Motion to Approve
My Lords, this instrument before us today seeks to use existing powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to simplify the process of research and development in plants that have been produced by genetic technologies such as gene editing, where the resulting genetic changes could have been developed using traditional breeding methods.
Over the past 30 years advancements in genetic technologies have been rapid and have led to the development of a range of beneficial outcomes such as disease resistance. But the regulation has not kept pace with our better understanding of the risks and is now seen by scientists as restrictive and outdated. Genetic technologies such as gene editing include a range of breakthrough approaches that provide a precise way of introducing genetic changes such as disease resistance, making the whole breeding process more efficient and responsive. Field trials do currently take place; however, uptake has been low, with estimates suggesting that no more than two field trials for plants happen in England each year. Leaving the EU has provided us with the opportunity to adopt a new, science-based, proportionate regulatory approach.
This instrument, in practice, will remove certain technical barriers for research and development such as processing applications, advertising and post-trial monitoring of genetically modified plants that could have been produced by traditional breeding. It will simplify the need for the Secretary of State to give consent on an individual basis before propagating plant material is placed into the soil.
I hope it will be useful to provide noble Lords with an example of how gene editing could be used. Virus yellows are a group of viruses spread by aphids affecting major crops such as sugar beet. These viruses can cause yield losses of up to 50%. They are currently controlled using a range of pesticides. Over the past four years, a study funded by UK Research and Innovation has identified several promising sources of genetic resistance against virus yellows. Using gene editing to give resistance to virus yellows would reduce the need for pesticides and help protect crops against the virus, helping to protect the environment, increase food production and reduce costs to farmers.
Last year, we ran a consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies and received nearly 6,500 responses. We considered all the consultation responses carefully and sought advice from the independent scientific experts, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which concluded that gene-edited organisms do not pose any greater risk than organisms produced through traditional breeding methods.
In the government response to the consultation, we set out how we will clear a path for genetic technologies such as gene editing through the implementation of a step-by-step approach on how we govern the use of organisms developed using genetic technologies. This SI is the first small and proportionate step in our approach, unlocking science and innovation in an area which holds great potential to help improve the sustainability and productivity of agricultural systems.
Our approach with this SI follows international practice. Other countries, including some of our major trading partners, have already begun delineating regulations between organisms produced by genetic modification and those of genetic editing. For example, the United States passed the SECURE rule in 2020. This means that any GM crop that could have been developed through traditional breeding and which has a history of safe plant-pest use is exempt from the need for regulatory approval.
Across the world, other countries are moving forward in their take-up of gene editing. We are internationally renowned for our scientific excellence in genetics and genomics, yet we cannot fully explore what this technology has to offer. This instrument will help us adopt a more proportionate approach, based on science, to the regulation of gene editing, allowing our bioscience sector to test the benefits and safety of new products by simplifying the current system while ensuring checks and balances are still in place.
Turning to enforcement and monitoring of the SI, I would like to reassure the House that this instrument is for non-marketing, research and development purposes only. The checks and balances I am referring to are existing, robust regulatory frameworks on GMOs and field trials. Any commercial cultivation of these plants will still need to be regulated in accordance with existing GMO rules. In addition, our established GM Inspectorate, run by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, will continue to act as an inspecting body of GM field trials, including those enabled in this SI. I want to be clear that the gene-edited organisms captured by the SI will not contain functional DNA from different species but will have targeted changes to their existing DNA.
We are pursuing this change with secondary legislation as there are existing powers conferred on the Secretary of State, through the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which enable him to remove certain requirements on GM plants in particular circumstances. This amendment is limited in its scope, revising only the regulatory burden for non-marketing purposes of a small category of GM plants. It does not change the GM status of these plants, as the definition of a GMO is not changed by the SI.
We are committed to pursuing these changes in an open and transparent way. As part of this, guidance is being written by ACRE that will allow developers to determine whether a plant could have occurred naturally or been produced by traditional breeding techniques. It will also cover the process by which notifications must be made to Defra concerning non-marketing uses of “qualifying higher plants”. The territorial application of the SI is England only. Collaboration between researchers in different parts of the UK is unlikely to be affected by the change introduced by this SI.
In conclusion, gene editing has the potential to help improve the sustainability and productivity of agricultural systems by helping farmers to grow plants that are more nutritious, more resilient to climate change and less reliant on pesticides or fertilisers. We are committed to proportionate, science-based regulation that protects people, animals and the environment. Together with other innovation approaches, this instrument will help us adapt to the impacts of climate change, reduce emissions and meet our ambitions in the Government’s 25-year environment plan. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, this amendment asks the House to decline to approve this statutory instrument—for total clarity, what is generally known as a fatal amendment. I thank the Minister for his very clear introduction to some of the scientific aspects of the SI and for clearly setting out the differences between gene editing and older forms of GMO technology. I thank all noble Lords who have joined us at this late hour. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, commented earlier, we so often do very important things very late at night. I am sorry about that, but that is not my choice—nor indeed that of most Members of your Lordships’ House, I think.
