Agriculture Bill

Lord Cameron of Dillington Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 7th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 7th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 28th July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-VII Seventh marshalled list for Committee - (23 Jul 2020)
Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington (CB) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I put my name to Amendment 271 with a degree of sadness, just as, I am sure, the current Defra Secretary of State did when he was temporarily out of office last year. He put down his own, similar amendment to the Bill as it was last year and wrote an article in the Guardian supporting his views.

As others have said, the problem lies with the Government’s manifesto commitment, saying:

“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”,

and then trying to reconcile that with achieving a trade deal with America and, inevitably, other countries. To make the situation more complicated, at the same time we are trying to prove to the EU negotiators that, if anything, the standard of products available in the UK, and thus possibly available for re-export to the EU, will go up and not down—that there will be no regression on what has become known as the level playing field. A further factor of course is that the British public are adamant that we should support our farmers against cheap imports. There is absolutely no wish, out there, for a race to the bottom. Having had numerous assurances from numerous Ministers that there is nothing to worry about, it seems odd to me that we cannot have something on the face of the Bill.

As far as I am concerned, this is not a food safety issue. The Food Standards Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs have all the powers they need to audit and control the quality and safety of the food being sold in this country, so there is no need to worry, for instance, about chlorinated chicken as such. It is the production methods, not the product, that matters. If the President of the United States and his regulators think that disinfectant is the cure for all ills—including, apparently, Covid 19—then that is up to them.

However, if certain states—and it is only certain states—allow their farmers to breed their chickens with a higher density than is legally allowed in the UK and they do not have to clear out the litter between batches, and we are then forced to accept their product as imports, that is something that we should get hot under the collar about. Under their sub-standard regulations, production costs are much cheaper. Capital costs per head, for instance, are some 13% cheaper. Therefore, if our farmers are to compete on an equal footing, they have to risk going to prison for breaking our laws or we have to change our laws in a race to the bottom—or, best of all, we should just insist on some form of certification indicating that the US farms supplying us with chickens are breeding to our standards. It is not a very difficult thing to do. Every farmer in this country supplying a supermarket has to have every aspect of their farming processes supervised and certified by that supermarket.

Similarly, hormones in beef are not really a problem in the human diet—although they might undermine consumer confidence, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, has just said—but many would argue that their use is an unnatural way of rearing meat. Again, the main point is: do we lower our standards, which have been in place in this country for some 35 years, or do we just say no? Ractopamine in pigs is another matter altogether, of course. It is an additive used to manipulate growth and is known to cause lameness, trembling and shortness of breath. It should not be used to produce pork eaten in this country. If we were to import such pork—not that I think we will—it would be tantamount to exporting animal cruelty.

This is not a party-political issue. The Government are aware that farmers have the people on their side. More than a million people signed the NFU petition, and voters will not forgive the Government if they sell our farmers down the river. I think their gut feeling is that, if it were the other way round and the US was insisting that we raised our standards before we could export to it, there would be absolutely no doubt that we would jump to it without a murmur. That is what happened in the 1980s when New Zealand wanted to sell its lamb to China. New Zealand had to produce an entirely different product. That is the way these things work. Who on earth wants to market their goods on the basis that they are cheap and dodgy?

Turning to the letter from the DIT on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, I have to say that I am not overly impressed. Both the commission’s terms of reference and its output would be at the beck and call of the DIT, its short life would hardly allow its members to get their feet under the table, and its recommendations would be only advisory. In other words, it would have no teeth and a very short-term say. I fear that it is more of a PR sop than a genuine effort to provide a solution to this problem.

Personally, I am not fussed which solution we as a House support: this detailed amendment—Amendment 271, to which I have put my name—the rerun of the Neil Parish amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, or Amendment 279 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Curry. However, on the latter, like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I would have to insist that his commission was given, on the face of the Bill and not just at the whim of a Secretary of State, an extended life to continue its work on trade deals into the longer-term future. Anyone who thinks that all trade deals will be wrapped up in a year or two is fooling themselves. I suspect that the key period will be from three to 10 years from now, so it is vital that this commission can still do its work during that time.

Let us think what a difference we could make. As the current Secretary of State at Defra said in his Guardian article last year:

“In the US, legislation on animal welfare is woefully deficient”.

