of DNA is going to produce any particular risk.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you. I will leave it there for the moment.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Scottish and Welsh Governments have clearly stated their intention at present for precision bred organisms to be regulated as GMOs. How will ACRE’s advice on releases to the environment take account of the fact that the Welsh and Scottish Governments currently have a different approach from Westminster on this?

Professor Dunwell: Well, we realise that the jurisdiction is different. We have observers at ACRE meetings from the devolved authorities—not at every meeting, but they are clearly invited to attend, and some of them do. They can add their own input into the discussions, even though it will not apply within their jurisdiction. Then of course we have the fact that much of the good science goes on at the James Hutton Institute, the Roslin Institute and elsewhere. Those are world-class centres of science doing this type of research. I am sure that among those scientists there is an intrinsic frustration about the political environment that exists, but I am not going to comment on the policy at that level. ACRE as a committee had sessions in Edinburgh some three or four years ago, and we have spoken to the relevant committees directly. I was part of those discussions.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Is there a counterpart for ACRE in the EU Commission that you have regular dealings with? Obviously, the devolved Governments—certainly, the Scottish Government—are waiting to hear the outcome of the consultation that the EU is undertaking on this area. Can you tell us a little about how that is working currently?

Professor Dunwell: Under the EU system a lot of the discussion was part of EFSA. Obviously it is different now, but in those days it fed back information to ACRE. Even though we have kind of split, we still take account of and look at the EFSA reports on a regular basis. We keep up to date with the discussions in the whole area of science looking forward, because it is our responsibility to make sure that ACRE is not just an isolated UK silo. We have those reports and there still are UK people who sit on EFSA committees, even though we are not part of the official system. It has not disqualified the scientific input from the UK into the EU, which is an interesting element in its own right.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Yes, indeed. I am glad to hear we are not completely cut off. That is great. Getting back to genetically engineered crops, some say that when they are grown on a commercial scale, the risks of escape and contamination are greater. Is that something that you agree with?

Professor Dunwell: Well, it is the terminology “escape”. Perhaps it comes from releasing things into the environment, which has some implication to it, but there is no evidence that any existing genetically modified things that are on the market have any greater impact on the environment either through pollen dispersal or propagule dispersal than any existing variety has. Just because it is genetically modified or, in the future, gene edited, it will not intrinsically expand the danger of gene contamination, which is often an objection.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q So the fact that these are expanded and grown on a commercial level will not have—

Professor Dunwell: It is not relevant. There is no evidence for that.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Okay, thank you. Can you tell me a little bit about the old-style GMOs and whether all of them would be included in the definition of a precision bred organism?

Professor Dunwell: No, they would be excluded. You have taken a gene or genes, and you accumulate the numbers of genes. Some of the things that are being grown in the States now might have eight or 10 transgenes —separate genes—all inserted into the same variety. That is completely different from what we are discussing today, which is minor changes that are much more equivalent to forms of mutation that have existed for ever. The domestication of crops relied on mutations, but we did not know at the time what they were. Agriculture and what you eat today is a product of natural mutation.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Forgive me, but could you expand a little on what you said about the US and the insertion of seven different—sorry, I am not a scientist.

Professor Dunwell: There are lots of maize varieties that have been proposed and are grown commercially in the States over large areas. Initially, 20 or so years ago, they just had one or two genes, which were to do with insect resistance or herbicide tolerance, but over time the numbers of genes have been pyramided together, either by introducing them all at once or by crossing together a transgenic plant that has one insert and one that has two, so there are varieties now with six, eight or 10 different genes from different sources in one commercial product.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q So that has developed over that 20-year period.

Professor Dunwell: Yes, and it has been done by—

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. May I just say that there are a number of people who wish to speak? If there is time at the end, I will come back to you, Deidre. I call Andrew Bowie.

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, Mr Stringer, and thank you, Professor Dunwell, for coming today. To follow Ms Brock’s question, ACRE’s advice is the same across the United Kingdom, no matter which Administration you are speaking to, and your advice is that this is safe and is a sensible way to proceed?

Professor Dunwell: Yes. The science is clearly not different. A plant grown in England or Wales or Ireland or wherever is no different. But there are differences in jurisdiction. Where you have devolved authorities, that element of allowing or not allowing cultivation is a devolved issued.

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, and there is a political choice. Thank you.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Professor Dunwell, on gene editing, why, as a scientist, do you believe that the precautionary principle has been resolved and seen through to its conclusion and therefore we can now move forward? I am thinking particularly in reference to some of the information that was provided on the unintended introduction of DNA into various species.

Professor Dunwell: We could debate the precautionary principle for a long time.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But you are obviously happy that it has been resolved.

Professor Dunwell: Yes, but the discussions and the recommendations we have had are proportionate to the scientific debates that ACRE takes part in. Under the traditional remit, our major remit is to advise on potential risks of GM to human health and the environment. That is the core of our debate. At the same time, we have to do that in this area of moving scientific expertise. We continually adjust that, but those are the core features in what we are tasked to do. Clearly, more tasks might come out of the Bill. In that area, we have for years had flexibility about elements of those core principles. Yes, we are satisfied that the precautionary principle is not an issue.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you for your time, Professor Dunwell. I am going to cough up that I have a biology undergraduate degree. Listening to some of the questions from Opposition Members, it strikes me that you are in quite an invidious position. You have to describe the messy complexity that is biology—how we evolve and how bits of DNA exist almost in their own right, and that it is humans that say that something is a species or a plant, and so on. We have to try to describe that and codify it into law in a way that allows people to have confidence that they are safe, but also allows for opportunities for scientific innovation, using fewer resources and so on.