The Green Party’s position against genetically modified crops and animals is clear, but I will not make any arguments about that tonight. The argument I am making is that this statutory instrument is scientifically muddle-headed, unclear and most likely to create a legal tangle. The fact is, though, that noble Lords do not have to listen to me on that; they can listen to your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. We have to give great thanks for the tremendous work it does slogging through so much material. Its concerns about this statutory instrument shine through very clearly from the length and detail of its report. In the earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I think put scare quotes around the term “technically flawed” and suggested that that was a particularly grave insult in your Lordships’ House. I am afraid that I think this statutory instrument is technically flawed.
The basis of the statutory instrument is that plants that could have been produced naturally or by traditional breeding methods could be planted out in field trials without the current requirement to produce a risk assessment or to seek government approval for non-marketing purposes, as the Minister said. But there is as yet no guidance as to what scientific or regulatory criteria will be used to determine what fits the definition of “could be naturally occurring” or “by traditional methods”, which produces what is referred to as a “qualifying higher plant”.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s language is typically measured and calm, as noble Lords would expect, but the committee “regret”—a very strong word in its terminology—the fact that there is no guidance to explain what this means. I thank the Minister for arranging a meeting with him, his officials, experts and a number of NGOs with which I have been working on this, during which it was asked when the guidance would be produced. The answer was “in a few months’ time”. We are being asked to vote on something when we have no idea what it actually means. I do not know whether the Minister can provide me with any updates on that.
It is very clear from the consultation responses that this term is not recognised in any existing markets or certified sectors such as organic. It is interesting that the Minister talked about how the US and other places are loosening regulation of gene editing, but they are doing so by changing their regulation of the method; they are not focused on the outcomes. No other place is working in the way we are by referring to traditional breeding or natural methods.
In response to the consultation, the Wildlife and Countryside Link said that there is “no conclusive evidence” that organisms created by gene editing
“could be achieved through traditional breeding.”
The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation found that there was no basis for Defra’s claims, bluntly noting:
“The entire purpose of expanding the use of gene editing … is to create animals that do not occur naturally”—
or, in this case, plants. The Organic Research Centre said that Defra’s premise is
“unproven in theory and should not be the basis for changing regulations or removing protections.”
Noble Lords might say that those conclusions are drawn from one side of the argument, but I point them to the Institute of Food Science & Technology, which called the Government’s approach “overly simplistic”. The Microbiology Society said it was “purely philosophical”. The Roslin Institute found it “exceptionally challenging”. The British Veterinary Association referred to it as “fundamentally flawed” and to the way the consultation was done as “leading, misleading” and “likely driven by industry”. The Universities Federation of Animal Welfare suggests
“the use of traditional breeding methods as a benchmark for what is and what is not acceptable is neither useful, nor scientifically logical.”
Finally, the FSA’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes said that a yes/no answer on this question was just not realistic:
“it is first necessary to have clarity on what constitutes ‘traditional breeding’”.
The key issue here is the problem of lack of definition. We come back to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which regrets that the Government have said that they intend this SI to be the first step in a process, with broader changes to GMO regulations, but provide no details of the context in which this instrument can be considered. The committee noted that, were this to be primary legislation, there would be no doubt that your Lordships’ House would be trying to introduce definitions into a Bill, as we cannot in an SI. The committee concludes that, with broader legislation, that would be the appropriate approach.
We find ourselves in a remarkably similar situation to that with the economic crime Bill, which we have just been debating. There, we are rushing through one thing with the promise of a second stage later, except that with the economic crime Bill, we all know why we are rushing through that stage; there is good reason for it and people have agreed to it. We have no explanation of why we need this rush here.
I just briefly mention broader concerns about the guidance, which is to be produced by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, a government advisory body. All the members of that committee have professional interests in biotechnology, and only one has expertise in ecology. None appears to have expertise in environmental toxicology.
There are many other concerns I could raise, but I shall come to a final point, which was raised by the Minister: these are regulations for England and, as Defra told the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have made it very clear that they do not wish to pursue equivalent action in Scotland and Wales. This raises an issue, because seeds are not subject to border control. In his introduction, the Minister, as did the government press release, explicitly mentioned sugar beet, which is, of course, wind pollinated and has the potential to spread over many kilometres and therefore crossbreed with wild or cultivated relatives. It is interesting that this crop is focused on so often, given its destructive environmental and public health outcomes.
I am aware that we do not very often pass fatal amendments, but this is a crucial issue. Yet again, as we have seen in other cases, we are encountering an ideology of cutting red tape. As we have seen in so many instances, such as the terribly tragic case of Grenfell, red tape is the rules that help keep us and our environment safe. As the Minister also said in his introduction, the Government are looking for purposes for Brexit and sees this as a possible one.
