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

Debate between Lord Krebs and Viscount Hanworth
Monday 14th March 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.