Maybe we can help with that. We should note, for instance, that in the EU free trade agreement with Chile, the EU insisted on animal welfare provisions in the agreement, and Chile’s animal husbandry and slaughter standards have indeed gone up since. We should remember that we in the UK are the third biggest market for food imports in the world, and countries will remain very keen to sell their products to us, even if we stick to our guns—maybe especially if we stick to our guns. Being able to sell into a quality market is no bad advertisement for your goods, so perhaps we can make a difference to the way livestock is reared in all parts of the world. Let us be ambitious about this.

Lord Greaves Portrait Lord Greaves (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, if the Government are not too keen to listen to the voices from Opposition Benches or even from expert Back-Benchers on their own side, they really ought to listen to someone like the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, who speaks in this House as the voice of the countryside and of farming communities.

This group of amendments is very important. Even though we are now on the seventh day in Committee on the Bill, it is one of the most important groups of amendments that we will discuss. That is why I was very happy to put my name to the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, which between them cover food standards on the one hand and animal welfare, plant health and the environment on the other.

I repeat those four things because they sum up just why politically this is such an important issue for the Government. This is an extremely unusual issue, in that it unites a whole series of people in the country who would not normally march down the street together. I know that this Government are rumoured to take daily opinion polls and have a focus group every 10 minutes to work out what people think about things, so they must know that what I am saying is true and that somehow they have to draw the line and put it into legislation, otherwise people will never be satisfied.

This is also an issue that unites the media, and not just the farming media or the liberal-left minority media who normally get involved in this matter. It also includes the right-wing tabloids—the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the rest of them—and the Daily Telegraph. We have seen what happens when they get behind a campaign such as this: the Government cannot win unless they are able to satisfy them that everything is okay.

I ought not to be giving political advice to the Government; I ought to be telling them to do hopeless things that allow me to go out on to the streets to campaign and say what rotten folk they are. However, this is too important for that. I know that Ministers in this House are not the final decision-makers on what they can and cannot do; they are working for their bosses in other places. Nevertheless, we have here a Minister who has influence and authority in the department, and we are relying on him to come back with something that will satisfy us and the country. I say that in all honesty, although perhaps he does not want to hear it.

On issue after issue, we now have a country where a large number of people are very frightened about their health, because of Covid and everything that has happened. A lot of people are scared to go out of their house, and if they are willing to do so they will want to wear a mask for the next 10 years. A lot of other people are on the side there, but a lot of the people who matter are very frightened. We also have a Prime Minister who has just launched a campaign to make sure that we are all a bit less fat. I can appreciate that and I will join his campaign, but these issues are all linked: good health, good food, relying on good farming and good production processes, and all within a good environment that allows people to go out and enjoy themselves and get exercise.

It seems a long time since we started this Committee. When we were discussing access, perhaps on the first day, and people were worried about the speed at which we were going, I said, “Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet”. For good or for bad, I have been in your Lordships’ House now for over 20 years, and I have to say that seven days in Committee for a Bill of this complexity, importance and size is not unusual; it is normal. I do not think it is because we have had to operate within this hybrid system. I join everyone who compliments the staff, the leadership and everybody else who found a way for us to have something that approximates to a Committee. Even though I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said earlier in the House about the need to get back to a new normality—if that is not a contradiction—because we have to make more progress, nevertheless we have had something approximating a Committee and everybody needs to be congratulated on that. However, I do not believe that this Committee a year ago it would have taken less than seven days; in fact, it might even have taken a bit longer.

To go back to the amendment, I am not an expert on a lot of the things in this group, although I know about the environment, but they are so important to people. Everybody cares about food. Increasingly they care about good food, increasingly they care about the environment and increasingly they are realising that the future of farming is in jeopardy unless we get it right.

