Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I rise more to inquire than to support particular amendments. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for tabling his amendments. I imagine that they are probing amendments, and that is the spirit in which I wish to address them. I declare that I am an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association, and I am grateful to it for the briefing that it has given today.

The first question I put to the Minister for my better understanding is what the difference is between cloning an animal and gene-editing an animal or animal product. I did not follow it that closely, but I was very proud that my alma mater, Edinburgh University, was the first university in the world, I understand, to clone an animal—Dolly the sheep. However, it was not entirely successful as I understand she had a very short life. Obviously, one has to ask whether the reason for her curtailed life was that she had been cloned and not produced in a normal way.

The BVA brief that I have received today states:

“Prioritisation of animal health and welfare is essential, as is the use of adequate product labelling to enable transparency and consumer choice”—

I know we will come to those amendments in a different group. In particular, the BVA states, and I support this:

“Breeding and genetic modification must be used in an ethically responsible way to improve animal health and welfare, increase efficiency, and support sustainable agriculture.”

It goes on:

“The Bill is misleading and proposing deregulation based on the incorrect premise that ‘traditional breeding’ results in characteristics which can be assumed ‘safe’, and therefore gene-edited organisms which produce the same outcome are also ‘safe’. This ignores the potential for mutations.”

The Bill has “precision breeding” in its title, but this group of amendments goes to the fact that it can never be precise, because we can never be sure of the consequences, so perhaps it should be called the “imprecise breeding” Bill.

The reason that I am tempted to support a number of amendments in this group, particularly Amendment, 1 is the very fact that it states that,

“‘directed bred organism’” means a directed bred plant or a directed bred animal.”

It is important to understand in what way that plant or animal has been directed and that there is scope for an imprecise outcome, an unexpected outcome. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for whom I am full of awe and praise, with his widespread knowledge and, even more, his experience, said, we could be creating something of which we cannot control the outcome. I am not saying that I stand in the way of that, but I would like better to understand what it is.

There was a news story last night about a little girl whose cancer had not been cured until they came up with a gene-editing formula. They edited genes and implanted them in her, and it looks as though she may now have a cure. However, we are at the very early stage of these procedures, as I understand it, and I believe that there is some sympathy still for the view that the European Union took, which is widely criticised in this House and the other place. Probably the reason that the European Union and its institutions overreacted was the widespread fear among consumers. I think that fear is still there. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has tabled a number of amendments which we will deal with in another group and with which I have a degree of sympathy. As I said at Second Reading, if this procedure, this form of breeding is so good, why can we not be told about it on labelling? Why should consumers have the barrier of having to go to a register? With those few remarks, I support the thinking behind some of the amendments in this group.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for not being present at Second Reading. I had a hospital appointment and, having waited some time for it, did not want to postpone it for what could have been another three months. I did, however, watch the debate on Parliament TV and will make a short contribution.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, made a very valuable and knowledgeable contribution in seeking clarification on the definitions within the Bill. It is important that we all understand completely what the Government mean by the various terms and what the outcomes will be, especially if there are likely to be unintended consequences. It is the role of this Chamber to ensure that there are no unintended consequences or mutations in the future, and that the quality of life for any animal so produced needs to be good. That was not the case with Dolly the sheep. It is important that the phrases used in the Bill are easily understood by those who will affected by its implementation. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, the results of previous debates on GMOs received a bad press, which did the science no favours at all.

In Amendment 86, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, also seeks clarification. She wishes the Title of the Bill to be changed so that the somewhat anodyne phrase “Precision Breeding” would be replaced by “Genome Editing”. I have sympathy with this proposed alteration, as I believe that phrase is more accurate and more likely to be easily understood by the public than “Precision Breeding”. The Bill is, after all, intended to modify and edit the genome of plants in a shorter timeframe than would normally happen. Being married to an aeronautical engineer, for me, and possibly others, a phrase such as “precision engineering” conjures up an entirely different picture than the thrust and purpose that the Bill has. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this short group of amendments, which sets the tone for the rest of our debate today.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Winston for introducing these amendments. This group explores why “genome editing” has been changed to “Precision Breeding” in the Title of the Bill and throughout it, when, as my noble friend pointed out, it has no scientific meaning. As he said, there is no such thing as precision in biology. He clearly, and in some detail, expressed his concerns about the implications of the Bill. As he also said, as yet there has been no detailed debate during the Bill’s passage around the science. I am sure that we will have that debate in your Lordships’ House, as there are some very eminent people here who know far more about the science than I could ever hope to learn.

