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Agriculture: Gene Editing

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to encourage the use of gene editing in agriculture.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, I refer to my farming interests as listed in the register.

My Lords, the Government welcome research involving gene editing in this country and overseas in helping to breed pest and disease resistance into crops and animals more efficiently than is possible using traditional breeding methods. We see technological innovation as key in increasing productivity and sustainability in agriculture. This research is being carried out under the appropriate controls. We are committed to proportionate regulation that protects people, animals and the environment.

I thank my noble friend for that reply. On the point about regulation, is he aware that Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Canada, the US and Sweden all now say that CRISPR and other gene-editing technologies should be regulated like any other plant-breeding technology—only faster and safer—and that Australia is about to follow suit? The Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice has strongly recommended the same course of action. Therefore, does my noble friend agree that the UK should urgently make a similar announcement to encourage the development of this economically and environmentally beneficial technology here in the UK?

My Lords, we are in communication with the regulators in the countries that my noble friend has referred to and are aware of the decisions that they have made. Those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and that is the approach that we are taking. We agree that gene-edited plants, for instance, which could have been produced by traditional breeding do not need to be regulated as GMOs. In fact, the Government intervened in the ECJ case. I am aware of what the Advocate-General said and thank the United Kingdom for the helpful intervention. We are now waiting for the court’s judgment.

My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register. As the Minister said, the European Court of Justice will certainly decide this year whether gene editing will fall under the EU’s genetic modification in agriculture regulatory framework. Bearing in mind the implications not only for agriculture but for food and the Irish border, is this not another reason to stay within a customs union, or will the Government wish to set a new framework in order to agree a trade deal with America?

My Lords, under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill we will bring the EU regulatory framework into UK law. As I said, this matter is for consideration on a case-by-case basis. We already know that the John Innes Centre in Norwich, for instance, is undertaking work on oilseed rape. This is all about ensuring that the 15% to 25% of the pods that shatter are no longer shattered by gene editing. There are all sorts of ways in which we can gain enormous benefits from gene editing, and that is why I am encouraged by what the Advocate-General has said.

Is my noble friend aware that gene editing plays a very important part in helping agriculture to fight climate change, and does he accept that we need to move fast on that if we are to meet the needs that the Government have adumbrated in their Clean Growth Strategy?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The work undertaken in this country and around the world on a case-by-case basis could be immensely important in terms of climate change and hunger, as well as in dealing with disease and pests in animals and plants. We in this country believe that we should advance these techniques.

My Lords, at least gene editing does not bring with it the threat that GMO technology used to bring. Nevertheless, when the Minister uses the term “more efficiently” in relation to gene editing, I think that he means “more quickly”. However, speed can cover up some of the issues that can still arise with gene editing. Therefore, will the precautionary principle still apply?

My Lords, as I said, this is about different research into different areas, and we believe that this is a force for good for the reasons that I have articulated. It is about advancing our knowledge of pests and diseases and enhancing animal welfare. Whether it is the work at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh on diseases in pigs—for instance, African swine fever—or other research, all this work on gene editing could make a remarkable difference and represent an advance in animal welfare. Those are the reasons we think it is a force for good.

My Lords, I hope the Government are aware that these techniques developed in the UK could be beneficial to the wider world and its environment. Built-in resistance to pests and diseases means a big reduction in the use of chemicals in the developing world, where it is very hard to train smallholder farmers in the use of chemicals. Are the Government aware that in-built drought resistance could be crucial for sub-Saharan Africa? I hope the Government will encourage our research facilities to become world leaders in these techniques for the sake of the developing world’s smallholder agriculture.

My Lords, these techniques will be a force for good, not only in this country but particularly in helping the rest of the world feed itself. Therefore, we should advance this innovation. Certainly, our industrial strategy and our agritech strategy are designed to help agriculture, both domestically and around the world.

My Lords, as a professional gene editor, I wonder if I might add one tiny comment. In spite of the massive enthusiasm for gene editing, its results are invariably uncertain and, to some extent, unpredictable. Will the Government take that into account when they consider it, particularly in respect of animals and animal welfare?

My Lords, your Lordships’ House has many experts and I am conscious of my lack of knowledge. However, it is absolutely crucial that there are proper procedures. That is why there are well-established controls and why the use of animals in experiments and testing is regulated under the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act. That is precisely for the reason that we want to advance animal welfare.