It is important that we have clarity on everyone’s position on this SI. We are not voting—and I intend to call a vote—on GMOs; we are voting on whether this SI is an appropriate instrument. I beg to move.
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.
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.
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.
My Lords, I will be brief, but I start by declaring an interest as the owner of a farm. I am a newcomer to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, but there is a danger here that those reading our reports could confuse our criticism of the Government’s process, which is our legitimate purpose, with criticism of the policy, which is neither our purpose nor our duty.
Unfortunately, much of the developing world has been misled into a suspicion of GM technology by a misapprehension that the EU has operated under a blanket ban on GM crops for many years. The reality is different: in fact, the EU has a long-standing regulatory process designed specifically for GM crop approval. In practice, however, polarised views across the EU member states have meant that the scientific evidence has often been ignored, crops have remained stuck in the system, and it was therefore difficult to make progress. However, views seem now to be changing in the EU.
I recall answering a Question at the Dispatch Box on the subject of GM in 2013 from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in which he informed the House that, before the turn of the millennium,
“several reports from the Royal Society, supported by every single national academy of sciences in the world, concluded that GM crops were no danger and caused no harm to human health or the environment. Since then, the enormous expansion in the cultivation of GM crops outside Europe and especially in emerging countries has strongly reinforced that conclusion”.
My response to him was that we were indeed
“going to need all the tools in the box to feed the rapidly growing world population”.
We ought to want the United Kingdom to take a leading role in feeding the world and increasing the resilience of global food supplies, not to stand by watching others take the lead. The United Kingdom is the natural home for scientific research; we surely want companies and research providers to know that the UK is the best place for them to carry out their work, which is exactly what these regulations are all about.
In the same debate in 2013, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, alluded to the strength of support in this House for the science and evidence-based approach that the Government advocate. She said that it would be
“irresponsible, given the need … to cope with a rapidly expanding and often malnourished and starving population, not to take the opportunities offered by GM and by the independent scientific expertise in this country to move forward and save lives”,
and she referred to “GM cotton manufacture” as having had a strongly positive impact on the
“lives of agricultural workers across the world”.—[Official Report, 26/6/13; cols. 736-38.]
These regulations are very clearly about releasing plants with genetic modifications which specifically could have been produced by traditional breeding, and only for non-marketing purposes. That latter point may address the last point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. The important message is for the Government to engage more widely, but I would not want to stand in the way of the first, tentative step represented by these regulations. Like other noble Lords, I strongly support them.
My Lords, the point of regulation is to balance the benefits and any potential harms of a given process. This SI changes the regulation from a precautionary principle to an American proof of harm, a fundamental change enabled only because we have now left the European Union and are no longer subject to its positions on the precautionary principle. While we had many debates in this House on the then Agriculture Bill and the fact that the Government were maintaining the precautionary principle, we are going to have many debates where the use is very much qualified by the term “proportionate”. This is the first example where we are seeing just how proportionate everyone’s commitment to the precautionary principle is going to be. We can only worry what the Prime Minister’s promised Brexit freedoms Bill will deliver, when we see this being the first instance of what the precautionary principle actually means.
The question is whether the evidence is so overwhelming that it is right that the regulatory framework should be changed. While the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others point to benefits, of which I am sure there are some, there are also harms. The question therefore is whether the balance is right. In the justification that the Government have given in the Explanatory Memorandum, they cite only ACRE principally as the scientific body. I am not sure that I would go so far as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in questioning the motives and links of some of the people in ACRE, but it is but one body, and it is clear from the consultation itself that there is not unanimity among that scientific body.
We are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is brought together by biological and scientific experts around the world, and they say that, with regard to synthetic biology, nations should take a precautionary approach. The Convention on Biological Diversity says we should take a precautionary approach, yet the Government are saying that we will move to the American model of proof of harm. I notice that the Minister very carefully referred to the Americans but not to the European Union. While some may claim that the Europeans are looking to move, they have not moved yet. They are still fixed on not allowing this form of gene editing and, given that our biggest agricultural market is the European Union, it raises the question of where we are actually going to market these products in the long term.
But I do not want to repeat points that have already been made. I want to make two points. The first is that there is no public mandate for this. The Explanatory Memorandum, which gives figures for how many people respond to the government consultation, makes it absolutely clear that the public are overwhelmingly opposed and businesses are overwhelmingly opposed. The Government are setting off down a track where there is no market in the UK at present—and, as I just said, our biggest agricultural trading partner, if we were to go down this route in the future, does not allow it. So, the Government have a fundamental question to answer: where is their mandate for this?
