Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 31 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch; I thank her for introducing both this amendment and the other one in this group so eloquently. Amendment 31 makes a modest and perfectly reasonable request. As I said at Second Reading and intend to go on in boring detail about, precision breeding has the potential to be an important tool in the toolbox for creating a doubly green revolution, producing more food with less impact on the environment. If we accept that proposition, we should be in favour of taking into account the wider effects of gene editing.

I do not need to repeat what the noble Baroness said so clearly, but we know without doubt that many of the changes in agriculture that arose during the green revolution were bad for their environments. Loss of habitats, overextraction of water, water and air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of soil health, loss of biodiversity—those are just a few of the adverse effects of the agricultural revolution that we have enjoyed over the past 60 years or so. Amendment 31 makes the modest request that the advisory committee should take into account these kinds of effects so that, when we create precision-bred organisms, we do not inadvertently make things worse for the environment rather than better. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington (CB)
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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)
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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.

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Lord Winston Portrait Lord Winston (Lab)
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My Lords, Amendment 9 is in my name. I will be very brief about that, but I agree that we should be extremely cautious generally about animals at this stage. There is a lot of concern. From the example of dealing with pigs in a genome environment, I know that they are very different from some of the other mammals that we have been experimenting with. We may come to that issue later on when it comes to licensing.

With regard to Amendment 9, there is a strong case as well for limiting this to farm animals, if we go ahead at all—and if we do I would like to see equines excluded, for pretty obvious reasons. Some time ago, when I was working with an anaesthetist who was looking at equine metabolism, it was amazing how suspiciously the horse-breeding industry looked at our work—so much so that we could not share our data on their metabolism. It was very clear that we would have great difficulty with the restrictions that are proposed on that industry.

With regard to the great apes, it would be wrong to consider them in the same way as other mammals. It seems to me that these sapient creatures are so close to humans that they ought not to be included in the Bill. There are restrictions, of course, on the use of rhesus monkeys in research. I have worked with rhesus monkeys, not in Britain but in the United States. As a research worker, I always found that extremely distressing because I saw their response to even just a visit from us, when they knew we were going to do something which they thought would be unpleasant. I feel strongly that there has to be a very strong case for modifying sapient creatures, perhaps even to make them less sapient—so I propose Amendment 9 on that basis.

Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington (CB)
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My Lords, I realise that these are mostly probing amendments and, as ever, we await the Minister’s remarks with bated breath. But I cannot let the proposal to exclude all animals pass without comment because, like my noble friend Lord Trees, I believe that if we were to exclude all animals from the Bill, it would be an opportunity wasted to enable us to remove a lot of suffering on their behalf. My noble friend and I both mentioned the disease PRRS in pigs at Second Reading. It is a devastating disease for any herd, outdoors or indoors, organic or whatever. As a farmer, you just have to cull drastically to eliminate as much suffering as possible, and killing your herd is not a very pleasant thing to have to do. Breeding resistance to the disease is therefore a much more humane approach.

One of the great positives of the Bill is that if you alter the genes of one animal, say, to make them resistant to a particular disease, and succeed in making this a hereditary and stable characteristic—not always a given—you can get huge benefits for animals and even humans, because you will be taking more antibiotics out of our environment. Breeding resistance into future generations is so much more sensible than the ongoing use of antibiotics, medicines and even vaccines as a way to help animals live pain-free and disease-free lives.

The key to making the Bill work fairly and humanely for animals is to ensure that we continue to have the strictest monitoring and regulation every step of the way: in the laboratory and on the farm, and for plants and particularly with animals. We will obviously come to the tightening of some of these regulations later in our deliberations.

On the companion animal debate, I fear I disagree with my noble friend Lord Krebs, who I very rarely disagree with. I realise that they seem to present a slightly more unregulated environment than that of farm animals; people keeping pets are not subject to the strict regulations that exist on our farms—regulations that are, in theory, enforced by a variety of inspectors, not least those who come from the supermarkets, on which the farmers depend for their livelihoods. However, we are not debating how the pets are being kept: it is the ability of breeders to get the relevant licence and approval from the Home Office, and now from the welfare advisory body. If we had some form of guarantee that the welfare advisory body will have a remit—nay, a duty—to investigate in the home and on the farm the future quality of life of any relevant animal and its progeny, along the lines of my later amendments, I do not see it as necessary to exclude companion animals in total from this Bill.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB)
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My Lords, at the risk of appearing to be part of a Cross-Bench cabal, I would like to support the comments of my colleagues on the Cross Benches and include animals in the Bill.

This is a very minor point, but I would like to respond to the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on productivity. This is not, in my view, about ever-increasing yields of crops, the growth of animals, the yields of dairy cows or the growth of chickens, but about improving what is real productivity, which is reducing the cost per unit of production, and improving the welfare and well-being of the animals by reducing their susceptibility to disease. It is the cost of producing the unit of production that is the true measurement of productivity, not ever-increasing yields. I believe that to be able to use these techniques to do that will be of huge benefit to both the animals themselves and to those who farm them.

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Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington (CB)
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My Lords, surely the whole point of this Bill is to speed up the process of bringing into being the plants and animals that the world really needs, as a matter of some urgency, to prevent our populations at home and abroad—I mentioned lots of examples in sub-Saharan Africa at Second Reading—starving, and to avoid further destroying our planet. We hope that our scientists will be able to make a difference sooner rather than later and show the world what can be done. We must lead on this and encourage others to follow, hopefully in the EU and sub-Saharan Africa. So why on earth should we as politicians want to delay this process? Surely that is going against everything that this Bill is trying to achieve.