This might not be a fair question, but has science ever got to the point where it could effectively give us a legal definition that we could use to erase some of the confusion on the Opposition Front Bench, or is biology itself too complicated?

Professor Dunwell: Biology is not physics—you cannot measure every charge of every atom. The appearance of any plant depends on not just the genes that are in it, but where you grow it.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On what gets switched on and what does not.

Professor Dunwell: Yes. The so-called genotype-environment interaction is what determines how big the weeds in your garden grow. It depends on whether they are watered, whether they have fertiliser, whether they get mildew on them and so on. The plant itself is a consequence of that interaction.

As you say, that is an extraordinarily difficult thing to put down in words to be subject to legal enforcement. I am not a lawyer; I admire the people who put our advice into this Bill. There may be bits that people can tweak, but it is the job of the lawyer to try to compose something that fits legal standards but is also compatible with the kinds of—

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But would you say that a lawyer may look at a definition and say it is vague because the very nature of biology is vague? Is that fair? I do not want to put words in your mouth.

Professor Dunwell: I have not spoken to the drafting lawyers, but I imagine they have struggled at times with trying to pin down something that is, as you say, flexible and messy. Biology is something that perhaps does not always fit or meet strict definitions.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But is entirely natural.

Professor Dunwell: Yes.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I want to go back to the idea of environmental release, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith talked about. To my mind, that implies something that would not have been there as part of nature. You are releasing something into the environment—a transgenic animal; a plant that has genes from different species in it that would not be there in nature. Is there anything that would come under that definition of “release” that the Bill allows?

Professor Dunwell: Taking one step back, any form of agriculture and any form of domestication and multiplication of a crop in the last 10,000 years has been to put something into the environment that was not there. In the case of maize 10,000 years ago, someone somewhere in Mexico found a unique plant with characteristics that they had never seen before, and he or she—that very bright individual—said, “This has got attributes that I can see are good and I want to keep.” That was the beginning of the agricultural system.

Katherine Fletcher Portrait Katherine Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

And she—let us make it a she—almost environmentally released it into a field.

Professor Dunwell: Yes. That is the context, and I think it is important just generally that people—well, that is me producing a sermon. That is the context in which we are now working.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I am interested in the environmental release side. Your advice to DEFRA was that “different parameters” should be applied to the environmental release of gene editing micro-organisms because of the increased risk of gene flow. Can you explain that point about gene flow? Does that mean that micro-organisms are outside the remit of the Bill?

Professor Dunwell: That is a whole other area. Science in this area has not been applied in the same way to a micro-organism. Obviously, it has been applied to animals. You talked before about asking the question about gene edited animals. One of the things I should add before I get to the other question is that the best example of that on the market at the moment is gene edited fish in Japan. There are two varieties of fish whose growth rate has been modified through gene editing, which have been on the market—I do not know whether successfully commercially, but they are one of the prime examples of that.

On micro-organisms, we hope at the next ACRE meeting—we have not had an in-person meeting since covid started—to start to explore the applications in the microbiology area. We have invited people along from outside, as we do quite regularly, for consciousness raising at a scientific level, to get the best experts to say where they see this type of technology going. Microbiology at the moment is not specifically described in here. It will develop over time because there is an increasing interest in applying different microbes—often ones that have been selected, because the soil is full of tens of thousands of microbes, and some of them are good and some are bad. Many companies now have huge collections of hundreds of thousands of microbes that they go through to try to pick ones that may have an antagonistic effect on other microbes, so they can be applied as inoculants into the soil to improve soil health.

All that is really admirable and exciting stuff. It depends, again, on our ability to identify, extract and sequence genetic information. I went to a meeting probably 20 years ago in Paris, when somebody for the first time said that their PhD student, having spent three years, had got the sequence of one bacterium. He was so proud of that student. Now, you can probably do hundreds in a day. The rate of change is orders of magnitude just in 20 years. It is in what grows out of that and how we develop the regulatory boundaries that the challenges lie.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you very much; that is very helpful.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

That brings to a conclusion this morning’s session. Professor Dunwell, thank you for your time and evidence.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Jo Churchill.)

11:24
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill (Second sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Esther McVey, Graham Stringer
Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
† Brock, Deidre (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
† Churchill, Jo (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
† Clarke-Smith, Brendan (Bassetlaw) (Con)
† Duguid, David (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
Fletcher, Katherine (South Ribble) (Con)
† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)
† Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
† Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)
† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)
Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
† Jones, Ruth (Newport West) (Lab)
† Lewis, Clive (Norwich South) (Lab)
† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)
Huw Yardley, Abi Samuels, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Witnesses
Professor Robin Lovell-Badge CBE FRS FMedSci, Principal Group Leader and Head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, Royal Society
Alessandro Coatti, MRSB, Senior Science Policy Officer, Royal Society of Biology
William Angus, Owner, Angus Wheat Consultants Ltd
Professor Johnathan Napier, Research Group Leader, Rothamsted Research
Professor Nigel Halford, Crop Scientist, Rothamsted Research
Roger Kerr, Chief Executive, Organic Farmers & Growers
Steven Jacobs, Business Development Manager, Organic Farmers & Growers
Joanna Lewis, Policy and Strategy Director, Soil Association
Christopher Atkinson, Head of Standards, Soil Association
Dr Richard Harrison, Director of Cambridge Crop Research and member of the BBSRC Agri-food Strategic Advisory Panel, NIAB
Professor Giles Oldroyd, Professor of Crop Science, Cambridge Crop Science Centre
Sam Brooke, Chief Executive, British Society of Plant Breeders
Dr Alan Tinch, Vice President of Genetics, The Center for Aquaculture Technologies
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 28 June 2022
(Afternoon)
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
14:00
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

The Committee agreed this morning not to meet in private to discuss the lines of questioning but to go straight to the questioning, starting with the Minister, then the shadow Minister and other Members. Are we happy to proceed with that? Okay. We can bring in our panel of witnesses.

