My Lords, it is a privilege to open the Second Reading of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill. I declare my interests as a farmer.
Science, research and development are at the heart of igniting the United Kingdom’s economic recovery, boosting productivity, creating new jobs and improving people’s quality of life. The United Kingdom is a world leader in genetics and genomics. With this Bill, we are supporting scientists to harness the huge potential locked within the DNA of plants and animals and will make sure that plants and animals developed using precision breeding are regulated proportionately to risk. We will also introduce a new science-based authorisation process for the food and feed produced from them and ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place to regulate precision-bred organisms.
I am proud to present the exciting and vital opportunity that the Bill offers farming and the environment. It will give farmers options for greener, more resilient and more productive farming in the face of climate change and global challenges to world markets. Precision breeding has the potential to develop plants and animals that are more resilient to weather and resistant to disease and less reliant on chemicals such as pesticides and antibiotics.
This year we have seen England endure one of the hottest summers on record, leading to drought declarations in many parts of the country. Farmers have faced lower yields, higher fertiliser costs and challenging conditions for animal welfare. We do not have time to hesitate when it comes to ensuring that the right varieties and breeds are available to farmers to help them face volatile markets and a changing climate.
I will give noble Lords an example of how the Bill could help increase food production from a crop on which 2.5 billion people are dependent. At the John Innes Centre in Norwich, leading researchers have used precision-breeding techniques to identify a key gene in wheat that can improve traits such as heat resilience while maintaining high yield. This development could help address issues of rising temperatures not only at home but abroad.
The genetic technology Bill will create a new proportionate regulatory environment that will encourage innovation to help us adapt to the impacts of climate change. Many would say that this is long overdue. It is not an overstatement to say that precision-breeding technologies such as gene editing have the potential to revolutionise farming. Science has moved on from where we were 30 years ago, and this should be reflected in our legislation so that we can harness the benefits of these technologies.
I know that some noble Lords may have concerns regarding the safety of precision breeding. On that front, I hope to provide reassurance. For thousands of years, we have been breeding crops and animals to domesticate them and select desirable characteristics. Using the potential of animal and plant DNA in breeding programmes has resulted in safe and trusted products. Precision breeding is the latest in this line of breeding techniques which utilise this same resource. Under the Bill, an organism will be considered precision-bred only if it could have occurred through traditional or natural processes. Therefore, precision breeding allows us to introduce beneficial characteristics that could have occurred through traditional breeding, but much more precisely and efficiently.
In putting forward the Bill, we are choosing to follow the science. The scientific advice from independent scientific experts and our expert Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, or ACRE as I shall refer to it, is that organisms produced through precision-breeding technologies pose no greater threat to the environment and health than their traditionally bred counterparts.
The Bill sets out four key policy objectives which would enable the proportionate and science-based regulation of precision-bred organisms, while still making provision for appropriate safeguards for precision-bred plants, animals and the food and feed derived from them. The first objective is to remove plants and animals produced through precision breeding from the regulatory requirements governing the environmental release and marketing of genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs. The key difference between precision breeding and genetic modification is that genetic modification produces organisms containing genes from a sexually incompatible species that could not occur naturally or by traditional breeding. The current GMO legislation will continue to govern these organisms.
Secondly, the Bill will introduce two notification systems: one for precision-bred plants and animals used in research trials, and a second for the marketing of precision-bred plants and animals. The information collected from these notification systems will be available on a public register on GOV.UK, which I hope will give noble Lords confidence in the transparency that the Bill provides.
The third objective will be to establish a proportionate regulatory system for the marketing of precision-bred animals to ensure that animal welfare is safeguarded. I understand that some of your Lordships may have some concerns regarding the inclusion of animals in the Bill. The Government are committed to maintaining our already high standards in animal welfare. That is why we are planning to take a step-by-step approach, facilitating the commercial use of precision-breeding technologies in relation to plants first, followed by animals later. We will work closely with industry, animal welfare NGOs, scientific advisers and other stakeholders to design the next steps.
To ensure that animal health and welfare are safeguarded, under the Bill anyone wishing to place a precision-bred vertebrate animal on the market will have to submit an animal welfare declaration, which will be assessed by an animal welfare advisory body. These measures are designed to safeguard animal welfare and ensure that the health and welfare of relevant animals will not be adversely affected by any trait that results from precision breeding.
I hope noble Lords are reassured that the measures in the Bill will not only safeguard animal welfare standards but have the potential to improve them. For instance, in research by Imperial College London, the Pirbright Institute and the Roslin Institute, we have seen the potential to use gene editing to produce chickens that are resistant to avian influenza—a disease that noble Lords will know is currently having a devastating effect on wild birds and poultry farming in this country.
The final policy objective will be to enable the establishment of a new science-based pre-market authorisation process for food and feed products developed using precision-bred organisms. The Food Standards Agency will design a new framework that is more proportionate to the risk profile of precision-bred food and feed products. This authorisation process will build on five key principles: safety, transparency, proportionality, traceability and building consumer confidence.
The Bill has the potential not only to unlock benefits for the economy, as the size of the global market for technologies such as gene editing is predicted to rise to over £7 billion by 2026, but to unlock benefits for farming and to address the impacts of climate change and to reduce food waste. Tropic Biosciences is an example of the innovative, smaller bioscience research companies that the Bill will benefit. It has recently developed a non-browning banana using precision-breeding techniques. Given the fruit’s high perishability, this innovation has the potential to reduce waste, which helps both the environment and consumers. It is exciting to think that the Bill will support investment in both Britain’s leading research institutions and SMEs such as Tropic. As we move to align with our international partners and harness the benefits of these technologies, we are enabling the development of foods enjoyed at home and abroad.
I am looking forward to what I am sure will be an enlightening debate. I beg that the Bill be read a second time.
Well, it was a real pleasure to hear the Minister open this interesting debate, and we are very grateful for the way he has done it. This is a Bill whose importance we should not underestimate. Although the amounts of money the Minister declared were quite small, the actual commercial value of these technologies in the longer term is massive. He has carefully, and very reasonably, understated the potential advantages to the environment: in a world that is increasingly suffering from crop pests and drought, this is a very serious issue. It has been estimated that, across the world, one-fifth of all cereal crops is lost by processes during storage, so this is massive in terms of starvation. Anything that can be done to make plants resistant will therefore be very important. Clearly, plants and animals have different consequences, and that is one thing we will need to discuss in Committee.
In addition to drought resistance, I have listed a few other things I think are important. The fact that you can make better flowers and improve the appearance of plants sounds trivial, but it is none the less part of the marketing. Certainly, for economies such as Ecuador’s, it is probably one of the most important money-spinning exports. In addition, pathogen resistance generally will be very important. Making plants that have greater nutritional value or bigger fruit will certainly be hugely valuable to a lot of people. There is a whole range of other things we might come to during this debate, which I will not go into in great detail now.
The challenges, however, are quite considerable, and before I come to that I will mention my own experience with gene insertion, transfer and modification of various sorts in animals. My experience goes back as far as when I first visited Jon Gordon in New York, about 40 years ago, and saw the giant mice he was trying to make. At the time, that was almost one of the first possible mutations, and he was very proud of the fact that he had done this. I was amazed to see what he was doing down his microscope and thought, “I have to get into this technology myself”. I did not, really, because by that time I was already involved in in vitro fertilisation, which uses some of those technologies but not all.
What was surprising and horrifying was going down to the animal house with him afterwards and seeing the mutations he had not talked about, which had occurred as a result of the manipulation of gametes and embryos. There was no doubt that some of the animals were unexpectedly blind and had limb defects and a whole range of other things—skeletal defects of different sorts—as result of whatever it was: whether it was the DNA being inserted or the method of manipulation was not at all clear.
That has been a constant problem. In the early days, raw DNA was injected, and gametes and embryos have been soaked in DNA, from whatever source. We have made DNA, of course, using instruments, and various ways of incorporating DNA have been used, with greater efficiency. Until recently, the main way of doing this was using viruses that were piggybacked as a kind of Trojan horse into the nuclear DNA of the organism. Now, of course, we have CRISPR-Cas9. I wonder whether the Minister, when he sums up, might apply himself to how often that will be used, or whether it is involved in this legislation. To my mind, it is not entirely clear from the Bill what techniques will not be permitted. The idea of natural sources seems to be a bit blurred.
I know from our own experience of all kinds of gene expression, we get lots of surprises—it is variable. Certainly with CRISPR, although that is probably the most accurate targeting at the moment, we often do not get any kind of gene expression at all and sometimes we do not get insertion. It is well-known, as I am sure the Minister knows, that you occasionally get off-target mutations, which may cause problems to the organism, added to other abnormalities that are completely unexpected.
With any gene insertion or any kind of gene manipulation, there is a risk that in some species there will be different attitudes. There is an issue of whether or not the genetic modification that you want will be maintained and continue to be expressed in the way that you want. I see that multiple repeats will be allowed in the Bill, which may help to increase the amount of gene expression—I imagine that is why that was considered—but all these unfortunately quite technical issues are things that we will need to discuss in Committee.
Without going further, one of the clear issues as a result is that a lot of people will be concerned about the welfare of the animals. One might make large animals. The biggest animals that we have been involved with in my own laboratory have been pigs, which are pretty big, but some people have modified cattle as well, and that may be something that we need to discuss. We do not always treat our farm animals as well as we should, and in many parts of Europe there are very heavy-bred animals that I would have thought suffer considerably because of the breeding or interbreeding that is dictated. When I do any kind of animal research myself—I did it in the past but do not do much of it now, although my team still does—we have to have strict animal licences from the Home Office. I do not see anything of quite that calibre in the Bill, so maybe we need to look at that in Committee.
The issues for a lot of people will be, for both plants and animals, those of diversity. I remember clearly Dolly the sheep, which was a very different issue but there were some similarities. When that paper was produced in Nature, I was surprised to see Dr Ian Wilmut justifying the procedure of cloning on the basis, he said, that we would be able to make better farm animals that would be used for herds. That may be true, but if you reduce diversity in a herd then you may increase the risk of that herd suffering from unexpected organisms or different traits that you have not yet identified. That is an issue that we need to look at in detail when we examine the Bill in detail.
I suggest that, apart from diversity, we have to look at how reliable the technique is. I am quite concerned by the use, in the Title of the Bill, of the phrase “precision breeding”. I know it is coming into the literature—I see it increasingly in scientific papers—but in biology there is no such thing as precision. We do not know what is precise or entirely predictable. One of the reasons for being interested in genetics is that it is not completely predictable. It is that issue that may cause concern, along with animal usage, which is something that we need to look at. I ask the Minister to address that issue.
Without going into a huge amount of detail, I am still not clear what we do when there is a high abnormality rate in any animals as a result of these techniques. Do we just cull the animals? Do we treat them in a different way? What kind of disposal of livestock will be used? That will be important. With plants, as everyone knows, one of the great issues that have dogged this technology from the very beginning is changes in the surrounding habitat: changing the environment for both insects and other plants, and the risk of plants overgrowing areas. With an unstable environment in some countries, the real question is: might you then end up destroying crops that you really need or reducing the value of crops that you already have?
These are some of the issues I am quite concerned about. The Bill continuously deals with the issue of marketing and profit. I remind the House that that was one factor in sinking Monsanto when it produced its initial modification, which was then marketed. The marketing was so aggressive. I think the marketed seeds would not reproduce so farmers could not then use them as their own technology in countries which were developing economies. That is one issue we need to look at.
All these technologies are controversial, as the Minister and the Government have certainly accepted. They should not be controversial, but no doubt the controversies will be raised in this debate. We have to be absolutely clear, as the Minister said from the Front Bench, that everything we do with these organisms has clarity and proper accountability. We must be absolutely sure that we are not causing harm but trying to do good.
That brings in the issue of how you manage to run the regulation of this technology, which is focused on a considerable amount in this Bill. However, I am not sure it is adequate. In particular, perhaps we ought to be looking at the long-term effects—particularly in animals when looking at epigenetic effects which will not be expected at the time of the modifications or changes in DNA we are looking at—to the fate of the animal.
That will be very relevant because one of the great advantages of these plants is that they are not only good for nutrition but for making chemicals and medicines we want to use in human care. To some extent, this information will be valuable to human medicine as well when it comes to animals.
There is a great deal to be discussed, but we need some clarity over some of the terms used, particularly “precision” because I do not believe anything in life is really precise. Certainly, my expectation from biology is that it is imprecise, which is one of the reasons I probably got so interested in embryos.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I strongly support this Bill. I would like to acknowledge my colleague in my department in Oxford, Jane Langdale, and her post-doc Dana Vlad. They spent a lot of time explaining the details of gene editing to me and showing me their work on rice.
It is widely acknowledged that current agricultural practices are unsustainable. The green revolution of the second half of the last century was a miracle. While the global population doubled between 1960 and 2000, per capita food production increased by 25%. This was a result of a combination of genetics, the application of agrochemicals, irrigation and mechanisation. But that miracle came at a cost: the loss of habitats and biodiversity, depletion of soils and water, contribution to greenhouse gases and pollution of the environment. Here in the UK, this impact is dramatically illustrated by the fact that populations of farmland birds have more than halved in the past 50 years. The simple fact is that, as we have squeezed more out of the land for ourselves, we have left less for the rest of nature. Furthermore, the gains of the green revolution are slowing down while demand is increasing. Many experts estimate that we will need to increase global food production by at least 50% by 2050.
This is why many have called for a doubly green revolution of producing more with less: more food with less environmental damage. This does not mean returning to pre-industrial, low-intensity organic farming. It means combining the best of new technologies, including GPS, IT, and genetics, to help us sustainably manage soils, habitats and water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while producing more food from the same amount of land. Precision breeding can play an important role in this doubly green revolution. We have already begun to hear of some of the benefits it can bring, including reduced use of pesticides, perhaps better nutritional properties, increased disease resistance, resilience in the face of climate change and increased yields.
Nevertheless, as we heard, a bit over 20 years ago, the application of a different advance in genetic technology—namely, transgenic modification of crops, or “GM crops” for short—stalled in this country because of objections, and I hope that that does not repeat itself. Of course, the Daily Mail’s coining of the term “Frankenfood” was a key catchy slogan for the objectors. I personally bear the scars of that campaign because I was head of the Food Standards Agency at the time. GM crops were subject to regulatory scrutiny for safety under the novel foods regulation on a case-by-case basis. But, because the FSA concluded that herbicide-tolerant soya or Bt maize, for example, was as safe as its conventional counterpart, I earned soubriquets such as “Professor Bullshit” and “The man who put the ‘con’ into consumer protection”.
There may be lessons to be learned. One is that, although the objectors in the anti-GM campaign often presented their worries as being about human health or environmental safety, they were also concerned about other things, such as the role of agribusinesses—the noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred to Monsanto—the further intensification of agriculture or simply this being playing God with nature. This meant that scientific arguments about the rigour of regulatory scrutiny by expert committees gained little traction. So we have to be aware of that, as we think about introducing this form of genetic technology.
Another factor was that the benefits of the first generation of GM crops accrued primarily to farmers in North America and South America, rather than to consumers in the UK. Perhaps the direct consumer benefit contributed to the uncontroversial acceptance of GM human insulin—which many, perhaps most, diabetics take—or GM rennet for making cheese, including organic cheese. When I talked about this to then US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, he responded—I will not do the full American accent—by saying, “So you mean that, when we have a tomato with the Viagra gene, consumers will lap it up”. Perhaps, in this case, precision breeding will produce products that have a direct consumer benefit, which might help to get over the hump, so to speak.
I now turn to a few specific points and questions for the Minister. The definition of precision breeding in Clause 1 is deliberately—I assume—broad, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, mentioned. For instance, gene editing can be used to delete a gene, to modify a gene within the existing genome or to replace a gene from within the same species. Could the Minister confirm that all three of these are included in the definition of “precision breeding”? Could he also perhaps elaborate on what he said in his excellent introduction about the relationship between precision breeding, as envisaged in the Bill, and transgenics—GMOs—as considered in earlier legislation? Is the aim to draw a clear line, or put clear blue water, between transgenics on the one hand and gene editing or precision breeding on the other? Alternatively, is it seen that, once accepted, precision breeding is a stepping-stone to the wider deployment of modern genetic techniques? Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.
