Biosecurity and Infectious Diseases

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Thursday 18th January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, and to join others in congratulating my noble friend Lord Trees on his excellent introduction to this important debate. I also join others in welcoming the Minister and look forward to his maiden speech. I should declare that, among my interests in the register, I am a scientific adviser to Marks & Spencer.

In recent decades, this country has experienced four major farm animal disease outbreaks caused by breaches in biosecurity. First, there was mad cow disease, or BSE, in the 1990s. Here, the deregulation of the manufacture of meat and bone meal and the consequent lapse in biosecurity allowed the disease to spread within the cattle population. The infective agent, the prion protein, could pass on the disease via meat and bone meal because the rendering temperature had been reduced.

Secondly, there was foot and mouth disease in 2001. This epidemic was the result of inadequate biosecurity and monitoring. It originated from infected imported pork products fed as pig swill, and it spread rapidly throughout the country because of movement of livestock. MAFF was slow to recognise the scale of the problem and to implement appropriate biosecurity measures.

The third disease, bovine TB, has been an ongoing problem in this country since the 1980s. Here, there are two biosecurity issues: the transmission from wildlife, primarily badgers, to cattle and transmission from cattle to cattle within and between farms. Although the randomised badger culling trial showed that the latter is more important than the former, in the past 13 years emphasis in policy has been placed on killing badgers rather than on measures to prevent the spread of the disease among cattle. The fact that the comparative skin test for bovine TB in cattle has a sensitivity of only around 50% in field conditions means that there continues to be a hidden reservoir of infection in our cattle population.

The fourth disease caused by problems with biosecurity, referred to by my noble friend Lord Trees, is avian flu. As he said, this poses a particular problem because it is spread by wild migrating birds. What lessons have the Government learned from these four major problems that we have faced in recent times? Have those lessons been enshrined in Defra thinking and in policy for the future?

I will now briefly look to the future. The risks, as my noble friend Lord Trees expressed so clearly in his introduction, include a mixture of unknowns—for example, mutations of pathogens, just as BSE may have arisen from a mutation of the scrapie agent—and other risk factors that are known and more predictable. We have already heard about these: international trade, wildlife reservoirs, climate change, drug resistance and animal husbandry, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

I will ask the Minister about two aspects of planning for the future. The first is early warning. The Government have a programme to monitor pathogens called PATH-SAFE, described in their literature as

“a three-year project to develop a pilot national surveillance network, using the latest DNA-sequencing technology and environmental sampling to improve the detection and tracking of foodborne and antimicrobial resistant pathogens through the whole agri-food system from farm to fork”.

Can the Minister update us on the progress of that project?

My second point about the future is import controls, already mentioned by a number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. As we heard, since Brexit there have been no border checks on imports from the European Union, but the new risk-based approach to inspections, the border target operating model, which has been delayed five times, will finally kick off at the end of this month. It will go through a series of phases in April and October until its introduction is complete. The model relies heavily on documentation rather than physical inspections. What proportion of checks will be physical, rather than looking at pieces of paper? Will port health authorities have the required resources to carry out paper and physical checks?

This applies only to legal imports, and illegal imports are likely to pose much greater risks to biosecurity. We know from the experience of Dover Port Health Authority in October 2022 that there are major consignments of illegal meat coming in from eastern Europe and, importantly, there are still ongoing imports of bush meat from Africa—which is completely unregulated—that could carry major disease risks. What is the Government’s estimate of how much illegal bush meat and other meat is imported into the UK and what is being done to bear down on that and enhance our biosecurity?

European Union: Trade Barriers

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Tuesday 4th July 2023

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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We work very closely with Hannah and other port managers—for example, on the common user charge, which is a way of alleviating very high costs on some and very low costs on others, which we think is fair—but we also work with local authorities. The local health authority is also facing a cost-recovery arrangement. We are making sure that we have a risk profile that minimises the number of stops for low-risk items, but we are absolutely focused on the problem. We will continue to work with ports and all other authorities to make sure that the impact is minimised as much as possible.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, the Minister has referred on several occasions to a risk-based system for checking food imports: the border target operating model. Of course, we are moving into unknown territory here—we have not used it before—so does the Minister agree that it would be sensible for the Government to ask the Food Standards Agency to produce an objective assessment every so often of the impact of the changes in import controls on consumer food safety?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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The noble Lord makes a very good point. Obviously, we work with the Food Standards Agency—although it is not covered by my department—daily to make sure we have got this right in all areas of food safety. At the moment the highest-risk items are products of animal origin, for obvious reasons, and certain plants that can bring in diseases such as Xylella, which I mentioned earlier. None of the work we are doing with the Food Standards Agency is secret, so there is no problem with making it public.

UK Food Shortages

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Thursday 23rd February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very helpful summary of the situation. I would like to ask him a few questions. There are photographs in the newspapers today of full shelves in Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands; if the problem is bad weather causing a crisis in production in Spain and Morocco, how come these other countries, including other northern European countries, apparently have access to plenty of salad and fruit? That is question one—why are we different? I know the Republic of Ireland is also having problems, but why are we different from many other European countries?

My second question is more forward-looking. The Minister talked about meetings with the industry and what can be done to support them, and I have two points about that. First, the horticulture sector is very energy intensive in this country. Does the discussion that the Minister referred to include the possibility of crucial support for energy costs in the horticulture sector? Secondly, this raises the broader issue of the resilience of our own food system. Does the Minister think that this affects the conclusions of the Agriculture Act 2020 that we should be paying farmers public money for public goods, excluding food production, like farming butterflies and hedgerows, which I am all in favour of? Does it change the perspective we have on trying to increase food production in this country?

I should have declared an interest of mine that is in the register.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall introduce my amendments in this group, Amendments 11, 27, 29 and 30. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and my noble friend Lord Winston for their support. I declare my interest as laid out in the register as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

During our Committee debate, the Minister stated that the Government’s intention was to take a step-by-step approach, particularly around the introduction of animals, and that the Bill had the ability to do so. Our concern is that we have heard no clarification as to how this will actually work. By what means do the Government intend to introduce provisions related to distinct species, rather than the “relevant animals” as a class, under the Bill as currently drafted? Despite the Minister’s assurances, we still have no guarantee that this step-by-step approach will actually happen.

My Amendment 11 would set this expectation on the face of the Bill. Combined with my Amendments 27, 29 and 30, the effect would be to prevent a precision-bred animal being released until it had met the date condition provided by my new clause, which would follow Clause 47. This proposes that, for farm animals, the date is no earlier than 1 January 2026, and for other animals, no earlier than 1 January 2028. Also scientific evidence must support this extension: if it does not, the date could be put back further. I just say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that this is not an automatic introduction at that date; it is just putting the step-by-step approach on the face of the Bill.

The reason I have tabled these amendments is that, whether we agree that animals should be included or not, clear concerns were expressed during our Committee debates as to when they should be included, how quickly they should be included, and whether all animals should be included at the same time. We believe there is insufficient detail in the Bill regarding concrete provisions around timeframes: many of them are vague and noncommittal. Much of the preparation that we believe is necessary for a regulatory framework for animals has not yet been properly carried out.

When this issue was debated in Committee, the noble Lord the Minister said:

“All I can do is assure noble Lords that nothing will happen before we are in the right position to do it … The priority will be to try to do this for farmed animals first, and we want to make sure that we are operating a step-by-step approach. If we put it in the Bill, it may be too prescriptive, because we are in a fast-moving area of science, and it may constrain the ability of the scientific community to progress this if we do it in the wrong way.”—[Official Report, 12/12/22; col.503.]


We listened to the Minister’s words and, in order not to tie the Government’s hands or constrain the scientific community if there is clear evidence, for example, of a scientific breakthrough in tackling bird flu, the amendment allows for flexibility. An accelerated timetable should come in only if scientific opinion supported this. So we have not set these dates in stone in either direction.