Examination of Witnesses

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge and Alessandro Coatti gave evidence.

14:00
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Q63 We welcome Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, the principal group leader and head of the laboratory of stem cell biology and developmental genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, Royal Society; and Alessandro Coatti, the senior science policy officer at the Royal Society of Biology. Professor Lovell-Badge, would you like to start with a few words?

Professor Lovell-Badge: I should say that dealing with plants and animals is not my day job—I work at an institute that is better known for medical research—but I do know an awful lot about genome editing methods and genetically modified organism techniques. I chair the Royal Society’s genetic technologies group, in which we discuss plants, animals and humans in this context. I helped to develop the Royal Society’s submission to the whole process at various stages.

I guess the main point that the Royal Society has been trying to make is that we are a little uncomfortable with having yet more regulations based on techniques rather than outcomes. For us, it would make much more sense to focus on the outcome—the purpose of what you are doing—rather than on the method you are using, partly because scientific methods evolve so rapidly that it is hard to keep track. When reading the first part of the Bill, which includes the definitions, I struggle in some places to understand exactly how certain techniques would fit into it. That is one issue.

If the argument is that genome-edited plants and animals are essentially the same as those that could be bred by traditional methods, yes, that certainly can be the case, but it is not always the case. To give one simple example, if you have two genes right next to each other in the genome, and they both need to be altered to have the trait that you are after—that is possible in normal circumstances—you can do that with genome editing, because you can target both genes at the same time. To do that by conventional, traditional breeding methods may be impossible, however, and it would certainly take an awfully long time to ever get both changes together in the genome. When two genes are next to one another, it is very hard to separate them in normal breeding processes.

There are all these complications that I envisage because that is what I do—I think about the techniques all the time. If your approach is based on outcomes, it is easier to justify, “I’m doing this; the outcome is this.” You can also judge what effect your change has on other things like farming practices, environment and so on. This is a little bit narrower, I think, in that respect.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Alessandro, please introduce yourself to the Committee, and then you will have questions from members of the Committee.

Alessandro Coatti: With pleasure. Thank you for having me today. I am one of the science policy officers at the RSB. I am biologist by training, and particularly a molecular and cellular biologist. At the society, I provide support to our animal sciences group. I look a lot at policy and research developments in the animal science field, so less so in the plant sciences, which are very important for the Bill. I have been involved, however, in writing our response to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation on the future regulations in genetic technologies, and that is why I am here today.

I agree with Robin Lovell-Badge’s statement and with the approach that the RS takes. The RSB has also argued that it would be better to have regulations based on looking at the traits and products that you would develop using the technologies, and to monitor the impact in risk assessments of the outcomes, or the impact of the organisms. However, in our response we envisioned a bit of what is happening with the Bill, because there is a need to enable development and innovation on a faster timescale, in the sense that the United Kingdom has inherited the EU regulations that have a process-based trigger. They are designed to list a lot of technologies that are “modern” biotechnologies and not block their use, but make it subject to additional risk assessments simply because the technologies were new 30 years ago. They pulled out some of those techniques to create exemptions, to allow the use of mutagenesis in plant breeding in the past few decades.

Basically, we inherited that, so in a way I see what the Bill is trying to do: to define a new category of exempted organisms from that GMO framework that would allow research and innovation to progress faster in this country at this stage. However, this should not be the end of the story. There are good things in the Bill, but in order for the technologies to be properly regulated in the future, a move towards a truly trait and product-based regulation, which looks at the outcome, is really important.

I also commend the report of the Regulatory Horizons Council on regulations in genetic technologies. They consulted us and many other stakeholders, and they have provided a view on how the evolution of regulation in the UK could proceed.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. We will open questions with the Minister.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jo Churchill)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you and welcome to Professor Lovell-Badge and Mr Coatti. I believe, Professor, that you are at the Crick for your day job.

Professor Lovell-Badge: I am, yes.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would like to take a little from the narrative that you have given us, and from something that you stated in your returns to the consultation. Thank you for saying that the Bill has been consulted on widely; we are trying to get it right, so any advice would be gratefully received. You stated:

“If appropriately managed, precision breeding offers a route to achieving many potential and much-need benefits to society.”

That rather articulates your argument that it is outcomes-based. With that in mind, you stated that you support the advice of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment that precision breeding poses no greater risk than traditional breeding methods. Can you explain why, and can you refer to whether you think the current regulatory framework has held up? I think that was what you were saying in the narrative about research and development. Where would you go with that regulatory framework in order to optimise the R&D so that we can evolve into being outcomes-based, both in environmental and human health terms?

Professor Lovell-Badge: Right. There is a lot there.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is a lot there, but there was a lot in your opening remarks to try to encapsulate.