My noble friend’s amendments quite rightly probe the Government’s thinking around the terminology. Importantly, he raised the fact that what we need as an outcome of the Bill is the breeding of plants and animals that are free of risk. Again, he talked about the implications of hereditary traits and the fact that the Bill’s focus is on releasing organisms. We need to think much more about how that is happening, and what the implications are as we put the Bill through into becoming an Act.

We know that in the Bill and during the debates—

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support Amendment 31. First, for the purposes of this Committee, I declare my interests: I am still involved in a family farming enterprise, growing crops and rearing livestock; I chair the board of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology; and I am the president of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers.

Amendment 31 is similar to the two amendments that I put down in a later group on animal welfare, stressing the importance of following new strains of wheat, grass and maize—in my case, cows, pigs, sheep and dogs—down through many generations on to the farm, even into the home. As has already been said, the point is that we need to watch for the good effects, hopefully, but we must also look out for the possible unintended consequences that might arise. To be honest, I would hope that this already happens because, obviously, unintended consequences were even more likely to happen in the past under the random mutations of traditional breeding; if not, such measures should certainly be introduced now. It would be good to be reassured of that by the Minister.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, gave a very good introduction to these two amendments. Several of the speakers at Second Reading referred to the benefits of gene editing to enable crops to be hardier with regard to resisting drought and flood and the ability to repel insects. It is obvious to all that climate change is having a dramatic effect on crops; in many cases, it is devastating. Unlike the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Krebs, my technical knowledge on gene editing is woefully inadequate. However, I will do my best.

Not only in England but in other countries as well, farmers are finding their crops destroyed by the forces of nature, which they are powerless to combat. In many cases, this has led to a shortage of crops to feed indigenous populations, resulting in food loss and, in some instances, the starvation of large numbers of populations. Attempting to ensure that crops are more resilient is important. However, at the same time, it is essential that the natural cycle of our wild plants is protected. Both the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act focused on the loss of biodiversity in our natural habitats in fields and hedgerows. The environmental land management schemes are intended to help biodiversity recover so that natural species of plants, birds and small animals recover to a sustainable level. However, if the gene editing of crops and plants affects ecosystems to such an extent that it alters their natural cycle, this will undoubtedly have an effect on wild flowers, which in turn will affect birds and small mammals.

This comes down to the precautionary principle and ensuring that action taken as a result of this Bill is closely monitored and does more good than harm. When moving forward with technology, which although tested is likely to move more quickly than traditional methods in the past, the prevention principle should also form a part of the equation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, spoke eloquently at Second Reading of the last time gene editing was debated and how the debate got bogged down to such an extent that it had to be abandoned. It is not our intention on these Benches to see this happen a second time. It is time to move on, but we are looking for safeguards for the future. Without the necessary safeguards, unintended consequences could be hard to reverse. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made very powerful points in their arguments, with which I agree. I hope the Minister will be able to give the reassurances which are sought around the workings of the advisory committee.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for not speaking at the Second Reading of this Bill; I was not on the team at that point.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch for tabling the two amendments in this group, which we understand to be probing amendments. As my noble friend said about Amendment 2, she is challenging how far technology is applied. Do we want to go beyond certain sectors? How far beyond agriculture do we want to go? Amendment 31 is about the wider environmental concerns and reporting on the potential disruption to the farming ecosystem, which could have adverse effects on other plants.