I hope the Minister can see that we are taking a constructive approach to trying to put step-by-step on the face of the Bill. However, if he is not prepared to accept our amendments, I intend to seek the opinion of the House.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her courtesy in giving way. I will make only two brief comments. The first addresses the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, raised, particularly the reference to the workshop that I helped to organise last Friday, where we had a number of experts giving us their take on the science. It is very often—in fact, usually—the case that scientists do not absolutely agree on everything; that is just the way that science is. When you go as a scientist to a conference, you do not expect everybody to say, “Fantastic, your research is absolutely superb”. People criticise it and challenge you and say, “Why are you doing that in this way and not some other way?” But there is sometimes a centre of gravity of opinion. Science goes through different phases. There may be no agreed position and gradually over time it is possible that a position consolidates in a particular way.

I think it is fair to say that Dr Michael Antoniou, to whom the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred, is probably not in the centre of gravity of current opinion on the safety issues and other technical aspects of gene editing. So while I absolutely applaud the noble Baroness’s point which raised the diversity of opinions in the scientific community, I do not think your Lordships should be too swayed by a particular individual’s point of view, because I do not think it is the centre of gravity of scientific opinion.

My second, very brief point concerns timescales and is related to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. One can see this in two ways, as her introduction to her amendments implied. You could see it as putting the brakes on—do not rush too quickly before you are sure—as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, would wish us to do. On the other hand, towards the end of her speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, “We don’t want to hold things back”. On the one hand we do not want to rush, and on the other hand we do not want to have the brakes applied too sharply.

I am trying to anchor that in a bit of reality. As far as I am aware—I was told this at the meeting last Friday by Professor Bruce Whitelaw, director of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, which is the UK’s leading centre for this sort of technology in animals—in the US, the Food and Drug Administration is already reviewing a licence application for gene-edited pigs. The animal genetics company, Genus, in collaboration with the University of Missouri, has developed a pig that is totally resistant to the virus that causes porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome—PRRS for short. So the question in assessing the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, is, would that amendment hold up the commercialisation of this pig, if the FDA and the relevant bodies in the UK approved it?

Given that it would improve pig welfare, because PRRS is not a pleasant disease, and save the pig industry a very large amount of money—an estimated $2.5 billion a year in Europe and the US alone—do we want accidentally to place a barrier on that kind of development through timescale limits? I do not land on one side or the other; I just think it is useful to have a real-life example of what is going on. My question to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, is this: if this PRRS-resistant pig came to market before 2026, would that count as an example of where the 2026 hurdle should be removed, because it is ready to go, or would she want to keep it in place? The question on the other side is whether it will realistically go from FDA approval to commercialisation in about three years. I am not trying to land on one side or the other, just to anchor this in a specific example which may help us think through our response to the proposed amendments.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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Just to come back on that, proposed new subsection (4) in my amendment says:

“The Secretary of State may, by regulations, amend the dates listed in subsection (2)”—


the dates I read out—

“if the requirement under subsection (3)”,

which is the evidence condition the noble Lord is talking about,

“is met before the dates”.

There is flexibility in the amendment to bring those dates forward if that scientific evidence is there.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, I will intervene briefly on a point of information. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has helped his cause, although he is very knowledgeable in this area and I pay tribute to him in that regard, in mentioning that a particular academic is not deemed to be at the centre of gravity on these issues. Who are we to judge? This is a fast-moving and complicated field. We are leaving what has been a highly regulated area, where our farm products have moved very freely between here and the European Union; if we go down this path of very light regulation in the Bill, how do we know that the EU will accept our food products? I shall listen very carefully to my noble friend’s response, in particular to the amendments from the Opposition Front Bench.

I feel that there is an uneasiness and lack of understanding among the public about this, which I share. I am in awe of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh; it is my alma mater, although I studied law rather than science or veterinary science. I realise that cloning is different, but the very fact that we do not seem to be going down that path, which was first brought up with Dolly the sheep, raises issues. I am very uneasy about moving to light-touch regulation when the science is not at one on this issue.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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If I could just interrupt the noble Baroness, I think it is wrong to bring up Dolly the sheep in this conversation, because this has nothing to do with cloning. It is a completely different technology.

While I am on my feet, I will respond to her point about how we know where the centre of gravity of scientific opinion is, who is to judge it and whether it will change. I appreciate her kind words about me; I am a scientist but I am no expert in genetics or gene editing. However, I know from my general experience of a lifetime as a scientific researcher that, when there is a centre of gravity of opinion, there are always outliers. Sometimes those outliers turn out to be right and there are transformations, but I have seen no evidence at this stage that the outliers are right and the centre of gravity is about to shift. That is all I want to say.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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I have nearly finished my remarks. I have some sympathy with the amendments from the Front Bench opposite and would like to hear a very good reason why my noble friend may be minded not to support them.

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I hope noble Lords are confident about accepting these amendments.
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, and his officials for the very productive conversations that we have had and thank the Government for tabling amendments that, as he just explained, meet the essential request of my Amendments 4 and 7 in this group. I do not think that there is further debate to be had about the purpose of my amendments, but I thought that I might spend a few minutes, if noble Lords do not mind, explaining what I was talking about with a couple of simple examples. Although he gave a very correct and detailed response, I could see the eyes of one or two of your Lordships beginning to glaze over. I will therefore try to give an illustration.

The logic of my Amendment 4 was that the Bill says —and the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, has just repeated—that a precision-bred organism could have been produced by traditional breeding. My amendment says that while this is true in principle, in practice it may be very difficult to achieve these changes by traditional breeding. The Government’s amendment, in slightly different words, acknowledges that point. I will illustrate why I tabled my amendment with two examples.

Noble Lords will know that cystic fibrosis is an incurable and often fatal disease caused by a single gene mutation. That gene is extremely bad for you, yet one in 25 of us carries that gene, which is extraordinary. After 10,000 generations or more of human evolution since Homo sapiens first emerged, why is that gene still around? If it is so disadvantageous—indeed, fatal—why has it not disappeared? The answer is very simple: traditional breeding—what we do—and natural selection over 10,000 generations has been unable to remove that gene because it is recessive. In other words, most of us who carry the gene—we do not know which ones of us do—show no manifestation of it. If two carriers have children then, statistically speaking, one-quarter of those children will manifest the disease but the others will not. That is the law of Mendelian genetics. Although, in theory, selection and traditional breeding could eliminate the cystic fibrosis gene, the fact is that it does not. But precision breeding could, if we applied it to that example.

My other illustration is on linkage. Genes that live together also travel together, which means that they are passed down through the generations as joined-up twins. One example might be hair colour and eye colour. In general, blond hair and blue eyes go together and brown hair and brown eyes go together, although not always, because those genes for hair colour and eye colour are linked together on the same chromosome but not incredibly closely linked. If they were absolute neighbours, it would be very hard, in the normal process of the reshuffling of chromosomes that occurs during traditional breeding, to separate them. Yet, with precision breeding, you could separate them at a stroke using molecular scissors.

That is what the amendment is about, and I believe that the Government’s amendment has addressed those points with slightly different wording from mine. When I asked Defra officials whether they agreed with the logic of my amendments, they said, “Yes, but our lawyers don’t like your wording.” I defer to the Defra lawyers and accept that they have come up with an alternative form of wording.

Briefly, I move on to my Amendment 7 which, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, is about whether having any small fragments of exogenous DNA—probably bacterial DNA—left over after gene editing is a bad thing. The first thing that I need to say to noble Lords in case they are not aware of it is that there is nothing wrong with exogenous DNA. None of us would be alive today were it not for our exogenous DNA. In fact, no multicellular organism on the planet would be alive today were it not for their exogenous DNA. The reason is that, in every cell of our body, there are tiny little organelles called mitochondria, which started life as bacteria. They are not our own DNA; they got into multicellular organisms long before we appeared on the planet 1.5 billion years ago and have been accepted by the host—and, in fact, used by the host to generate energy. The energy that fuels your body and keeps you going is created, second by second in every cell of your body, by these little inclusions that are controlled by exogenous DNA.