Equally, if the Government say, as I suspect the Minister will, that they will be consulting with the public on this in the future, it seems odd to me to bring forward the regulatory framework without setting out first how to consult the public. It is as important, if not more important, at this opening stage in this salvo, that the Government are committed to labelling these products, if they are going to end up on the food markets in the future. You should not set off down a track without making a firm commitment to those members of the public who do not want this technology—and, as I said, the majority of people say they do not—that you are going to label this in the future. I would hope the Minister will be able to say in summing up that the Government are committed—if they are prepared to be open to this by changing the regulation today—to labelling. So my first point is around: where is the mandate for this?
My second point is, for me, a really powerful one. In this country, we are committed to environmental justice. We are signatories to the Aarhus convention, which gives members of the public the right to challenge decisions that have gone ahead at all stages in the future. In a democracy, things happen that people do not like, and that is fine. But, in order to be able to undertake that job of challenge, members of the public have to be able to have the information about trials and initiatives. Yet, going through the SI, looking at the prescribed information, I see we are getting away from all this information that used to be provided to the public. All we are going to be asking these companies to provide is the name, address, telephone number and email address of the person with overall responsibility for the project—nothing about the locale or location.
If I was doing my gardening on my allotment—after this SI goes through, as I am sure it will—I might want to find out why some of my crops might be changing their genetic formulation. Forgive me, I did my degree in theology, so my awareness of scientific terms is limited. But the basic point is that if you want to make a challenge, you need to know where it is. Yet under this SI, in the prescribed information, members of the public are not able to know where these are taking place. That seems contrary to our commitments under the Aarhus convention and, more importantly than that, our commitment to allow people to have environmental justice.
If this Government want this to go ahead, they should at least have the decency to allow people who oppose it in the future to have the information at their disposal to make their complaints. The wording in this SI does not give me confidence that people have the right to environmental justice that I think they should have in this country. It is for that reason, principally—although other matters are important too—that this SI fails to give people environmental justice, that I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.
My Lords, I must begin by declaring my interests as a farmer and also by saying to your Lordships that I have some knowledge of the science, in that I have a degree in agriculture. In its final comment, the Select Committee said:
“The draft Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that they are politically or legally important and give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House.
I agree with that so much. These are very important issues.
Years ago, soon after becoming a Member of your Lordships’ House, I was a member of a Select Committee chaired by that admirable chairman, the late Lord Reay. We did a study, which lasted for quite some time, on genetic modification. At the end of it, we shone a green light on continued development of the production of genetically modified crops and animals. But we also raised a very strong caveat that we had to be very careful not to go hell-bent on developing this science, because there were so many imponderables in it. The point of our committee’s report was that we ought to do everything we could to encourage the science to find out what was sensible to develop and what was dangerous to develop. One issue that I remember was over salmon, which had not been handled very well and which was dangerous. However, we acknowledged that the importance of genetic modification was something that one had to take very seriously.
Somebody made the point that I have often made, which is that, although some say that genetic modification is just a development of normal breeding, hybrid breeding and so on, it is not. Somebody—I forget who—made the point that this is the first time that we have been able as scientists to cross an elephant with an oak tree, putting it to its extremes. This is the first time that one could think of doing that, and so it is very important. Genetic modification could be crucial in dealing with some of the horrors which could lie ahead of us, of increasing world population, and of water shortage and climate change causing difficulties in food production. We are back to Malthus here. Genetic modification could become a very important tool in combating the possibilities—not the probabilities—of world starvation in the future.
I remember very well that, when I first became Minister of Agriculture, years ago in the 1980s, a very distinguished scientist told me that one of the great breakthroughs would be the possibility, through genetic engineering, of being able to amalgamate wheat with the capabilities of legume crops, which as we know extract nitrogen from the air, like clovers and other plants. The wheat itself could then extract nitrogen from the air. That was a possibility. It has not worked, but it is an example of what might have worked and might possibly work in the future. It is only science that will take us this way, and that is why these regulations are important and helpful. As my noble friend the Minister said, this encourages the scientists to develop these possibilities.
We know—and I make no aspersions towards those who have spoken in questioning this order—that in some areas of the press, genetic modification gives rise to a totally new barmy army of those who are utterly ignorant of the science but latch on to what seems an easy scare topic. This is a serious matter; it is a helpful and serious measure the noble Lord has put before us, and I wish it well.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his excellent introduction, and for his time and that of his officials in providing a briefing. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on her introduction to the amendment to the Motion. The use of genetically modified crops and plants is an issue which divides people, both those growing crops and the public at large. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is knowledgeable on this subject, having gained an honours degree in agricultural science.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have looked at this SI and found it wanting, as demonstrated by its report. In its response to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Defra has claimed that this SI enables
“the bioscience sector to test the benefits and safety of relevant new products ‘without the burden of unnecessary regulatory processes’”.
