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Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Volume 729: debated on Monday 6 March 2023

Consideration of Lords amendments

Clause 1

Precision bred organism

These amendments aim to provide clarity as to which genetic changes produced through modern biotechnology are acceptable in a precision-bred organism, particularly with regard to changes that are similar to those that could have resulted from natural transformation. To achieve this, these amendments remove references to “natural transformation” in the Bill. We included this term originally to acknowledge that exogenous DNA can be present in plants and animals as a result of natural transformation. In addition, there was a clause that would strictly limit which features of this type could be present in precision-bred organisms if they resulted from the application of modern biotechnology.

Our policy ambition has not changed. However, after further discussions with our scientific advisers and with experts in the other place, we have introduced these amendments to achieve this desired outcome more effectively. Rather than referring to “natural transformation” in the Bill, we have focused on the features that can be present in a precision-bred organism resulting from the use of modern biotechnology. These are features that arise from the application of traditional processes listed in clause 1(7), which has not been amended. It is also important that the definitions of “modern biotechnology” and “artificial modification technique” in the Bill align with corresponding terms in the genetically modified organisms legislation. These Government amendments ensure that these can remain aligned, if there are technical updates, in the GMO legislation.

Through these amendments, we are maintaining our intention that precision-bred organisms contain only changes that could also have arisen in the gene pool through natural variation or through the kinds of directed breeding programmes already in use today. I am confident that the changes we have introduced are more effective in delivering the scientific approach to which we have committed when defining a precision-bred organism.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this important Bill could release vital technological innovation and demonstrates that the United Kingdom can regulate more effectively when we make decisions in our own national interest than when we were a member of the European Union?

Of course. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who was an excellent Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She had the same ambitions as this Bill is delivering.

Amendments 7 to 13 and 15 will increase the scrutiny of the secondary legislation set out by the Bill. In response to the report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, amendments 7 to 9, 12 and 13 change the parliamentary procedure from negative to affirmative for clauses 4(3), 6(2) and 18(1). Amendments 7 and 13 ensure that clauses 4(1)(b) and 18(6) remain subject to the affirmative procedure. We considered these recommendations closely and accepted the Committee’s view that the clauses contain matters of significant public interest. Regulations under these clauses will therefore need to be debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament via affirmative resolution before they come into effect.

Amendments 10, 11 and 15 increase parliamentary scrutiny of clauses 11(5) and 22(3) while retaining the flexibility for the Secretary of State to designate the most appropriate body for the role of the animal welfare advisory body. We recognise it is essential that the animal welfare protections under this Bill command strong public and stakeholder confidence, which is why we tabled these amendments.

Alongside these amendments, which provide an opportunity for both Houses to debate and agree the provisions before they come into effect, we commissioned Scotland’s Rural College to run an independent research project to help us develop criteria for the animal welfare assessment and the accompanying evidence that will be required.

We have traditionally used other methods of crop breeding, such as induced mutation using gamma radiation or chemicals such as colchicine. Can the Minister reassure me that, although we are making changes for this keyhole surgery type of genetic modification, or gene editing, it will not affect traditional methods that have been used for many years to produce varieties such as Golden Promise winter barley?

This technology should accompany and enhance the possibilities of plant breeding and, later, animal breeding. I think it is an exciting opportunity, and who knows where the science will take us? It may well lead to world-changing developments that help to feed the growing world population.

The research by Scotland’s Rural College will involve experts from the Animal Welfare Committee and a wide range of organisations with expertise in animal welfare, genetics and industry practice. Following the Bill’s passage, we will continue to work with experts and other stakeholders to develop measures to safeguard animal welfare before we bring the measures on animals into force.

Finally, I will speak to the minor and technical amendments. Amendment 5 is a technical amendment that ensures clause 1(8) reflects the definition of “artificially modified” inserted into part VI of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 by the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002, which is expressed in relation to genes or other genetic material rather than organisms. The amendment will make no substantive change to the Bill.

Amendment 14 replaces the reference to a “relevant obligation” in clause 21(3)(a) with a reference to a “part 2 obligation”, as defined in clause 21, for clarity.

Amendment 16 similarly replaces the reference to a “relevant obligation” in clause 29(4)(a) with a reference to a “part 3 obligation”, as defined in clause 29, for clarity.

Amendment 17 aims to make it clear in the clause on interpretation that references to the term “notifier”, which is defined in clause 6(1), may in certain circumstances be modified by regulations under clause 11(9).