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for introducing the amendment because it gives me a chance to say two things quickly. One, which she alluded to, is our discussion in Committee about detectability by analytical methods. I asked Wendy Harwood from the John Innes Centre to give me an exact form of words about that, which I shall repeat with her permission. It confirms, in a way, what the noble Baroness has just been saying. Wendy Harwood said:

“If you had details of the exact edit made, then you could detect”


the PBO by polymerase chain reaction,

“followed by sequencing of the PCR product. If you were just presented with a plant, and no audit trail and asked whether it was genome edited, you could not determine whether it was or not.”

One therefore needs an audit trail in order to be able to tell. She continued:

“If exactly the same change had been made by precision breeding as had been made by traditional breeding, and you tested by looking for that precise change, then you would not be able to tell which was which. Again an audit trail would be required. You might however have a case where both PB and traditional breeding had made changes to the same gene, giving the same trait, but these changes were not identical at the DNA level, in this case you could tell the difference.”


That emphasises that if one is serious about knowing which products on the shelves are produced by PB, there needs to be an audit trail.

On whether whole-genome sequencing is of value, one angle is that so much mutation in the genome is going on all the time that it is hard to know what one’s reference material would be. The Royal Society produced in its evidence to the Defra consultation a calculation that in a hectare of wheat there would be at least one mutation for every base pair in the wheat genome. There are 10 billion base pairs in a wheat genome. In a one-hectare field of wheat, there would be a mutation somewhere in every one of those base pairs. So the difficulty with using whole-genome sequencing is what one makes of the information one gets. There will be huge variation and one does not quite know what the value of the information is.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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I think we have agreement that some parts of the genome are functionally relevant and have a particular functional significance. We perhaps have points of disagreement about how relatively protected some of those may be from natural mutations. There are lots of mutations that happen naturally in areas that may be beneficial to the plant but only in certain parts of the genome and with certain sorts of functional effects. The parts of the genome that are particularly crucial to the function of the organism are the structural, basic ones, where there are far fewer natural effects. If you read the complete list of the genome, you are going to look at certain bits to see which changes are significant, which ones may be deleterious and which ones are less significant. Does the noble Lord agree?

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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Obviously, I agree that the different parts of the genome serve different functions. As the noble Baroness said in Committee, when we were students, we learned about junk DNA. However, it is not junk DNA; it can play an important part in regulating the expression of other genes. I take the point.

Lord Winston Portrait Lord Winston (Lab)
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I love the idea of the noble Lord’s field of wheat waving gently in the breeze and the sunlight, but does he not agree that certain genes in those wheat seeds are rather well conserved and, in fact, do not change? Indeed, certain genes are protected from mutation. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent us looking at analysis to see the frequency of certain mutations within the genome; perhaps we need to be doing that. The data there could be very useful in all sorts of ways.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for raising the question of exogenous DNA, which I mentioned at Second Reading, as did she. I am sorry to say that, on this occasion, I disagree with the noble Baroness. I think her amendment goes too far, since, as she explained so clearly, the current techniques of gene editing require the use of exogenous DNA not only for the CRISPR-Cas9 construct but for the insertion mechanism—for instance, Agrobacterium—and for the antibiotic resistance filter used to check that the changes one intended to achieve have been achieved. Furthermore, at the end of the gene-editing process, there could be tiny fragments of this exogenous DNA left in the gene-edited organism. As I mentioned at Second Reading, although there are new techniques being developed that will obviate the need for gene editing with exogenous DNA, they are not yet ready for mainstream use. Hence, in my view, Amendment 11, if accepted, would in effect kill off gene editing for the near future.

Should we be worried about exogenous DNA? The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, clearly thinks we should. The Bill deals with the issue of exogenous DNA by stating in Clause 1(6) that any remaining exogenous DNA must not code for a protein if the precision-bred organism is to be considered as having been produced by a process equivalent to traditional breeding. Does that provide us with sufficient reassurance?

I am most grateful to Professor Wendy Harwood and her colleagues at the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, for their further advice. My initial thought in considering this problem was that the wording in the Bill could be tightened to say in Clause 1(6) that the exogenous DNA, if there is any left, should have no effect on the phenotype of the precision-bred organism; in other words, no effect on the appearance or biological properties of the edited organism. This would be a more stringent criterion than that requiring that the fragment of DNA could not code for a protein.

As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, so clearly explained to us in his excellent introduction, the principal way in which DNA is expressed in the phenotype is by genes coding for proteins that are the building blocks of life. However, there are also other ways in which nucleic acids can affect the phenotype; I am sorry if this is a bit technical. One example is RNA interference, a molecular process in which short strands of RNA can act to silence a gene. There are other examples of gene regulation by RNA strands that are not transcribed to produce a protein.

There are mechanisms not covered by Clause 1(6) by which exogenous DNA could affect the functioning of the precision-bred or gene-edited organism. Does this justify a change in the wording of the Bill? The view from the John Innes Centre is that it is unlikely that non-coding DNA could exert a phenotypic effect, although this is both theoretically and practically possible. It argues that these possibilities should be tested for in any gene-editing strategy before a product is developed. If this is the case, it would not be necessary to require it by regulation. Furthermore, the scientists at the John Innes Centre argue that the requirement of “no phenotypic effect” might lead to the conclusion that there has to be exhaustive testing for this in an unspecified range of environmental conditions.

I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there is an argument for ensuring that any remaining exogenous DNA has no discernible effect on the phenotype of the precision-bred organism. That would be a more stringent criterion than Clause 1(6). On the other hand, one does not want disproportionate regulation that stifles innovation.

I do not expect the Minister to answer on the technical issues right now but could he—if not right now, before Report—put down in writing an explanation of why making the requirement in Clause 1(6) that any exogenous DNA should have no phenotypic effect would be disproportionate and, if it is disproportionate, whether other steps could be taken to manage the risk of non-coding effects on the phenotype of gene-edited organisms?

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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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—

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but I want to make the point that when we talk about “free of risk”, we have to get things in perspective. In so-called conventional breeding, the parent seeds or germline are often irradiated to create a large number of random mutations and then a new cross-bred strain is produced. That often involves shuffling maybe 20% or 30% of the genome and is not regulated at all. When we say “risk free”, we know that conventional breeding is not risk free. The Braeburn apple was introduced 30 or 40 years ago as a new variety—a hybrid of two earlier varieties—without any testing, and that could have had detrimental consequences for human health or the environment. Nothing is risk free, so let us get risk in proportion.

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I agree with the points made earlier by my noble friend Lord Winston when he said that, regrettably, the Bill is about releasing genes but not about studying them first. I challenge where this studying would take place. In the meantime, we know that regenerative farming practices will lie at the heart of a successful food and farming policy for the future. These amendments would ensure that precision-bred organisms were placed firmly in this wider context if the advisory committee were given this wider role. I hope that noble Lords and the Minister will see the sense in these proposals. I beg to move.
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.

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Trees in welcoming the inclusion of animals in this Bill, but I have added my name to Amendment 6, which would restrict the animals in question in the first instance to those involved in agriculture. My main reason for proceeding cautiously relates to the point just raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, of public acceptance. There is a risk that, if the net is cast too wide with the inclusion of animals, there could be a backlash, which would undermine the whole endeavour.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has said, Amendment 5, which excludes companion animals, is a helpful start. I agree with her that many people would be horrified at the thought that we might breed dogs with further flattened noses through gene editing and that they would suffer the consequences of that.