I beg the Government to listen to what is being said here today by voices across the House, by voices from the rural parts of Yorkshire and Northern Ireland, by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, from the countryside—people who know what they are talking about. Unless something comes back, I think the Government will suffer serious defeats on Report. Another old tradition of the House is that ping-pong goes on for longer than two days, and this may be a sufficiently important issue that we might even get back to proper ping-pong.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, said that the tradition in this House is that we do not vote in Committee. That is absolute rubbish. It is a modern invention by Governments trying to have an easy time. There are traditions and traditions in this House. I do not know whether Lord Palmerston would recognise our House today as the one that he presided over, but I do know that for the first 10 or more years that I was a Member here we always voted in Committee. I am not suggesting that we should in hybrid, because that is a bit different, but voting in Committee is a very good way of getting shot of some issues early, one way or the other, and allowing the major issues to go to Report. So when people tell you that what happened last year or the year before are the traditions of this House, it is bunkum. The traditions of this House go back longer than any of us—even those of us who have been here rather longer than we ever thought we would be.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
275: After Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—
“Agricultural research
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations modify the definitions contained in Part VI of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in relation to products of breeding techniques for agricultural purposes where nucleic acid changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may only be made after the Secretary of State has held a public consultation on any proposed modifications to the definitions.(3) Regulations under subsection (1) may only be made in relation to England.(4) Regulations under subsection (1) are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”Member’s explanatory statement
To enable the Secretary of State to make changes to the Environmental Protection Act 1990, as it applies in England, in relation to breeding techniques after the UK leaves the EU. This would allow for regulation of new precision breeding techniques compatible with international definitions.
Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, in introducing this amendment I declare an interest as chair of the advisory board of the Government’s Global Food Security programme. On this board we look at all UK research relating to food. We cover not plough to plate but one stage further at either end—soils to stomach—thus tracing a chain from the billions of bacteria in soil that convert sunlight and water into crops, all the way through to the billions of bacteria in our stomachs that convert those crops into human energy.

The first thing to say about crop research in the UK is that the days when it was all about yield per hectare are long gone. If there is a primary target in present research objectives it is nutrition per hectare but, most importantly, without any degradation of ecosystems and natural resources. This has been the case in the research community for the last five to 10 years. Actually, there are many objectives in crop and animal research these days, and there could be many more as the world changes. Crops that have resilience are often better than crops that have high yields.

The questions being asked include: how do you breed plants that can resist the many different diseases and pests present in every country without having to put chemicals into the environment? We have already debated the problem of agricultural sprays in this country, but it is even more important in the developing world, where literacy is a problem among farmers and chemicals therefore tend to get used far too liberally, often to the detriment of the farmer’s health. The other thing about gene resistance to pests is that it is better for biodiversity. Why? Because, unlike sprays, it does not kill the pest; it just protects the crop from the pest.

Next, how do you breed a plant that can resist droughts brought about by climate change? Irrigation schemes are expensive and use valuable water. Seeds are much cheaper, so you can breed either a plant that requires less water or, more often, one that comes to fruition—that is, to harvest—two or three weeks earlier, during which time its older counterpart might have shrivelled and died.

How do you breed a plant that resists flooding—either one that can stay alive underwater for several days or one that, when threatened, spurts upwards to keep its head above the floodwaters? How do you breed plants that are salt-tolerant or that produce crops less susceptible to the dreadful post-harvest losses you get in Africa, or plants that have a longer shelf life for our supermarkets and thus reduce the need for plastic?

How do you breed a wheat that minimises its gluten content to help coeliacs? How do you reduce the major allergy features of peanuts? That would surely save a few lives. How do you produce plants, such as tomatoes, that can be grown in an urban context—small plants that are covered with fruit but can grow on walls or in window boxes—or a cassava plant that does not have to be dried and processed within 24 hours, or a cocoa plant resistant to mildew or phytophthora? Finally, turning to yield, can you breed a wheat or rice that produces a much larger grain?

The answer is that all of the above are part of gene-editing research programmes at different stages of development in different parts of the world. We are not talking only about wheat, maize and rice here but sweet potatoes, cassava, cowpea, sorghum, millet, coffee, cocoa, fruits and vegetables, et cetera. Let us face it: we are too dependent on wheat, rice and maize, from the point of view of both resilience and, above all, nutrition. More work needs to be done urgently on these so-called orphan crops.

My point is that the opportunities and urgent needs are there in their thousands. If we are to meet our sustainable development goals and keep up with our exploding world population, speed is of the essence. Speed is the essence of what this amendment is all about —but not reckless speed. I want to make this absolutely clear: we are not asking or wishing for any reduction in the stringent regulatory requirements or supervision of all forms of breeding techniques of plants or animals. Defra’s Animal and Plant Health Agency insists that all new varieties must undergo at least two years of official tests and trials. Furthermore, the Home Office animal experiment regulations also license and test every stage of gene editing, over many years, so we already have a well-functioning UK regulatory system, with an impeccable track record of food safety, animal husbandry and environmental protection. This will continue and can easily embrace these new breeding techniques. But, as with traditional breeding, once the crops have passed all the tests and we know they are safe to grow, farmers should be allowed to grow them for sale.