I am in favour of reducing bureaucratic burden but would expect this to be an open and transparent process. My noble friend Lady Parminter has covered this aspect in detail. The resulting field trials taking place from this SI are not transparent. No one will know where they are taking place. This could be next to a local authority allotment site in a rural area or next to an organic farm where wind-blown seed transference could have a devastating effect on the organic farmer. Given that we have the lowest uptake of organic farming in Europe, this is extremely worrying. We should be encouraging organics, not jeopardising them with secret GM field trials.
The Explanatory Memorandum refers to upcoming wider reform but provides no information on what the government plans are for this wider reform. Nor does it provide any guidance which is alleged to come from ACRE shortly. As we have no idea of what the government interpretation of “shortly” is, can the Minister give any indication of when this guidance will be available?
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has indicated that ACRE is not an independent body. The consultation carried out by Defra indicates that the scientific bodies are not overwhelmingly in favour of gene editing. During the passage of the Environment Act, there was discussion on the importance of adopting the precautionary principle. The path we are about to embark on will throw this out of the window and replace the precautionary principle with an ethos of a proof of harm scenario, which is a very different kettle of fish.
Plants grown as a result of this SI are for non-marketing purposes and cannot be marketed without the consent of the Secretary of State. This does not in any way curtail the ability of a Secretary of State to give his or her permission for marketing without any further debate in Parliament. This is a direct bypass of the democratic process which Parliament should carry out.
Defra has indicated that it will move to a self-declaration system following advice from ACRE. Again, this is a concern to organic farmers. Defra says it will be the responsibility of researchers to abide by the law and gain authorisation for GM plants if this material gets into commercial products. Since the sites of trials and subsequent self-declaration systems are unknown, how will organic farmers be able to protect their crops and produce if they do not know where such field trials are taking place? It could be close to their land.
I turn briefly to the devolved Administrations, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have made it clear that they do not wish to pursue equivalent changes in Scotland or Wales. Is this not going to cause confusion across the country as a whole? Perhaps the Minister can comment.
I could go on but, given the hour, I will draw my remarks to a close. During the consultation, 88% of the individuals and 64% of the businesses responding were opposed to this change in the regulations. Given that there are very conflicting views on the efficacy of the science, I am not able to support this SI.
My Lords, I declare an interest in my involvement at Rothamsted, as set out in the register.
I thank the Minister for his introduction and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for raising considerable concerns about the impact this SI might have on the environment. We know that these concerns have resonance among the public at large, and it is right that they are taken seriously and seen to be addressed. I am also grateful to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its forensic dissection of the proposals. Again, it is raising serious concerns that must be addressed.
I accept that this SI, in its current form, makes only minor changes to the regulation of GM research, which occurs only in highly regulated and respected research establishments. It is not about releasing GM food into the food chain. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the history of GM development, which was not properly regulated in the past and created a public backlash we are still living with today. The public rightly want to be assured, on both public health and environmental grounds, that the existence of artificially modified organisms in the land and air, and ultimately in their food, is safe. If we are to persuade them that this is the case, we need to proceed with the best independent scientific evidence and the utmost transparency. These principles need to be applied both to determining the fate of this SI and to the more radical proposals that we understand this Government are now developing.
We recognise the potential advantages that scientific progress can make to the agritech sector. Many of these were flagged up in our consideration of the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act. Our knowledge of the importance of biodiversity and the adverse impact of intensive farming comes from some of the latest scientific research. We now understand the huge advantages of eco-friendly farming, harnessing the power of nature to farm in a productive and sustainable way. Again, we learn a lot of that from the scientific community. Using fewer artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides can rebuild the health of our land for the long term. This goes hand in hand with the development of crops that can provide natural resistance to disease and destruction. Science and innovation will continue to have a key role to play in our food systems of the future.
However, one thing that has come to light in considering this SI is that scientists themselves are not all agreed on the approach being taken by the Government. I am grateful to my shadow Defra colleague in the Commons, Daniel Zeichner, for painstakingly reading through all the submissions and highlighting some of the discrepancies among scientists in the Commons debate on this SI. As has been said, this SI attempts to delineate between genetically modified organisms whose modifications could have occurred naturally and GMOs where an external unrelated gene has been introduced. The Government have chosen to define these naturally modified plants as “qualifying higher plants” but this definition has proved contentious among scientists. As Daniel Zeichner said:
“The Roslin Institute says: ‘it is exceptionally challenging to define which changes to the genome could have been produced by “traditional” breeding.’ The Royal Society says: ‘this question is problematic as there is a difference between what could be produced by traditional breeding in theory and in practice’. The Royal Society of Biology says: ‘No clear criteria can be described that would determine whether an organism produced by genome editing or other genetic technologies could have been produced by traditional breeding. This means no clarity can be achieved using this principle, and it is not appropriate as the basis of regulation.’”—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 2/3/22; col. 7.]
