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Genetically Modified Food

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential (1) health, and (2) environmental, risks associated with approving genetically modified food production in the United Kingdom.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition.

My Lords, our legislation includes rigorous requirements for assessing health and environmental risks associated with GM food production. Approved GM crops and GM food products must pass a robust, case-by-case safety assessment reflecting independent scientific advice.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Although I have some questions about gene editing, I recognise the potential it has to revolutionise the agricultural sector. My concern is for farmers and any potential barriers to trade with the EU that this might introduce. Although the Commission has indicated its intent to review the current rules, this has been countered by the European Parliament, which signalled its objection. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment of the impact of gene editing on our ability to export agricultural products to EU markets?

My Lords, the purpose of our consultation is principally to consider the issue of gene editing, which we think has a very strong future in assisting us in many respects in food production and the natural environment. Obviously, we shall consider the response to that consultation, and the right reverend Prelate’s remarks about the rest of the world, certainly including the European Union countries, are relevant. I know that the French Agriculture Minister has expressed concern about the European court’s view on gene editing.

My Lords, the Minister may recall that in the early days of devolution, Wales’s National Assembly passed, as was in its devolved powers so to do, orders prohibiting on precautionary principles the growth of certain genetically modified crops in Wales. That caused some cross-border dispute on the Wales-Cheshire border. If the Government are considering any new initiatives in England, will he undertake to discuss at an early stage with the Welsh and Scottish Governments whether their plans might cause any difficulties, and endeavour to find a mechanism to resolve them this time round, prior to them becoming issues of heated controversy?

My Lords, we have engaged very strongly with the devolved Administrations on the consultation, for instance in advance of its publication. As the noble Lord said, GMOs are a devolved matter and decisions on marketing are a matter for the relevant devolved Administration. We will continue to keep up a very strong dialogue.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has already referred to the fact that the French Agriculture Minister has disagreed with the EU’s stance on genetic editing. I also note that the US has approved some genetically modified seeds for use, as of last year. Studies suggest that genetic editing has the potential to improve yields while using significantly fewer resources, improving soil quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and could be worth in the region of $200 billion to $300 billion per year. Have these international developments informed Defra’s thinking at all? Does the Minister agree that this science offers promising opportunities for the UK?

My Lords, many countries have been considering their approach to GMO governance and regulation in the light of technological advances. Indeed, these international dimensions have helped to inform our approach to the consultation. We recognise that innovations through technology such as gene editing can help to create new markets, support a sustainable economy, help UK businesses globally and improve agricultural productivity in a way that enhances the natural environment.

My Lords, my interests are as recorded on the register. Does the Minister accept that gene editing and genetic modification are different technologies and that the Government will be considering them separately in terms of policy? Have the Government conducted any consumer research recently into the acceptability of these technologies?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right about the distinction. Indeed, gene editing should not be confused with gene modification. Gene-edited organisms generally do not contain DNA from different species. They contain changes that could be made more slowly using traditional breeding methods. We think there is merit in that, which is why we have consulted. Indeed, we want responses to the consultation, which closes on 17 March, and we are very keen to hear from interested parties and members of the public.

My Lords, the reality is that no one knows which gene-edited or genetically modified crop might have an adverse impact on the environment. For example, pest-resistant crops can pose threats to important insect populations. The Government’s consultation is totally silent on what environmental regulatory regime would replace the current one. Can the Minister tell the House whether there will be a new regulatory system requiring a case-by-case environmental impact assessment before release? Will Natural England be given adequate resources to oversee effect EIA or are the Government simply intending to deregulate irrespective of the biodiversity risks?

Let me be clear: our endeavours in this matter are for better regulation, not deregulation. We think that gene editing has considerable benefits for the natural environment but clearly on a precautionary basis we will be working to ensure that, case-by-case, there is an environmental assessment. We look forward to the responses in the consultation.

My Lords, organic farming has risen by 13% in the past year, but organic farms are at extreme risk of cross-contamination from genetically modified crops putting their own crops at risk. How does the Minister propose to protect organic farms from GM contamination?

My Lords, organic farmers undertake a very important role in producing great products. There are regulations about these matters and the way in which GM crops are engaged in the environment, and they will continue.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, in making assessments of health and environmental risks, which have a huge impact on conservation, biodiversity and land management, the risks and consequences of both action and inaction will be considered equally?

My Lords, GMO legislation is based on a precautionary principle that states that GMO environmental assessments must be risk-based. Evidence gathered during the consultation will inform risks on both action and inaction.

My Lords, I declare an interest in Rothamsted Research as recorded in the register. We welcome the Government’s consultation on gene editing and the distinction drawn between genetic modification and gene editing. Can the Minister assure us that any changes in the regulation of gene editing will be balanced alongside policies to minimise the use of artificial pesticides and artificial fertilisers so that there will be a net gain for the protection of public health and the environment from any changes?

My Lords, what the noble Baroness has said is why we believe there could well be environmental benefits from gene editing, whether they are reduced use of neutron additions, reduced use of chemical pesticides, increased crop yields or crops that are more resilient to climate change. These are the areas that, in an honest endeavour, we should be looking into and why the consultation is so important as part of the first phase before any change may occur.

My Lords, about three-quarters of the world’s soya and nearly one-third of the world’s maize and oilseed rape is GM. Europe, including the UK, is one of the world’s largest importers of GM soya. Does the Minister agree that no human health risks have been identified as a result of consuming these GM foods? Is he aware that the chair of the Food and Drink Federation organic committee recently said that the tide of opinion on genetic editing has changed and that the organic sector could end up isolated if it did not welcome this technology?

My Lords, I agree with the whole thrust of what the noble Lord said. We think that science and our knowledge of gene editing have advanced since the GM framework nearly 30 years ago, and therefore we think that there are advantages to the environment. That is why we want to proceed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as set out in the register. My noble friend the Minister will be aware that soil structure and quality have been diminishing for many years. He will also be aware of the excellent work being done by the GWTC and Harper Adams University into minimal till regimes, which are proving to have a beneficial effect, certainly on soil structure and the wider environment. Does he agree that, in tandem with emerging best practice based on the science, GM crops are an important component in enhancing yields and reducing the use of fertilisers and pesticides and therefore in protecting and feeding the consumer?

My Lords, my noble friend has made a very important point: we have to feed the world’s increasing population. We think that, particularly in the area of gene editing crops, there are potentially very strong advantages in sustaining and improving the natural environment while improving the hugely important ingredient of soil health with reduced nutrient additions and chemical pesticides.

Sitting suspended.