I turn briefly to residual exogenous DNA. Although the aim in gene editing is to modify genes within a species, part of the process of doing that involves the DNA from other species. This may be the agent that brings the gene into the cell, which may be the bacterium Agrobacterium, or an antibiotic-resistance gene that is used in the selection process to find out what you have gene edited. The question that some people have raised with me is: if residual bits of exogenous, or foreign, DNA remain after gene editing, is this not transgenics by the back door? However, importantly, the Bill points out that, if there are residual fragments of DNA, they would not be able to code for a protein, and they would therefore be non-functioning. In this way, even if there are a residual bits or fragments of exogenous DNA a few base pairs long, gene editing is quite distinct from transgenics. I hope that the Minister will confirm my interpretation.
How can we deal with these residual fragments if people are worried about them? In theory, whole genome sequencing could be used to search for these tiny fragments, but on the other hand it may be difficult to distinguish exogenous fragments from somatic mutations that have occurred during the process of a gene-edited organism growing up. However, it is important to note that the techniques of gene editing are not static; they are developing rapidly. In a recent paper in Plant Physiology, Yubing He, Mudgett and Zhao point out that it is already possible to gene-edit plants without any residual transgenes, so perhaps this worry will disappear in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred to animals. The Bill takes a very broad definition of “animal” as meaning any metazoan—in other words, all eukaryote multicellular taxa of animals. This, I understand, is designed to future-proof the Bill. While it seems unlikely that scientists will, in the near future, wish to market gene-edited tardigrades or onychophorans—your Lordships should look that up on your smartphones—the Bill could, for instance, open the way to gene-edited companion animals, such as cats and dogs. It could be a new way to create the best in show at Crufts. Given that this will be an additional cause of worry, I wondered if it might be more appropriate to proceed in a stepwise fashion and, in the first instance, restrict the Bill to farm animals. That is just a question.
Some people have argued that if we are going to have gene-edited products, they must be labelled. This seems a bad idea for a very simple reason: the gene-edited product will, on the whole, be indistinguishable from a comparable product produced by conventional breeding, so labelling could become a potential cheat’s charter. That is why I think the Food Standards Agency’s proposal of a public register of gene-edited products that have been put on the market or have applied for approval would be a good alternative to labelling to provide transparency.
My last comment relates to the Food Standards Agency’s two-tier regulatory approach, which is still under development, for approval of food and feed. The threshold for entering the higher tier, requiring more detailed regulatory scrutiny, is that the change brought about by gene editing is deemed to be “significant”. I can see this becoming a recipe for boundary disputes, and I wonder whether a single continuum might turn out to be an easier approach. That is really for the Food Standards Agency to consider as it refines its approach.
I end with a quote from Jonathan Swift. In 1727, he wrote that
“whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would … do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”
In the 21st century, Swift needs to be updated for gender equality: the co-discoverers of gene editing, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna—both female and Nobel prize winners for chemistry—have done more for humanity than probably any of us will ever do.
My Lords, I begin by drawing attention to my farming interest in the register. Like others who have spoken, my first comment is to welcome the Bill. I agreed enormously with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, when he said—I have put it into my own words—that we are doing what we should have done years ago. More years have passed than I am prepared to admit since I graduated in agricultural sciences. The teaching of genetics then, which had of course moved on some way from Gregor Mendel, could be described as the foothills of the science, practice and application of genetics compared with the towering peaks of genetic knowledge and application today.
Mercifully, however, I have had a number of refreshers in genetics since those days—the first was in the 1980s, when I was Minister of Agriculture. Noble Lords will remember that, in those days, the European Commission was faced with horrific surpluses of almost every agricultural product, which we could neither eat at home nor sell abroad. The Commission’s Luddite reaction was to discourage any new scientific procedures which could make those surplus mountains and lakes even larger. It did its best to discourage developments, particularly entry into the food chain of products created by genetic modification or by things such as hormone implants in animals to promote growth. On the latter, it even suppressed scientific assessments which it had commissioned itself because those studies could see no danger in proceeding. So, in those days, little progress was made in applying the new technology and the potential benefit from the emerging techniques of genetic modification. Somebody once said—I am not quite sure where—that it has become technically possible, with the knowledge of applying genetic techniques, to cross an elephant with an oak tree; I will come back to that in a minute. In the 1980s, the Commission’s actions very much stifled the fruits of science.
I had a further refresher in 1998 and 1999—shortly after I first became a Member of your Lordships’ House—when I was a member of the European Communities Sub-Committee D under the most distinguished chairmanship of the late Lord Reay. We produced a report entitled EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture. Having studied the Commission’s stranglehold on the progress in this area, we concluded in paragraph 203, the final conclusion of the report:
“GMOs need to be regulated, at least until our knowledge develops further, but it would be extremely damaging if Europe’s access to this technology was subjected to inappropriate impediments”.
We are now discussing this welcome Bill, which introduces these necessary regulations to ensure that foodstuffs which have been altered through genetic techniques are safe.
However, at that time, we discovered that, in spite of the Commission’s Luddite attitudes, large quantities of genetically modified soya beans, maize and tomato pulp were already being imported into the European Community, particularly from the United States and other places where regulations could be described only as lax. Indeed, in our Select Committee report published in 1999, we said in paragraph 15:
“The enzyme Chymosin is identical to rennet and is produced by genetically modified yeasts or bacteria. It was introduced in commercial cheese-making in 1991 and is now used to manufacture 90 per cent. of hard cheeses”—
so much for the Commission’s restrictions back then.
The Bill is a worthy step in ensuring that the introduction of gene editing and other techniques will happen only with proper safeguards, but I have some concerns about the Bill. We are told that it covers genetic changes that could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. This clearly rules out our elephant and oak tree liaison, which I referred to earlier, but I can foresee some prolonged arguments as to whether the traditional processes or the natural transformations conditions apply. I think the noble Lord, Lord Winston, again, had the same anxiety as I have. So, will the Minister expand a little on the appeals procedure, because I can imagine many, many appeals about whether those conditions within the Bill are followed? For instance, modern wheats are created from mutations years ago, long before genetics was dreamed of—unlikely mutations, in those cases—which I can see could be the basis for arguments as to whether new products today are within the rulings of the Bill.
Finally, I recall a conversation I had in the early 1980s with Lord Rothschild, the former chairman of the Agricultural Research Council. He was wildly enthusiastic about the possibilities of using genetic techniques to attach to wheat plants the capacity of legumes—peas, beans and clovers, in this case—to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, thus providing nutrients for the wheat. On one hand, it would have dramatically increased wheat yields in exceptionally poorer land and would have had a massive effect on relieving poverty and hunger in less developed countries. On the other hand, it would also have reduced the demand for fertilisers and similar chemicals. I know that this particular research, which was entered into enthusiastically all those years ago, was too complicated to be fully developed and has slowed down, although I understand it still continues. I quote it as an example of a development that would or could be hugely beneficial to mankind.
I remember a similar development when I was Minister of Agriculture. Using public money, I bought—I cannot remember how many—perhaps about 10 Chinese pigs, much to the hysterical amusement of the Chinese Minister of Agriculture, because the department’s scientists knew that those pigs had an in-built capacity for very large litter sizes and they wanted to see if they could extract the gene and implant it into the traditional European pigs, which would have made them very much more productive. My point about this is that it seems a pity that the Bill gives no encouragement to these sorts of benefits because of the limits of the Bill, especially in Clause 1. Those rather glamorous developments, if I can put it that way, remain impossibilities. Will the Minister please comment on these sorts of possibilities and say some encouraging words about possible further steps in the future to embrace the influences for good that could lie ahead through much wider genetic modifications than those rather limited ones that appear in the Bill?
My Lords, I should first declare an interest through my involvement with the Rothamsted Research institute, which is already carrying out authorised genetically edited field trials on wheat in an attempt to tackle some of the global food challenges that we collectively face today.
In previous debates in this House and in the Commons during consideration of this Bill, we on these Benches have made clear that we are pro-science and pro-innovation. We understand that laws designed 30 years ago for GM products need to be updated. It is a process of reform taking place in many countries, including the EU, which, as we know, is undergoing its own consultation process, so nothing we are doing here is unique. It is an opportunity for the UK to be at the forefront of technology, but this will be the case only if our legislation is respected globally as being robust and effective. Sadly, I do not believe the Bill as it stands meets that aspiration: it fails, in its current form, on a number of fronts.
First, as the Minister acknowledged in his letter to us of 1 November, the Regulatory Policy Committee gave the Bill’s impact assessment a red rating. Its reasons included: failure to assess the impact on business; failure to acknowledge and assess competition, innovation, consumer and environmental impacts; and failure to address the impacts from removing labelling and traceability requirements. The Minister’s response in his letter was to say that this rating was not terribly important and it was not a reflection of the quality or ambition of the Bill. I must say I beg to differ, because these factors, which the impact assessment ignored, are fundamental to the quality of the Bill, and hence the problem we have before us today in dealing with a Bill where much of the detail is missing.
Equally, the Minister’s solution to this red rating, as set out in his letter, was to create an enactment impact assessment to be delivered at the end of the Bill’s passage. I have to say that that is simply not acceptable, since it will not inform our deliberations as we scrutinise the Bill through its various stages. We need that information now. Has consideration been given to postponing the passage of the Bill, so that we can have all of the promised documentation before us in a timely manner when we consider the Bill?
Secondly, all the evidence shows that the public support genetically edited foods having a different regulatory regime than genetically modified foods, provided there is effective regulation, transparency and labelling. However, much of the detail in the Bill is left to secondary legislation, so we simply do not have that; we cannot measure it. It is not clear, for example, what information will be disclosed to the public about field trials or product labelling. We are being asked to take a great deal on trust, which has already been stretched to breaking point, given the delays that have followed the passage of the Environment Act, where, as we know and have debated before, all sorts of promised and statutorily required follow-up legislation has not been forthcoming.
That is why our colleagues in the Commons proposed a much more rigorous model of regulation, akin to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, to oversee the process and give that consumer confidence, proportionality and environmental safety, and implementation of the legislation proper oversight. This would give both researchers and businesses confidence in the regulatory system, as well as cementing public confidence in and acceptance of the new regime. I am sorry that the Government did not see fit to accept that proposal; I hope that, even now, the Minister will feel able to reconsider it.
Thirdly, many of the benefits of the Bill highlighted by Ministers focus on the environmental and food security benefits. We welcome the prospect of, for example, creating plants that are resistant to extreme weather conditions and diseases, could reduce the need for pesticides or could create higher yields to address rising food insecurity driven by climate change. Indeed, much of the good work already being carried out in scientific institutions around the country addresses these very issues; I fully acknowledge the critical role that they are playing in addressing our global food challenges.
When we first debated the outline of the Bill, it was focused on crop research. However, a decision has now been made to open up the reforms to the genetic editing of vertebrate animals. I am much less convinced by the need for this provision or that the animal welfare protections currently in the Bill are sufficient. My noble friend Lord Winston set out the concerns better than I could every aspire to but, for example, there is a real danger that animal gene editing could be used to accelerate traditional selective breeding to produce fast growth, high yields and large litters, which we know are capable of causing suffering to farmed animals. The image of chickens unable to stand because their body weight has been steered towards excessive breast meat must be avoided in the future, not exacerbated. We need those guarantees. In the Commons debate, my colleague Daniel Zeichner quoted the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. It is worth repeating. He said that
“animals should not be bred merely to enable them to endure conditions of poor welfare more easily or in a way that would diminish their inherent capacities to live a good life.”—[Official Report, Commons, 31/10/22; col. 678.]
One of the main examples cited for how animals might benefit from genetic editing is that it may cut down on antibiotic use; of course, we all understand the strong arguments for that. However, if the end result is that animals simply live in more confined spaces without infecting each other, it is an unacceptable outcome. In the Commons debate, the ex-Secretary of State, George Eustice, said that he had hesitated before adding animal research into the Bill but had concluded that you should not put off things that are too complex by kicking the can down the road. I am sorry that he did not kick this can down the road, because it is too complex and the Government still do not have the answers as to how this element of the Bill can provide robust animal welfare solutions. Again, we are being asked to take the details of how this will work on trust, as the Government have said that they will consult further on this issue. Meanwhile, the powers to introduce these changes via secondary legislation, without further scrutiny, already exist in the Bill.
So, I do not believe that the Bill is fit for purpose in its current form. It needs to be more clearly underpinned by clear public interest criteria for future research. It needs to have a more robust and accountable regulator. It needs to rethink the application of gene-editing freedoms in animal research. I look forward to the opportunity to debate these issues further in Committee.
My Lords, because of my interests as a veterinarian and as declared in the register, I shall confine my remarks to the impact of the Bill on animals, particularly in terms of disease resistance, the environment and animal welfare. These are overlapping issues for which, in my opinion, there is huge potential for positive effects with the adoption of new breeding technologies.
Notable recent advances in molecular biology relevant to the Bill include the increased speed and lower cost of whole-genome sequencing, as well as the precise manipulation of the genome by such means as gene editing. Against this background of scientific advances, although it has long been known that there is variation within and between species of animals in susceptibility to infectious pathogens, this has, by and large, not been exploited and emphasised in the conventional breeding of animals; conventional selective breeding has tended to concentrate on other productivity traits.
Now, with whole-genome sequencing, gene editing and using the range of genetic resources represented by a variety of breeds of livestock—rare breeds are a particularly valuable resource here—there is now a real opportunity to select for disease resistance relatively rapidly and very precisely. For example, using gene-editing technology, pigs have been bred with resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a viral infectious disease of global importance that causes extremely high morbidity and mortality. In Europe alone, it is estimated to cost more than £1.3 billion per year.
With regard to avian flu, with which we are all now familiar and which is currently causing huge mortality in both wild birds and domestic poultry throughout Europe, it has been possible to gene-edit chicken cells in culture to make them resistant to the avian flu virus. This gives hope that poultry with genetic resistance to this pathogen could be developed.
With regard to environmental issues, by reducing disease morbidity and mortality, new breeding technologies have the potential not only to improve food security but to maintain output with fewer animals and reduced land use, while at the same time reducing drug and chemical usage—notably that of antibiotics and parasiticides—to help combat the global problems of antimicrobial resistance and environmental pollution.
A further major environmental benefit is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from both reducing morbidity and mortality—that is a major cause of emissions that do not lead to any productive benefit—and directly breeding animals, particularly cattle, with reduced methane emissions. We know that that is a heritable trait in cows. So, I would argue that, in total, there are some substantial potential environmental gains.
With regard to welfare—let us remember that disease is a major welfare issue—reducing disease is a huge welfare gain, as I have outlined. In addition, welfare could potentially be improved by reducing the need for certain potentially painful management procedures, such as disbudding calves so that they do not grow horns or breeding polled cattle. Sex determination could avoid the large-scale culling of, for example, male chicks from layer flocks of chickens.
Concerns about animal welfare, as we have already heard, are raised; they are sincerely held but I am yet to be convinced that they are well founded in that they seem not to be specific in any way to precision breeding or gene editing, which experts in the subject maintain mimic natural mutational processes and conventional breeding. As with the introduction of any new technology, it is important to weigh the benefit-cost ratio. In my opinion, in this case, it is very positive in favour of the technology—provided, of course, that there are appropriate regulations and safeguards.
Turning to that issue, the Bill sets out a number of requirements, which the Minister elucidated, that must be met to enable precision-bred animals to be developed and marketed. These measures are in addition to existing animal welfare legislation. I will illustrate that in a bit of detail, if I may.
This Bill does not change existing legislation safeguarding, for example, animals in research and development. They are protected by the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, world-class legislation which protects animals during the research and development of drugs and vaccines for humans and for animals. Also, the Bill does not change the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which protects animals in many other ways. I highlight two aspects of the Animal Welfare Act and subsequent regulations. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 state:
“Natural or artificial breeding or breeding procedures which cause, or are likely to cause, suffering or injury to any of the animals concerned, must not be practised ... Animals may only be kept for farming purposes if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of their genotype or phenotype, that they can be kept without any detrimental effect on their health or welfare.”
Regarding dogs, which my noble friend Lord Krebs mentioned, the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 state:
“No dog may be kept for breeding if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype, phenotype or state of health that breeding from it could have a detrimental effect on its health or welfare or the health or welfare of its offspring.”
I suggest that these two pieces of legislation are relevant to this Bill.
