Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022 Debate

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Department: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022

Earl of Lindsay Excerpts
Monday 14th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak very briefly, in part to echo the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said in his introduction and, as has been pointed out by the noble Viscount, the key point was that gene editing involves no introduction of novel genes into the genome. In so far as it involves no introduction of novel genes, it is surely in principle something that could arise by natural reproduction—in the normal process of breeding that takes place in agricultural crops and animals. So I do not buy the argument that the definition is unclear; I thought that the Minister was very clear.

The only other point I want to make is on the question of whether something “occurs naturally”. That is quite a risky approach to take since nothing in any agricultural crop or any livestock is natural. These are things that have been produced over the last 10,000 years by selective breeding. If we are trying to create some prelapsarian nirvana where things are natural, we will have to turn the clock back 10,000 years and forget about all the things that we survive on today. So, although I regret having to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on this occasion I do so.

I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to one point raised by the noble Baroness about the problem of different parts of the United Kingdom when crops drift across from one side of the boundary with Wales or Scotland to the other. I would think of it more in terms of the retail of the products. Let us suppose that a blight-resistant potato is developed by gene editing, as seems quite likely, and it is on sale in the shops in England. What will the retailers do about stocking the shelves in Wales and Scotland if their product is not allowed there? I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response on that.

My basic point, however, is that I totally support this statutory instrument and, like the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, I do not think that the arguments against it are at all compelling.

Earl of Lindsay Portrait The Earl of Lindsay (Con)
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My Lords, like the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, I am a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, or SLSC, which is an easier mouthful to get through. Also like him, I believe that our report has been misunderstood in some quarters. It was not seeking to comment on the purpose of these draft regulations but acknowledged that there were shortcomings in how they had been laid. The shortcomings did not add up to the summary that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, used—that we saw them as technically flawed—but none the less we set out in the report where we saw shortcomings. We felt, for instance, that there should have been more detail in the Explanatory Memorandum, we could have done with more clarity regarding the qualifying criteria, and we felt that the relevant guidance should have been available to the SLSC at the same time as our scrutiny of the draft regulations.

The concerns we set out in our report are not at all unusual and I regret, I think on behalf of the whole committee, that this is the case. Too often at the moment we find that the parliamentary scrutiny of proposed SIs is hampered by the accompanying information being short on detail, obscure or indeed missing altogether, such as with impact assessments that are due but have not been produced on time. As a committee, we raised some of these systemic concerns in our recent report Government by Diktat: A Call to Return Power to Parliament, which I hope the House will have an opportunity to debate in due course.

My second, indeed main, point is about the purpose of these regulations, which I strongly support. I welcome the prospect of controlled field trial research involving plants produced by genetic technologies such as gene editing, where the resulting genetic changes are the same as those that could have been developed using traditional plant-breeding methods. Gene editing is a potentially transformative research tool, and plant-breeding techniques are much more precise, effective and rapid than the traditional breeding methods can ever hope to deliver.

My noble friend the Minister made a very relevant point: current regulations in this area are outdated; they were enacted more than 30 years ago, before these techniques were even conceived of, let alone developed and applied. We need to reform and update these regulations, particularly in relation to gene-editing techniques. Indeed, this is also recognised at an EU level. The SI marks a relatively modest but very important step towards aligning our regulatory approach with the approach already adopted in other parts of the world. The other reasons I support the SI have been well articulated by the Minister, so I will not repeat them, given the hour.

Lord De Mauley Portrait Lord De Mauley (Con)
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My Lords, I will be brief, but I start by declaring an interest as the owner of a farm. I am a newcomer to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, but there is a danger here that those reading our reports could confuse our criticism of the Government’s process, which is our legitimate purpose, with criticism of the policy, which is neither our purpose nor our duty.

Unfortunately, much of the developing world has been misled into a suspicion of GM technology by a misapprehension that the EU has operated under a blanket ban on GM crops for many years. The reality is different: in fact, the EU has a long-standing regulatory process designed specifically for GM crop approval. In practice, however, polarised views across the EU member states have meant that the scientific evidence has often been ignored, crops have remained stuck in the system, and it was therefore difficult to make progress. However, views seem now to be changing in the EU.