As several speakers noted at Second Reading, the use of gene-editing technologies in plants is far less contentious than in animals. There is not only a much larger body of evidence from research institutions, following years of trials, but that evidence points to the risks being substantially lower. However, even if the risks are lower and potentially easier to mitigate, we must remain mindful of them. Regardless of whether these technologies are used for plant or animal life, we are dealing with processes that accelerate natural events and which may have—we have already heard this phrase—unintended consequences. Indeed, I have heard that phrase in your Lordships’ House over and again during the process of many Bills this Session. It seems to point to an uneasiness with what is being proposed and a lack of thinking things through during the process of legislation.

One imagines that the bulk of releases and marketing authorisations under this legislation will relate to agricultural products. If we can produce certain crops in a more efficient manner, or make them less susceptible to increasingly frequent extreme weather events, that could be a good thing. But we must remember that agricultural crops live alongside wild plants—grasses, wildflowers, trees and hedgerows—all of which have their own important roles in the natural world and in the careful and precious ecosystem. These amendments allow us to consider how new gene-edited varieties of crops will live alongside and interact with other types of plant life

It may be that there is a place for these technologies beyond agriculture, such as making certain tree species less susceptible to disease. I remember well, as leader of Newport City Council, when we had to deal with the significant problem of ash dieback. Large areas of ash trees were felled, with a significant impact on local wooded areas. We had a policy of planting two trees for every tree cut down on land we were responsible for, so felled ash trees were replaced with other suitable trees. If technology could help prevent such drastic measures, that can only be a positive thing.

Regardless of the precise applications of the technologies, it is not clear that the Bill as drafted takes full account of the potential consequences of new plant varieties once they are released. The Government’s environmental land management schemes and other initiatives are trying to halt the steady decline in our biodiversity which has been caused in part by the loss of meadows and hedges and the habitats they sustain. These efforts are hugely important, and there is a role for gene-edited plant varieties as we seek to achieve that goal. However, concerns have been raised by experts in this Committee that seemingly minor changes to agricultural, forestry and other land management practices arising from the use of new plant varieties could inadvertently have significant impacts on soil quality and wildlife in the medium to long term. These amendments provide the Government with an opportunity to address these concerns and outline how they will ensure that this new regime fits into efforts to protect and enhance our natural environment. I urge the adoption of them by the Government.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 74 in this group. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for crediting me with knowledge of international law on IP, but in fact I am not very well informed on that. I will raise some questions that were put to me by the Royal Society, which suggested an amendment of this nature. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and my noble friend Lord Patel for putting their names to the amendment. My noble friend Lord Patel sends his apologies; he is stranded in Scotland, as are many other noble Lords, I suspect.

My amendment merely asks the Government to review and publish guidance on the implications of the Bill for the law of intellectual property. This is important because all those involved in the development and marketing of precision-bred organisms need to know where they stand. Are these organisms to be treated, from the point of view of IP, like transgenic organisms or like conventionally bred organisms? GMOs currently enjoy greater intellectual property protection than new plant and animal varieties produced using other breeding technologies, which is justified in part by the greater expense of securing regulatory approval for the cultivation of varieties carrying GM traits.

But intellectual property protections significantly reduce the accessibility of the benefits of genetic technologies, and they also contribute to public concerns about the commercial use of technologies. As we heard at Second Reading, the fact that Monsanto and other companies had patent rights for GMOs and had inserted terminator genes into the plants was a major objection to transgenic crops 20-odd years ago.

If genome-edited products are not treated as GMOs, they should enjoy no greater intellectual property protection than the products of traditional breeding technologies, such as plant breeders’ rights—the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also made this point. Members of the plant breeding industry need to be able to breed from each other’s varieties, and it would not be in the public interest if the adoption of genome editing for crop improvement were to compromise the ability of plant breeders to make crosses with each other’s varieties.