One can also ask: would the public be happy to see gene-edited wild animals? We discussed that in relation to plants a few minutes ago. One could conjure up examples where the answer might be yes. For instance, if we could gene-edit herring gulls to stop them stealing ice creams and chips at the seaside, that might perhaps be a popular move; but I suspect that, on the whole, people would not be happy to see our native animals gene edited outside the context of agriculture. As it is most likely that the early applications of gene editing in animals will be for agriculture, why not acknowledge this, start here and progress step-wise to widen the range of animals at a later stage if that is deemed advantageous?

The advantage of Amendment 6 over Amendment 8, which refers to farmed animals, is that Amendment 6 would allow for the gene editing of, for instance, a pest or parasite of an agricultural species while Amendment 8 would not. I defer to the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for his expertise on this, but it may in some circumstances be easier to reduce the burden of disease on farm animals by altering the genome of the disease-causing organism rather than the genome of the farmed animal itself.

So, while I am in favour of including animals in the Bill, I think there is a case for proceeding cautiously and, in the first instance, restricting that to agricultural contexts.

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.

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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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)
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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.

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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I do not know who drafted this response but it is a masterpiece of obscurantism, in my view. I do not blame the Minister; he is simply reading out what his civil servants have given him. I could not understand—maybe because I am falling asleep or something, but I do not think I am—whether the answer is that PBOs are equivalent to the plants or animals that could be produced by conventional breeding, and therefore enjoy the same protections, or whether they are different. Will he just nail that point down, with a very simple yes or no? Is his answer that precision-bred organisms are treated as equivalent to those that could be produced by conventional breeding, and therefore they enjoy the same patent protections?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I apologise to the noble Lord if I am sending him to sleep, but this is a complex area. Patent lawyers will dance on the head of a pin on some of these issues. As I said, we have worked with the Intellectual Property Office to get this exactly right and to address precisely the point he made earlier about some of the difficulties that were faced, with large international companies owning the rights to seed entitlements. That caused great difficulty in the past.

I shall just read one bit to him again, and if the noble Lord could try to stay awake, it will be an achievement that I will rejoice in. The Bill does not make any changes to laws associated with obtaining a patent; nor does it alter the process by which an applicant would apply for patent protections. Breeders wishing to patent their precision-bred plant or animal should therefore undertake this process in the same manner as for all other inventions and under the guidance of the Intellectual Property Office.

The Bill is also an attempt to provide precisely the balance that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, stressed. We want to secure the rights of those who are investing enormous amounts of money in the development of these technologies, while also not making it impossible for farmers—precisely the people we want to have access to these technologies—to have access. That is the balance we are seeking to achieve.

I can work only on the best legal advice I am given. There are noble Lords in this Committee whose speciality is intellectual property law, and I am sure they could dance much more dextrously on the head of that particular pin than I.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, my Amendment 19 would require that a precision-bred organism has been developed to provide a public benefit if it is to be released into the environment. The benefits that are listed in my amendment include, but are not limited to, producing food in a way that protects the natural environment and managing crops or livestock in a manner that mitigates or adapts to climate change. Amendment 21 in this group prevents the release of a precision-bred organism unless its genome has been sequenced and the features that have resulted from the use of modern biotechnology have been recorded. I am looking forward to hearing more about that as well.

Earlier, we talked briefly about climate change and how plants in particular can be adapted to support the future needs that we will have in producing sufficient food. It is important that we find ways to maintain and improve the efficiency, security and safety of our food system while we are developing new legislation and that at the same time we address the environmental and health damage that our modern food system has sometimes created. This Bill gives us an opportunity to look at that and see what we can do to improve those areas alongside the other benefits that people have talked about and to mitigate any adverse impacts that could counteract that.

This Bill presents us the opportunity to create a world-leading regulatory framework that other countries could follow as they develop these kinds of technologies that would provide a clear public good. We recognise that our laws need to be updated to match current scientific understanding. We talked about that earlier in the debate. We want our scientists to succeed, but we also want them to use their skills for good here in the UK. I know that is broad terminology, but I hope noble Lords understand what I mean by this.

To get the legislation right, the Government have to balance certain risks and benefits. We need to have consumer confidence and business confidence; otherwise, all the benefits that could come from the Bill may not happen in the way that we would like. It could mean that we get improvements to environmental sustainability and better food security. A lot of this Bill is obviously around food, but how does it fit in with the much bigger picture that the Government have debated alongside the food strategy, which we all saw—was it last year? I am trying to remember how long ago it was. We talked earlier about different legislations interacting. How will this Bill work with the food strategy? Many of the recommendations were about how our modern food system could be improved and what public benefit could come from the way we farm in future.

The Nuffield Council has made recommendations in its document. One part of that is around aspirations for the UK’s future food system—something that is in the minds of a lot of people who have real influence over the way this technology could be looked at and developed in the future. I was also particularly struck by the evidence given to the Commons Public Bill Committee by Bill Angus, who is a wheat consultant. He noted that the motivations behind the work that he does as a wheat breeder and as vice-chair of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico can be quite different; there are strong passions that drive both ways of working.

We also know that the Crop Science Centre in Cambridge has done interesting work focused on improving the sustainability of our farming systems—in particular, removing the need for inorganic fertilisers. To me, these are the kinds of areas where gene editing could bring significant benefits for the environment, the sustainability of our food systems, and reducing food insecurity across the world. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned these issues in his earlier speech.

It is important that we look at how gene editing could be used for good, because we also know that it can be used for ends that, to many of us, would not be so desirable. Evidence from Compassion in World Farming was very interesting in this area. It talked about some of the harms that traditional breeding has caused—I will not go into detail, as we have heard about that today and at Second Reading. It is important that we work for the public benefit and that the Bill is not used to breed animals in a way that would mean they suffer more or be made to tolerate harsher conditions; the Minister mentioned this earlier. It is important that those questions posed in my amendments are taken account of. How can we ensure that the technology is used for good here in the UK?

There is also the question: who decides what that good might be? We will come on to debate that more to some extent in group 8, where we look at the animal welfare tests, for example. There are also questions around the development of herbicide-resistant crops. Do they allow more herbicide to be used? Is that a good thing? There need perhaps to be more tests in the Bill to make sure that some of the roads that we do not want to go down are not roads that we can go down.

My amendment would create a public benefit test before precision-bred organisms could be authorised and released. It is important that the governance is correct to manage that. Professor Sarah Hartley of the University of Exeter said in evidence:

“The Bill enables science to develop in this area, but it does not enable us to direct the science and technology towards doing any good.”—[Official Report, Commons, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill Committee, 30/6/22; col. 123.]


That is the area that I am trying to look at and ask noble Lords to consider. How would we achieve that? At the moment, it is driven too much by market forces. In making legislation, we have to ensure that we guard against those who are, perhaps, not so interested in the good—the public benefit—that can come out of it but looking just at the market forces. We believe that the Bill could be strengthened through this amendment, and the Government’s stated aims, which the Minister has said he wants to achieve, could be encoded within the legislation itself. I beg to move.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for introducing this amendment so eloquently. I have added my name to it. In fact, I felt that the amendment was almost unnecessary because, earlier this evening, the Minister referred to precision breeding as being used to create public good—I think I am right in saying that. The amendment tries to flesh that out and ask what is meant by “public good”.

It goes without saying that one objective of farming is to produce food or other farm products. Precision breeding will be used to increase the efficiency, and maybe the productivity, of farming in this country. My noble friend Lord Curry of Kirkharle, who is not in his place, made a useful comment earlier about what is meant by productivity in farming.

It goes without saying that one objective is to increase efficiency and productivity: that is the “more” bit of “more with less”. Equally important, and what the amendment is about, is enshrining the “less”: less harm to the environment and to people. We have been through many times the kind of harms to the environment that intensive agriculture has delivered, and we hope that precision breeding will be used to reverse those harms rather than augment them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, also raised the important point of how bits of the jigsaw fit together. She referred to Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy. I would be interested in knowing from the Minister whether some of the recommendations that Henry Dimbleby made will be implementable or, indeed, supported by the Bill if it goes through—as I hope it will, possibly with some modifications.