Professor Lovell-Badge: The first question was about risk, I believe. Generally, on the risk of a random mutation versus a genome-edited one, you are actually better off with a genome-edited one because you know what you are doing. Of course, there can be some examples where you might not know exactly what is happening. There is very little mention of human health in here and so there is concern about zoonosis, where an animal virus can jump to humans, for example. You could, in theory, make what you think is a fairly simple change to give a trait that you want, but inadvertently you allow an animal virus to jump to humans. That needs to be looked at, in terms of risk. Exactly the same thing can happen with traditional breeding, but I imagine it is not generally looked at. That is a risk.

Alessandro Coatti: The case that Robin used before is quite important, where you think about adding multiple changes to genes in the same organism. The Bill covers plants and animals, but it does not cover micro-organisms, which are an interesting aspect that we can discuss later. You also really have to think about the fact that the dynamics of the genomic changes in different organisms are different, just like the way they reproduce is different. The type of gene flow that you would see in plants is different from the one you would see in animals.

The case that Robin was discussing of adding multiple changes in neighbouring genes in an animal is harder, through traditional breeding, than it has been in plants. For example, you can mutagenise into this very big screening. You might get to that point faster in plants than in animals. Perhaps the fast pace where this technology now allows development is not, as you say, either a morally or a practically neutral question. It is interesting that the Government have decided to frame it as something that could have arisen through traditional breeding or spontaneously. There is a reason why that is. However, at some point, it becomes a bit stretched, because in traditional breeding it would take many generations, and it would be quite hard to do it in certain animals.

However, this is again talking about the techniques. When it comes to adding those two traits in neighbouring genes, you might end up actually making the life of the animal way better. That is why you look at the outcomes. By using genome editing, people have corrected genetic defects that have arisen traditionally in breeding, for example of cattle. There is this Japanese breed of cattle that has a genetic syndrome. With genome editing, they corrected it because it was due to a single gene. In fact, even if it were very unlikely that you might have done it with traditional breeding, it is a very valuable use and we should do that because it enhances the welfare and the health of the animal.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q That is sufficient, because everybody will want some time. I think I glean from what you have said that it would take many generations but it is still possible, particularly in plants. It therefore allows you to target derived beneficials, but this is caveated with the regulatory framework being appropriate.

Professor Lovell-Badge: The question would be: if someone made a plant or an animal where you have targeted two adjacent genes, would that be permitted or not under these rules? It is hard to think that it might be, because you could not simply do it by traditional methods. You might have to wait thousands of years and it would cost you a lot of money. That is the question.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Right—noted.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I start by thanking you and your colleagues for your excellent evidence, some of it submitted to the consultation. It has certainly informed a lot of our thinking, although it also raised a lot of questions. In your introductions, you restated what was essentially in the evidence, which is that there is a problematic set of definitions and this would not necessarily have been the way that you would have gone.

I want to explore something slightly different: the role of advisory bodies. You began to touch on that in your last answer. The Bill at the moment is very thin on what the advisory bodies are there to do. In some of your written evidence, both your organisations suggested that the different bodies should have some kind of remit to look at the wider public good. Could you say a little bit about that? I have been taken by the example of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, or some aspects of the work that it does.

Professor Lovell-Badge: I have been very much involved in the HFEA public engagement exercises. When you are considering a broad area, or potential uses and outcomes, it is really important to have proper public engagement, including democracy, dialogue, or however you want to refer to it, where you really get to understand what the public will think about a topic.

When it comes to assessing technical aspects, it will be challenging. It is fine to have a lay member on a panel, but I do not know whether consulting the public about really detailed, technical issues might be challenging. It depends on what the advisory committee’s role is and whether it is to look more broadly at potential uses and outcomes or to focus on the specific techniques that are being used.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Let me press you on that slightly. In terms of some of the animal welfare issues, it is pretty clear that some of the things that could be done could be designed to make animals more resistant to heat or more liable to be able to survive certain conditions. That does not seem to us a good use of this technology. It is not entirely clear to me on what grounds the advisory bodies would make decisions. If it is just left to a market-driven system, you could argue that, provided it produces a better return, that is good enough, but the ethical issues would be wider than that.

Professor Lovell-Badge: This is another point. I was a bit confused because there is quite a lot of emphasis in the Bill on animal welfare and how they would have a role to play in that. If you are doing an experiment with an animal, you have to have Home Office approval. Animal welfare is a top priority. Many of the things that you might want to do would already be weeded out at that stage. If you wanted to make an animal that felt no pain, for example, you might just about be able to get away with justifying that for research purposes, but certainly not for developing any product.

The regulations about welfare are already there. Sure, it is important to have some input into your advisory committee that says, “This has to be looked at. Have they thought about all the consequences of what they are doing?” Exactly how you would achieve that under the Bill, I am not certain.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q There is now a new player in town: the animal sentience committee, which is not established yet. How would you see the interplay with that, given what you have just said?

Professor Lovell-Badge: I know little about that.

Alessandro Coatti: It is an interesting new player, welcomed by many parties across the House. It looks like it will be an expert committee. Mostly the members will be people with relevant expertise in veterinary sciences, potentially neuroscience, so it would not be an arena for a public dialogue, but that is not to say that they cannot commission it and then take recommendations on board. In my view, they could play a role, but it would be hard. The new animal welfare committee that would overlook the authorisations in the Bill would look at a notifier that said, “We want to do this on an animal, but we do not foresee any health or welfare implications for it.” That committee would focus very much on the health and welfare of the single individual animal, but it is not clear to me whether it would consider higher-level questions such as, “What does it mean for the production of that livestock, the density, the husbandry and so on?”