Moreover, it is generally agreed that, where possible, welfare assessments should look at the outcomes of any given management or breeding procedure and should not, without evidence, presume certain systems are good or bad for welfare a priori. I am ashamed to say that current natural breeding and management practices can lead, and have historically led, to welfare issues. I cite double-muscled Belgian Blue cattle breeds, which initially had to be delivered by caesarean section, and brachycephalic—or short-nosed—dogs, which we have bred with increasing levels of deformity as a fashionable trade, but which suffer all their lives from chronic ill health.
This Bill introduces additional animal welfare monitoring and checks over and above existing animal welfare legislation. One might argue that if existing legislation was fully enforced, the sincerely held concerns about negative welfare outcomes of this Bill could be assuaged.
The Government have said that the application of this Bill to animals will not take place until a regulatory regime is in place. Is this regulatory regime what is currently outlined in the Bill, or does it refer to additional regulatory measures that might be brought in?
Finally, I have some concerns which I share with others about gene drive technology. Would gene drive technology implemented by gene editing be permitted under this Bill, or will gene drive be classed as GMO and subject to existing GMO regulations? Gene drive technology is being researched not only for use in insects in the tropics to prevent the transmission of disease but in mammals, for example, for the potential population control of alien species such as grey squirrels. It involves the release into the environment of gene-edited individuals, characteristics of which, such as producing male-only offspring, are naturally amplified through the wild population. This is essentially an irreversible process which, if applied to wild animals, has considerable consequences for biodiversity and the environment, and has international ramifications too. Will gene drive technology, achieved by gene editing, be permitted under the Bill? I will fully understand if the Minister wants to respond by letter.
In general, I support this Bill very strongly. It would allow exciting new technologies which have the potential to be a game-changer in how we control disease in animals, to improve animal welfare and to be beneficial to the environment.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and to reinforce his concern about gene drive and his desire for a direct answer from the Minister at some point.
The House may not know that the term “genetic engineering” was coined by a pulp science-fiction writer, Jack Williamson, in the novel Dragon’s Island. As you would expect from a 1950s pulp science-fiction novel, it was an extremely lurid, overwritten and overblown expression of concern, but the concerns that arise from gene drives fit within that framework.
Returning to the framework of this Bill, your Lordships’ House is now used to Bills coming before us, from the Commons or directly from the Government, in a dreadful state. However, the Schools Bill was at least about schools. The Procurement Bill was at least about—you guessed it—procurement, however poorly drafted it might have been, as the Government acknowledged. Yet with this Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill we have hit a new low. Experts from across the field, including many in favour of the widespread rollout of gene editing, say that “precision breeding” has no technical or legal meaning. The phrase is a sales slogan, not a definition, making the tabling of this Bill extremely surprising. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, set out many other practical concerns from the Regulatory Policy Committee. I will not repeat them, but the red flags are flying.
Echoing and building on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, coming back to “precision”, how DNA works is far from precise, and the tools with which we manipulate it interact with highly variable genetic material in unpredictable ways. I will venture a little into the depths of the science because it is crucial. As with so many other issues within science, understanding is changing fast. Science often revises itself in deeply fundamental ways. I am afraid that your Lordships’ House as a whole has not truly grasped that. There are few people in politics with a scientific background, though many of them are here in the Chamber today, and some who acquired it many decades ago, while those understandings have since moved on, and sometimes have reversed.
As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, outlined, genes do not operate in a deterministic way how an organism develops. Living beings are complex, ever-changing. They are not machines built to a blueprint. Picking up some of those technical points, copy number variation, the number of instances of a gene, can have widely varying effects. There are epigenetic changes: under different environmental circumstances the code of the genes can be read differently. Even the location of the same gene in a different place can result in widely different outcomes.
What I was taught in a science degree 30 years ago was junk DNA—about 99% of the total—is now titled “non-coding DNA”. We know, as we knew then, that it does not produce proteins, but it has widely varying impacts on the DNA that does produce proteins. I pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about exogenous DNA, paraphrasing a little, that we do not really have to worry about it, but his junk DNA can have unknown and variable effects, so we really must think about it. However, I thank the noble Lord for putting “tardigrades” into Hansard, I think, for the second time, since the first time was in my maiden speech.
There is increased scientific understanding of how genetics and the environment interact. It is neatly, if somewhat cryptically, summed up in the phrase “genotype does not determine phenotype”. Plants and animals are products of complex, sophisticated, ever-changing interactions between their genes, the microbiome that, in effect, makes every complex organism in an individual ecosystem—including every Member of your Lordships’ House—the chemical and physical framework around them, and even pure chance. I point noble Lords to a fascinating article in New Scientist on 21 September on fascinating new research showing how there is a large element of chance in the way your brain develops.
The tools used for gene editing are not nearly as precise as has been claimed and there is a practical reality about how these studies are carried out. They often fail to check beyond the intended outcomes; they see if they produce what they wanted, but they do not see what else they have produced. To quote one careful academic analysis from this year,
“very few studies have used ‘unbiased’ methods and a systematic approach to detect genome-wide off-target mutations.”
That is where we look for the driving force, the commercial interests, behind so much of this research. People are very often not paid to find the results that they did not want.
I point noble Lords to an excellent briefing, which covers these issues in far more detail than I have time to, from the Alliance for Food Purity. There is a great deal of very detailed technical work in that briefing. However, the underlying problem is that the Bill is applying the language of engineering to biology, and they are not compatible. The outputs—the food that we might all eat without knowing it, if the Bill is allowed through in its current form—could see the appearance of unexpected allergens or even toxins. With the Bill in its current form, farmers could see genetically edited seeds planted in their neighbours’ fields and changing the genetics of their fields, without their being informed. That is a particularly huge issue for organic farmers.
That issue is played out on a national scale too. Both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have indicated that they do not want gene-edited crops, but there is no way of stopping the seeds or their genes at these borders. The issue extends beyond these islands. The Bill is likely to be in breach of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety—an international agreement that aims to protect biodiversity from the impact of genetic engineering.
The list of problems with this Bill—a familiar set—goes on. There are Henry VIII clauses, step by step, allowing changes by ministerial diktat at virtually every key point. To pick out just one, Clause 1(8) allows the Secretary of State to widen the definition of a precision-bred organism through regulations. That is a crucial part of this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, set out the issues around labelling and how it could be changed by regulation.
Many noble Lords have already covered the issue of whether animals should be excluded from the scope of the Bill. It has been very widely covered and the Minister, in a debate we had a couple of weeks ago on avian flu, almost made a concession in acknowledging that we have huge problems with pests and diseases in our factory-farmed animal populations, because they are enormous. This inevitably allows one disease to flourish but, if you tackle that one disease while leaving the system in place, another disease will arrive in short order.
I come to my final group of points. Various noble Lords have made implicit or explicit references to food security. If our standard approach is through gene editing, we are aiming for a silver bullet-type approach by continuing as we are now but looking to find magic solutions. But we know what we need to do to feed the world—to use that phrase—and, on occasions, we have heard an acknowledgement of this from the Government Bench opposite. We need agro-ecological approaches that work with the sophisticated complexity of nature, which we are just beginning to grasp, to truly cultivate the systems that have developed over hundreds of millennia, rather than to take to them like a toddler trying to put back together a clock that it has disassembled with a hammer.
In his introduction to the Bill, the Minister said that science must be at the heart of our national recovery. I absolutely agree with that statement. The 21st-century sciences of ecology and systems thinking understand that these complex ecosystems cannot be managed like machines. That is the science that we desperately need to feed ourselves and look after our natural world.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said that the green revolution was a miracle that came at a cost. The COP 15 biodiversity talks are coming soon and we are starting to see that that cost has been enormous and unaffordable. We cannot afford to repeat today the same mistakes we made in the 1960s.
I will finally pick up on the Jonathan Swift quote used by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I give the noble Lord credit for making a gender update to it, but I am going to make a speciesist update. Noble Lords will recall that it talked about growing two ears of corn or two blades of grass where previously there had been one. Well, if you want those extra blades of grass or ears of corn, you actually need a healthy soil, with a rich ecosystem of fungi and bacteria working co-operatively with the plant. Then you will get a lot more than two extra ears of corn; you will get healthy, rich food, a healthy environment and security for all of us.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Since my wife is always accusing me of verbal pedantry, I suppose I should feel some sympathy for the noble Baroness’s opening argument, which seems semantic in essence—that the words “precision breeding” in the title of the Bill do not accurately describe genetic editing. However imprecise the wording may be, no one can doubt that gene editing is more precise than relying on random variations of natural breeding, let alone the radiative mutations that used to be permitted. I just suggest to the noble Baroness that a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, and that this Bill, under any other name, would be as good.
I cannot claim the expertise contributed by many noble Lords in this debate but, for 35 years, I have had the honour of representing Rothamsted agricultural institute. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has the even greater honour of being on its board. It is one of the oldest agricultural research institutes in the world and it is world-leading. It aims to bring the best of science into practical application. I spoke to people there this morning and gathered that they are immensely supportive of this Bill. Someone said it removes the roadblock that an EU legal ruling has provided, which has prevented the institute implementing and gaining practical benefit from scientific developments that have already been made. Only a couple of weeks ago, it planted the seeds in a second trial for gene-edited wheat. I am informed that normally when wheat is cooked it can produce acrylamides, which are potential neurotoxins. This variant will produce fewer acrylamides and will be less toxic; it will be safer and healthier for users if all goes well. That is an example of how this sort of technology can be good for the health of humans, as well as for plants, animals and the ecosphere.
As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said, we are having to change the law because we inherited law from the European Union that was based on the precautionary principle. I only wish that Viscount Ridley were here to contribute to this debate. He has often analysed the precautionary principle in the past and said it boils down to saying that you must not do anything for the first time. The principle has been around in Europe since long before the European Union was thought of. When tomatoes were first brought from South America to Spain, people said, “They are obviously deadly poisonous. You must not eat them. That red colour signifies their danger.” For two centuries, no one ate tomatoes—they were grown only for decorative purposes—until a couple of old souls tried them and found them tasty and nutritious. They are now a major part of our diet.
We must avoid adopting the principle that we must not do anything alien, new and untested, particularly now that we are in a position to understand the science of what we are doing and to know that gene editing is not only essentially natural—doing what nature does but in a more targeted and specific way—but potentially safer. It focuses on benign and beneficial changes, which will increase yields; reduce reliance on herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers; and enable crops to adapt more to climate change. It will do so, I hope, with precision and without damage to the environment.
By contrast, nature is not benign. It does not produce only mutants that are naturally beneficial. They can be harmful and dangerous. They often harm the particular organism that has mutated. I am told that, if the potato were now introduced as a new, freshly developed artificial product, it would almost certainly not be allowed in any country in Europe and probably not here: when potatoes turn green, they produce alkaloids that can be toxic. Peanuts would certainly not be allowed if they had been produced by artificial means. However, with this technology, there is every chance that we will be able to produce variants of peanuts that will not produce toxic anaphylactic shock. This would greatly benefit the many people who are potentially allergic to them.
In the past, we have allowed radiation-induced variants. This involved putting seeds and plants into nuclear reactors and bombarding them, producing millions of variations and hoping that some would turn out to be beneficial. That is a far more random process than anything that we are talking about here. Golden barley, much loved by brewers, was produced by that process and contains literally millions of variations from the original, natural barley from which it was produced. We now have 25 years’ experience of various scientific approaches to genetic modification and editing, and no one has suffered or died. None of the fears and concerns that people have expressed has, as far as I know, been observed in practice. We can therefore proceed in the way that the Bill suggests that we should, and that way should give us all confidence.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned how he had been vilified as a result of the Daily Mail campaign against “Frankenstein foods”, one of the most effective images ever conjured up. I am ashamed to say that, at that time, the party of which I was deputy leader played along with that and thought that there were votes to be gained from expressing opposition to those foods. I was certainly not supportive of that particular approach. I am glad that we—and the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats—have accepted, in principle, that we should go along with the scientific approach of allowing gene editing.
One can understand that naturally people are concerned when something new, strange and unknown comes on the scene. However, I am sad that the hostility stirred up then by the Daily Mail and others was allowed to stop not just gene editing but genetically modified organisms over a generation. For example, it prevented golden rice, which was genetically modified to produce more vitamin A. If used in developing countries, it would have saved millions of people from blindness. However, until very recently, it has not been available—I gather that it is in the final stages of approval in the Philippines and one or two other countries. We should be ashamed of allowing such hostility to build up without examining the science behind it and reassuring ourselves that there was virtue involved, rather than risk.
I very much hope that the Bill will go through. Of course, it may require some of the amendments that have been suggested. I hope too that, when it has been shown to work effectively and not result in the things that people fear, it will pave the way for us to allow other forms of genetic modification as well, to the benefit of humanity and this country.
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. I do not suppose anyone in this House will be surprised to know that I support the Bill and everything it is trying to achieve. Some of your Lordships will remember that I moved the amendment to the Agriculture Bill that resulted in the consultation that has brought us to this point.
I declare my relevant interests. I am still loosely involved in a family farming enterprise growing crops and rearing livestock. I am also chairman of the trustees of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, where our mantra is helping people and nature thrive together. Furthermore, I co-chair the All-Party Group on Agriculture and Food for Development, whose primary purpose is to bring improved agriculture to the smallholders of the developing world, notably in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is with that latter interest in mind that I stress how crucial it is that we bring urgent help to the African lady farmers to enable them to plant improved seeds across a wide range of different crops. There is such a lot of work to be done. In Africa, we do not have time for the 20 to 25 harvests needed for the random chance mutations that traditional breeding provides. We urgently and desperately need to make multifaceted improvements to a whole of range of crops to avoid the devastating effects of climate change. Bear in mind that Africa has the world’s fastest-growing human population. Therefore, unless we act quickly, we will undoubtedly be responsible for human tragedy on a very large scale.
We have to ask ourselves: how do we breed plants that can resist the many different diseases and pests present in every country without having to put more chemicals into the environment? One of the problems in the developing world is that many farmers are only semi-literate and semi-numerate, so chemicals are often used far too liberally, sometimes to the detriment of the farmer’s health herself.
How do we breed plants for hot countries which can resist the droughts brought about by our climate change? Irrigation schemes are expensive and use valuable water. Seeds are much cheaper, so you can breed either a plant that requires less water or, more often, one that comes to harvest two or three weeks earlier, during which time its older counterpart might have shrivelled and died.
How do we breed a rice that resists the flooding of Pakistan or Bangladesh? Plants can be bred to stay alive underwater for several days or, when threatened by water, to spurt upwards to keep their heads above the flood waters. Both are being developed. How do we breed a maize that is salt-tolerant, or a cassava plant that does not have to be dried and processed within 24 hours, or a cocoa plant resistant to mildew or phytophthora? How do we produce crops less susceptible to the dreadful post-harvest losses you get in Africa? Perhaps more importantly, how do we breed crops that give children access to vital vitamins and minerals, such as zinc and iron, deficits of which can cause blindness, stunting and cognitive degeneration? We need precision breeding, without the dangers of too many off-target characteristics that are inherent in the random mutations of traditional breeding processes. We need it in both crops and animals.
Coming back to the UK, we also need our own new varieties of crops to combat our own climate change. We need new varieties that can hopefully be produced with greatly reduced, or even a total absence of, chemical applications, and which therefore can be grown in harmony with the biodiversity that we so desperately need. One of the major plusses about inserting gene resistance to pests is that it is better for biodiversity. Why is that so? It is because, unlike with chemical sprays, it does not kill the pest; it just protects the crop from the pest, which can go on thriving in conservation headlands or neighbouring habitats.
We can also, hopefully, breed new varieties which can give us the improved nutrition that so many of our population aspire to—perhaps a wheat with minimal gluten content to help coeliacs, for instance, or varieties that have a longer shelf life in our supermarkets and thus reduce the need for plastic. The advantages of such precision breeding are huge, and the disadvantages seem so much more remote than traditional breeding practices. All the projects I have mentioned are at various stages of development across the world, and in my view, are safer than the random mutations used in traditional breeding, and other forms of breeding, as other noble Lords have mentioned, such as using gamma rays and so on. For those, it can often be necessary to remove hundreds of plants with undesirable, off-target characteristics. The backcrossing in genetic breeding is quite limited, compared to normal breeding.