I hope the House is confident in accepting these amendments.

As always, it is a pleasure to follow the Minister, who is, by my accounting, the fourth Minister at the Dispatch Box on this Bill. We had two in two days during the Committee stage, but I am still here, as is his colleague on the Treasury Bench, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). I thank her for the inclusive way in which she introduced the Bill at the beginning. It is a complicated Bill and she gave us access to officials, which was very helpful.

I take this opportunity, in case the Minister missed it, to remind him of the mantra that has guided the Opposition’s view on the Bill. Labour is pro-science and pro-innovation, but we also know that to secure both public and investor confidence, a strong and robust regulatory framework is required. Disappointingly, that is the part the Government have failed to provide.

The hon. Gentleman represents a city that is full of science, particularly in its universities, so does he agree that we can bring forward this legislation only because we have left the European Union and that new wheat varieties that are 50% lower in acrylamide, a chemical that can induce cancer, is good news for both farmers and consumers of wheat?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for that. We have had this discussion before and I have to disappoint him slightly, in the sense that of course the EU is moving as well on this. I suspect we will probably end up in a similar place at a similar time. However, he is absolutely right to point out the potential advantages.

The amendments before us are all Government amendments, because, despite the excellent learned and erudite arguments put by my colleagues in the other place—I pay tribute to Baroness Hayman, Baroness Jones and Lords Winston, Krebs, Trees and Cameron, among others—not much has changed, and that is genuinely disappointing. However, some improvements have been made. A number of the amendments move regulations to the affirmative procedure, as the Minister explained, and that allows some, if limited, further scrutiny, which is welcome. Amendment 1 to clause 1 is the Government’s further attempt to codify a particular knotty problem that we discussed at length in Committee. So the Minister will be pleased to know that we will not be opposing their amendments tonight. We will merely pointing be out how much more improved the Bill could have been had they had the confidence to embrace our positive suggestions.

I say that not least, Mr Deputy Speaker, because if you had the chance to peruse the Sunday newspapers, as I hope you had the time to do and enjoy, you would have seen comment on today’s gathering of international experts on human gene editing. Although the techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 may be similar, this is of course a different issue from those under consideration today. However, I would argue that many of the ethical issues around animals are not dissimilar. That is why the Government’s refusal to adopt our suggestion of an overseeing authority to look at these very complicated and challenging issues is so disappointing. We have a great chance to be genuinely world-leading in this area. We have brilliant people such as those at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, yet the Government are, apparently, not interested. That is a wasted opportunity.

Let us look at these amendments in more detail. As I have said, on a number of issues the Government have bowed to informed argument in the other place and agreed that regulations should be subject to the affirmative procedure: on the release or marketing of genetically edited organisms; on information that must be included in the register; on the animal welfare declaration that has to be made; and on the body to be designated as the animal welfare advisory body. That is all welcome. But one of the most powerful and consistent criticisms has been the vagueness of the Bill on many issues and the lack of detail, particularly relating to the proposals regarding animals and when regulations might take effect. I am afraid that these amendments do not seem to help us on this, and I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on it. The promise at the outset was that nothing would be done on animals until the science was further advanced; it has been described as a “step-by-step approach”. Will the Minister reconfirm that commitment today and tell us what timeframe is actually envisaged? As for companion animals or primates, can he give any reassurances on that today? Many people will be keen to hear what he has to say on it.

As I have already indicated, the most significant amendment is to clause 1, as the Government seek once again to explain what they consider to be a natural process. We had an interesting and extensive discussion in Committee on this point, both with those giving evidence and between members, and it was discussed at length in the other place. I fear that the Government have struggled with this, and I am not sure the new wording takes us much further forward. In general, the Government have sought to define a new category, “precision breeding” which many expert witnesses doubt has much meaning. The particular concern is whether the definitions accurately describe gene editing, without allowing gene modification in through the back door, with one of the key issues being whether exogenous material is included.

The amendment before us introduces yet another term—modern biotechnology. This is also ill-defined, and, as argued by Lord Krebs in the other place, may not stand the test of time, or, more importantly, as we heard in expert evidence, legal scrutiny and challenge. I appreciate that this is difficult territory and hard to define, and almost any sentence fails to capture the complexity, but we were promised at the outset that GM is excluded, and it would be helpful to have the Minister confirm that clearly again today.

l am conscious that you do not want lengthy speeches, Mr Deputy Speaker, so let me conclude. The learned and lengthy discussions in the other place showed just how complicated this subject is. Sadly, the Government have made only limited changes in the light of those discussions. Those changes are welcome, so we will not oppose them, but we think that this is a missed opportunity to set out the strong regulatory framework that would have reassured the public, and given investors the confidence that the sector needs.