These are hugely worrying critiques if the Government are planning to base the whole of the future reforms of GMO on this distinction.
Of course, the Government have quoted the advice of ACRE, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, in support of their proposal. However, that brings me on to the second concern, about transparency; this point was made by other noble Lords. It turns out that six of the seven scientists on the board of ACRE have links to commercial companies, and three of them quote Syngenta as an interest. So, although I am sure that these scientists are experts in their field, it does not appear that they have the independence to make a purely scientific judgment on this issue. This is precisely the sort of concern that will fuel public anxiety and objection if it becomes known. Can the Minister provide some assurance that the definition of “qualifying higher plants” will be revisited, given the existing doubts about whether that is the right phraseology to go forward? Can he assure the House that the propriety of ACRE to rule on these issue can be, and will be, reassessed?
I turn to the submission from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which raised a number of critical concerns about the proposals set out in this SI. It reiterated the concerns about the definition of a “qualifying higher plant”, to which I just referred. In response, the Government advised that they are in the process of developing guidance, which will be available shortly. When are we likely to see that guidance? The committee also raised concerns about the researchers creating GMOs having to self-declare whether their product is in this category, and about the fact that the new notification measures do not give details of the location or scale of the research; again, this issue was raised by other noble Lords. It points out that this is a major concern to the organic growers who want reassurance that their products will not be contaminated, putting their organic status at risk. I would be grateful if the Minister could address these concerns in his response.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also raised concerns about the devolution aspects of these proposals, given that they are England-only, and the Welsh and Scottish Governments have no intention of following suit; again, noble Lords raised this issue. Although this particular SI is focused only on research, does the Minister agree that it would any future commercialisation of products extremely difficult unless there was alignment in the internal market and with the outcome of the review of the EU’s GMO regulations that is currently taking place? It is interesting that even the majority of businesses that responded to the consultation opposed the proposal, so there clearly is no demand for GMO products to enter the food chain on the current basis. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked, how will that work if it is England-only, and how will those products potentially be marketed across borders? Businesses are obviously concerned about that as well.
Finally, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee regretted that we have no further information about the Government’s wider plan for reform. We share that concern, and I hope that the Minister is able to provide more information today.
We are not going to oppose this SI today, given the relatively small changes to research controls which it introduces. However, we will not be supporting the noble Baroness’s fatal Motion, as it is not our practice to do so, except in exceptional circumstances. None the less, I hope that the Minister is hearing the message that any future proposals will need to be underpinned by much more rigorous regulation. We need to have much greater transparency. It will need to be overseen by a truly independent and trusted scientific committee if it is to have any hope of gaining the public support—and the support of this side of the House—which it will need going forward. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am very grateful to your Lordships for a very good debate. I have that difficult balance to achieve of recognising the lateness of the hour and the business to which we must attend, while also answering the very many important questions which have been asked. I will respond to them in no particular order. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for giving us this opportunity to address some of the concerns which she has raised. I am not sure that I am going to win her round, but I always live in hope.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of different views from different scientific organisations. In the consultation, we received scientific evidence from a range of scientific and research institutes, such as the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Biology, the Roslin Institute, the John Innes Centre and many others. Many responses were nuanced, with some discussing the complexity in defining gene-edited organisms, suggesting that regulation should follow a product or characteristic-based approach where the end product determines the level of risk, rather than the process used. However, in their responses, many institutions pointed to the various benefits which gene editing can provide and supported the Government’s direction to regulate gene-edited organisms differently to GMOs. For example, the Royal Society of Biology said:
“Genome editing is a tool which holds promise and, if appropriately managed, offers a route to achieving many potential and much needed benefits to society … Creating a regulatory framework in which products of genome editing are not regulated in the way that GMOs currently are, is key to realising these benefits.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and a number of others, also raised issues of the credentials of ACRE members. This is the one area of this debate by which I have been disappointed. Ministers in Defra appoint the committee members for ACRE, together with Ministers in the devolved Administrations and in accordance with the requirements of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In ACRE’s framework agreement, their commitments on openness and transparency are outlined, including recording any actual or potential conflicts of interest arising in meetings, and the action taken to handle them, as per the Nolan principles. If we want to get the best people in this field, it is very likely that, at some point, they have done a piece of work for an academic institution or company—it is very hard to find someone who has not. Frankly, I would want people with real expertise and who are governed by very strict rules, as the outlined by the Nolan principles.
A number of noble Lords and Baronesses raised the issue of divergence with the devolved Administrations. The regulation of GMOs is a devolved matter. We wrote to devolved Administration Ministers after the release of the Government’s response, stating our intention to bring forward an SI on gene-editing plant research and development.