The speed that is necessary comes from the scientific precision of breeding plants and animals using gene editing. Let me explain. Genetic changes used by traditional plant breeders are mutations that arise randomly in crop plants. Normally, a breeder will select for a handful of beneficial changes, in a background of thousands of other mutations that are either neutral or sometimes even negative. At a plant-breeding station, the greenhouses are full of hundreds of hybrids, of which probably only one or two are desirable. The removal of undesirable off-target characteristics, by back-crossing and selection, is what breeders have been doing for thousands of years since the domestication of crops and livestock.

In gene editing, the genetic changes are the same as those used by traditional breeders, but targeted more precisely. There is only a small or non-existent background of trial and error, so the precision of the breeding technique is the clue to its safety for the environment and the world around it.

One of the problems with a recent EU court ruling on this, which is raising concerns even among the most conservative member states, is how you can tell a gene-edited plant from a naturally bred one. There is no way of telling unless you were present at its conception. Some members of the German Green Party have also questioned the ruling. Their point is that, if the technique is regularly used in human health—to genetically manipulate antibiotic clusters, for instance—why should it not also be used to benefit the wider world? I agree with them. With the strong backing of more than 100 EU scientific organisations, the Commission is now looking carefully at the rules on precision breeding, with a view to reporting next April. I strongly suspect that the EU rules will change.

So we seek both precision and speed. Instead of taking 10 to 12 years or longer to develop a new seed, we are talking about two to three years. This allows the development to be driven by a wider range of research organisations, mostly led by small businesses and public research organisations, not just large multinationals. It allows some of the world’s best agricultural research stations, which we have in this country—places such as Rothamsted, John Innes and James Hutton—to team up with smaller research stations in developing countries, which have special crops, often with special local problems. By working with these poorer countries, as well as with UK agriculture, we can help farmers everywhere produce the food that their local population requires.

Another important point is that this proposed amendment would not affect, in any way, the control or current status of genetically modified crops, in which entire genes or even groups of genes can be transferred between species. This would remain strictly outside this law, with even their controlled experimentation, in government research stations, having to be licensed in exceptional circumstances. This amendment, however, would bring our rules into line with most other countries, apart from the EU, where precise improvements are made within the same species—improvements that could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.

Another final issue I will touch on quickly is the possibility of unintended consequences of gene editing. I have already commented on the greater likelihood of risks from traditional breeding techniques, both in plants and animals, but the main point to emphasise—and this applies to all scientists, whatever techniques they are using—is that modern scientists are always wrestling with the effects of their work on the wider environment. How will this affect the soil, the air, the local flora and fauna, including humans, and even the landscape? The idea is that their work should benefit the world in all its aspects. If they do not think like that, in this country at any rate, their regulators certainly do.

As we emerge from this Covid disaster, it is vital that our scientists are able to employ the precision and speed needed to breed the best and most useful crops with safety. I urge the Government to accept this amendment, which empowers them to consult and act on the possibility of making changes to the Environmental Protection Act 1990. I beg to move.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington, who has so beautifully set out the basis for this amendment. I am sorry that, on this occasion, I part company with a number of Peers whose views I hugely respect and with Greener UK, whose support, on this and other Bills, I have much appreciated. I speak as a career academic scientist whose specialism is ecology and the environment.

I will make three points. First, I will reiterate the scientific difference between gene editing and genetic modification. Gene editing is like traditional breeding, but more targeted. It involves tweaking the genes that are already there in the organism. It is roughly analogous to adjusting one of the ingredients in a recipe to improve the flavour of the dish. On the other hand, traditional genetic modification involves inserting new genes from a different organism. It is a bit like the introduction of a new ingredient into the recipe to change the nature of the dish. For example, one of the major GM crops is Bt maize, with a toxin gene from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis that confers resistance to corn borer. Gene-edited crops, with their ingredients adjusted, could be safer, more nutritious, more productive and more resistant to climate change, as my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington so eloquently explained.

But—this is my second point—the difference between genetic modification and gene editing is not relevant to those who object to gene editing. The objection is not about science but something else. Opposition to modern genetic technology, whether gene editing or GMOs, is often presented as three worries: the food made from GM crops is not safe to eat; the crops are not safe for the environment, for instance because genes could jump into wild plants or because it is part of the intensification of agriculture, which destroys habitats and biodiversity; and genetic technologies favour big agritech companies at the expense of small farmers.