There is significant opportunity for good here, but there are also risks—risks we may not fully understand. It is also worth bearing in mind that one mistake could tarnish the entire technology. As so often, the Government have gone for the short-term quick fix—the sticking plaster. How much better it would have been to have set up the robust long-term framework that could have established the UK as the setter of the standard that others will follow. That is unfinished business, and it is for another day.

It is a pleasure to rise

again in support of this important Bill. I declare a strong professional interest as a veterinary surgeon. I am passionate about animal health and welfare, and strongly believe that the Bill will help in that area.

The Bill has been strengthened and improved in the other place. Its definitions are also tighter. I am pleased that the Opposition amendment to remove animals from the Bill was withdrawn and has not been carried forward. It is so important that both animals and plants are included in the Bill. I was also pleased that the amendments that would have phased in animal provisions were not successful. That has strong benefits for animal health and welfare, and it is important that animals are included.

I very much welcome the Government’s allaying of concerns expressed by the Opposition about exogenous DNA, therefore preventing any exogenous DNA that was outside the range of an organism’s existing gene pool from remaining in the organism. Amendments 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 have been very helpful in that regard. It is important to reaffirm to the public and the world at large that this Bill is to do with gene editing, which is very, very different from genetic modification. That is where genetic material from exogenous or unrelated species can be introduced. That will not happen in this gene editing Bill.

I very much welcome the Government amendments that have removed reference to natural transformation. Some clarity was needed in that regard. I also welcome the fact that the Bill introduces more parliamentary scrutiny to help protect animal health and welfare, which strengthens the safeguards. This increased scrutiny will also allay some of the fears that people had put forward.

The Bill has huge benefits to animals, plants, the environment and people in, for example, helping to develop resistance to diseases such as avian influenza. A lot of work is being done to make birds resistant to this horrific disease. A huge outbreak has gripped this country and others across the world and that is firmly in our minds. This sort of technology will help us in that battle. It will also help us to develop resistance to other diseases, such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome in pigs. It will help reduce the need for medicines, help combat antimicrobial resistance and, indirectly and very directly, help public health. It will also help us as a country and as a world in our fight to preserve and strengthen food security by being able to develop more climate-resilient and disease-resistant crops, reducing the need for pesticides and reducing the need for fertiliser as well. That will also benefit the environment.

In summary, I strongly support the Bill. I welcome the Government amendments. I thank the other place for refining and improving the Bill and I wish it well as it completes its passage.

I will not detain the House longer than a moment or two, but I want to put on record that, although we in the SNP do not intend to oppose the Lords amendments, our opposition to the entire Bill has been well documented throughout its passage. The Bill, alongside the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, attacks the integrity of the powers of the Scottish Parliament in specifically devolved areas such as agriculture, aquaculture and animal welfare.

The intended scope of the Bill may be England only, but the Bill documentation is clear that it will have significant impacts on areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament. In particular, the impact assessment for the Bill recognises that,

“products entering the market in England would also be marketable in both Scotland and Wales.”

It is outrageous that this Government did not see fit to work more closely—or at all—with the Scottish Parliament, to give that institution the respect it is due through this process and to listen to the concerns expressed. As a result, this entire Bill does not have the support of my party.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate; I have spoken to the Minister before, so he knows my thoughts on the Bill, and I am very pleased to add my support to what we have before us tonight. It is also good to hear from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), who brings a wealth of personal knowledge to the debate—I thank him for sharing that with us.

I have been supportive of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill for some time now, having spoken with a number of farmers in my constituency who have expressed to me their willingness to engage with and support it when they learned how exactly it could help their work. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union and also as a landowner.

To my reading, the Lords amendments simply provide clarity and clarification. The Minister was very good to share his response, which highlighted the use of the terminology “natural transformation”, and I thank him for that. Five of the amendments serve the purpose of removing references to natural transformation.

The amendments were made following concerns raised by MPs and peers regarding the potential for misinterpretation of the term as allowing the stable integration of the functional transgenic DNA, through the use of modern biotechnology, in an organism that is considered to be precision-bred for the purposes of the Bill. That is not in line with the Government’s policy intention, which is to allow only genetic features similar to those present in the gene pool or that might arise naturally through existing breeding processes.