I turn for a moment to the gene editing of animals, because there is currently a slight weakness in the Bill in that area. First, I stress that, for the avoidance of suffering of animals, precision breeding is vital—not the cruelty that some people might think or imply. It reduces the off-target characteristics that other forms of breeding are more likely to produce, some of which might be harmful to the animal, as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, mentioned. Genetically editing a salmon egg, for instance, is not cruel. Rather, if, for example, you can increase the mature salmon’s resilience to sea lice, as they are striving to do at Roslin, you will be doing both the salmon and its surrounding environment a heap of good as there will be no need for environmentally damaging treatments to remove the lice.
With mammals, you also take the egg, treat it, and then reinsert it into the mother— a process no crueller than IVF in humans. If, for instance, you thus increase resistance to PRRS in pigs, as again they are striving to do at Roslin, then you are actually reducing the enormous suffering and deaths from this appalling respiratory disease. Moreover, if you alter the genes of one animal, you should—and I agree that there is doubt about this, but the tests are going on—get hundreds or even thousands of their progeny with the same characteristics without touching them in any way. Breeding resistance to disease into future generations is much more sensible than the ongoing use of antibiotics, medicines or even vaccines as the best way to help animals live pain-free and disease-free lives.
Nevertheless, there is one point that I noted was raised in the other place, and was not, in my view, satisfactorily resolved there. The process for authorisation and licensing of new breeds of animals is, as yet, not very clear and probably not wide enough in its remit. Who or what is the animal welfare advisory body? Who is on it and how independent is it? What is its full remit?
I realise that, even before this Bill, the existing law insists that every single step of the process of holding and breeding an animal has already to be licensed, checked and inspected many, many times for even the mildest form of suffering on the part of the animal. That is all good and as it should be. As I said, that already happens and there is little need for us to reinvent the wheel. To my mind, however, there is too much responsibility, certainly in the latter stages of the proposed development process, for the notifiers themselves to keep the welfare advisory body informed. It appears that the notifiers are in the driving seat.
Clause 14 states only that regulations “may”—and, as the Minister knows, we tend not to like that word in Bills before this House—
“make provision for requiring the notifier”
to provide the Secretary of State with information about an animal’s progeny during periods prescribed by the regulations. I for one would like more clarity on those processes in the Bill.
What worries me more is who will determine whether the newly bred characteristic enhances the quality of life of the animal and its descendants on the farm. In other words, how far down the line does the welfare body’s remit extend? We do not want animals being bred, for instance, so that they can be ever more densely packed in inhumane conditions. Of course, there is nothing about precision breeding that makes this more or less likely than the traditional random breeding practices already in existence, but if we are going to make new trait developments easier, then we want to make sure that we get the right trait developments. So there is a small bit of tightening up to be done on the Bill at this point.
However, I end by repeating that I cannot endorse more strongly everything this Bill is trying to achieve. It has never been more important, as our UKCEH mantra says, for people and nature to thrive and prosper in harmony. If that is to happen, we must allow science and precision breeding to help us make it possible.
My Lords, I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, who gave us a further excellent example of the expertise brought to this House by so many noble Lords in support of the Bill. I also support the Bill and I very much welcome it. I look forward to the further speeches to come, not least the maiden speech by my noble friend Lord Roborough. I do not want to hold up the House too long, because I do not bring the scientific expertise that so many noble Lords do.
However, I have taken an interest in this issue since I was first elected to the other place in 1997, when I was involved in the Plant Varieties Bill, not least because of my own constituency interest. As with my noble friend Lord Lilley, in my constituency, when I was first an MP, we had the Plant Breeding Institute. We still have in my old constituency the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, and I thank the people there for the conversations that I have had with them over a number of weeks about this Bill and its implications.
In a sense, I approach this from the standpoint not of the science, but of the policy. I was very much against the view taken early in this century that genetic modification by its nature should be resisted rather than be embraced. The point was to embrace it and regulate it in ways that gave us great confidence. However, there is an essential point in this Bill that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—who is not now in his place, but he will doubtless read it—and I thoroughly agree with him. It is in Clause 1(2)(c), which says that an organism is precision-bred if
“every feature of its genome could have resulted from … traditional processes, whether or not in conjunction with selection techniques, or … natural transformation.”
If one thinks back to the point at which so much of our public debate about GMOs was distorted, the distinction was because that which is the result of gene editing, which is essentially adding pace and precision to what would otherwise be achievable through natural transformation or traditional breeding, was being conflated with transgenics. This Bill is absolutely right in principle because it separates those two things out so that we can look carefully to ensure that we are regulating proportionately.
That is why—if I may just add this point in response to the speech with which I otherwise agreed from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—I do not agree with the point made by Daniel Zeichner in another place and the Labour Party that we need a new and separate regulatory function. So far as I am particularly concerned with plant varieties, we have a perfectly acceptable regulatory mechanism with the specific authorisation requirements, broadly speaking, set out in this Bill, allied to the existing use of the recommended list—the national list—and the related authorisation. That should give people confidence.
It does not give people confidence to have a separate regulatory function and a separate regulatory body in order to arrive at a decision in relation to something that is, in fact, indistinguishable as a product. If people think there are two separate regulatory processes, they think there will be two separate, distinguishable products. In that sense, the Labour Party’s proposals, which were not accepted in the other place, were wrong. They would not have given the public confidence; they would have raised public concerns. That would have been a mistake.
My final point is very much to agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling about the importance of this in the context of our relationship with EU regulation. I am a remainer and I would have stayed and fought the argument, but we did not win this argument about genetically modified organisms with our EU colleagues. I remember in particular having debates with my colleagues and friends in the European People’s Party, who had what amounted to an ideological—one might almost say theological—objection to the use of GMOs, which, because of the conflation with gene editing, has prevented us making steps in this direction and having a regulatory structure for it.
As we change this, we should try to avoid regulatory divergence from the EU, which I want us generally to avoid, but in this particular instance we should continue to argue that we are doing things the right way. Frankly, it is time for the European Union to think about whether it, too, bearing in mind the advantages and the progress that has been made in gene editing, should distinguish between transgenics and gene editing of this character and should change European regulation.
Here we are, only a few days after the United Nations declared that there are 8 billion people in the world and that there are going to be 9 billion. If we are going to feed people, use fewer pesticides and synthetic fertilisers—as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, rightly said—and achieve the kind of progress that we need to make, not least in plant varieties, I very much support the Bill. I hope it will be of benefit not only to British industry, which is very important in my part of the world in East Anglia, but, equally, across the globe in terms of enabling us to feed the planet.
My Lords, in general I support the Bill. I am afraid that whenever the word “genetic” appears some people, organisations and supermarkets run a country mile. It is no good supporters of the Bill complaining and moaning about this. I remember my experiences in my early days at the old MAFF in 1998-99, when the issue arose. We all recall that, at that time, GMO tomato paste was on the shelves outselling non-GMO tomato paste 2:1. Then the anti-science, semi-religious zealots got to work.
That is the history, but there is a fundamental lesson regarding new technology and food that I took away and tried to use later at Defra and at the FSA, which is that the consumer is king and that the consumer benefits always need to be up front, rather than the producer benefits. I was always reinforced in that view by the late Professor Derek Burke, a former chair of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. His essay in 1998 in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, published by Mandolin on behalf of the Times Higher Education Supplement, is worth a read by the Minister. Professor Burke’s four key points on new products were: that they must be technically possible; they must offer advantage to the consumer; the regulatory process must be rigorous, open and universal; and the consumer must be offered a choice, at least initially. It is worth putting on record the very last sentence of his essay:
“Technical skills will not be sufficient on their own to turn this exciting and powerful new science into products and processes; scientists will have to take the public with them.”
That is a key lesson.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, that there is little wrong with GMO techniques. Some 250 million people in the United States of America have been our living experiment for about 25 years. As far as I am concerned, there has not been a single problem regarding food safety over that time. I accept that there have been some environmental issues, but I do not keep comparing the prairies of the USA with our tiny, people-dense island. They are not the same.
The science of breeding has never been more vital with climate change, as others have said. There will be new diseases in food crops and food production animals that we have not encountered before. Confidence in the current and proposed regulatory system is vital.
I am not in favour of gold-plating but, where food is concerned, the key aspects for consumer confidence are openness and transparency. In this respect, Defra blotted its copybook with the recent Public Accounts Committee report on Weybridge animal health laboratory, which has obviously been facing hard times since new Labour. That needs to be put in order PDQ, otherwise confidence in Defra and its scientists will be damaged.
Defra and British Sugar, whose submission I read, have all set out the potential benefits, which certainly relate to consumers. Not least of these is the use of fewer pesticides and fertilisers. In former days, if we could produce fewer pesticides and use them less, there would be less chance of residues in the final product. I have not checked recently, but I am not so sure whether we check for residues in products as quickly and frequently as we used to.
There is one other issue that I read about. The Royal Society sent a very short, readable one-page briefing on this, with some questions which I will ask the Minister to answer in Committee.
I am going to raise only three general issues. The first is with regard to animals being included in the first place. These concerns have to be satisfied. I can see the benefit for food production animals—I am less concerned about the others—but the fact is that we and our key trading partners have different rules on food of animal origin, and rightly so. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, raised the issue last week at Question Time after a Question literally about the benefit of the technology in enabling our food birds to avoid avian flu. There is quite clearly a benefit to the animals, but there is also a real benefit to the public. There is no question about that. There are also potential benefits to the pig industry.
Less disease in food production animals caused by either poor husbandry or climate change will directly benefit consumers, but we must not use the technology to cover up poor husbandry. That is the reason we do not want the material the Americans want to give us: because the washing of chickens in chemicals is only to cover up their poor husbandry. That is the reality. As my noble friend said, if this is all about ever faster-growing broilers on weaker and thinner legs, forget it; I am not going down that route. I have been in chicken sheds with 30,000 birds that were well looked after with techniques to find out whether they are ill. The techniques that can be used beggar belief. But if it is all about fatter, faster-growing birds on legs they cannot stand on, I for one am not having that.
My second general issue—and this is where I am going to fall out with some people—is traceability. To simply claim that “general food law requires traceability”, which is an excuse I saw offered by one scientist, is an unprofessional cop-out. As such, I am persuaded that, from a consumer point of view—remember that—labelling is a must. It is not only that consumers are entitled to know; we have to take direct account of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. Like it or not, we have devolution.
As far as I am concerned, the Food Information Regulations do not cover enough, because they do not cover methods of slaughter. I would add that in if I could, but I suspect that this is not the Bill in which to do that.
Innovative techniques which claim to improve foods have nothing whatever to fear from openness and transparency. If there is a sniff of less openness and less transparency, confidence disappears. We know what happens when that occurs: we get crisis after crisis, built on false evidence.
I looked at the FSA board papers because I have had no briefing from the FSA, which I am a bit sad to say, and neither has anyone else so far as I know. I looked at its board papers from September; this was discussed at the September meeting. Buried right at the end were the results of its 4,000 sample opinion poll. I will quote only one figure: 78% of consumers thought it important to know that the food was as a result of precision breeding. You cannot dismiss that—it is overwhelming by any stretch of the imagination. If those consumers think they are not being told information, confidence will go out the door.
My third issue is governance. Parliamentary counsel has again, at the Government’s orders, produced another Bill which removes powers from Parliament—not this House but both Houses—to give to Ministers. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, on which I serve, has not considered this Bill, but I am assuming we will do so before Committee starts. A Bill with three Henry VIII clauses and 28 delegated powers needs to be looked at very carefully. Some powers have no procedure at all; they are not even classed as negative resolution.
Of all Bills, a Bill that relates to new food technology should, on the evidence of the past, be one that gives Ministers no new powers in respect of food safety. We settled all this many years ago. If Ministers do not think it matters, or that because Ministers are elected they are more important—we were told that the other day—they have not looked at the history of why the FSA is there in the first place. It is there to remove Ministers from pontificating on food safety because we wrecked industry after industry in the 1990s due to people’s lack of confidence, and the system has worked incredibly well, by and large, in the past 25 years. That is important. Ministers should have no role whatever in food safety. They are not qualified or trusted. The Bill looks a bit like it is side-lining the FSA, and for the avoidance of doubt I would like to hear from the Minister about that.
I will come back to this in Committee. I am pro-science, pro-technology, pro-consumer and a supporter of the Bill, but the Bill will have to be changed.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in agriculture, forestry and horticulture. Like many others, I am pleased to see this Bill, which has been welcomed by many in the industry of food production and farming.
There can be no doubt that global warming is taking place at a far faster rate than natural evolution, and there are more and more climatic and disease stresses placed on our cropping and animal production. Many of them have been imported from other areas of the world, such as phytophthora, Chalara and of course Covid, which admittedly is not an animal disease. We also face climatic threats for which our crops are not prepared with the increased risk of drought.
This Bill will allow progression, but needs considerable caution. As it stands, it allows for change at a speed which I think is probably unwise. I am generally extremely cautious about GMO produce, and this is treading a fine line that could easily be overstepped—although I note that, as the Minister said at the beginning, this Bill is to separate gene alteration from modification. The principal purpose of this Bill is for the benefit of both producers and consumers. It should also benefit the environment through less requirement for chemical and medicinal intervention and, in the case of cropping, less fuel and therefore carbon production.
However, I am concerned that the Bill has reached this House without very much alteration in the other place and without the inclusion of what appeared to be several very sensible amendments. I very much hope the Government will be receptive to the amendments which will come forward and be introduced in this House.
The Bill covers a wide spectrum, which includes changes to both plant and animal. The Government are keen to emphasise that precision breeding will be scientifically based development. However, I am concerned that the Bill appears to permit the introduction of new genetic technology in plants in a period of under two years in some circumstances. Although I am very pleased that the scientific approach will be so important, there is little time to assess any practical or physical impacts in under two years.
Plants are more complex because a mistake in precision breeding could escape, as mentioned by other noble Lords, and pose a further risk to indigenous wild plant life. Scientific alterations to the genetics of animals may be easier to oversee because they are more closely controlled in the short term. However, I think it is worth noting that, in the development and breeding of dairy cattle, it takes at least four years to show genetic improvements.
It must not be forgotten that often an improvement on one side by genetic alteration may have a balancing detrimental effect on another side, so even three years is a short period of time to monitor any effect of change. I note that this Bill will bring us more into line with genetically enhanced techniques in other parts of the world. Perhaps the EU approach is slightly better, at a slightly slower pace.
This leads me on to regulation. As was highlighted by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Winston, British farming has a worldwide reputation for quality, welfare and standards. The Bill as it stands does not appear to allow for any form of independent and dedicated monitoring of what is being created or the methods used. This is essential to ensure that the line of genetic precision breeding does not become unauthorised modification. With livestock enterprises, there needs to be regulation, if only to ensure that the welfare management of housed stock, such as pigs, poultry and cattle, is enforced, and the monitoring and management of bacterial and viral infections, such as coccidiosis and pneumonia among other things, does not become lost because the animals are deemed to be safe due to precision breeding and standards are allowed to drop. I suggest that this new sector of science needs an independent regulatory body to oversee change rather than relying on regulations based on perceived scientific risk.
I also note that there is no requirement for any plant or livestock, including feed materials from precision-bred material, to be labelled as such. To my mind, this is a major omission, and I see an issue that needs to be addressed. However, my noble friend Lord Krebs’s proposal for a register may well be a suitable alternative. I do not understand why if vegan and gluten-free products can be labelled, genetically altered products should not also be, so that the end-user is aware of the process used to source the ingredients.
This follows on to traceability and where there will be further conflict with the stance being taken by the Scottish Government at present in this devolved issue covering the use of genetically altered materials. While the Scottish Government may be objecting to the use in Scotland of precision-bred products, albeit linked to other legislation, without a clear agreement on precision-breeding technology being in place there will continue to be unnecessary conflicts at all levels of use. This point was picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Although the terms of this Bill relate to England only, surely before it becomes an Act there needs to be further work with the devolved authorities in Wales and Scotland. Surely it is sensible to have a consensus of agreement among all the Parliaments. Can the Minister update us at the end on whether there is still dialogue going on with the two devolved Parliaments? What would the consequences be for producers of cattle in Scotland or Wales who inadvertently marketed cattle fed on precision-bred cereals? It would bring them into conflict with legislation produced by their own devolved Parliaments.