Of course, the existing DEFRA Animal Welfare and Animal Sentience Committees could be brought in. You could say, “We have a new line of pigs that are resistant to this disease. On paper, it looks very good, because we made a very small, tailored change to a part of it, not a rough deletion of an entire gene. The animals under research and development look fine in contained circumstances and they are well. Would you be happy for us to license them to go on to a breeding trial to expand the number of animals from the 20 in the research study to 200, and to map whether there are any health and welfare impacts on a bigger number of animals?” Those committees could advise the new animal welfare committee on that matter.

Following on from that, the bigger question is: “What do we want for UK farming, agriculture and so on?” That is one of those pillar questions that bigger Government policy, not the Bill, will resolve.

Professor Lovell-Badge: My colleague makes a very good point. If you take things out into the field, the conditions are different from lab conditions in which you originally generated the animals. If you introduce another breeding programme, or a different genetic background, the consequences of what you have done could change. It is the same with traditional breeding, but on all those things, there needs to be long-term feedback. As you would have with humans in clinical trials, you get a phase 3 clinical trial in which you get a lot of people feeding back information—much more than in a phase 2 trial—and then there is always post-market reporting whereby any adverse effects are notified over the years.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q That is a really important point. I may be wrong, but I do not see anything in the Bill enabling that.

Professor Lovell-Badge: Nor do I.

Alessandro Coatti: Under clause 11, when a marketing notice is given in relation to a precision bred animal, the Secretary of State reserves the right to get information from the notifier, over a specified period of time, about the health and welfare of the animal, so that is already covered in the Bill.

Professor Lovell-Badge: But how you do that is not clear.

Alessandro Coatti: No, and a lot will depend on very good guidance from DEFRA or ACRE about how to do that. But that power is in the Bill, at least.

Again, the need for post-marketing monitoring comes down to the trade that you are introducing, not whether you use a technique. It will be important for whoever advises the Secretary of State to be able to tell them, “This change warrants longer-term monitoring, but this other one does not, because we have seen it in the species over many years. This is just a better way of doing it, and it will not dramatically alter what we already know about the trait.”

Professor Lovell-Badge: Remember, many genes have effects in multiple tissues, so you may be focused on changing something—modifying CCR5 for HIV resistance, for example—but not realise that it may also be active and play some role in the brain. That is a clear example of where you may have an issue.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Regulatory Policy Committee brought out a report just a few days ago that concludes that the Government have not made a convincing business case for the deregulation of precision bred organisms in the food system, and it suggests that more narrative around

“competition, innovation, consumer and environmental impacts”

should be included in the Bill. Would you agree that there is insufficient detail on that in the Bill currently?

Professor Lovell-Badge: I think I would agree it is insufficient. You have to factor in everything: the environment, farming practice—how whatever you are doing, whether it is with plant or animal, is going to fit in with or change farming practices. I think there needs to be a lot more thought about those issues.

Alessandro Coatti: I am not entirely sure I agree. Could you tell me again—those people said that the Government have not made a case for deregulation of these organisms?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Yes, it is insufficient currently. They feel that there is a need for wider discussion of the impacts on the environment—woven throughout the Bill, I think—than currently. I wonder what kind of environmental impacts you would like to see included.

Professor Lovell-Badge: It depends. If you are saying it is the same as traditional breeding, then yes, it is probably the same, often, or very similar.

Alessandro Coatti: The case for deregulation—let us put it that way—is that basically, with these technologies, you can achieve changes in the genome that are potentially done already in traditional breeding. You are just doing it in a more energy and resource-efficient way—faster, etc. So there is definitely a policy case for this Bill, because research and innovation in this country can really provide those beneficial traits in plants and animals that we desperately need at the moment.

On the question whether this Bill captures all the potential impacts on the environment, for example, from a release of one of these organisms, you would think that the organisms that are passed through this Bill will not particularly need extra monitoring relative to the traditionally bred counterpart, if you see what I mean.

However, there could be boundaries or grey areas where a change could have arisen traditionally but it is not so common. Therefore, the committee should be able to trigger an additional risk assessment; and in my view, it looks like it can. Now, the question is this. On the environmental risk assessment, there is not much detail in the Bill—that is true—so it will be down to ACRE to provide more detailed guidance and analysis on how it would want the environmental risk assessment to be done.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q If I may, I will ask one very quick question—well, it will not be that quick, actually. The answer will probably be quite long. I want to ask about the difference in regulatory regimes, potentially, between the UK and the EU. No matter how long that might be—we do not know; obviously, the EU will come back after its consultation next year. I just wonder what you think the impact might be, and whether in your view that will affect trade and potentially investment in the UK. Is that a tricky one?

Professor Lovell-Badge: That is a hard one. The EU will have to change—that is my view—because it is going to be way behind other countries, too. We are not talking just about the UK and the EU; we are also talking about the US, Canada, Argentina and other countries. If the whole regulation about genetically modified organisms and genome editing is not made more compatible with actually getting on and doing stuff that is useful, the EU will suffer, because it will ultimately—

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But the impact here, in the UK, on trade? Obviously, it is the UK’s largest trading partner, so if it continues to be—

Professor Lovell-Badge: I can imagine there could be an impact. It is hard for me to tell what that might be. It is not my area of expertise at all.