It might be helpful if I gave some examples of how the whole process will work. Let us say a seed-breeding company finds and edits a variety of wheat for a trait of value—such as stronger straw that does not go flat just before harvest, or resistance to drought or Septoria. We then have its in-house testing for off-target characteristics and, above all, for the stability of the crop through the generations. I am advised that this testing takes three or four years, with three or four generations being bred. By the way, EFSA and ACRE would both be informed at a very early stage that this wheat was being bred, and they would be involved. Then you have a further two years—and two generations—of statutory testing. Then, hopefully, your new variety gets a recommended listing. You probably have another one or two years of multiplying up the seed for the farmers’ marketplace. That is six or seven years from the original genetic editing before the crop gets into the market on a commercial basis.

In animals, the same multigenerational gap exists between the original edit and the product being produced—except, in this case, each generation of cattle, for instance, will take an absolute minimum of two years, and I believe a single generation of salmon can take up to four years. So it will be a good 12 to 16 years after the actual gene editing before any such beef or salmon product reaches our plates. Breeding improvements in a species is a very long-term process, even with gene editing, so we cannot afford to wait any longer. I believe that we have to get on with it.

There will be some companies that will hold back on certain products when considering the European market, but it is not for us or Parliament to take a decision for them. If those sorts of business decisions were to be taken by parliamentary legislation—which is what we are doing now—our nation’s economic performance would really be in a pickle.

In any case, it seems to me that the EU is amazingly hypocritical about all this. Who is it that bans all GM products and yet is the second largest importer of GM products in the world? The answer is the EU, which imports 30 million tonnes of GM material every year. It is, of course, quite likely, with the snub of Brexit and the ongoing vexation of the Northern Ireland protocol, that the EU will cut up rough about this. But, as I say, I do not think that we as legislators dealing specifically now with the wording of this Bill should get involved in all that. Leave it to businesses to take their own decisions. It is interesting that Argentina, whose overall national wealth depends hugely on its ability to export agricultural products, has proved willing to adopt this technology. I think that sets us a very good example of how to balance reward versus risk.

If we are going to take a decision to proceed with this legislation, which I hope we are, please allow the many small businesses, which are waiting expectantly for this legislation to pass, to get on with their plans as soon as possible. I say small businesses because, at the moment, only really very big companies can breed seeds and breed different animals because of the time it takes. We are shortening it only by a small amount, so it is the small businesses which will benefit from this legislation. I think we ought to get on with it and not have any more delays.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, but I think the contribution that the noble Lord has just made demonstrates a fundamental difference in approach to, understanding of and belief in systems for—to use the phrase—feeding the world between him and several of us on this side of the House. I am going to take a very practical example of this because, last week, we saw reports emerge in the mainstream media of a new wheat variety called Jabal. The noble Lord spoke about our scientists finding solutions for Africa, and he spoke about leaving it to business. He said that only big companies could now develop new varieties of crops such as wheat. Jabal, which means mountain in Arabic, is a new durum wheat which is extremely tolerant to drought and heat. It was developed for climate resilience through the Crop Trust’s Wild Relatives project. It was developed between 2017 and 2021, so over a period of five years, and by working with farmers on the ground in the communities affected. It is looking to be extremely successful. There is no big business. There are some scientists—I have no doubt that there were some British scientists, but scientists from all round the world were involved in this—but it is grounded in the communities that need these crops and has been done without anyone making huge amounts of money out of it. If we are talking about feeding the world, there is a potential alternative model.

However, I am now going to come back to the detail of these amendments, starting with Amendment 16, already very ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I do not really think that I need to add much to that, having attached my name to amendment, although I will note that Amendments 76 and 77, both of which appear in my name and which the noble Baroness has also kindly signed, have more or less the same intention of inserting in Clause 43 instead of earlier in the Bill. Amendment 77 looks at impacts on UK exports to the EU, as the earlier amendment did. Amendment 76 is broader and looks at exports around the world and what impacts it might have.

Amendment 78 in my name, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Hayman, have kindly signed, addresses some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. It says that regulations under this Act must particularly look at the impact on small and medium enterprises. Here, perhaps we are not thinking so much about enterprises that might be producing those so-called precision-bred organisms, but more the farmers using them and small farmers and the kind of impact we were addressing on the debate about intellectual property and the issues of market dynamics and competition which have been such an area of concern with GMOs.

Finally, I come to Amendment 75 in my name; the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, also kindly signed it. If the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, were here, she would probably be giving me lessons in the structure of Bills and exactly how a five-year review should be constructed. In her absence, I have done my best to propose that there should be a five-year review of how the Bill is working.

The debate on animals and plants provided some powerful ammunition for the discussion. The Minister acknowledged that the Bill will evolve and change according to events, but we also need to note that this is a fast-moving area of both technology and scientific understanding.

I will not go into great depth on what has been roughly described as the new biology but huge, fundamental debates within the science of biology are going on at the moment about the structure of organisms, of life and of ecosystems. In five years, the scientific framework behind this—not just the technology but scientific understanding—may well have moved on significantly. Surely a Bill this controversial, complex, difficult and technical should have a five-year review built in.