Skip to main content

Agriculture: Genome-edited Crops

Volume 802: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to regulate genome-edited crops after December 2020.

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

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The UK Government will take a science-based approach to reconsidering the position that all genome-edited organisms must be regulated as genetically modified organisms—GMOs. Our view is that genome-edited organisms should not be subject to GM regulation if the DNA changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. However, we have strict controls to safeguard health and the environment. Products must pass a robust case-by-case safety assessment, taking full account of scientific evidence.

My Lords, there is not even a theoretical possibility that a genome-edited plant is less safe than a conventionally bred variety with the same trait. Environmental and nutritional benefits are accruing to consumers and producers all around the world from this technology, reducing dependence on chemicals —a race to the top, not the bottom. Given also the strength of British laboratories in this area, but their inability to develop these products because of strict regulation, does the Minister agree that it is vital to send a signal now to the private sector, perhaps by issuing draft regulations, that the UK is prepared to see rapid and timely approval of crops for commercialisation in this area, in sharp contrast to the impossible regime imposed by the European Union and as promised by the Prime Minister in Downing Street?

My Lords, we did not agree with the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling that all GE crops must be regulated as GMOs. There is an advantage in terms of seeking to improve the environment and productivity, and helping the agricultural sector, by exploring further how to better regulate genome-edited organisms. There is a lot of opportunity here. As I emphasised in my Answer, safety and the environment are of primary concern, but there is great scope here.

My Lords, I do not have any farming interests, but I declare my interest in Rothamsted agricultural research, which is in the register.

There is no doubt that genome editing can make an important contribution to reducing pest-resistant and drought-resistant crops, but does the Minister agree that consumers will be properly reassured by the science only if it is published openly and shared for the common good so that everybody can see the background to that science?

I absolutely agree with what the noble Baroness has said. That is precisely what we need to do when considering any changes. The most important thing is consumer confidence. We are absolutely clear that there is merit in certain genome-editing activity. The noble Baroness mentioned the Rothamsted Research institute. There is also the Earlham Institute, the James Hutton Institute, the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre. All of our great laboratories are very positive about this research, and we do think that we should reconsider the current regulations.

My Lords, I commend the Minister on the Government’s focus on agroecology as the way forward for agriculture and on the inclusion of soil health in the Agriculture Bill. Does the Minister acknowledge that the 21st-century approach of working with nature, with a whole-farm approach, is the direct opposite of the simplistic 20th-century GM editing approach? Should not our research efforts be focused on agroecology and working with nature?

Obviously, much of what we want to do is to work with the rhythm of nature. The point I was seeking to make earlier about gene editing is that, in particular where it merely escalates a natural process, there is an advantage to it. In terms of enhancement of the environment, we want to get disease-resistant crops and to improve animal welfare. A lot of the research is in order to assist things that the noble Baroness would support.

My Lords, how will the Government regulate and monitor cross-contamination of so-edited crops, which will not be grown universally in the agriculture industry, to make sure they do not affect biodiversity and overrun existing species?

This is why we rely on the best science and have a science-based approach to how these matters are regulated. Clearly, confidence that this is about enhancing and helping the environment is the pitch by which we think that certain gene-editing activity and research could be extremely beneficial. It is eminently compatible with helping agriculture and the environment.

My Lords, I also declare an interest in Rothamsted, which I represented in Parliament for 34 years. Would it not be a wonderful thing if, instead of farmers having to treat potato crops with pesticides up to 15 times a year, we were able to develop disease-resistant crops? Should not all those who care for the environment be in favour of this, rather than taking a Luddite approach?

My Lords, we have somehow got to help feed the world, and that is why I think research work into disease resistance in wheat, rice and cucumber, improving the starch content and quality of potatoes, increasing grain weight and improving protein content in wheat are areas in which a contribution can be made by responsible scientific endeavour.

My Lords, a recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said,

“Genome editing to improve farmed animal welfare. What’s not to like?”

Does the Minister have a comment on that?

My Lords, scientists have produced, for instance, pigs that can resist one of the world’s most costly animal diseases—porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus—by changing their genetic code by genome editing. This disease clearly affects animal welfare and costs the pig industry £1.75 billion a year in Europe and the United States.