Alessandro Coatti: Yes, I would not be able to discuss in detail how that might be. You probably need to have experts on it. But I am aware that the Food Standards Agency has produced a report on these changes in regulations and this evolution across the globe, and there is definitely a case for the UK to try—we say we would like the UK to lead the way, as it has done with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. The UK could still lead the way by making legislation—regulation—that other countries would copy, but there is already a lot out there, so it has to harmonise with the regulations in other countries, such as Japan and Canada. It seems like the Bill is going one step in that direction. In terms of the relationship with the EU, as the closest economic partner and one of the biggest markets that the UK trades with, it is important for the UK, not necessarily to slow down excessively, but to maintain dialogue with the EU Commission while it reviews. The UK in the past has created legislation that the EU has then taken on. For example, when it comes to animals and research, the UK has led the way on the protections—eventually the EU adopted some of those elements. Even though the EU is not politically obliged to anymore, it could still value that.

Professor Lovell-Badge: You may be about to get to labelling. I think the registry is a good idea, because if someone wants to import something from the UK, at least it is then obvious that it could have been genome edited—otherwise they might not know.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have already established that the Bill covers plants and animals, but not micro-organisms. Given that there were suggestions from DEFRA that animals would be considered later down the line, I wondered if you had any thoughts on the fact that they are now included in this Bill.

Alessandro Coatti: In our response we commented mainly on plants and animals, while making some reference to other uses. There are already leading labs in the UK looking at genome-edited livestock species, for example, and how doing genome editing in those species could be beneficial on many levels. I am quite sympathetic to the fact that animals are included in the Bill, even though there is less of a history of genome editing, and genetic modification, in animals than there is in plants.

It seems to me that more safeguards are added here for animals than for plants. There is animal health and welfare assessment as part of the Bill. With animals, it seems clear to me—but Robin can correct me—that genome editing can be used quite safely. We are talking about the techniques and the process, not the outcomes and the traits. If you look at the techniques with the animals, with a number of species you can be pretty sure that you are making the right change in the genome that you wanted and that you are not adding unwanted changes anywhere else. We can say that there are not many additional risks when it comes to technique, relative to traditional breeding. However, that still has to be caveated a bit.

Professor Lovell-Badge: Some of the methods of genome editing are now so efficient and precise that I do not think it is a great concern, but you always have to check. There are good ways of checking what you have done and what you have got. I would not be that concerned. You would have to check the original animal that has been modified, but once you get to subsequent generations, you will be pretty certain of exactly what you have, and of anything wrong. The methods are being used in humans for somatic genome editing. We know a lot about them and how accurate and safe they can be.

Alessandro Coatti: We pointed out two things in relation to the methodological aspects. Robin mentioned one aspect before: how the gene relates to the phenotype. You change something and then you have a trait change in the animal. Some genes have functions in different organs and tissues, so you want to ensure that by doing something you are not messing up something else. That can be done and has to be done as part of the Bill—you should make sure that it will be done.

The other question is about the reproductive techniques you sometimes use to work on the embryos. Those can also have health and welfare implications for the animals, but it should all come down to an expert committee reviewing the application for the genome edited animals, which could say, “Okay, it looks like they checked everything they should have on the technique.”

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. Sorry to interrupt, but that is the end of the time allocated for this panel. I want to thank the panel very much for coming today to give evidence.

Examination of Witnesses

William Angus, Professor Johnathan Napier and Professor Nigel Halford gave evidence.

14:35
None Portrait The Chair
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We will now hear oral evidence from William Angus, owner of Angus Wheat Consultants Ltd, who will join us via Zoom, Professor Johnathan Napier, research group leader, and Professor Nigel Halford, who is a crop scientist. Both are from Rothamsted Research and are with us in person. Could you introduce yourselves for the record? I will go first to William Angus.

William Angus: My name is Bill Angus—christened William, but anyway. I am a wheat breeder, and my job is to breed new varieties of wheat. I have been doing it for quite a long time. I started in the public sector at the Plant Breeding Institute, and then moved to the private sector with Nickerson. I started my own wheat breeding and oat activities in 2016, which has resulted in us being the largest privately owned wheat and oat breeder in the UK. That is not too hard, because the agricultural landscape is dominated by multinationals. I am also vice-chairman of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre board of trustees in Mexico. This is the largest publicly funded wheat programme on the planet, breeding for 200 million hectares. To put that into context, that is 100 times the size of the UK. Their focus is primarily on the developing world.

Professor Napier: Hello. My name is Johnathan Napier. I am a project leader at Rothamsted Research. I am a plant biotechnologist. I have a degree—PhD and DSc—from the University of Nottingham. Rothamsted is a publicly funded research institute. I am passionate about using basic research for public good and translation. I am very keen to see the research move beyond just discovery. I ran the first gene edited field trials in the UK in 2018. I have run GM field trials at Rothamsted since 2011 or 2012, and I am looking forward to talking with you.

Professor Halford: I am Nigel Halford. I am also at Rothamsted Research. I have been there a long time—all through the biotech period. In fact, I was involved in GM wheat trials in Bristol in the 1990s. Like Johnathan, I am very passionate about taking our research through to products that are actually going to help British farming, agriculture and consumers. I am currently running a gene edited wheat field trial at Rothamsted. We are looking at reducing the acrylamide content of wheat products, so it is a food safety target.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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Q Good afternoon Bill, Professor Halford and Professor Napier. I would like to declare for the record that Bill is a constituent of mine, but I think we have only met once, in a field—to my memory—looking at wheat. I will ask Bill one question and then move on to the professors.

From the point of view of small and medium-sized enterprises, do you think this Bill will help smaller players to have some access to market, or would you like to see this Bill enable smaller breeders, such as yourself, to have access to these technologies?

William Angus: That is a good question. I have worked for a large multinational company. I was interested to hear both Johnathan and Nigel talk passionately about public good—that is what I do. When I was at the PBI this was part of your culture and it became part of my culture when I was at Limagrain.

