Motion to Take Note
My Lords, one of the opportunities open to the Science and Technology Committee is to identify scientific, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities—existing and future—which government faces or ought to face. The genetic modification—GM—of insects is one such technology. It has the potential to contribute to global issues such as the control of infectious diseases affecting humans and animals and the control of agricultural crop pests. The potential of GM technologies should not be overstated, and a wide range of strategies is required to tackle insect-borne diseases and crop pests, but despite inevitable uncertainties at this early stage of the development of this technology, our committee concluded that,
“GM insect technologies should be afforded an opportunity to play a complementary role in helping to meet the global challenges of disease control and food security”.
The United Kingdom is a world leader in this area and hosts the only company in the world producing and distributing GM insects—Oxitec Ltd, a spin-out company from Oxford University, which was acquired last year by an American company.
I would like to acknowledge the great assistance given to the committee by our specialist adviser Professor Michael Bonsall and by our clerk, Chris Clarke, who has now moved on to other responsibilities and will be greatly missed; likewise Dr Cat Ball, our policy analyst. It is a great sadness that Lord Peston, a much-valued member of the committee, is no longer with us to participate in this debate.
While undertaking this inquiry in the autumn last year, we took the view that of the potential applications of GM insect technology, perhaps the most relevant would be to address the spread of dengue. Since then the reports of the alarming spread of the Zika virus, primarily in the Americas, have added further urgency to determining the potential of this technology. In January this year, the World Health Organization said that the virus was likely to spread throughout the Americas by the end of the year, and a month later declared that the cluster of microcephaly cases reported in Brazil was strongly associated with the Zika outbreak. I hope that during this debate my noble friend Lord Ridley will be able to update us more on Zika.
The global incidence of dengue has grown dramatically in recent decades, and about half the world’s population is now at risk, including in parts of Europe. This mosquito-borne viral infection can develop into a potentially lethal complication, particularly in Asian and Latin American countries. Other human diseases to which GM insect technology could be applied include malaria, West Nile fever and chikungunya—all mosquito-borne viruses—and Chagas disease, for which the insect vector is a triatomine bug.
GM insect technologies build on methods developed some 60 years ago such as the sterile insect technique. These technologies represent a form of biological control in contrast to the use of chemical controls, such as insecticides, which have dominated the management of insect carriers of disease and pests historically. Insecticides will remain an essential part of the armoury to tackle insect pests and insect carriers of disease—and, indeed, they have been remarkably successful in recent years in reducing the incidence of malaria, by the use of insecticide-treated bed nets and by spraying the inside of houses during the day, when the night-flying mosquitoes are at rest. But this does not work against day-flying species of mosquitoes such as Aedes aegypti, which carries dengue fever and Zika. There is mounting concern at the use of broad spectrum insecticides. A better-focused approach that affects only the target species has obvious benefits compared to the release of toxic chemicals into the environment that have impacts on a range of insects and other forms of life.
In chapter 2 of our report, we try to explain—it is rather complicated—the science behind GM insect technologies, which can be grouped into either population suppression or population replacement strategies. Population suppression of the mosquito Aedes aegypti is being trialled by Oxitec. A population of modified so-called sterile insect males is reared in the laboratory which, while able to reproduce, have non-viable offspring. Recent advances in molecular biology provide an array of techniques for engineering gene drive mechanisms and editing genes, the result being the ability to modify insect populations rapidly. The so-called sterile males mate with the female and if enough are released the population will be suppressed. The results from field trials in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama and Malaysia have been impressive, with reduction of populations of Aedes aegypti of over 90%.
The second strategy of population replacement requires less mass rearing than population suppression strategies and would lead to heritable constructs spreading throughout the populations. As these modifications will be persistent in the environment, there must be much more rigorous assessments of the long-term environmental impacts compared to the population suppression strategies, where no such modifications persist. In paragraph 129, we draw attention to the regulatory challenge of genetically modified organisms designed to persist in the environment. We conclude that we will need better tools for the monitoring of GM insects in the environment and that underpinning research is required in order to allow effective monitoring and tracking of these heritable traits.