In summary, I see the Bill as being progress in many ways. Less use of fuel to protect crops and less required use of medication for animals can only help to improve a producer’s bottom line and aid the production of food. Climate change is a sad fact of life, governed by how we have lived and are living our lives. It is unlikely to change instantly. As a result, we need to progress change, but without risk to or impact on the environment, and in particular without impacting on the welfare of animals. I see the need for independent regulation, labelling and sensible interaction with internal and external neighbours as essential. I hope the Government will be receptive to the inclusion of new amendments in this House.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for this Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which has driven me to speak for the first time. I will begin by expressing my thanks, first to noble Lords from all parts of the House who have gone out of their way to introduce themselves with great warmth and encouragement, and, secondly, to the doorkeepers, clerks and staff, who have been generous in their welcome and unfailingly helpful with advice and directions.
This Bill is a natural place for my maiden speech, as it is a subject on which I have a little knowledge and in which I declare an interest. I grew up on a dairy farm in Devon. In 2015, we restructured the farm to move away from high yield and high input to a more regenerative, lower-yielding system. The results have been positive for animal health and longevity, working conditions, soil health and profitability.
My family have been Members of this House or the other place for the last seven generations. We arrived in the United Kingdom in the 18th century as an immigrant Jewish family with Portuguese roots. Our prior background was in trade and finance, which we continued and became landowners and politicians. I have followed in that tradition despite the dilution of that genetic inheritance over two centuries of imprecise breeding.
I hope that there are areas other than agriculture where I may make some contribution. I have worked within financial services for the last 30 years as an investor in companies across the technology, manufacturing and commodity industries. I hope this gives some perspective on where this country’s threats and opportunities lie now and in future. I was also a designated senior manager, as defined by the Financial Conduct Authority, and so have experience of the City’s regulatory environment.
For the last four to five years, every meeting with senior management of companies around the world included a discussion of their emissions reduction strategy. The evidence of increasing atmospheric carbon and consequential global warming is irrefutable. While we cannot know with certainty how much the world will warm, or even what the precise outcomes will be, a substantial part of that forecast range could have severely negative consequences for our species. We have a responsibility to take action to reduce and remove those possibilities. My own response has been to focus on large-scale afforestation and to cofound a global trading platform for not just carbon offsets but all aspects of natural capital. As much as 25% of the required global reduction in atmospheric carbon can come from re-evaluating land use, and I am playing an active role in that.
That brings me to the genetic technology Bill. This legislation enables faster development of a technology that will deliver valuable benefits. Greater food security is the ultimate prize. That in turn will allow us to focus more on rebuilding the stock of carbon that has been released from harvested forests, damaged peatland and degraded soils.
Global food consumption has grown at close to 1% per annum for several decades, on a broadly static amount of farmed land. Those demands have been met through technology. The largest contributor is the selective breeding of crops and animals to enhance desirable traits and eliminate harmful ones. This Bill encourages the acceleration of the rate at which and the precision with which we can focus on the traits we desire and will allow for less land to be used in agriculture.
If I look to my own herds, were all my cows blessed with similar genetic traits to my best cow, I could raise my milk output by 23%, without material change to land use or carbon emissions. While we breed every year to increase the prevalence of those best traits in our herd, it is an imprecise and slow iterative process. Precision breeding offers the potential for others to help us accelerate that process dramatically, using DNA that is already present within the species.
Prioritising animal welfare is central to any livestock farming business. We care about our animals and also know that no livestock farming system can be successful without putting animal welfare first. Standards of animal welfare in the United Kingdom are already among the highest in the world, and this Bill introduces a process for additional safeguards on declaration and ongoing monitoring to address others’ concerns. That makes this country one of the most suitable globally for pursuing precision-breeding technology.
It has been an honour to have had the chance to contribute to this debate. I look forward to making further contributions to the House’s work, hopefully with less trepidation in future.
My Lords, sadly the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, was delayed in his transport arrangements and arrived in the Chamber 16 minutes late. He is with us now but was scratched from the speakers’ list. It was his great task to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Roborough, to this Chamber—so I will read out the first part of his speech instead of him. I also draw your Lordships’ attention to the noble Earl’s interests.
“It is a rare honour, indeed my first, to follow a dear friend as he makes his maiden speech. We have a new Member of intellect, integrity and good judgment, and what an excellent speech it was”—
I am sure we all agree with that.
“I am sure the whole House will join me in welcoming him to these Benches. I am also grateful to him for clearing up one or two issues regarding his antecedents. With the name of Lopes, I now understand his Portuguese roots. For the last three decades, I had harboured the romantic notion that his family had been brigands or buccaneers who had been shipwrecked on the south Devon and Cornish coastline.
After completing a degree in politics at Durham University, he embarked upon a career in the City, about which you have been briefed. My noble friend is being modest. He worked at Goldman Sachs and more recently rose to become No. 2 to Crispin Odey at Odey Asset Management. Perhaps the most exciting part of his career is that which he has recently embarked upon: co-founding a global trading platform for carbon trading and all aspects of natural capital. The carbon markets are currently like the wild west”—
they are indeed—
“so Circular Algorithmic and Data Systems Ltd is a welcome and trusted entrant into this market, and I am sure will have a large and responsible part to play. Finally, I cannot emphasise enough what a thoroughly nice and decent man my noble friend Lord Roborough is. There is not a bad bone in his body.”
What a tribute to the noble Lord. Had the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, been able to contribute, he would also have welcomed this Bill—and, by the way, the noble Earl owes me at least one gin and tonic for that. I also add my welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Roborough. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl’s assessment of his very impressive speech. I am sure he will be a great asset to this House and I welcome him.
I turn to my own contribution to this Second Reading. My interests are recorded in the register. I am no longer a practising farmer—but once a farmer, always a farmer. I welcome His Majesty’s Government’s progressive decision to introduce this Bill. It marks a key moment for agricultural science, which ought to be taken seriously if we are to attract investment in agri-food innovation and stimulate economic growth. Indeed, if we do not progress this Bill, we will find ourselves lagging behind other countries in the global food market which are willing to embrace this technology. The truth is that we are already lagging behind some of our global competitors in the application of science, for the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling.
I want to stress that I understand the concerns of those who have reservations about the Bill and the potential ramifications of precision breeding more broadly. I recognise that the debate requires a clear distinction between genetic modification and so-called precision-bred plants and animals, as we have already heard in contributions from other noble Lords. I am not a scientist, but I bow to the eminent scientific knowledge that exists in your Lordships’ House and look forward to the Minister’s response to the challenges from the noble Lords, Lord Winston, Lord Krebs and Lord Trees. What is clear is that the Bill has widespread support not just from the scientific community, which is understandable, but from a wide range of industry organisations which believe that precision-breeding techniques such as gene editing will be a time-efficient means of identifying important traits that lead to new varieties, compared to traditional breeding methods.
There is, of course, a need to ensure that breeding programmes have appropriate safeguards and standards embedded within them, as have been mentioned already, to ensure there are no negative consequences on animal welfare. I in turn welcome the Government’s step-by-step approach, which is set to create a regulatory system for plants first, followed by animals. Lots of questions have already been raised about the process, but I am encouraged by the positive comments of the noble Lord, Lord Trees, in this respect.
Precision breeding offers an opportunity to farmers in England to advance and improve their economic performance and productivity. Such breeding techniques have the potential to produce crops which are resistant to disease and with far fewer inputs, including fertilisers and pesticides. By removing allergens and preventing the formation of harmful compounds in food, precision breeding can create safer and healthier crops, with higher yields at a lower cost for farmers. Globally, 20% to 40% of all crops grown are lost to disease or pests; this is a huge waste. The genetic editing of crops may then become vital in securing future food security for an ever-growing global population which, as we have heard already, reached 8 billion last week.
I know that there are concerns about the risk of cross-contamination of neighbouring crops. There are also requests for traceability and separate labelling, but I need to be convinced of the need for that. I understand from the many scientists who have briefed me already that the risk to neighbouring crops is no greater from genetically edited crops when compared to those which are conventionally bred. For this reason, the benefits may far outweigh the potential risks.
As we seek to move towards net zero and need to reduce the use of chemicals, along with emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture, the benefits of precision breeding are particularly significant. Gene editing will, I hope, help to produce crops that are resilient to the effects of the climate crisis, as has been said, and should reduce the environmental impacts of farming overall. This, in my view, is a huge prize.
However, I have two further issues that I would like reassurance on from the Minister. First, I too am concerned about the devolved nations, which are refusing to support this technology. As a separate point, there are important research institutions located in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which are global leaders in plant and animal science. Their scientific contributions have proved invaluable in the past in the Government’s mission to make farming more sustainable. Can the Minister confirm what he is doing to try to overcome the current objections from the devolved nations to this Bill? Does he believe that the Bill will exclude those institutions located in devolved nations from participating in the Government’s programme?
Secondly, there is a possibility, as we know, that, having been opposed previously to this technology, the EU may well adopt a similar approach. If this happens and the green shoots appear, will the Minister reassure the House that his department will monitor developments closely, so that, if possible, our legislative frameworks are aligned?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and I echo his good wishes and warm welcome to my noble friend Lord Roborough. He may have claimed to be of imprecise breeding, but he demonstrated his knowledge of the subject and good humour. We look forward to having him on our Benches and making many such contributions in future. I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on bringing forward this initiative, but I am probably housed somewhere between the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Rooker, in that I think this is a good start to the debate today but it is a work in progress.
I do not entirely support the position taken by a number on our Benches, such as my noble friends Lord Jopling and Lord Lilley, as to why Europe was so cautious in pursuing the precautionary principle. A large part of that was demonstrated by those—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—who referred to the general concerns put forward by consumers. I will be the first to confess that I approach this not as a farmer or scientist but as someone who potentially would like to see more food produced, to a better environmental and higher animal welfare standard, and to have such technologies rolled out across the world. As a very young lawyer, I was involved in Brussels in the early 1980s with Monsanto as a client, which obviously had a great vested interest in this field.
The mistake that successive Governments have made is in failing to bring the consumer with us in this regard. It is difficult to understand entirely what the difference is in the law. In introducing the Bill, my noble friend pointed out that it would create a simple new regulatory regime for precision-bred plants and animals. It will also introduce two new notification systems, for research and marketing purposes, and enable the development of a new science-based authorisation process for food and feed products derived from precision-based organisms.
I am so sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, did not receive the letter from the Food Standards Agency. I am sure I am not the only one who received it but will gladly share it with him afterwards. One issue we have to resolve is whether it is sufficient to have a public register such as that proposed, which was endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I do not believe it is sufficient. I wait to be convinced, which is the purpose of this debate, along with Committee and the other stages of the Bill. If I am a consumer who does not understand the process, why should I have to go to a public register on a database and put myself through those paces?
It would be interesting to see how other countries do this. I do not know whether Denmark, where half my family are—I am also of imprecise breeding—is very keen on this, but I am a big fan of labelling. The Danes are very big on that in most consumer issues, whether it is food, medicines or even beer. I would like a very good explanation from my noble friend the Minister and the Government as to why we are resisting labelling at this stage. If it is so good, as we are hearing, and if precision-breeding technology has so much to commend it, then it is incumbent on us as legislators to ensure that the public and consumers are made aware of it.
I had the honour to serve with the noble Earl, Lord Stair, on the EU sub-committee on the environment when we were still part of the European Union. Another immediate problem which clearly arises, and to which he alluded, is that the Bill applies only in England. I entirely support the sentiments expressed by the noble Earl that further work with devolved Parliaments is required. I am not sure whether this was at Second Reading but, as those who follow the proceedings next door may know, the Scottish National Party has clearly stated that it would oppose the Bill as a result of its impact on Scotland. I am grateful to the House of Lords Library for its excellent briefing and for setting out this quote at page 13. The SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock, said:
“If the Scottish Parliament refused to allow gene-edited crops to be planted in Scotland, we would still be prevented from stopping GMO products from being sold in our shops under the devolution-violating United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 … The SNP is committed to ensuring that Scotland operates to the highest environmental standards, and that we protect and enhance the strength of Scottish agriculture and food production. If we end up with unwanted gene-edited products in Scotland, diverging standards with the EU could cause further damage to our sales, risking damage to Scotland’s reputation for high-quality food and drink.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/22; col. 384.]
My noble friend may well say in summing up that Scotland has got it completely wrong and that we are all getting unnecessarily confused between gene editing, GMO and precision-breeding technology, but that, effectively, makes the point for me. As soon as we keep changing the terminology, the public get even more confused than they might have been at the very start, in the 1980s, when this was first debated in the European Union.
I want also to draw attention to concerns raised by two other bodies, one of which is the British Veterinary Association, of which I am, I think, an honorary fellow or associate. My interest is listed in the register, and I stand by what I have declared there. The BVA has raised a number of concerns, to which I hope my noble friend will respond when he sums up. It accepts that gene editing has the potential to contribute to producing abundant, safe food and in doing so play a role in reducing the environmental impact of a growing global population. However, the BVA says that, as gene editing is relatively new, it is difficult to quantify the risks, particularly in relation to unintended outcomes and the longer-term impact of unintended changes. I hope to hear some more on that. In particular, will my noble friend agree to prioritise animal health and welfare, and food safety, through proper regulation of gene-edited organisms; to enshrine a reporting function in the Bill; and to provide for the transparent labelling of food derived from gene-edited organisms, to which I referred earlier? It is true that retained EU law requires that all gene-edited organisms be classified as genetically modified organisms, so I am not sure whether EU retained law being replaced is part of the forthcoming Bill, of if this is a stand-alone Bill in its own right.
Secondly, the BVA refers to the fact that the EU regulates gene-edited organisms based on process, rather than outcomes, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned. Moving away from what is a very well understood, highly regulated environment to one that involves light regulation or no regulation at all has to be done sensitively, and the public have to be kept informed. I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s response to the BVA’s concerns.
Then, there are the concerns raised by the Royal Society, which is generally recognised as being a relatively august body. It has two concerns with the approach adopted in the Bill, one of which is that it is perpetuating the technology-based approach to regulating GMOs, which is not justified by the scientific understanding of risk and is not future-proofed against new breeding technology. I should be interested to know how my noble friend and the Government respond to that. It also feels that the Bill’s approach leaves out genetic technology products that depend on the movement of genes between species, which could have major societal and environmental benefits—for example, nitrogen fixation in wheat—subject to the overly generous GMO framework. The Royal Society proposes that any future GMO regulatory framework should include greater scope for public deliberation on the acceptability of the purposes for which genetic technologies have been used.
I am adopting a cautiously optimistic approach to the Bill, but I look forward to my noble friend’s response to my concerns and those of others that I have raised. What may well not cause problems in large areas such as North and South America and Africa could pose very real problems for this country and the devolved parts of it.
My Lords, I note my interests as listed in the register, both as a farmer and as an IP and technology litigator at a law firm that represents clients active in this space.
I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Roborough, to this House and congratulate him on an excellent maiden speech; I am glad to have another Devonian in our midst, particularly one who is so close to the cream and who brings such a wealth of expertise in markets of natural capital.
While welcoming one new Member, I regret the retirement of another. Viscount Ridley would have contributed significantly to our review of this Bill, and his absence will be keenly felt. I hope his rebellious backing of my conservation covenant amendment last year did not contribute to his departure.
As a committed environmentalist, farmer and cross-border IP practitioner, for me, this is a significant and exciting Bill. It promises considerable benefits to our food supply, to animal welfare and to our national well-being; it can contribute to our net-zero ambitions, our climate resilience and our restoration of biodiversity; and it also provides great prospects for our innovative bioscience and agritech industries.
It is the last of these benefits that is probably the most exciting. Generally as a nation, we flatter ourselves in thinking that what we do on our very small island will move the needle much on global climate change, food supply or biodiversity; we simply do not have the land to make a significant difference. But with excellent universities and research centres, harnessing a structured and internationally accepted regulatory framework, we can make technological advances that have a significant impact on a global scale. That is the gold standard for which we must strive.
The Government are therefore to be congratulated on bringing forward this Bill, but they must also be wary that these bright and shiny opportunities do not blind us to the dangers that many fear from the technological developments being considered. For those comfortable with biotechnology and its regulation—and plenty of eminent speakers today fall into that category—these fears about gene editing and the use of precision breeding may seem misplaced, but they may indeed be fed by unreasonable suspicions and a certain amount of hyperbole and misinformation. I note that certain briefings mischievously describe gene editing as a form of “deregulated” or “exempt” genetic modification. However, we need to be mindful of public sentiment and bring consumers with us by openly developing robust safeguards, transparent regulatory processes and proper parliamentary oversight. The Government must temper their tendency to introduce critical policy through secondary legislation that sidesteps oversight and engenders mistrust.