Plant breeders may argue that they should benefit from patent protection in the same way as for GMOs in order to recover their costs, including the royalties to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred on the CRISPR technology. However, I suggest that the public interest overrides this argument. Therefore, I very much hope that the Minister will confirm that, since precision-bred organisms are defined in the Bill as equivalent to organisms that could have been produced by conventional breeding, they will not enjoy greater IP protection than conventional varieties. Surely this is the logical conclusion.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, have spoken eloquently to this small group of amendments. The technical aspects of the Bill are complex and he has already mentioned the matter raised by the Royal Society. If a new seed variety is developed using GMOs, as he said, it has greater intellectual property rights than one that is developed using other breeding technologies. If some genome-edited products are not treated as GMOs, they should enjoy no greater intellectual property protection than the products of traditional breeding technologies, such as plant breeders’ rights.

The whole issue of novel foods is affected by the Bill and these amendments. The Royal Society believes that those in the plant breeding industry need to be able to breed from each other’s varieties, and it would not be in the public interest if the adoption of genome editing for crop improvement were to compromise the ability of plant breeders to make crosses with each other’s varieties. I am really sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, is not here because I feel he would be interested in this section. The ownership of intellectual property needs to be addressed before the Bill moves forward to Report. I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and I look forward to the response of the Minister.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling Amendment 12, and to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for tabling Amendment 74, which my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock was pleased to sign. Issues around intellectual property were not explored in any detail in another place; nor did the topic feature heavily in the Hansard report of Second Reading. Some may argue that such matters are pushing the scope of this legislation, but we believe it is vital that all interested parties understand the regimes that will apply once the Bill is passed and enacted.

For a product to make it to market, it will have been subject to research, testing, scaling up and the release and marketing processes laid out in the Bill. This will involve significant costs for those who develop the technologies and associated products. We understand that they will want to protect that work and the underlying financial investments to the best of their abilities. On the other hand, for this process to be successful, we need to see fair prices for the farmers who will utilise these technologies or the new plant and animal varieties that arise from them. At present, it is not clear what IP regimes will apply. We can make assumptions, but there is no certainty. As a result, we do not know how many players will bring these new products to market, nor how many farmers will be able to afford them. Amendment 74 offers a way forward, requiring the Secretary of State to publish guidance on these matters prior to bringing the bulk of the Bill’s provisions into force.

These matters are incredibly complex and perhaps not best dealt with through additions to the final version of the Bill. However, this is Committee, and we hope that the Minister will be able to provide an indication that this work is not only in progress, but that appropriate guidance will be in place at the earliest opportunity.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I take the noble Lord’s points. We have to make it clear that we will not allow organisms to come on to the market that would somehow make it harder for us to adapt. There are so many benefits that we can introduce to tackle things such as drought and other issues that plague farmers. We have climate change affecting farmers here and now in this country. It is not something that is happening in Pacific countries alone; it is in our country, and we need to give farmers the tools to deal with it.

On the noble Lord’s other point, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said earlier, irradiation—if I have got the word right—is an established part of plant breeding today. He is right. I can see an overlap in this, but I will write to him and make sure that we give him the facts that he needs. With that, I hope that we can progress.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, although I thank the Minister for his response, I am obviously somewhat disappointed by it. I understand the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, to speed up the process, but I fail to understand how consulting with the EU would affect that. It certainly would delay it a little bit, but not by the years and years that the noble Lord indicated. I believe that a Bill introducing a process which alters the genome of crops and animals ought to have a review every five years. I accept that the Minister feels that there are sufficient reviews in place—I just do not necessarily agree with him.

The Minister spoke about a consultation that took place—he did not say exactly when it was, but I think it might have been last year—and said that 80% of those consulted said that the EU definition of precision engineering was not adequate, and that the end product, rather than the process, was more important. The Minister can write to me, given the hour, but I would like to know who was consulted—who were these 80% of people who said that the EU’s process was not fit for purpose? The Minister also said that the UK’s regulations mirrored the EU’s regulations and monitors; that conflicts with this figure of 80% saying that they were not fit for purpose. For me, it is smaller businesses that benefit most from trade with the EU rather than with Argentina, although I accept that some will trade with the latter.