As that clarity has been furnished, it is clear that our farming industry can benefit without dangerously interfering with genetic structure. I am encouraged by that, and I believe that the information from the National Farmers Union, which outlined gene-editing applications in 46 different crop species, with rice, tobacco, wheat and soybean among the most cited, is an indication of the clear benefits of the ability to use precision breeding.

A broad range of products with market-oriented traits are being developed, and not just those with agronomic traits such as yield and disease resistance, but foods with consumer-facing traits such as lower allergenicity, reduced contaminants, higher antioxidants, longer shelf life, vitamin enhancement and heart-healthiness—all things we would wish to see in foods. There are also those with climate-resilient traits such as drought and salt tolerance.

No one can ignore what is happening and what we have before us. It is not gene modification in livestock, but instead gene editing applications being developed and researched, including on resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. These technologies are exciting, innovative and challenging and I believe they give the United Kingdom a chance to lead the way. For example, if the problems of African swine flu in pigs or bovine tuberculosis in cattle could be sorted out, my goodness, we could all put our hands up and clap hard for that. Mastitis resistance, hornless cattle, chickens that cannot spread bird flu, elimination of milk allergens and increased lean muscle—how would that not be good news for our farming sector? It could only lead to more efficiency and higher standards and make our farming industry even stronger.

It is clear that this Bill solidifies what farmers and indeed many of our grandmothers have done for years with their roses and their peas. I well remember in Strabane back in the ’60s my grandmother being one of those people doing things with roses and peas, making changes even in those days. My grandmother called it splicing, but this is splicing made technical, and it is past time we legislated to protect it. I very much welcome what the Minister is bringing forward tonight.

I pay tribute to hon. Members who have assisted not only in this place, but at the other end of the corridor, and particularly to my right hon. Friend Lord Benyon for steering the Bill so ably through the House of Lords.

It is worth putting on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—I see him in his place behind me—who was the originator of the Bill. He saw the benefit of this technology and brought in the Bill, ably assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) indicated, was one of the Ministers he jousted with over the Bill.

The shadow Minister was broadly supportive, but he had one little concern about animal welfare; I understand those concerns and I will try to reassure him. Animal welfare concerns were raised in both Houses and by non-governmental organisations. The Government are committed to maintaining our already high animal welfare standards and we want to improve and build on that record. That is why we are taking a step-by-step approach, with regulatory changes first for plants, followed then by animals. That is why we have also commissioned Scotland’s Rural College to carry out our research.

One reason why I was a little disappointed by the comments about Scotland from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) was that even she must be proud of the fantastic establishments in Scotland. Not least, the James Hutton Institute in Dundee and the University of Edinburgh are world-leading in some of this research. We need to embrace that research and bounce forward.

This is a fantastic Bill. I am glad to see it progress through the House and I look forward to its receiving Royal Assent.

It is right and fitting that the Minister pays tribute to the hub of scientific excellence that we find in Scotland in a range of different areas, but surely he is not suggesting that that, in itself, and using that expertise in Scotland is a reason for his Government to legislate by the back door in devolved areas in Scotland.

Not at all. This is an England-only Bill; it is there in black and white. I was expressing my disappointment on behalf of Scottish farmers who will not be able to use this technology. That will leave them at a disadvantage commercially, and I hope that she will listen to those Scottish farmers.

Perhaps the Minister might be reassured by the fact that the Scottish National party seems to be against the Bill on political rather than scientific grounds. In fact, I think it is on the record as saying that if the European Union adopts the legislation—as the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), said—it would immediately adopt it. Surely the SNP is taking the lead from Europe, not from the people who elected them.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. It was my intention to slowly glide the Bill through its process, but we seem to have stepped into a bit of a hot potato. The Bill is a fantastic opportunity for scientists around the UK, particularly in England, to embrace this new technology.

Other Members have spoken about Scotland and Wales. I know that the Minister has a very close working relationship with the Minister responsible for farming in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Edwin Poots. Has this Minister had any opportunity to discuss these matters with him, so that we in Northern Ireland can take advantage of what will happen here?

Of course, our door is always open for those conversations with the devolved Administrations. I look forward to speaking to Minister Poots at the earliest convenience, so that Northern Ireland can embrace this technology, as soon as we get Stormont up and running, of course. I know that the hon. Gentleman is as keen as I am to see that. With that, I commend the Bill to the House.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 17 agreed to.

Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill (Ways and Means)


That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Mark Spencer.)