I love the entrepreneurial spirit that we have in the UK. We started off this, which may be considered by some to be a slight mission of madness, but I had the opportunity to do it. We started in my lounge, then we moved to the greenhouse and then the garage, and now we have built up quite a significant activity.

I am worried about perhaps an agenda that this could be dominated by large multinationals, although one of the joys of wheat-breeding globally over the last 100-plus years has been the freedom to exchange germplasm. As soon as we start putting constraints on that, as soon as we start having people talking about ownership of genes and ownership of genetic material, or licensing genes that are already in the public domain, it starts to fill me with a great sense of foreboding.

Also, being on the CIMMYT board, I am really concerned and very passionate about the smallholder farmers that we have around the world. It has changed my life being on CIMMYT, in that it opened my eyes to the fact that there are millions and millions of people in very dire circumstances. Many people do not realise that the vast majority of farmers in the world are women.

So, yes, I am concerned about that and I would like to see some mechanisms whereby the freedom that currently exists for small companies, or individuals, to start up is not diminished. Therefore, I hope that some protection will be put in place.

Johnathan and Nigel may agree or disagree, but what we have in the UK is that, if you go back 40 years ago, we had a publicly dominating plant-feeding activity in the PBI. We have a really mature situation now. Globally, we are probably the best, and I have seen a lot around the world, of having these public-private partnerships. These guys at Rothamsted, or the John Innes Centre, or whatever, cannot take it to the market and we have a wonderful relationship with them, in that they do the fundamental research and then we, as the plant breeders, translate it into the field. And I include the multinationals in that.

We have a very mature situation and we must make sure that, whatever comes out of this Bill, that relationship is not damaged in any way and continues.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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Q Lovely; thank you. Perhaps a question that you could think about is how gene editing, in your view and with your international experience, might help those developing countries.

However, I will direct my next question to both professors, in the hope that you both cover it to a degree. You have both expressed a passion, and have longevity about looking at this issue, and I think it was Professor Halford who said that he was involved in the GM trials in the ’90s. Can you please help us to understand how far we have come and say what benefits we should try to capture through this Bill in order to drive things forward?

Professor Halford: Any target you can think of for plant breeding—whether it is something that aids farmers, such as nitrogen-use efficiency or simplifying weed control, climate resilience, which is an urgent problem that we have to address in agriculture, or the kind of things that we are working on, benefits to consumers—gene editing can play a role in it. It is not sweeping anything else aside, but it certainly enables you to do some things that other methods in plant breeding do not allow you to do. That is what we are talking about.

Professor Napier: Nigel and I are veterans of the GM of the ’90s, the problems that emerged from that and the hiatus of seeing none of our research translated for a decade. Then, at Rothamsted, we restarted GM field trials in 2012, just because we realised that there was this urgent need to translate the research. The UK has a fantastic reputation for doing basic plant sciences, making lots of fantastic discoveries in labs, but that is no good to feed people or to solve the challenges of climate change and food security. You cannot eat promise; you really need a product.

The reason I am in agriculture is that it is the ultimate scalable solution: once you demonstrate that you can grow something in one field, you can grow it in a million fields. But until you have actually done it in the first field, you do not know whether the technology works. That is the exciting thing that has already changed in the regulation in the past few months—it is easier to do experimental gene edited field trials. Nigel and I are doing those at Rothamsted under the new regulations, and that is great, that is enabling. That is what we need.

We want to enable the technology to advance, which is not to say that we ignore the importance of safety and all those other things. On one level, it goes without saying that those are important, but it should not go without saying—you have to say that those are of paramount importance. What we want is enabling regulation. I am not totally sure I have answered your question, but it gives you the idea.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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Q That gives us a very clear picture: to be overly prescriptive might be as difficult, and the regulatory framework needs to be appropriate.

Professor Napier: That is exactly right. Even if you look at the situation in the US, which is imagined to be the most tolerant and enabling of regulatory environments for GM, for example, it still costs probably $10 million to deregulate a crop. That is an utter barrier to entry to any small or medium-sized enterprise. The reason why the market is dominated by the large corporations is that they are the only people who can afford to pay those costs. If the barrier to entry is lower, basically you make it much more open to the more entrepreneurial, smaller, nimbler but less deep-pocketed organisations.

Professor Halford: The GM revolution is now a generation old. It is a 20th-century technology. We see varieties in the Americas and Asia with multiple input traits, output traits, insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, high lysine with a cherry on the top. None of that is available here—absolutely nothing, not a single GM crop plant grown commercially in the UK. We have completely missed the boat on that one, and it is really important that we do not miss the next boat.

We will have to go some way to persuade plant breeding companies, biotechnology companies, that there is a market in the UK. Currently, I can tell you, nobody is thinking about developing a GM or GE commercial crop for the UK or Europe. We will have to have regulation in place that gives breeders confidence that when they get their product to market, they can actually sell it. If my wheat all pans out, it works really well and I hand it to breeders to incorporate into their breeding programmes, we are still talking probably five to 10 years before we could possibly see anything on the market. That is a lot of work and investment. So farmers need to be confident that, at the end of that, they have a market.

None Portrait The Chair
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I remind people that we have until 3.15 pm for this session. A couple of Members have caught my eye. I will start with Daniel Zeichner.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Q Thank you, Ms McVey. Bill, I was very taken with what you were saying about your concerns about the intellectual property rights associated with some of this issue. I got the sense that you do not feel that the Bill as it stands answers those questions. What would you like to see? What would give the protections that would reassure you on these issues?