In a way, this is almost uncontroversial. We all accept that there have to be public goods that are supported by precision breeding; that has to be balanced with increasing productivity and efficiency of agriculture; and what we are trying to do here is spell out what those public goods are and should look like. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response.

Baroness Parminter Portrait Baroness Parminter (LD)
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My Lords, I want to say how much I support this amendment, which has been introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that it was a very eloquent introduction. It should indeed be uncontroversial, for two reasons.

This Government have committed themselves to a number of welcome targets on climate change. We have not quite got there yet on the environmental targets, but the Secretary of State says that we will perhaps have them by next week. We also have the food strategy. If not set targets, we have a clear direction of travel. If the Government are committed to those targets, be it in the social, environmental or climate sphere, then they have to will the means to deliver it. Whether we are talking about a procurement Bill or this Bill, the Government have all these levers to pull to deliver the outcomes.

It would be almost a dereliction of duty not to will the means in a Bill like this to deliver the environmental, climate and food targets which the Government have so welcomely committed themselves to on the record in other places. If the Government were to miss the golden opportunity to embed this commitment to a public benefit in this Bill, I feel it would leave Members around the Committee worried that some of those commitments were perhaps not as deep as we all were hoping.

Moreover, in the way that the Agriculture Act did, there is an opportunity to shape the market by saying that we will rightly give farmers funding to produce the public goods that we want. The mirror approach here is saying that we will provide this new regulatory framework to regulate the benefits and risks of this new procedure. We will allow companies the investment and growth opportunities if it is clear that they are delivering public goods. It is about shaping the market in a way that delivers those public goods.

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Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for Amendment 19, which raises the importance of ensuring that what we do has a public benefit. Across government we are undertaking a range of what I believe is really exciting work to deliver public good and we want to see precision-breeding technologies complement this work to improve our food system and the environment.

On my phone I keep some crucial lines from the Agriculture Act, because when I meet farmers and they say that this Government no longer mind about food production I remind them that right at the front of the Agriculture Act, in Clause 1, it says:

“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”


That is a declaratory statement right at the front of the Act. What we are seeking to do in terms of environmental land management goes through the heart of that piece of legislation and this piece of legislation fits very firmly within that.

As noble Lords are aware, the UK is privileged in its scientific position and researchers across the country are already delivering exciting research that contributes towards public good in the field of precision breeding. In the other place, the John Innes Centre gave evidence about the vitamin D tomatoes that its research group is developing, striving towards improving the food we eat for the benefit of our health. Another notable example is from researchers at Rothamsted who are exploring ways to increase the lipid content of grasses. This could help improve the quality of animal feed and has the potential to reduce methane emissions in livestock. I think we are all proud of the work taking place in this country and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, is particularly proud of Rothamsted.

This amendment, I fear, might hinder the important research in this area by placing restrictions on and creating significant uncertainty for critical field trials for researchers and breeders attempting to make new varieties of precision-bred crops. While I understand the intention of this amendment—and it is an intention I applaud—it would not be appropriate to restrict technologies used in breeding, nor do we have any evidence that suggests developers are doing anything other than creating better and improved varieties or breeds.

Of course, it is important to note that these technologies are not a silver bullet, and we want them to be part of our innovation toolkit to improve our food system. Delivering public good is what I did say earlier, and I am very glad I did—and it has been underlined by other noble Lords. It is what we strive for across government and we are fully committed to developing a more sustainable, resilient and productive food system.

Noble Lords quite rightly referenced the Government’s food strategy and, building on Henry Dimbleby’s extraordinary, in-depth piece of work, we have set out a plan to transform our food system and ensure that it is fit for the future. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned sugar beet. This is a crop where there is an application which might be of huge benefit, and not just in terms of the food that we produce. Being able to develop a strain resistant to virus yellows would mean that we would not have to seek noble Lords’ permission through secondary legislation for a derogation to allow the use of neonicotinoids to control virus yellows. More importantly, we could have a crop that was not only able to produce more sugar for our producers here but would require us to import less sugar from abroad, thereby lowering the carbon impact of that crop.

There are counterfactuals in everything. Trying to improve the home-grown element of our food, while reducing the impact that failing to produce it at home would create by having to import that food, sometimes from far away, needs to be factored in. It is fundamental to our food strategy.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for his Amendment 21, which would require the genomes of precision-bred organisms to be sequenced before they can be released into the environment, regardless of whether or not an organism with the same genetic changes had previously been assessed and classified as precision bred. It also stipulates that the genomic changes resulting from the use of modern biotechnology have to be recorded, that no unprecedented changes can be present in the plant or animal, and that this must be reported to the Secretary of State.

I assure noble Lords that the criteria for defining a precision-bred organism, as set out in Clause 1, consider both intended and unintended changes to the genome. This means that any changes resulting from the use of modern biotechnology, whether intended or unintended, must be able to occur through traditional breeding or natural transformation for a plant or animal to be considered precision bred. It also means that unintended changes will already need to be assessed as meeting these criteria before any precision-bred organism is released.

The noble Lord’s amendment would mean that plants and animals could not be classed as precision bred if they contain unintended genomic changes. Unintended genetic changes occur during the traditional breeding process. Some of these may be removed during that process and others not, as will be the case with precision-bred organisms. As I expect the noble Lord is aware, many recent gene-editing studies about animals have reported no incidences of unintended genomic changes when using CRISPR-Cas9. Having assessed this evidence our expert advisory committee, ACRE, has also advised that unintended genomic changes occur significantly more often during the course of traditional breeding than they do as a result of precision breeding. This is also the view of the European Food Safety Authority, which advises the EU. Consequently, while we expect developers to ensure that any unintended changes are within the range of what can occur naturally, the scientific advice we have received suggests that it is not appropriate to prevent plants or animals with unintended genetic changes from being classed as precision-bred organisms.

We are committed to taking a proportionate approach, requiring only the information that fulfils the regulatory requirement at the appropriate time. It is for this reason that the Bill distinguishes between requirements for research trials and marketing applications of precision-bred organisms. This amendment is likely to add regulatory burden, without adding value to the process. For example, developers would be required to submit a release notice to Defra, confirming that the founder organism they intend to release for research trials meets the criteria in the Bill. They would have generated genomic data to confirm that this is the case.

However, requiring whole-genome sequencing would be disproportionate, given the specific, targeted nature of changes being made. I assure the noble Lord that breeders who release an organism modified using modern biotechnology that does not meet the criteria outlined would be subjected to sanctions under existing GMO legislation. This is a strong deterrent against releasing organisms that do not qualify as precision bred. That also goes some way to answering the point that the noble and right reverend Lord tried to pick up from the previous group, which was not moved. However, we are clear about the sanctions that we want implemented.

Developers will have to submit an additional notification to Defra should they wish to market their precision-bred organism. Breeders will need to provide fit-for-purpose information to demonstrate that they have met the requirements that I have outlined. The technical details will be developed with the advisory committee appointed to advise the Secretary of State on the regulatory status of these organisms.

For marketing approvals, assessments will be carried out on a case-by-case basis. The full genomic sequence of an organism may not be required in addition to information on intended and unintended genomic changes to determine similarity to traditional breeding or natural transformation. As a result, we do not feel it necessary to include a provision that specifically requires whole-genome sequencing.

Finally, to address the noble Lord’s point that the DNA of all progeny of a precision-bred organism should be sequenced before release, if a “founder” organism has met the criteria laid out in the Bill—specifically, that the genetic changes made by modern biotechnology are stable and could have arisen naturally or through traditional breeding—we have been advised that the regulatory status of its progeny does not have to be assessed. This is because the changes made are stable and in line with those that occur naturally.