To address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, the devolved Assemblies will not be making an equivalent regulatory change in their jurisdictions, as he said. Consequently, the territorial application of this SI is England only. This means that for any field trials being conducted in Scotland and Wales, scientists will have to continue risk assessments and seek formal consent before trials can commence. That regulatory divergence should not cause any issues for researchers, developers or the public. However, we are aware of leading research on gene editing that is being conducted in devolved Administrations, such as at the Roslin Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland. We are aware that the NFU is supportive, including NFU Scotland.
As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, the EU is moving in the same direction as us, although not quite as fast as we are. Scotland has legislation that says that where possible it will mirror changes in policy in this area in the EU, so it could be that Scotland will pursue a similar route in time. That is up to Scotland. Our English institutions will work closely with the institutions that I listed because there is enormous interest north of the border and in Wales in getting this right.
The issue of guidance was raised, rightly. ACRE is in the process of developing guidance that will help developers wishing to undertake field trials with plants made using genetic technologies such as gene editing, and it will be finalised before Easter. If I may give a hint, developers will need to know whether their plants are exempt from GMO restrictions on the basis that they meet the criteria of a “qualifying higher plant”, which is defined in the SI. The guidance makes it clear that notification is required in all cases and that it is not necessary to seek formal confirmation from Defra regarding its qualifying status. The guidance demonstrates which types of genetic changes can result in a qualifying higher plant, and highlights examples to illustrate how key criteria relating to natural processes and traditional methods and selection might be applied. Further detail is provided for cases that do not fit these precise descriptions, and we make clear that developers can always seek a view from Defra if they are unsure. As I say, that will be available in detail before Easter.
Reflecting some of the concerns of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, there has been a question about why this is being done as secondary legislation. We believe that the SI is limited in its scope—that is reflected in points made by the noble Baroness who leads for the Labour Party—revising only the regulatory burden for non-marketing purposes. On the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, about retail, there will be no retail; any produce from these trials will be destroyed. However, I think her point is wider than that, and if it then goes on to be licensed then of course transparency and labelling are issues that will be debated vigorously at that time. We have existing powers through the Environmental Protection Act 1990 that enable the Secretary of State to remove certain requirements on GM plants in particular circumstances, and that is why we think this is the right mechanism for bringing this to your Lordships.
A number of people have asked about off-target effects and the issue relating to organics. A number of noble Lords have referred to their entries on the register of interests. I did not. I am a farmer—I used to be an organic farmer. I did not think I had to declare an interest because this is nothing to do with farming; it is simply about trials. However, I am happy to declare my interest on the record. The advantage of gene editing over traditional breeding methods is that the genetic changes that it makes are more targeted, which makes the breeding process more efficient and responsive. Using gene-editing techniques means that off-target effects become more noticeable and in some cases predictable, allowing us to manage and control those off-target effects.
Points were also raised about the safeguards and containment measures of the plant field trials, including the risk, as I say, of the cross-pollination of the organic sector. I make this very clear: some of the information put out by campaign groups in their advice as to how to respond to our consultation wrongly hinted that this was some sort of deregulatory splurge that the Government were undergoing. I can assure noble Lords that that is not the context at all. This is a small, proportionate, science-based change to allow the right sort of research to take place. We are not deregulating.
We have more than 30 years’ experience of GM field trials in England which have not caused environmental damage. There has been no evidence thus far that pollen seed or other plant material capable of reproduction from GM field trials has affected businesses in the organic sector in the UK. The off-target effects occurrence rate can be below 0.01% in some cases and techniques such as CRISPR, which some noble Lords will be aware of, mean that we can detect and control them efficiently. Of course, the GM Inspectorate, run by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, will be monitoring this very closely.
This SI amends only the regulatory requirements for non-marketing purposes—a point I made earlier. The commercial cultivation of these plants and any food products derived from them will still need to be authorised in accordance with existing GM rules.
Another issue raised was public perceptions of this. Our social scientists undertook a detailed analysis according to established approaches which took account of all the responses and aimed to transparently report the findings of the consultation. We also consulted the independent scientific experts, ACRE, which concluded that gene-edited organisms do not pose any greater risks. After taking all responses and evidence into account, we decided to adopt a step-by-step approach to the regulation of gene-edited organisms that is science-based and proportionate. On the comments about public perception, other sources of public insight give a different, rather more informed view, I believe, of this type of technology, with 57% of participants not at all or not very concerned about it. A BEIS survey from 2019 found that 63% of participants supported the use of this kind of technology for disease-resistant crops, 65% supported it for crops resistant to adverse weather and 56% supported it for increasing the health benefits of fruit and veg.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, raised the Aarhus convention. The Government consider that the approach being taken through this SI, further to the recent consultation exercise, is consistent with the UK’s international obligations. On public access to environmental information, under these regulations, researchers intending to release a qualifying higher plant for the purposes of a field trial must provide information about the project and this must be published on the register, which will be housed on GOV.UK.