There is a major public relations element to this Bill, and the Government must strive to educate in order to overcome the worrying statistics revealed by Defra’s public consultation. In our post-pandemic, social media-mired world, we cannot ignore the fact that the vast majority of individuals and businesses disagree with regulatory liberalisation for genetically edited organisms. Can the Minister please provide any insights into the public information efforts that will be introduced to support the aims of this Bill?
Public information leads us to the question of traceability and labelling. It is important that consumers are conscious of where their food comes from and how it was grown, and universal traceability of our diet is an important goal, particularly as we seek to shorten supply chains and ensure producers are answerable for the manner in which our food is produced. But I do not think labelling is the answer here, as gene-edited produce that presents no additional risk to health or well-being should not be forced to compete unfairly with non-GE alternatives. If, as suggested, such produce actually improves health and animal welfare, or saves resources, then producers would undoubtedly extol those virtues in their own marketing.
I have already referenced the international export opportunities presented by this Bill, particularly for technology that can be developed. However, can we be certain that it presents no risks to our existing agricultural export business? Both the World Trade Organization and the European Commission are considering the regulation of gene-editing technology. Can the Minister please assure us that, by being an early adopter and taking a lone path, we will not unwittingly exclude ourselves from these international markets? In particular, what mechanisms are in place to ensure we maintain equivalence with future EU or WTO regulations?
I note some uncertainty regarding definitions and the market sectors impacted by this legislation. Briefings I have received focus largely on animals and plants for the food chain, but I trust the Bill will be equally applicable to silviculture and particularly the crucial development of disease-resistant and climate-resistant tree species, which are essential to the fulfilment of our extensive net-zero tree-planting commitments. Equally, I note that the legislation applies only to multicellular organisms. I wonder whether we are missing out by not addressing the opportunities presented by microbial proteins, which are single cell and an important alternative animal feed.
I agree with the concerns raised in the other place over animal welfare, and the fact that gene-editing technology must never be used to create animals able to withstand lower-standard living conditions. That said, it is a complex issue; for example, if we can help to create native breeds that survive in our inevitably hotter climate, that would surely be a good thing, even though some might say it enabled them to endure harsher living conditions.
The Bill asks much of the Food Standards Agency. I hope the FSA is prepared, and will be fit, for this important purpose.
I would be interested to understand the intellectual property implications of this legislation. Considerable intellectual property resides in the technologies developed to achieve gene editing, as seen in the extensive recent CRISPR technology disputes in the United States. Jurisdictions around the world remain uncertain and divided about the patentability of edited genes themselves, particularly where they are not otherwise naturally occurring. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have considered that issue? It would be significant if gene-edited organisms were themselves protectable by the intellectual property regime, providing potential monopoly power to multinational agritech firms that would prohibit open access to the important public goods that should be created by the Bill.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and to working with noble Lords to deliver, I hope, a better Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner as set out in the register. I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Roborough, and congratulate him on his excellent and amusing maiden speech, and look forward to many such contributions in future.
The development of new cultivars through rapid and precision breeding is a necessity, both in order to reduce crop management burdens such as disease and drought but also for the challenges and opportunities of meeting the demands of the supply chain, and of course changing consumer preferences in relation to product quality—the non-browning banana, which the Minister mentioned, is a good example.
For many crops, including horticultural crops, the conventional breeding cycle usually takes eight to 15 years, according to Frontiers, which is the third most cited research publisher in this field. Technology tools are urgently required to reduce the length of that breeding cycle. Techniques for precision genetic manipulation, such as targeted gene editing, can significantly increase breeding efficiency, particularly for those elements, such as resistance to pathogens, that are genetically controlled by a few major genes. All this must be accompanied by necessary and proportionate regulation to ensure product safety and consumer confidence.
The message therefore comes across loud and clear that every effort possible should be made to reduce the length of the breeding cycle so that we can cope not only with changing consumer demands and growing populations but, more importantly, with the effects of climate change and political events such as war, all of which put new pressures on land use. In this country and many others there is a new policy direction aimed at using what for many years has been purely farming land for the provision of energy, biodiversity and woodland or forestry, leaving aside the changes to farming practices in the shape of using less artificial fertiliser and fewer pesticides. Hence, innovation in agriculture that leads to lower water, spray and fertiliser use is essential. A wonderful example of what can be achieved was given in an article on this subject in the Financial Times on 11 November:
“There has been greater progress in gene editing to improve yields. Inari, a US agritech company set up in 2016, has been working on gene editing to increase yields on wheat, corn and soyabeans as well as reducing the necessary water and nitrogen fertiliser … Inari is targeting yield increases of up to 20 per cent in corn, wheat and soyabeans, with input reduction targets of 40 per cent in water and nitrogen fertiliser for corn.”
All that cannot be done with conventional technology.
Drought tolerance and yield increases using smaller amounts of inputs are complicated issues, and need addressing now if we are to be able to adequately address the challenges. Happily, there are many universities, research institutes, agribusinesses and SMEs out there to complement the research and development being undertaken by the big chemical and other agriculturally focused businesses. We are therefore able to take advantage of developments in the gene-editing world, as long as it is adequately regulated, so that the consumer can buy gene-edited products in full confidence. However, care needs to be taken that the industry is not overregulated to the extent that innovation is discouraged, becomes too expensive or takes too long to reach the rollout stage. Hence, overregulation may be as bad as too little regulation. It needs to be proportionate, risk-based regulation with science at its core, rather than bound by the innovation-strangling precautionary principle that the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, mentioned—and which I am sure Viscount Ridley would have mentioned. For that reason, we need to look closely at Part 3 of the Bill to ensure that it is fit for purpose.
Fortunately, despite the claims of some scientists that this is an industry that pays too much attention to vested interests, particularly in the agriculture sector, there is an increasing body of opinion that the science has moved on and, in the words of the European Food Safety Authority in November 2020, also quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Curry:
“Genome editing techniques that modify the DNA of plants do not pose more hazards than conventional breeding”.
That was confirmed by the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council at its recent meeting in Prague, when it concluded with the statement:
“Ministers agreed that the EU must react as quickly as possible to the development of modern trends and not hinder innovation. It is therefore important to change the outdated legislative framework by which the EU regulates the use of modern plant breeding methods. This framework not only restricts European farmers, but also leads to an outflow of top experts to countries outside the European Union, so the damage is extraordinary.”
Let us hope those scientists come here.
Luckily, regulation is already out there as the issues are not new, so it is not a case of reinventing the wheel. More than 15 major countries have set rules that are open to gene editing in crops, and several of those do not differentiate gene editing from conventional breeding. Surely we can learn from these countries and their regulatory systems so that we can introduce best practice in this area to the already formidable Food Standards Agency. No one scientist—not even any group of 100 scientists—has the monopoly of wisdom in this complicated area of science, but, in order to progress such important innovation, let us look at and learn from our friends, who in many cases have a great deal more experience than we do, along with the resources of other world-class scientists.
The more we can work together in this area, the easier it will be to identify any weaknesses in the regulatory system and to develop the all-important confidence of consumers, at home and abroad, to accept precision breeding and gene editing. I ask the Minister to describe the level and depth of consultation with other agencies at the forefront of food regulation such as Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority and similar regulatory bodies.
It is good to observe that the mood on gene editing in Europe is changing and GMO regulation is being re-examined, as we have heard. It is even possible that some gene-editing technologies will be authorised in 2023. I hope that despite the attitude of elements of the ruling coalition in Germany—and, no doubt, other parties—that may happen soon, as elements of the farm-to-fork strategy involving lower pesticide and artificial fertiliser use, and the lowering of methane emissions from farming, will be hard to achieve without the new technologies.
Farmers require innovation to both maintain and increase productivity in the face of multiple challenges. The Bill will give them considerable confidence in the future.
My Lords, when genetic technology is mentioned, many of us still get alarmed because we associate it with GMOs and remember our press in an unedifying moral panic using dramatic headlines such as “Frankenstein foods”. However, with precision breeding, we need to look deeper than the headlines and the shroud-waving, shrill screams of the “anti” campaigners, which are more often semantic than scientific. I believe many are playing on popular misconceptions and a general lack of knowledge about the science of genetic improvement or breeding.
What is breeding? My noble friend Lord Roborough called it “imprecise”. At its most basic, it is the random recombination of literally hundreds of thousands of genes of living organisms. There is nothing new to us in that; us humans have been doing it for 10,000 years. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified now. Thus, there is nothing particularly natural about farming. For example, wheat is not a natural food. It is a wheat grain that has been genetically modified from grass. Equally, my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond’s guide dog is a genetically modified wolf. There is nothing new in it.
As it involves such a random recombination of genes, I have heard breeding described as like playing a fruit machine—not with three or four reels, but with several hundred. Over time, as our understanding of plant genetics has increased, the process of breeding has become more sophisticated, with each new advance improving the plant breeder’s chances of hitting the jackpot. Much of the success of plant breeding, for example, is based on invasive laboratory-based techniques such as protoplast fusion, doubled haploidy or somaclonal variation, to name but three. All of them, it could be argued, are as difficult to understand as “precision breeding”, if not more so. All the questions the noble Lord, Lord Winston, raised about precision breeding could equally be asked about what is happening now.
Despite these advances, plant breeding remains a lengthy, research-intensive process. It can take up to 15 years to develop each new crop variety. Precision breeding techniques such as gene editing allow scientists a tool to control adjustments to a living organism’s existing DNA, when these changes could occur in nature or in traditional breeding. That is worth stressing. The Bill is absolutely clear and precise that the changes could occur in nature or traditional breeding. As my noble friend Lord Jopling reminded us, it does not permit the introduction of a new gene from another species. That is why the result is not a GMO. Its great advantage is that it speeds up the process considerably by many years in the same way that keyhole or minimally invasive surgery has transformed the ordeal of a full-blown surgery.
By taking products which would equally have been bred conventionally out of the scope of the GMO rules we inherited from the EU, the Bill will realign our regulations with the mainstream approach taken elsewhere in the world. Countries such as Australia, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and the United States do not treat the products of these techniques as GMOs but rather as conventionally bred products. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, was right that there are now strong indications that the EU will revise its position and follow the example of this Bill.
Some argue that precision breeding is unnatural. Many of us enjoy a glass of craft brewed ale. It is often made from golden promise barely, as was most Scotch whisky in the 1970s and 1980s. This excellent barley was created by bombarding seeds with gamma rays from cobalt-60 isotopes in a nuclear reactor to introduce random mutations, then picking out the seeds with a desirable character. What is natural about that? I have not found a beer drinker or a Scot who likes a 40 year-old malt who has changed their mind at all when I mention the origin of their beer or whisky.
Exempting gene-edited products from GMO provisions does not mean that they are no longer subject to regulation. I welcome that the UK has well proven and robust regulations to improve new plant varieties, underpinned by the general requirements of food safety, novel food and environmental protection laws. However, we will need to look closely at Part 3 of the Bill, as the current performance of the Food Standards Agency in regulating GM feed import dossiers does not inspire confidence that implementation of these provisions will be either light touch, low cost or proportionate.
The first tranche of GM feed import applications approved by the FSA lagged behind the EU by more than 12 months. What action is my noble friend the Minister taking to ensure that the FSA is not allowed to stifle the good intentions of the Bill through bureaucracy and drive up costs so high that it is uneconomical for the smaller seed merchants producing less popular crops such as vegetables or for farmers to grow new varieties competitively? We do not want to be in the hands of only the international firms and to have to import seeds when we could produce our own.
I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that precision breeding will benefit our environment hugely, as it will help minimise our environmental footprint by enabling increased and better production of food. It was very useful for the House to hear the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, about Africa. Everybody and every country in the world stand to benefit from properly regulated precision gene editing, but will my noble friend the Minister confirm that in Defra precision breeding will not be regarded as a single, silver-bullet solution? It needs to be adopted as part of a broad toolbox of technologies and management approaches incorporated into farming systems to encourage sustainability, increase food production under climate change challenges and protect unproductive areas for the benefit of conservation. It should not allow farmers to farm more productively yet shirk their responsibility to farm sustainability or dedicate more land to nature and to maintain the high animal welfare we already have.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, was right to say that this Bill is a game changer. It deserves our support.
My Lords, I declare my current interest as co-chair of Peers for the Planet and past interests as a trustee of several international development charities and as Minister of State for what was then MAFF for two years, with responsibilities for the issues with which this legislation deals.
All those interests lead me to support the policy development the Bill embodies. As the Minister explained in his clear and cogent introduction, it is a narrow and considered approach dealing only with gene editing and not with the wider issues of genetic modification. Most importantly, it sets out processes for risk assessment, scientific scrutiny and appropriate regulatory regimes. Those issues have all been discussed in this debate. They are all issues where I am sure there will be proper deliberation in Committee and where there may well be room for improvement.
This Bill gives us the opportunity to get it right this time. We did not get it right 20 years ago, and that has meant that we have not made the progress we could and should have made in areas of real importance.
So I hope that the Minister responsible for the Bill does not come out of his time in office with the scars on his back that were described by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and that I certainly still feel, from the days when the atmosphere was so febrile in relation to GMOs that it was almost impossible to have rational debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, who is not in his place, said, the media coverage and the manipulation of language—I cite the famous “Frankenstein foods” phrase—made it impossible to step back and debate important issues. I remember the day that I had to order the destruction of 1,000 hectares of oilseed rape because of the “contamination” of a tiny amount of GM oilseed rape that would have been admissible for any other sort of seed. The day started with John Humphrys on the “Today” programme and ended with Jeremy Paxman on “Newsnight”, and those were never good days if you were a junior Minister.
What was awful was the sense that the debate was out of control and that it was impossible to have an argument in which different points of view could be expressed and some sort of synthesis of them could come together. Part of the problem was a focus on technology as being, in and of itself, a force either for good or for evil. There was also a lack of concentration on, and therefore of a proper assessment of, the risks of the application of that technology in particular circumstances, and a lack of focus on a risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis of the application that was being considered. I was reminded of this when the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, spoke about the precautionary principle, which could be invoked to stop absolutely anything. This is the only time in my life that I have made up a joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it had never heard of the precautionary principle.”
This is first audience that has ever laughed at that joke. I have only ever told it to my children, who thought I was completely mad. But this is seriously important. On these issues, my vision is that of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington: given the potential benefits, it is so important that we get it right this time and that we find a way of having a regulatory framework and a prudent approach that allows us to evaluate and manage potential risks.
I take seriously the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who had his own experiences in this field. I note the importance of being open with the public about that cost-benefit analysis of particular processes. But this was, and continues to be, difficult when the fundamental understanding of the scientific issues is so often absent or misrepresented in certain elements. Like other technologies, genetics can be applied for benign or malevolent purposes, and I note the painstaking work of examining its benefits. We were always told not to mention vaccines that relied on genetic modification because public health physicians were terrified that they would be contaminated in some way. We heard the example of human insulin, where the same thing applies. Equally, I always felt that there was something of a conspiracy of silence among those who opposed GM about the enzyme that allowed the production of vegetarian cheddar. It was a torrid and difficult time.
So I have a great deal of sympathy for the approach adopted by the Royal Society in its briefing to us. It argues for an outcome-based rather than a technology-based approach to regulation. However, given where we are, we need to take this limited step now and consult broadly on the much wider regulatory framework later—that is the correct and prudent approach. Who knows, perhaps the EU may even have taken its own steps in this area by then. But even this limited measure offers the prospect of real benefit in areas of urgent need, be that the sugar beet crop in East Anglia, the possibility of drought-resistant wheat or the Tomelo tomato created at the Sainsbury Laboratory. We have in this country a wonderful bank of expertise in this area of plant sciences. We also have a very good reputation and experience of appropriate regulatory frameworks, and I believe that these can be put together to create something that is important for the future.
My views on this were formed 20 years ago when I visited the John Innes laboratory in Norwich, where I met scientists and agronomists from Africa who were passionate about their work with UK colleagues to develop crops that would survive in adverse conditions and provide nutrition for their growing populations. In the intervening years, those populations have grown even more substantially, and climate change has intensified the challenges and made the need even more urgent. What matters to me is heat-resistant wheat, which is resilient to climate change, and non-browning bananas that would cut the current 50% wastage, as a staple crop for millions of people.
There is a growing understanding that, as well as working to limit further climate change, we need adaptation to respond to the changes already baked into the global climate. The people most at risk and in need will benefit most from adaptation in agriculture that allows them to feed their populations without pollution. Supporting the research and development that will help them do so through gene editing is the fundamental reason why I support the Bill.