William Angus: At the moment, what I would like to see is no change to the status quo. Let us take this as an example: company A produces a variety and he introduces a trait into that variety. In two years’ time, once that variety has been added to the UK national list, another breeder can use that trait. That is the freedom to operate. It is really important that that is sustained and that people are not locked out of new developments. What may happen—this is an area I feel quite uncomfortable with—is that we may start to see larger organisations move the goalposts in terms of trying to stop other breeders from using genetic resources that have been developed.

Now, I am quite happy—here, we develop our own genetic resources and we give those away freely, to anybody. If anybody on the Committee would like some wheat, I will send them some genetics, no problem at all. That is freedom to operate. That is really all that I would look for—that we do not change the current status so that people think that, somehow, a naturally developed product or a GE product is any different, and that there is still that freedom to operate.

Can I make one comment on Johnathan and Nigel’s remarks? I have sat on a number of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council committees. I chaired the horticulture and potato initiative and so on. I am not saying this because they are here, but the UK is absolutely blessed with the best public research on wheat around the world. They are absolutely right to make the point about the fact that this is not developed as well as it could be, primarily because the promotion system is based on paper publications. It is lovely to hear both of these guys talking about taking stuff to the market. That would be another comment that I would make. It is great to hear.

Going back to your question, let us be careful that there are mechanisms in place to protect this freedom of exchange of germplasm that happens not just in the UK but globally. It is really important that we do that. There have been steps in America to patent genes. We really must not go down that route. In my opinion, it will stifle innovation and it would put the control of our food supplies in the hands of large multinationals, which I would be very concerned about.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Q To be clear, this follows on from the notion that these could have occurred naturally. They should be treated in that way, rather than being put in a special category.

William Angus: Yes. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say it occurs naturally and then I am going to change it and now it is different. I agree.

It is very difficult when I come from the environment I do—my views tend to be slightly different from those who come from large multinational companies—but I think it is a really important point, that we protect innovation from big companies and so on, but that we also protect the right of individuals to start up their own businesses. The way I look on it is, you know, Richard Branson started Virgin Atlantic—he was allowed to do that. One man started with one aeroplane, and off he went; brilliant, great, good for him. It would be sad if people like that or companies such as easyJet were excluded from the market because someone said, “This is an aeroplane, and you’re not allowed to fly it.” I would like to reiterate that we need that protection in there.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Q Thank you, that’s helpful. May I turn to the two professors? On innovation in general, in essence, the argument is that innovation will happen because obstacles are being removed. Is that enough to foster the kind of innovation that you would hope to see, based on your passion and excitement for this technology?

Professor Napier: I think it was mentioned earlier that with innovation, it probably needs to be developed as a public-private partnership, which sort of implies that there needs to be a market pull. Using the term “market” can be slightly perturbing because, in reality, the drivers for what we want to see translated are much bigger than the economics. They are things like global climate change, food security and all the global pandemics associated with malnutrition and overconsumption. Those are the challenges enshrined in sustainable development goals and things like that. Those are the things that we should be occupying ourselves with. We need to use everything we can to try to fix those challenges. Rothamsted and other places like that—in fact, everybody—should be working towards those goals and overcoming those challenges.

Listening to what Bill said about IP, I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about IP because it is an area that I have to think about a lot. The beauty about the UK is that we have a really strong research use exemption, which allows us to operate in a way that is not encumbered, at least at the research level, by IP. We are in a really good place. I think the bigger barrier to innovation is what I have already mentioned: it is not IP but the cost of regulatory approval. That is why I am so worried that in new legislation, if we start building in layers of costs associated with more regulation, we are just replicating what we had previously under the EU regulation. I think that would be an enormous missed opportunity if we go down that road. That is my personal view.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q I want to go back to Mr Angus’s comments about ownership or the licensing of genes and his concern about that. How would you address that, as people involved in this area? What measures should be taken? Clearly, people are concerned about the patenting of crops.

Professor Napier: You cannot patent a gene. There was a case in the US that made it quite clear that you cannot hold a patent on a gene. That legal precedent is quite clear, from the famous case of Myriad. I am not too worried about that. In reality, it is analogous to what you see in the pharmaceutical sector and relates exactly to your point about understanding the drivers for innovation. You need to couple it with economics.

All these things are moving parts, which you need to make the whole thing work. To pull it forward, you need to have an economic case and some form of protecting your invention—patents are a good way of doing that. The example I always give is that my mobile phone probably has 2,000 patents-worth of components in. Nobody gets upset about that. It is about understanding how you can best use this technology. I also do not want to sound like some sort of gung-ho free marketeer, because I am absolutely not. I work in a Government-supported institute. I do not work in the private sector. I probably want the best of both worlds.

Professor Halford: As public sector scientists, at times in our careers we have been told we should be patenting everything, and at times in our careers we have said, “Well, it's unethical to be patenting this stuff.” I think we have a pretty robust patents system. You cannot patent discoveries of genes; you have to patent an invention. That seems to have worked for mobile phones and it works with pharmaceuticals, many of which are biologicals. I do not see why it cannot work in crop high technology.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Q Professor Halford, you mentioned that you have the largest gene edited wheat crop trial in Europe—is that right? Could you talk us through what will happen if this Bill becomes an Act? What steps will you go through to get the product to market, and where will your involvement end? I would find some clarity on this really helpful.

Professor Halford: We have used CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out a gene that makes an amino acid called asparagine, which gets converted to acrylamide. That is our target.