I am conscious of time so I will rattle through two or three more quick points. The precautionary principle is key. The qualifying GM plants covered by this SI do not pose a greater risk to human health or the environment than their traditionally bred counterparts. Therefore, this is not a move away from the precautionary principle. We are committed to proportionate, science-based regulation that protects people, animals and the environment. I have read the EU Commission’s guidance on the precautionary principle, but that is a debate for another day. It is quite clear that we have veered away from the original intentions of the precautionary principle and that can very often be damaging.
I want to thank other noble Lords for raising a number of different points. We benefit from the wisdom and experience of my noble friend Lord Jopling, which goes back many decades. He is right to point out the wider benefits of this type of technology. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was right to plead the case for an open and transparent process, and I hope we have that.
I conclude by reminding noble Lords that, on almost anything I have ever dealt with at Defra, you can find science which supports a contrary view. I believe that the weight of scientific opinion on this is clear that this is a proportionate approach that will benefit society and allow this country to remain at the forefront of this kind of technological research. I commend the instrument to the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and everyone who has taken part in this very interesting and comprehensive debate. Like the Minister, I am somewhat on the horns of a dilemma because I am aware of the number of people waiting for the next important business.
I will try to respond to the Minister’s comments. It is interesting that a lot of this debate has focused on the views of scientific institutions. He acknowledged that there is complexity in their response and that they are saying that this is a complex area—the problem of defining what could be like naturally occurring or through traditional breeding. It is interesting that in his introduction he said that we were aiming for simplicity here. However, what has been achieved is not simplicity but complexity, which is reflected in the fact that no other country is taking the direction that we are here of focusing on the outputs rather than on the processes.
I will pick up the Minister’s point about ACRE and its composition. Of course, it is not just the case that people may be unduly or unreasonably influenced by their professional interests. There is also the problem of groupthink, where you get a group of people from a similar background, with similar professional lives, all thinking the same way without someone asking critical questions. We really need to look at that in terms of the composition of that body.
The Minister stressed that this SI was limited in scope, and on one level I agree. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter—I thank her very much for her extremely informative and thoughtful contribution to this debate—pointed out that this is a shift away from the precautionary principle to the American principle of proof of harm. That is not limited in scope but a 180-degree shift in legislative approach. The Minister rightly said, as have others, that we are not talking about retail sales of the product here. However, as the noble Baroness said, surely the aim is eventually to produce things for retail, otherwise what is the point? That is where we are headed with this.
I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for pointing out the concerns of organic farmers. That is an area where there has been a great deal of concern. Again, the Minister was perhaps slightly self-contradictory in saying, “We haven’t had any problems with what we’ve done thus far”, while saying in his introduction, “There have been very few trials and very little has been happening because of the current regulations.” If we have had very few trials, perhaps it is not surprising that we have not seen results.
I will pick up a couple more points very quickly. Several people focused on the issue of the need to feed the world. I have to point out the fact that a third of British arable and half of American arable is used either to grow food for animals or to produce fuel crops. If we stopped factory farming, a lot of that food could feed humans, which would be a great deal healthier.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, made an argument about GM crops. That is not the argument that I am making; I am making an argument about this SI. I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, because it is obvious that I did not make it clear enough in my introduction that I was not claiming that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was commenting on the content of this; it was commenting on the form and the system. When I was addressing your Lordships’ House I thought that everyone in this Chamber knew that, but perhaps I should have made it clearer for people listening outside. I acknowledge that. However, he said, “These faults in procedure, as identified by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, happen all the time.” That is not an argument for voting against my call to stop this SI. Surely at some point, with the huge systematic problems that the committee has identified in its report, your Lordships’ House has to say, “Enough—we cannot proceed with this way forward.”
I want to pick up finally on the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. She made important points that we are not talking here about being against the science. The science has changed and developed enormously. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, referred to the many complexities he saw decades ago, essentially the unknown unknowns and the known unknowns. We are gradually starting to uncover a great deal more about how genetics relate to the phenotype of plants, the behaviour of plants and the way organisms work. I point any noble Lords who really want to inform themselves about this to a great podcast called “Big Biology” that is all about the cutting edge of science. This science is changing at enormous speed, and an understanding of how genes work is very different from what was thought 10 or 20 years ago.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, also pointed out how we are seeing huge advances in agroecology, of working with nature and incredibly complex natural systems—the billion organisms that should be in a healthy teaspoon of soil—and that we can work with those collectively. It is not a case of treating nature like a machine and changing one cog.
I am aware that there is a lot of pressure not to do this but I feel that the issue is crucial, so I do not feel at this point I can do anything but ask to test the opinion of your Lordships’ House.
The Deputy Speaker decided on a show of voices that the Amendment to the Motion was disagreed.
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn for a short period during pleasure to await the resumption of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill. Noble Lords should watch the annunciator; it will say when the House will resume.