The worriers also invoke the precautionary principle, saying that we should never adopt new technologies until we are 100% sure they are risk free. Ironically, the same individuals often invoke the precautionary principle as a call for new technologies to be used, even when the science is incomplete, for example on reducing pollution levels in the environment. In reality, these arguments are all code for a different vision of the future of agriculture, one that returns to traditional low-intensity methods, such as organic farming. In fact, organic farming and gene editing should not be in opposition. Organic farmers have as much to gain as conventional farmers, if not more, from the genetic improvement of their crops to make them more disease resistant without pesticides, more nutritious, more productive and so on.

My third point is that the amendment calls for public consultation, which is key if we are to avoid the mistakes of the 1990s. Noble Lords will recall that the first GM food on sale in the UK was tomato paste made with Flavr Savr tomatoes. These tomatoes do not go squidgy on ripening, so they produce a sweeter product. The GM tomato paste tasted better, was slightly cheaper and was clearly labelled. It sold well, until the campaigning groups launched their highly successful “Frankenstein foods” campaign. Before long, the supermarket shelves were cleared of all products involving GM.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Lexden Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lexden) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister.

Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly my fellow sponsors of the amendment. I also thank the Minister for his very full reply, which I shall read carefully and reflect on. It is clear that people on both sides of the fence feel strongly on the subject. I think we can all agree that the most important thing is to feed our grandchildren with the least possible damage to the environment and the future of the planet. Those in favour of the amendment believe that using precision techniques is the best and safest way to do this, while those against think that the tried and tested random mutation is better, albeit slower. I want to respond to one or two of the points raised.

One cannot put traditionally bred plants back in the bottle; nor can one stop any cross-fertilisation in the wild, but properly regulated precision breeding is just less likely to do so, in my view. However, I agree that the wider consultation is a really good idea, which is why this amendment specifically recommends it and why it seems that the Minister has picked up on it. As a Scotsman, I picked up the remarks about wheat in Scotland. I should tell the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that in the 1990s, a field in Aberdeenshire held the world record for winter wheat yields for several years. It is the long summer days there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also made a comparison with human medicine, with reference to an article in Nature. However, it is very misleading in this discussion about which is the best between precision breeding and traditional breeding. The removal of undesirable off-target characteristics is what traditional breeders have been doing for millennia. This back-crossing, as it is known, has never been possible with human medicine for obvious reasons, so the arguments and comparisons do not apply. Of course, scientists are cautious about the use of gene editing in humans. Meanwhile, compared with precision breeding, traditional animal and crop breeding is much more likely to produce off-target characteristics to be removed. Precision breeding is, as I said, much safer and more accurate.

I repeat what I said in my opening speech to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter: this amendment in no way affects the legislation on GMOs and is not the thin end of any wedge. Several noble Lords mentioned or hinted at this, but I am not sure how we are pre-empting parliamentary debate with this amendment. If that is so with this amendment, presumably all amendments over the past seven days are pre-empting debate. Surely it is the opposite: we are promoting debate. If the Bill is about only rewarding new ways of land management, presumably the debate that we have just had on trading standards is also trying to slide an amendment through by the back door. I will say no more, but we all know that the Bill will go back to the Commons, which can have its say over all or any of our changes.

On animal cruelty, also mentioned by the Minister, I strongly refute that gene editing could be considered more cruel than traditional breeding methods. Think of the results of traditional breeding from the wolf over the years, which include dogs with noses that are so squashed they can hardly breathe and Pekingeses whose eyes drop out. Meanwhile, the process of taking an egg from a chicken or fish and editing its genetic make-up is not in any way cruel. If, for instance with the salmon egg, you can increase its resilience to sea lice, as they are doing at Roslin, you would be doing both the salmon and its surrounding environment a heap of good as there would be no need for environmentally damaging treatment to remove the lice, which also harms the salmon.

With mammals, you also take an egg, treat it and re-insert it into the mother—a process no crueller than IVF in humans to help a mother have a much-wanted child. If, for instance, you thus increase resistance to PRRS in pigs, as again they are doing at Roslin, you are reducing the enormous suffering and deaths from that appalling respiratory disease. Of course, if you alter the genes of one animal, you should get hundreds or even thousands of their progeny with the same characteristics without touching them in any way. Breeding resistance to disease into future generations is so much more sensible than the ongoing use of antibiotics or medicines as the best way of helping animals live pain-free and disease-free lives.

I will stop there. But as this is the last time that I will speak in Committee, I want to thank the Minister for his extreme patience and professionalism, expertise in the subject and fluency at the Dispatch Box. I am full of admiration for the skill and extraordinary tolerance with which he has handled us troublesome Members, and I thank him for the conscientious way that he has dealt with the Bill. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 275 withdrawn.