My Lords, I would not have chosen to speak in the gap, but it has certain advantages. It is certainly a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who chairs a group with which I am involved in an advisory capacity: Peers for the Planet. Of course, there is a risk that what you will say has already been said, but I do not think that that should trouble me so much: had things worked out better, I would have been on the speakers’ list. It was also a delight to hear the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Roborough, who is not in his place—I suppose he, like the rest of us, has been worried about how to get some nourishment during this debate.
I have some interests to declare. As noble Lords will know, I am involved with a family farming and horticultural business. I am also very grateful for the briefings I have received from the Library—just one of the excellent documents it produces—the NFU, Science for Sustainable Agriculture, the British Society of Plant Breeders, British Sugar and many others. Among other things, I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, which has long campaigned for gene editing to be facilitated. I have a particular interest in the Bill, and I will concentrate on my area of knowledge, which is, of course, plants rather than animals. It may interest the House to remember that, 10 years ago, I was the Minister in the Home Office responsible for licensing animal experiments. It would be interesting to know whether the Home Office is likely to be involved in any way in the regulation that will follow from the Bill.
I have long been interested in horticultural research. I had an early encounter with it at school, when my form master, who was also my botany master, somehow got hold of some irradiated tomato seeds. I was the pupil required to grow these tomatoes and see whether they had changed in any way, and whether there was anything remarkable about the genetic stimulation that irradiation had produced in them. I was also a founding member of the Horticultural Development Council. Some of the institutes available to us then have disappeared, but we do have research institutes in both the public and private sectors in this country that are second to none. Mention has been made of NIAB, the John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research, which are all centres of excellence we can rely on.
The Autumn Statement provides for increased investment in research and development work, and this is just such an area where British excellence can be a huge advantage. The advantage of gene-editing technology takes us a step further to healthy, productive cropping, with disease resistance, an efficient use of plant nutrition and an awareness to adapt to climate change.
I support the Bill. In an increasingly hungry world, the technology we are able to use has opportunities way beyond our own needs in the United Kingdom. As the Minister said, we are world leaders in genetic technology, and this Bill should be welcomed in every way.
My Lords, I rise to speak from the Lib Dem Benches. Sadly, my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville is in hospital today, but she hopes to be back fighting the good fight in Committee.
These Benches are not anti-science. Although the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, is not in his place, I was surprised but delighted that he knows so much about Lib Dem policy to confirm that we are not against gene editing. We are not anti-science, and we see that there are benefits to gene editing. We accept that it is happening now and that there are clear benefits. However, the point of a regulatory process is to manage those benefits and risks in an appropriate way. That is the starting point of good regulation. While we can say that where we were 20 years ago is no longer appropriate, in this House we need to make sure that this new piece of legislation does the job of managing risks and benefits appropriately.
My starting point was to look at the Explanatory Notes to understand the Government’s thinking and why they are doing this. The overview of the Bill boldly and simply states:
“This Bill intends to reduce the regulatory burden and financial barriers in place for researchers and commercial breeders using precision breeding technologies.”
There is nothing about the best system to manage the risks and benefits. If one was to be unkind, one could say that it was driven by a deregulation agenda and nothing more. However, our concern on these Benches is that we have a process to manage those risks and benefits.
We have heard a lot about the benefits, which I accept. We have heard less about the risks, but they are out there. From the environmental side, the speed with which organisms can be bred means that they could be out of sync with other environmental factors, and indeed the landscape and the soils in which they live. However, it is particularly among animals where those off-target mutations—in the phrase the noble Lord, Lord Winston, used—are most common. Indeed, the Government’s own advisory committee, ACRE, says that the unintended DNA introductions are found predominantly among animals. That is the area of particular risk where I have concerns that this proposed regulation does not go far enough.
Let me start where the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, did: with the issue of consumer choice and ensuring that they are involved in this process. Whatever we think about gene editing, it will have profound societal and environmental system changes. As a liberal, I believe that the public should be consulted and should have their say on changes that concern the food that they eat and the environment in which they live and work and which they enjoy. I think it would be fair to argue that, so far, the Government have been sleeping on the job when it comes to involving the public and having the conversation about what gene editing will mean for their food and environment. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, referred to the SI that was introduced last year, and he rightly identified that the majority of people and businesses were overwhelmingly opposed: 88% were opposed to changing the regulation of gene editing from what it is at the moment, which is analogous with GMOs. So, the public have not been persuaded, and the Government, to my mind, have not done a good enough job of making the case.
Equally, as others have said, the FSA did a piece of research which showed overwhelmingly that the public wanted this produce to be labelled, yet its response is that it will be on a register. I feel sorry for the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who faced such opprobrium many years ago when he was in charge. If there is any opprobrium out there, it should be for coming up with the idea of a register when the debate about where we are with our food and society has moved on to such a degree that Defra itself is looking at introducing a labelling system next year that will look at a whole raft of issues of concern to the public. However, we are not accepting that, in this instance, labelling is absolutely fundamental to giving the products credibility and giving people the confidence in them that they need. As other Members around the House have said, if there are benefits—and there are benefits to gene editing—there should be no worry about putting labels on the products. The fact that the Government are removing that traceability and labelling from the current regulations is one of our fundamental concerns with what is being proposed.
Secondly, as a number of noble Lords around the House raised, we do not want to deregulate the system in such a way that allows the further suffering of our farm animals from further intensification. We need to make sure that that does not happen. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and its very clear position that we should not allow a regulatory process which bakes that in. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said, the way to overcome that is to have a really strong animal welfare advisory body, which is clear about who is on it and what its remit is. At the moment, we do not know who is going to be on it—that has been left to secondary regulation—and its remit is very narrow. All it can do is ensure that the developers have taken what they argue are the necessary steps to identify the welfare traits. That is absolutely not strong enough; we need much greater clarity on the face of the Bill around the animal welfare advisory body. That will give us some of the assurances we need that the Bill will not bake in further unnecessary suffering in terms of animal welfare.
Another really important point that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, raised was about reporting and monitoring. The analogous piece of legislation, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, identifies the reporting mechanisms there are for people to say what the adverse traits of these activities might be, both for the individual animals and their future progeny—it is included in the Act. I think that is analogous and that we should be arguing for something similar in the Bill. Indeed, the British Veterinary Association—I am very grateful for its briefing on this—are particularly concerned about the need for clear reporting and monitoring and the fact that it is not in the Bill. That is certainly something that we will be seeking to amend in Committee.
I will make another point about animals. We may have views about how appropriate it is to use gene editing to fashion our animals and various other things. I would prefer the Bill to be limited to farm animals because I am extremely worried about some of the impacts for wild animals, including highly mobile fish and insects. I feel that it would be far better for us to concentrate on farm animals, as the Minister knows. He very kindly gave a briefing to a number of groups, during which I asked him who had actually asked for any extension beyond farm animals in the scope of the Bill. He confirmed that nobody had asked for it, but that—as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said—this is about future-proofing. That is not good enough; you cannot just future-proof when there is such uncertainty around this use of animals. So, at the very least, we should be constraining this back to agricultural animals.
The third issue—which I will discuss briefly to limit my speech to 10 minutes—is on trade. A number of other noble Lords have mentioned this: our biggest number of exports are to Europe. While the Europeans are of course looking at this issue, my fairly sure understanding is that the French and the Germans are still opposed at the moment, so we are not there yet with them. But, even if they were to move forward, there will be two issues. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said, they may not have exactly the same situation or one that is analogous, so how can we ensure that we do not put barriers for our trade in advance by having a system which is out of step with what Europe is doing? We might come to an agreement within the next year; it is possible. The second point, which nobody has raised, is that the Europeans are not looking at animals at all; it is off the table. Therefore, all the people producing British meat, dairy, yoghurt and eggs will face friction in their trade, delivered to them by this Government, because Europe is not going to allow it. So a Government who have prided themselves on cutting red tape—I applaud them for the sentiment—if they go ahead with allowing gene editing for farm animals, are not going to be able to sell into Europe in a frictionless way. This is because the Europeans are not looking to change their proposals around gene-edited animals.
Equally, on the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Stair, the devolved Administrations are really uncomfortable with this proposal, to put it mildly. Therefore, labelling, in addition to being an answer for consumers, is an answer for trade, because that gives traceability and certainty for producers, both to our major export markets and across the devolved nations.
I said that I would stick to 10 minutes, so I will conclude by saying that we are not against gene editing, but we need a system which balances the benefits and the risks. This is going too far: it is too light-touch, it does not have the reassurances for consumers, animal welfare or trade, and it needs to be amended by this House or it will be repented at leisure.
My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Roborough, and congratulate him on his maiden speech; we look forward to his future contributions.
There were a few references earlier to Jonathan Swift, and I recall that he also wrote an essay suggesting that the poor could eat their babies if they were starving, so we should not assume that everything he said is always a good suggestion.
I begin by confirming that the Labour Party supports the principles of scientific development that this Bill embodies. However, to reassure the public and to provide the right environment for research and investment, we believe that the right regulatory safeguards must be in place, because good regulation is the key to both innovation and investor confidence. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, this is our opportunity to get this Bill right. My noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch referred to the impact assessment from the Regulatory Policy Committee, which is, as she said, pretty damning. It says that the Bill is “not fit for purpose”, and that the Government’s analysis of the impact of deregulation was “weak”. It further added that the Government has not adequately considered
“the full range of potential impacts arising from the creation of a new”
category of genetically modified organisms. We agree with the questions that my noble friend asked the Minister about these concerns.
The NFU provided a very helpful briefing, stating that precision breeding has the potential to deliver major improvements in the productivity and environmental footprint of farming, to address pest and disease pressures on crops and farm animals, to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use and to increase resilience to extreme weather events, such as flooding and drought. Many noble Lords have spoken in support of these aims, and we support those aims. But the Bill needs to be well drafted, and safeguards need to be in place. Proper regulation and safeguards are important because this is about our food. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, rightly said that current agricultural practices are unsustainable, so we must change the way we work.
There is huge potential to deliver benefits by helping us not only to grow our food more sustainably and efficiently but to tackle the challenges of the environmental, health, economic and social harms that our modern food systems cause. My noble friend Lord Winston mentioned the potential advantages for the environment, but he also demonstrated to noble Lords the considerable challenges.
So, while the Bill brings opportunities, we believe that substantial improvements are necessary. We have heard a lot about potential, but we think that the regulatory regime intended to implement and to monitor these technologies is completely inadequate. Good governance must be at the heart of the Bill, including full supply-chain traceability and transparency. My noble friend Lady Jones explained that, in the other place, we proposed establishing a robust, independent authority, which would be modelled on equivalent provisions in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. I am very sorry that it would clearly not get the support of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, but it would appear that the noble Earl, Lord Stair, may well be interested in that proposal.
We want to draw attention, as other noble Lords have, to the risk of unintended consequences: these must be recognised and addressed, and we do not believe that the Government have done this. When they were giving evidence, the Francis Crick Institute and the Royal Society said that they felt uncomfortable with regulation based on techniques rather than outcomes—in other words, that the purpose, and not the technique, needs to be paramount. Gene editing should not just support commercial interests but be directed at outcomes that support public good.
We have heard that the greatest concern is around animals. At this stage, I declare an interest as the president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. We are extremely concerned about the inclusion of animals in the first place, as well as the lack of protections to ensure that if, such technology is used, it will be done ethically and with due regard to animal welfare. I was glad to hear the Minister talk about the step-by-step approach in his introduction, but I am sure that he has heard from other noble Lords that there are many outstanding concerns in this area. The RSPCA has said that public consultation and dialogue have been about farm animals, and it is concerned about ethical issues around animals, including sporting, companion and wild animals, as other noble Lords have said.
We are very concerned that this is a step change in breeding and in how people perceive animals—they could now be regarded as mere things to be modified for human convenience, contrary to the recognition of animals as sentient beings in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act. The BVA is concerned that the Bill is progressing without proper consideration of the regulatory frameworks needed to ensure animal health and welfare and food safety. We believe that, unless we get this right, it is a missed opportunity to create a world-leading, scientific, well-regulated and robust approach to gene-editing which would benefit animals, consumers and producers. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington asked, where is the detail about the advisory body? The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, also looked at this. I am concerned about Clause 12; if we are not careful, it looks as though it will have been drafted to put the applicant in the driving seat.
The Minister reassured us that gene editing is simply a more precise version of selective breeding, with little to worry about. However, selective breeding has prioritised fast growth, high yields and larger litters, and we know that sometimes this causes suffering. The Nuffield Council does not believe that conventional breeding is inherently benign while precision breeding is not. Indeed, we have heard that conventional breeding can lead to both acceptable and unacceptable outcomes which have not been mitigated by existing regulation. Defra has said that the Bill will enable the development of precision-bred plants and animals that will bolster food production and drive economic growth. This gives us concern that gene editing will be used to drive animals to faster growth and higher yields, exacerbating the severe welfare problems that have arisen through selective breeding. If the Minister can provide reassurance on how the Bill can be tightened up to ensure this does not happen, we will be very pleased to hear it.
Defra has also argued that gene editing will be used to improve disease resistance in livestock, and the noble Lord, Lord Trees, discussed this at length. This certainly could be beneficial in the case of diseases that do not arise from the way in which animals are farmed. However, there is scientific evidence that keeping livestock in crowded, stressful conditions contributes to the emergence, transmission and amplification of pathogens. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, the proper way to reduce diseases that are generated by keeping animals in poor conditions is to improve the conditions.
The Minister may say that there is little for us to be concerned about, but too much of the detail of the Bill—how it will work, what it will cover—is, as we have heard, dependent on secondary legislation. That does not give us confidence and, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said, it does not necessarily encourage public trust and confidence in government intentions and outcomes either. So it is really important that the discussion we have had around labelling is also taken on board by the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, talked about the importance of public confidence, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, talked about why labelling is critical. The Nuffield Council’s report also recommended that the labelling of such foods should have advice on safety, nutrition and health.
The fact that the Government do not intend to label products raises concerns about a lack of transparency. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, raised particular concerns about this. We know that many British consumers have concerns. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, if we are using new technologies, we have to take the public with us. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, explained exactly why this is so important, because of what has happened in the past.
On plants, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, spoke passionately about the benefit for crops and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, talked about how this can be used more widely in the developing world. These are really important ways we can move forward. However, the Landworkers’ Alliance, which supports smaller agroecological farmers and organic groups, has raised concerns about an increased risk of contamination, so it would be very helpful if the Minister and the Government could explain clearly how that is not going to cause the organic sector any problems.
I have one final question for the Minister. Noble Lords have raised the issue of Scotland. Can he reassure the House on this and the potential for divergence? Harmonisation on trading gene-edited products more widely is a real concern. Whatever position you come at the Bill from, it is going to need to be addressed.
In conclusion, I reiterate that the Opposition support the Bill in principle. A positive statement from the Minister about the precise purposes for which precision breeding might be used, including confirmation that it will be directed towards a just, healthy and sustainable food and farming system, would be very welcome.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their insightful and engaging contributions to today’s debate. It undoubtedly shows this House at its best when it draws together scientists, former Ministers, farmers, leaders of the veterinary profession and many other insightful contributions on this very important legislation.
I broke a self-denying ordinance in my opening remarks when I said that we were going to follow the science. I always promised myself that I would never use those terms again, because after many years in the department in which I now serve, I have been given conflicting scientific advice on so many issues. Others who have been Ministers there will know that, if you are a layman, as I am, you can sometimes find scientific advice prayed in aid by polar opposites. I find a much more united scientific body of opinion in support of this legislation than on anything else I have done, which is why I broke my self-denying ordinance.
Others have spoken of scars on their backs. I really appreciate the insight given by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others into how the arguments on this issue were in some ways traduced—that is perhaps not too strong a word—by others to create the impossibility of having rational debate. What we are trying to do here is bring this down to a proportionate measure, grasp the benefits of this technology and regulate out the disadvantages and malign effects. If we just concentrate on this and are too cautious, we will lose all the precious advantages that noble Lords have spoken about today with such eloquence.
It is clear to me that the exciting potential of precision breeding will of course ignite passions about how we should grow, buy and eat food, as well as about how we should care for our crops, the animals on our farms, biodiversity and the planet. This Bill complements the great work that Defra has been doing in these areas. I assure noble Lords that I know that precision breeding is not a silver bullet—the very words used by some—but it will be another tool in our toolkit as we adapt to climate change and a turbulent global environment.