To address the noble and right reverend Lord’s point about this being a public good, I hope I have set out why the Bill fits in with the Government’s food strategy and how environmental sustainability will be enhanced by it if we get it right. Perhaps the greatest public good will be if we are able to adapt to and tackle elements of climate change that affect not just these islands but countries all around the world. It could benefit some very challenged environments, so we owe it to them to make sure that we are regulating this correctly, making it accessible not just to large multinational companies but to smaller businesses and—to use the rather pompous word I used earlier—democratising it, ensuring that its benefits can be felt far and wide. I hope this provides the assurance that noble Lords need not to press their amendments.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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I thank the Minister, but I have one question of clarification, just to check that I have understood what he said—namely, while accepting that it is important that public goods are delivered by precision breeding, that it would in some way stifle innovation if one defined too precisely what one meant by “public goods”. Can the Minister give an example of where saying what one means stifles innovation?

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I strongly support this Bill. I would like to acknowledge my colleague in my department in Oxford, Jane Langdale, and her post-doc Dana Vlad. They spent a lot of time explaining the details of gene editing to me and showing me their work on rice.

It is widely acknowledged that current agricultural practices are unsustainable. The green revolution of the second half of the last century was a miracle. While the global population doubled between 1960 and 2000, per capita food production increased by 25%. This was a result of a combination of genetics, the application of agrochemicals, irrigation and mechanisation. But that miracle came at a cost: the loss of habitats and biodiversity, depletion of soils and water, contribution to greenhouse gases and pollution of the environment. Here in the UK, this impact is dramatically illustrated by the fact that populations of farmland birds have more than halved in the past 50 years. The simple fact is that, as we have squeezed more out of the land for ourselves, we have left less for the rest of nature. Furthermore, the gains of the green revolution are slowing down while demand is increasing. Many experts estimate that we will need to increase global food production by at least 50% by 2050.

This is why many have called for a doubly green revolution of producing more with less: more food with less environmental damage. This does not mean returning to pre-industrial, low-intensity organic farming. It means combining the best of new technologies, including GPS, IT, and genetics, to help us sustainably manage soils, habitats and water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while producing more food from the same amount of land. Precision breeding can play an important role in this doubly green revolution. We have already begun to hear of some of the benefits it can bring, including reduced use of pesticides, perhaps better nutritional properties, increased disease resistance, resilience in the face of climate change and increased yields.

Nevertheless, as we heard, a bit over 20 years ago, the application of a different advance in genetic technology—namely, transgenic modification of crops, or “GM crops” for short—stalled in this country because of objections, and I hope that that does not repeat itself. Of course, the Daily Mail’s coining of the term “Frankenfood” was a key catchy slogan for the objectors. I personally bear the scars of that campaign because I was head of the Food Standards Agency at the time. GM crops were subject to regulatory scrutiny for safety under the novel foods regulation on a case-by-case basis. But, because the FSA concluded that herbicide-tolerant soya or Bt maize, for example, was as safe as its conventional counterpart, I earned soubriquets such as “Professor Bullshit” and “The man who put the ‘con’ into consumer protection”.

There may be lessons to be learned. One is that, although the objectors in the anti-GM campaign often presented their worries as being about human health or environmental safety, they were also concerned about other things, such as the role of agribusinesses—the noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred to Monsanto—the further intensification of agriculture or simply this being playing God with nature. This meant that scientific arguments about the rigour of regulatory scrutiny by expert committees gained little traction. So we have to be aware of that, as we think about introducing this form of genetic technology.

Another factor was that the benefits of the first generation of GM crops accrued primarily to farmers in North America and South America, rather than to consumers in the UK. Perhaps the direct consumer benefit contributed to the uncontroversial acceptance of GM human insulin—which many, perhaps most, diabetics take—or GM rennet for making cheese, including organic cheese. When I talked about this to then US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, he responded—I will not do the full American accent—by saying, “So you mean that, when we have a tomato with the Viagra gene, consumers will lap it up”. Perhaps, in this case, precision breeding will produce products that have a direct consumer benefit, which might help to get over the hump, so to speak.

I now turn to a few specific points and questions for the Minister. The definition of precision breeding in Clause 1 is deliberately—I assume—broad, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, mentioned. For instance, gene editing can be used to delete a gene, to modify a gene within the existing genome or to replace a gene from within the same species. Could the Minister confirm that all three of these are included in the definition of “precision breeding”? Could he also perhaps elaborate on what he said in his excellent introduction about the relationship between precision breeding, as envisaged in the Bill, and transgenics—GMOs—as considered in earlier legislation? Is the aim to draw a clear line, or put clear blue water, between transgenics on the one hand and gene editing or precision breeding on the other? Alternatively, is it seen that, once accepted, precision breeding is a stepping-stone to the wider deployment of modern genetic techniques? Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

I turn briefly to residual exogenous DNA. Although the aim in gene editing is to modify genes within a species, part of the process of doing that involves the DNA from other species. This may be the agent that brings the gene into the cell, which may be the bacterium Agrobacterium, or an antibiotic-resistance gene that is used in the selection process to find out what you have gene edited. The question that some people have raised with me is: if residual bits of exogenous, or foreign, DNA remain after gene editing, is this not transgenics by the back door? However, importantly, the Bill points out that, if there are residual fragments of DNA, they would not be able to code for a protein, and they would therefore be non-functioning. In this way, even if there are a residual bits or fragments of exogenous DNA a few base pairs long, gene editing is quite distinct from transgenics. I hope that the Minister will confirm my interpretation.

How can we deal with these residual fragments if people are worried about them? In theory, whole genome sequencing could be used to search for these tiny fragments, but on the other hand it may be difficult to distinguish exogenous fragments from somatic mutations that have occurred during the process of a gene-edited organism growing up. However, it is important to note that the techniques of gene editing are not static; they are developing rapidly. In a recent paper in Plant Physiology, Yubing He, Mudgett and Zhao point out that it is already possible to gene-edit plants without any residual transgenes, so perhaps this worry will disappear in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred to animals. The Bill takes a very broad definition of “animal” as meaning any metazoan—in other words, all eukaryote multicellular taxa of animals. This, I understand, is designed to future-proof the Bill. While it seems unlikely that scientists will, in the near future, wish to market gene-edited tardigrades or onychophorans—your Lordships should look that up on your smartphones—the Bill could, for instance, open the way to gene-edited companion animals, such as cats and dogs. It could be a new way to create the best in show at Crufts. Given that this will be an additional cause of worry, I wondered if it might be more appropriate to proceed in a stepwise fashion and, in the first instance, restrict the Bill to farm animals. That is just a question.

Some people have argued that if we are going to have gene-edited products, they must be labelled. This seems a bad idea for a very simple reason: the gene-edited product will, on the whole, be indistinguishable from a comparable product produced by conventional breeding, so labelling could become a potential cheat’s charter. That is why I think the Food Standards Agency’s proposal of a public register of gene-edited products that have been put on the market or have applied for approval would be a good alternative to labelling to provide transparency.

My last comment relates to the Food Standards Agency’s two-tier regulatory approach, which is still under development, for approval of food and feed. The threshold for entering the higher tier, requiring more detailed regulatory scrutiny, is that the change brought about by gene editing is deemed to be “significant”. I can see this becoming a recipe for boundary disputes, and I wonder whether a single continuum might turn out to be an easier approach. That is really for the Food Standards Agency to consider as it refines its approach.

I end with a quote from Jonathan Swift. In 1727, he wrote that

“whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would … do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

In the 21st century, Swift needs to be updated for gender equality: the co-discoverers of gene editing, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna—both female and Nobel prize winners for chemistry—have done more for humanity than probably any of us will ever do.