Jonathan Swift seems to have come in for quotation, so I will give noble Lords another quote. He said:
“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style.”
With this legislation, we are trying to use proper words in proper places. I am happy to debate this tonight—and, of course, in Committee and at other stages of the Bill—to make sure that we are getting that right. I understand that views may differ on some of the finer details of this legislation, but I will take this opportunity to reassure noble Lords on some of the concerns raised in this debate.
I start by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Roborough for his excellent maiden speech. He brings to this House wide experience: that nexus of an understanding of agriculture, finance and natural capital can be incredibly powerful in our deliberations. What he said about climate change, echoing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and others, reminded me of an incredibly moving conversation that I had at COP with a Minister from the Maldives. She was talking about the salination of the atolls that make up that low-lying country. The point has been made about trying to create opportunities in countries where, for example, salination is becoming a problem, such as by making species of crops that can be resistant to that, thus giving us an opportunity to help some of the most vulnerable people in this world.
People like me sit at the foothills of understanding of this issue when people such as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, speak. That was brought home to me in an analogy from the chairman of the Food Standards Agency, which I, as a layman, found really helpful. What we are talking about here is a paragraph in a book. We are taking out one or two words from that paragraph and replacing them with other words from the same book. That is totally different from what we were being accused of 20 years ago: taking out the entire paragraph and putting in a paragraph from another book. I know that that probably does not stack up when it comes to exact scientific examples—the noble Lord, Lord Winston, is shaking his head, which makes me think that I got that one wrong—but the point is that we need to explain this and communicate it to a wider group of people; the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, is absolutely right to try to do that. I will come later to some of the other points that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, made.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made an incredibly powerful speech. He referred to Jane Langdale; I am going to see her when I visit her laboratory to really immerse myself in the details of this. I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that point, and the point about the consumer benefits that will undoubtedly flow from this.
My noble friend Lord Jopling gave an interesting historical perspective on this. He referred to a number of issues where there can be enormous benefits; I will come on to the animal welfare possibilities. His point about the nitrogen-fixing nodules on wheat—indeed, many of things he talked about—may not be within the exact confines of this legislation, but undoubtedly he spoke about there being great possibilities with the technology within the confines of the Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, wants me to delay the Bill. I hope that she listens to the scientists she works with at Rothamsted; as my noble friend Lord Lilley pointed out, they are in favour of this Bill. We can kick this can down the road if we so wish, but we will miss out on an opportunity about which many noble Lords spoke so eloquently. However, like other noble Lords, the noble Baroness was absolutely right to point out that this should not be a substitute for bad husbandry. We should not create a pathway towards types of farming activity that we are moving away from. We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world; that is something that we should be proud of and where we should continue to push boundaries. I will come on to talk about that in a minute.
Many noble Lords spoke on issues which I will come to in a moment, but in response to the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, regarding allergens: no, that will not be the case. The Food Standards Agency has a very clear remit and success in protecting people from allergens. All the transparency issues relating to labelling which people may be concerned about will exist and the current food safety legislation will still apply regarding the chance of an allergen finding its way into a foodstuff. What I do agree with the noble Baroness about is an ecosystems approach to food production. This was echoed by my noble friend Lord Caithness. Britain has signed up to, and will be consistent with, the Cartagena protocol, which she may not be aware of. It underlies what we are talking about.
My noble friend Lord Lilley apologises for no longer being here. He spoke about the precautionary principle. I am fully signed up to this being front and centre in the Environment Act and many other areas. I am sad enough a person to have read the EU guidance on its use and implementation. Sometimes I must remind parts of Defra and its agencies what the precautionary principle is and what it is not. He is right to point it out. The analogy of the chicken was well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman.
A number of noble Lords talked about polling and public opinion on this. Of course, it depends on the question that you ask. If you ask people a question in a way that makes them feel unsafe, they will give you a negative answer, but if you ask it in a positive way, perhaps reflecting some of the exciting possibilities in terms of vulnerable people around the world, Britain’s ability to grasp this technology and be a world leader, and all the other things, you get a different answer. I have been a politician long enough to respect that perceptions are reality in the game that we live within. We perhaps need to do more to get the message across.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, the midwife of the Bill, and his appeal for the urgency of it. That is why kicking the can down the road is not an option. There is a requirement to tackle this now. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is a former Minister for whom I have great respect. I will talk about virus yellows in sugar beet as a possibility for this technology. Often, we have fearsome debates in this Chamber about derogations for the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet. So far, we have not had to use them, but if we can breed out virus yellows and continue to produce sugar in this country, that is good for so many different reasons.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, was one of several noble Lords to raise the concern about the use of the words “precision breeding”. As the changes that we are considering are similar to natural breeding, it is not misleading to use “breeding” within the definition of a qualifying plant or animal. Meanwhile, “precision” reflects the specific, targeted nature of changes which can be introduced by such technologies and which we are considering in the Bill. By not naming the products of such techniques after the technology used to produce them, we futureproof the Bill against developments in this area. For example, genome editing is currently the most popular technology that breeders are using to make the kinds of changes that we are considering in the Bill. However, this may change, so naming qualifying plants and animals “gene-edited organisms” or similar would not be appropriate.
Whether this is a move to GMO by stealth has also been raised. Precision breeding is different from genetic modification, where modern techniques are used to insert genes from one unrelated species to another, for a desired trait or beneficial outcome. Precision-bred plants and animals will have only genetic changes that could occur through traditional breeding.
I apologise for interrupting at this late stage of the debate, which has been really thoughtful and helpful.
The Minister might want to consider the difference between DNA that is naturally produced and is what the Bill is talking about and DNA that is produced in a gene sequencer, completely chemically. An issue here is that there is not really any difference at all. We must consider that very carefully.
Do not forget, too, in spite of your spelling, that if three base pairs are missing, for example, you end up with cystic fibrosis, which is a killer. One base pair will do with many diseases, so there is a real problem with these definitions. I hope the Minister will forgive me for interrupting; I do not expect an answer, but it is something we will need to consider during the next stage of the Bill.
I am not going to debate with the noble Lord, because he knows much more about this than me, and I know that I would sound even weaker if I just read out a line that has been written. But I value his contribution and I hope to tease out some of these matters as we go through the remaining stages of the Bill.
In response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—I hope I have got this right—in some cases, transgenic organisms will be used as an intermediate step in the development of precision-bred organisms. However, for the end product to be classed as a precision-bred organism, genomic features that could not have occurred naturally or resulted from traditional breeding must be removed from these organisms. For example, this would include removing CRISPR-Cas9 genes from gene-edited organisms.
DNA fragments from sexually incompatible species are naturally present in many organisms. This is in line with what could occur naturally—and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Winston, is on board on this. Therefore, we are allowing for foreign DNA to be present in precision-bred organisms only so long as this DNA does not serve any function and is within the range achievable through natural processes.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, also asked why companion animals are in the Bill, and a number of other noble Lords referred to this. Independent scientific experts advise that precision-bred organisms pose no greater risk to the environment or health than traditionally bred organisms. This applies to companion animals, as well as farmed animals. We are aware of precision breeding research that is already taking place on animals that could lead to positive welfare outcomes, such as increased disease resistance. Although there is less research taking place on companion animals, there is early research on the use of precision breeding—for example, in improving hip dysplasia in dogs. We do not want to restrict the potential benefits that can be achieved to improve the health and welfare of these species. That is why they are included in this Bill. I would say that that is not a priority, but it is definitely important that we future-proof the Bill.
We are not aware of the specific project to which my noble friend Lord Jopling referred and I would be interested to hear about it. A project that may be relevant was recently authorised by the Secretary of State for a field trial of GM and gene-edited barley. This is related to the concept about which my noble friend spoke. It is being undertaken by the Cambridge Crop Science Centre and is investigating the potential to increase yields by altering the interaction between the plant’s roots and the soil micro-organisms with which they are associated. We are not aware that any research group has yet succeeded in developing wheat plants in the laboratory that can fix nitrogen like legumes can.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trees, that disease is a welfare issue. I cannot put it better than he did. The Government are committed to maintaining our already high standards in animal welfare, and we want to improve and build on that record. I assure noble Lords that this Bill will not lower the standards set by current legislation. He refers to zoonotic diseases and there is a human health element to this. This Government are very much signed up to the “one health” concept, so there is a wider benefit from this.
I will address the questions about why we are including provisions for animals in this Bill. Precision-breeding technologies such as gene editing have the potential to improve the health and welfare of animals, and improve the sustainability and resilience of farming systems. Such technologies can enable new traits to be developed more precisely and more efficiently than traditional breeding. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, made a really interesting point about genetic diversity. I cannot remember what percentage it is, but many of our dairy cows are descended from a very small number of bulls. It could be that in the future, because of recent trends, something occurs that endangers the health of many of them—I am not saying the whole dairy herd—because of their genetic uniformity. We want to be able to correct circumstances such as those as quickly as possible, and this legislation should allow us to de-risk that situation.
Research in farmed animals is already leading to the development of animals that have increased resistance against some devastating diseases. A number of noble Lords have spoken about the great organisations we have in this country: for example, the Roslin Institute and others such as Genus have developed gene-edited pigs with resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, or PRRS. It is a disease that causes mortality and major welfare issues in pig populations globally. This has been referred to by a number of noble Lords.
Whilst there is great potential for increasing innovation, we recognise that there is a need to safeguard animal welfare in the new regulatory framework. That is why, as I have already said, we are taking a step-by-step approach, facilitating use of precision-breeding technologies in relation to plants first followed by animals later. The measures in the Bill are designed to ensure that the health and welfare of relevant animals will not be adversely affected by any trait that results from precision breeding. To provide some further reassurance, I would also like to take this opportunity to expand on what the system for protecting animal welfare will look like. I am mindful of the time, but I will be as brief as I can.
Before marketing a precision-bred vertebrate animal, developers will need to provide assurances to confirm that the health and welfare of the animal will not be adversely affected by any trait resulting from precision breeding. This will be in the form of an animal welfare declaration and accompanying evidence. The Secretary of State will need to be satisfied with the declaration before issuing a precision-bred animal marketing authorisation, after which point a precision-bred animal can be marketed. This process will also involve an independent scientific assessment of the declaration by a welfare advisory body. We have also commissioned a research project to help us design the animal welfare declaration process and will work closely with a wide range of stakeholders as this work progresses.
I hope my words, the ongoing research project and engagement on these issues will provide noble Lords with some assurance that we fully acknowledge the importance of animal welfare, and we will continue to protect the high standards that we are proud to uphold.
I turn to labelling and the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and others. The Bill will provide the Food Standards Agency with the ability, through regulations to be made by the Secretary of State, to introduce a new proportionate and science-based food and feed authorisation process. This will include a pre-market risk assessment for food and feed products developed using precision-bred organisms. The FSA’s role is not being diminished but enhanced—we could not be doing this without it—and it has produced some really interesting work in support of what we are doing.
I will address the points on traceability made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and others. To ensure transparency, there will also be a public register of authorised precision-bred organisms for food and feed uses. This will provide consumers, industry and enforcement authorities with information on the precision-bred organism authorisation date, product, developer, characteristics, and food or feed uses. This will give clarity on food business operators involved in the supply of precision-bred organism food and feed products and enable traceability back to source.
A number of noble Lords have raised concerns about the delegated powers. Let me assure them that this is not a skeleton Bill. The powers supplement the principal policy measures which are set out on the face of the Bill and are quite specific and technical in how they are intended to be used. Your Lordships will know that delegated powers serve a valuable purpose, and it is always important to assess them in context. Simply counting up the number of powers in a given Bill is not necessarily meaningful. There are Henry VIII powers, which I know that your Lordships are quite rightly keen to scrutinise. They exist in Clause1(8), Clause 10(2) and Clause 42(1). I am sure that we will discuss those if noble Lords give this Bill the boost that it needs to get into Committee. I will hopefully be able to satisfy your Lordships about the need for them and the proportionality with which they have been put in the Bill.
I am coming to the end of my remarks, but I must address the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about trade. They quite rightly want to ensure that trade will not be negatively affected by this Bill. The international regulatory regime for precision-bred products is rapidly evolving. Many countries, as has already been said, have already amended their equivalent regulations, including the United States, Canada, Japan, and Argentina. Our proposed approach would help facilitate greater trade with those countries that have already adopted a similar approach to the regulation of precision-bred organisms.
With regard to the EU, this summer it conducted a consultation on legislation for plants produced by certain new genomic techniques, which is the term it uses for techniques such as gene editing. Some 80% of the respondents agreed that the existing GMO legislation was not adequate for plants, and more than 65% mentioned negative consequences if the regulations were not amended. These consequences included the loss of tools to tackle climate change, to develop more resilient crop varieties and to reduce the use of phytosanitary products. In response to the point made by my noble friend Lord Lansley, we will continue to monitor the position of the EU on precision-bred products and on UK/EU trade implications for products developed using precision breeding.
As things stand, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, is absolutely right. If we pass this Bill, some material produced through precision breeding and sold into Europe would be treated as a GMO there, but they are moving fast and we want to make sure that we are too. The global market value for gene editing is estimated at £2.7 billion in 2020 and expected to rise to more than £7 billion by 2026. I therefore ask noble Lords to consider the impacts and missed opportunity that would be caused by not supporting this important transition and the scientific basis for it.
Concerns have been raised about the impact assessment. I reassure noble Lords that this red rating is not a reflection on the quality or the ambition of the Bill. The Government are committed to proportionate, science-based regulations and have carefully considered all views and evidence in establishing our approach. The main criticism of the RPC is that the description of the policy differed between the initial review notice and the final submission. It felt that the impact assessment had not adequately accounted for the potential impacts arising from this policy change.
We are clear that at no point has the policy changed. The final submission had small changes in terminology such as changing the title of the Bill from “gene editing” to “precision breeding”. In our engagement and evidence-gathering, researchers and developers were made aware of the policy intention, and that the name had not been finalised, and so our expectation is that the change of the name to precision breeding will be of no impact on researchers or developers.
In response to the RPC’s comments, work is under way to gather further evidence from stakeholders and additional consumer insight data to provide more detail on the impacts to businesses and to bolster the cost-benefit analysis. We are also seeking to provide information to give more clarity on the policy intention, the Bill’s objectives and the options appraisal. Defra is working closely with the RPC and will submit an enactment impact assessment which will address its comments, and this will reflect any amendments made to the Bill as it progresses through Parliament.
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about pausing the Bill, the policy has not changed. His Majesty’s Government are absolutely committed to supporting proportionate, science-based regulation. Our engagement and evidence-gathering will, I hope, address her concerns.
We recognise that the devolved Administrations’ positions regarding this legislation differ. My department has had very good conversations with a number of people. I have meetings next week with the devolved Administration in Wales and we will be talking to the Scottish Government as well. The noble Earl, Lord Stair, raised the point that this is a devolved issue. The Scottish Government have declined to join the Bill but the Welsh Government remain open to discussions via the common frameworks. We also engage with leading research organisations: with the Roslin Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, and with Aberystwyth University and Bangor University in Wales. These are world-leading organisations and they are calling for this kind of legislation. The electoral dynamic will, of course, differ in different parts of these islands and we want to make sure that we are talking to and working with the devolved Governments, and that we come to the right conclusions. I hope that we can persuade them to come along with us.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, talked about the IP implications and whether precision-bred crops and organisms can be patented. The patent system exists to encourage inventions by offering time-limited exclusive rights in exchange for making the invention public, allowing others to further develop it. I am preaching to the choir; he is, of course, an expert on this. Patent rights are available in the UK in the area of gene editing, including plants and animals modified by such techniques. A number of patent applications have been filed and patents granted that relate to the genome-editing tool CRISPR.
The noble Earl and others also raised issues relating to the World Trade Organization. In 2018, a joint statement issued to the World Trade Organization signed by 13 countries stated that Governments should
“avoid arbitrary and unjustifiable distinctions”
between those crops developed through precision breeding and those developed through conventional breeding. The signatories included Canada, Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the USA. We are moving in that direction.
I have not had time to answer everyone’s points, even though I have been rather lengthy in my reply. It is important that we have open conversations. This has been an incredibly fascinating debate. I am encouraged by the level of support for the Bill. I hope we can progress it through the House. I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.
House adjourned at 8.47 pm.