Growth Plan 2022

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Tuesday 25th October 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I firmly believe that the two are not mutually exclusive. I was talking to an organisation called the Nature Friendly Farming Network, which, on one farm, is producing more food on 11% less land. All of us who are farmers know about those corners of fields that are farmed only because of the dishonest form of area payment that we have been living under for decades. There are schemes enabling farmers to be more productive off the land that should be farmed, thereby allowing us to continue to feed our hungry world sustainably.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, the Minister will no doubt remember that the biggest crisis in living memory to hit the UK farming sector was caused by deregulation. The BSE crisis arose because the regulations governing the processing of meat and bone meal were relaxed. In light of that, can he reassure us that there will not be further examples of deregulation in future that will threaten not only food safety but the future of the farming industry?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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The noble Lord is absolutely correct. Reputable businesses—whether they are in farming, food production or any other sector—like good regulation because it means that they are not undercut by bad producers who produce poor-quality food unsustainably. We absolutely want to ensure that our regulations not only protect the environment but allow competent and decent producers to produce food that is much needed in society.

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

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Monday 14th March 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

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Viscount Hanworth Portrait Viscount Hanworth (Lab)
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My Lords, I am a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and I can assert that the committee is supportive of the purposes of this statutory instrument. However, the committee has been critical of the presentation of the instrument, as indeed it has been of the presentation of a large number of instruments. I find the objections of the anti-GM lobby to this statutory instrument to be wide of the mark. Its specific objections to the instrument may be disposed of readily as can its wider objections to genetically modified crops.

The main objection that has been raised against the instrument is that it gives no justification for the claim that a genetic modification effected by gene editing could have occurred naturally. In fact, the statement has a very precise meaning. It means that nothing is introduced into the genome by editing it. Only the genes already present in the organism—or crops, which we are actually talking about—will be subject to the editing. The crops will have at least two copies of the gene and, in many cases, there may be more copies. Wheat, for example, has three copies of its genome. Some of the genes may be of a wild variety and others may be of a cultivated variety. The purpose of gene editing would be to ensure the plant has a homogeneous genetic endowment of the cultivated variety. The presumption is that this will lead to a more fruitful crop.

A project aimed at homogenising the genome via selective breeding might take many years and is liable to be time-consuming and expensive. It bears repeating that the process of gene editing will not introduce any alien material into the plant. This fact serves to negate one of the wilder alarms of the anti-GM lobby, which warns that alien genetic material will be introduced into other plants by inadvertent pollination. There are, in fact, no such alien genes to be guarded against.

Another false alarm of the lobby is that genetically modified crops might propagate rampantly, thereby despoiling the natural environment. The truth of the matter is that cultivated crops are largely incapable of self-propagation. This is surely true of cereal crops, which require threshing to release their seeds. Other crops, if they do succeed at reproducing without human intervention, are liable to die out after one or two generations. I believe that we can confidently dispose of the objections to this instrument. It proposes the alleviation of some burdensome restrictions, which have been impeding research programmes in plant science and agricultural science.

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.

Climate Change

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Tuesday 1st March 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

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Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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The greatest stability in an unstable world is for us to decarbonise our economy as much as we can and become less reliant on other countries, or indeed on hydrocarbons, for our future. The Government’s strategy thus far has been absolutely right, and we will continue to make sure that our economy is resilient to the kind of global instability that we are experiencing at the moment.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, one of the risks highlighted by the Climate Change Committee is the risk to buildings of overheating from extreme heat waves. In the light of that, can the Minister tell us what proportion of the 460,000 new homes built in the last two years are designed to be resilient and cope with extreme heat waves, which are likely to be the norm by 2050?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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The noble Lord is very experienced in this whole area of adaptation. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has introduced a new requirement on overheating into the building regulations to ensure that new residential buildings are built for a warming climate. The new requirement prioritises addressing overheating through passive measures, including reducing solar gains and sufficient removal of heat.

Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee Report

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Thursday 10th June 2021

(3 years ago)

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Moved by
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs
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That this House takes note of the report from the Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food (Session 2019–21, HL Paper 85).

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to introduce this debate on behalf of the Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment. I start by thanking all the members of the committee for their excellent contributions to our inquiry. In particular, I thank my noble friend Lady Boycott, as well as Anna Taylor of the Food Foundation, who first suggested the idea for this inquiry. We were supported by two superb specialist advisers, Professor Martin White from Cambridge University and Professor Elizabeth Robinson from Reading University. We received over 100 submissions of written evidence and heard 44 oral evidence witnesses. Last but not least, I express our gratitude for the support of a truly outstanding team of Beth Hooper, the committee clerk, Sam Kenny, the policy analyst, and Rebecca Pickavance, the committee assistant.

The title of our report, Hungry For Change: Fixing the Failures in Food, neatly encapsulates our findings. Our witnesses told us that the food system in this country is broken and that the poorest people suffer the most as a consequence. In a moment I shall explain in more detail what this means and what we recommended as solutions, but I hope noble Lords we will indulge me if I start with a very short historical digression.

As the historian David Cannadine wrote:

“For most of recorded history … poverty was not a problem at all: it was a fact of life … Only … during the last two hundred years, has it been upgraded from an insuperable and ‘natural’ condition into an intolerable but solvable problem”.


He might have said “in principle a solvable problem”, because in the past 200 years, although we have had the means to eradicate poverty in Britain, we have not done so.

Perhaps the clearest manifestation of poverty is malnutrition. Some 100 years ago, malnutrition in Britain meant starvation. Although we were the richest country in the world in the late 19th century, malnutrition among the poor was rife. The Government took notice when they tried to recruit soldiers for the second Boer War in 1899: 80% of the recruits were deemed unfit to fight and the Army had to reduce the height threshold for recruits from five feet three inches to five feet because poor people were so short as a result of malnutrition. The Government of the day were shocked into action and set up an Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, which recommended that the poorest children in this country should be given free school meals.

Fast forward another 120 years, and today, according to official figures, between one in four and one in five children in this country still live in poverty. This is probably an underestimate, as the Government’s measure is based entirely on relative income and does not consider the cost of living a decent life. Today’s malnutrition associated with poverty manifests itself in two very distinct ways: either poor people cannot afford to buy enough to eat—they are undernourished—or they can afford or get access to only an unhealthy diet, commonly known as junk food, which might fill them with cheap and delicious calories but at the same time contribute to chronic disease and a shortened lifespan. The resulting inequalities are stark. Healthy life expectancy for the poorest decile in this country is about 53 years—nearly 20 years less than for the richest decile. By the age of five, children in the poorest areas are already twice as likely to be obese as children of the same age in the least deprived areas.

Modern malnutrition is not the only factor, but the evidence we heard suggested that it is significant in contributing to these inequalities. The term often used to describe the stress of poverty and food is “food insecurity”, which the National Diet and Nutrition Survey defines as

“limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

The Government have not in the past routinely measured food insecurity, but in March this year the DWP estimated that 13% of children in this country live in low food security and 6% in very low food security.

Nothing that I have said so far is new, but successive Governments have done precious little about it, perhaps because it is often below the radar. Tia from Lancashire, one of our witnesses living with food insecurity, said this:

“You know everyone’s struggling but you just don’t know how much everyone is struggling because no one wants to talk about it. An older person who is struggling doesn’t want to talk about it because they feel embarrassed or they’re embarrassing their kids. Some people don’t want to talk about it in Darwen”—


where she comes from—

“because there is such a stigma.”

The pandemic has underlined the problems of food insecurity and food poverty. Obese people appear to be more likely to die of Covid-19. At the same time, we were told that food bank use—an indicator of food poverty —has risen by 81%.

I turn from describing the problem to some of our proposed solutions. We made more than 50 recommendations. Noble Lords will be relieved to know that I will not go through all of them; I shall highlight just a few. First, on the causes of food insecurity, many of our witnesses referred to universal credit. We were told that the five-week delay in receiving payment and the fact that the amount of benefit does not consider the cost of a healthy diet are major contributors to food insecurity. The Food Foundation estimates that the poorest decile of the population would have to spend 74% of their disposable income to eat according to the government guidelines for a healthy diet. Eating unhealthily is much cheaper. For the richest decile, the figure is just 6%.

Money is important but not the only factor. We also heard that access to healthy food—many people live in so-called food deserts—knowledge, time and the emotional bandwidth to think about diet and health were also important. We acknowledge that other select committees were investigating the universal credit system, but we recommended that the cost of a healthy diet should be included in the calculation of the quantum of benefit. We also recommended that the Government should address the problem of food poverty among those with no recourse to public funds and that the value of Healthy Start vouchers should be increased. Finally, we recommended that the Government should collect data on food insecurity through the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

I turn to the food system. Many of our witnesses told us that the UK food system is not fit for purpose and they called for whole-system change. What does a food system actually mean? It refers to the way food is produced, processed, marketed, sold and consumed—everything from plough to plate. In comparison with other European countries, we eat a relatively high proportion of highly processed food, artfully constructed by the food industry to be cheap and delicious. We as humans are evolutionary programmed to like sugar, fat and salt, as these were essential for survival in our ancient history. It is cheap processed foods, high in sugar, fat and salt—commonly known as junk food—that contribute to dietary ill health and health inequalities.

On the basis of the evidence we heard, we recommended a series of changes to the food system to make healthier choices easy, especially for the poorest people in this country. These included restrictions on the promotion and advertising of unhealthy food—food high in fat, sugar and salt—and greater pressure on the food industry to reformulate highly processed food. We noted that there was good progress in the early days of the salt reduction campaign—I declare an interest as chairman of the Food Standards Agency when that was launched—but this appears to have stalled since responsibility for it was taken away from the FSA. We also heard that the soft drinks industry levy had been successful in reducing the sugar content of soft drinks and should therefore be extended to other products.

We felt that local authorities need to be given the powers and incentives to restrict the creation of new fast-food outlets, which are often the only way to get food in the poorest communities. We recommended a mandatory limit on the calories per portion in the out-of-home sector. When we asked a representative of the fast-food sector why it sells such massive portions of chips, he said, very honestly, “That’s because it’s about competition; the bigger the portion, the better value for money the people who shop for it feel that it is.” We concluded that labelling has a role to play but that it is mostly used by those who are least in need of help to improve their diets—the worried well.

Malnutrition starts in infancy, and the life trajectories of poor diet are set early on. I have already referred to the obesity figures for children by the time they are five years old. We made recommendations about school food and childhood nutrition. School meals standards should be properly monitored and evaluated—which they are not—and initiatives to address holiday hunger, as well as the national school breakfast programme, should be properly funded. I am sure that other noble Lords will expand on these points.

I turn briefly to the impact of food on the natural environment. At the time of our inquiry, the then Agriculture Bill was still in progress, and a number of our recommendations relating to it are now out of date. There is no doubt that, in this country and globally, food production is a major contributor to environmental damage—using fresh water, contributing to climate change and to the destruction of natural habitats, as well as the use of pesticides which pollute the environment and damage wildlife.

Three points are of continuing relevance. We recommended that the Government should include environmental sustainability alongside health in its dietary guidelines. As part of this, the Government should develop a plan to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, because we know that the consumption of too much red meat is bad for both health and the environment. Finally in this section, we recommended that the Government should adhere to their commitment to not allowing the importation of food produced to lower environmental standards than that produced in the UK, and not simply offshore the problem of environmental damage. I would welcome unequivocal confirmation on this from the Minister, particularly as I still hear the view from senior politicians that cheaper, lower-standard imported food will be beneficial for poor people in this country.

In concluding my summary of the recommendations, I return briefly to governance. Henry Dimbleby will shortly publish the second part of his national food strategy, following which the Government are committed to publishing a White Paper within six months. According to the Minister,

“This strategy will set out proposals that will aim to ensure that the food system delivers healthy, sustainable, affordable food for all.”—[Official Report, 20/10/20; col. 1473.]


How do we know that the strategy will be implemented? We recommended the creation of an independent oversight body, analogous to the Committee on Climate Change, to monitor and report on progress on implementation.

The Government’s response to our report fell broadly into three categories. The first was, “We are waiting for the national food strategy.” Part I of the national food strategy was published nearly a year ago, shortly after our report. It made a number of similar recommendations to ours. I am not aware that the Government have formally responded, and I hope that the Minister will update us. The second category of response was, “We reject the recommendations”—for instance, embedding the cost of a healthy diet in benefit rates; uprating Healthy Start vouchers; improving the poorest schoolchildren’s access to healthy food; giving local authorities more power to restrict new fast-food outlets; accelerating the reformulation of unhealthy food; and establishing an independent oversight body to oversee implementation of the national food strategy. The third category was, “We will consider further action”—for instance, restricting the promotion and advertising of junk food.

Overall, I was, frankly, disappointed by these responses. However, since then, we have seen some developments. Following Marcus Rashford’s campaign, the Government have committed to allocating additional money to support holiday free school meals. I hope the Minister will confirm that this will be a long-term commitment. The Government have announced that they intend to ban adverts for junk food before the 9 pm watershed and online, restrict in-store marketing and require calorie labelling in food outlets with more than 250 employees. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that these plans will go ahead and some indication of the timeline. Last week, it was reported that, following a legal challenge, eligibility for Healthy Start vouchers will be extended to asylum seekers and immigrants without settled status.

In conclusion, I hope that these recent developments are a sign that the Government are at last taking the issue of poverty, diet, health and the environment seriously. I look forward to the contributions from other noble Lords, and to the Minister’s response. I hope he will update us on progress and assure us that, when it is published, the White Paper will really address the urgent issues in our report. I beg to move.

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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In concluding, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate for their excellent contributions. We have heard many well-thought- out and passionate remarks, and I am sure that the Minister can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling and interest in this topic from across this House.

I particularly thank and congratulate my noble and right reverend friend Lord Sentamu for his thoughtful speech, and wish him happy birthday. I wrote down two comments that he made. The first was to reimagine the kind of country in which you want to live and the second was to come up with practical proposals for radical change. I hope that, when we finally see the food strategy in the White Paper, it embraces those two thoughts.

I also thank the Minister for his reply and, at the same time, as this is my first opportunity, I congratulate him on his appointment as Minister in Defra. I am very much looking forward to working with him in the future. He warned us that he might disappoint slightly by alluding to the national food strategy, rather than giving us the answers here and now. He did indeed postpone the answers to a few questions, but he generally tried to respond to some of the points made. Towards the end, I noticed, he succumbed to the temptation to refer to the national food strategy as “world-leading”, despite the cautionary note sounded by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.

In closing, I return to the question of governance. Henry Dimbleby’s work will no doubt be excellent. From looking at part 1 and talking to him, from time to time, I know that he is thinking deeply and innovatively about these problems, but there is a danger that, like other very good reports, it all ends up in a filing cabinet. That is why we were so keen to have independent scrutiny of the implementation of Dimbleby, through the White Paper and food strategy. The Government rejected our proposal to set up a new quango. I can see why; it is anathema for Governments to create quangos that then cause trouble. I still believe that would be the best mechanism but, as an olive branch, I offer an alternative for the Minister to take away.

The problem with food is that it does not come top of the agenda in any government department, except one—the Food Standards Agency. This is a non-ministerial department with food as its central priority. In closing, I ask this question for consideration: why not charge the Food Standards Agency with the task of monitoring and reporting on progress in implementing the national food strategy? It would not involve creating a new quango, and would help to ensure that we keep our eyes on the prize of tackling the costly and debilitating blot on our society that is food poverty.

Motion agreed.