The United Kingdom has a number of leading academic research groups active in this area and, more generally, a strong bioscience sector in universities, research institutes and small and large companies. For example, there is a group at Imperial College funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, working on a different approach to Oxitec’s to cause a detrimental effect to the reproductive capacity of the mosquito population. It is encouraging that there are these different approaches that derive from the new gene-editing opportunities. We should expect, however, the United Kingdom’s lead position in the development of GM insect-based control methods to be challenged by competition from the USA, China and elsewhere. We recommend in paragraph 72 that Innovate UK should provide targeted funding in this emerging technology on the grounds of economic benefit to this country and the potential benefits to global health.
The immediate beneficiaries of GM technologies that serve to control insect-borne diseases are most likely to be in low and middle-income countries. For resource-poor countries with limited regulatory capacity, GM insects may represent a problematic area of governance and regulation. We recommend in paragraph 86 that the Government, in the light of their strong commitment to international development, work through international organisations to help to address challenges of international guidance and appropriate regulatory framework.
The EU regulatory process for genetically modified organisms is deeply flawed. We set out in paragraph 91 how the regulatory process should work, from application for a commercial release, then identification of risk concern, risk assessment, risk management and finally a decision. In practice there has been political deadlock between member states and an inability to get a decision, with ever more reviews and information requested and the application stalled. Agreement was reached two years ago on allowing national derogations for commercial cultivation of GM crops, but only time will tell if this will break the gridlock, the fundamental cause being political interference once the scientific risk assessment has been completed.
Against this background of failure to implement the EU regulatory process for GM crops without political interference, there is inevitable concern that Europe will fail to realise the potential of GM insects. We heard repeatedly that there are currently no means to consider the potential benefits of GMOs within the regulatory regime. Decisions are made entirely on the basis of risk alone. A potential new GM insect technology to reduce an agricultural pest population would not be compared alongside the insecticide currently used to tackle the pest. However Sir Roland Jackson, executive chair of Sciencewise, stressed to us in his evidence that benefit is not the opposite of risk. He urged that benefits and disbenefits be considered alongside each other, and that seems to be sensible advice.
Whether the first application to release GM insects in the UK for research purposes is for research on crop protection or for the control of disease-carrying insects, there needs to be in place appropriate policy direction before such an application is made. The decision on whether to allow such a release must be made against a background of scientific risk assessment of the environmental hazards and exposure to these technologies but must also involve public dialogues, conversations and explanations of the science. These conversations and this dialogue need to take place alongside the development of the new technology.
It was to stimulate such a dialogue sooner rather than later that we recommended that the Government invest in a GM insect field trial to test fully the science of GM insects and to test whether the regulatory processes are fit for purpose as well as to stimulate public engagement. In order to widen the debate and ensure that all aspects are given adequate consideration such a trial should be dual-approach in nature and investigate both an agricultural pest and a species of mosquito. The Government’s response to this proposal was unenthusiastic to say the least. Paragraph 28 of the response states:
“The Government will keep under review the recommendation that a public dialogue should be undertaken when GM technologies are near to potential commercialisation in the United Kingdom”,
while paragraph 25 states that the Government are not prepared,
“to open up the existing regulatory regime for public debate”.
The Government should show more confidence in the public to participate and contribute to both the regulatory framework and the policy direction.
Around the world, this technology is playing an increasing role, with UK science leading the world. If we are to avoid the damage to our economy we have suffered through failure in Europe to implement as intended our regulations for GM crops, we need to learn from this experience and we must allow the public to participate in policy formulation. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I apologise for being somewhat wet as a result of the external conditions—although many people think that that comes as an occupational hazard of sitting on these Benches.
I thank the chair not only for his excellent summary of the report but for his wisdom and his tolerance in putting up with me as a new member of the committee. This is the first report that I have had the pleasure of working on. I also thank and praise those who gave us such expert support. It requires a tolerant demeanour to coach someone on the differences between population suppression and population replacement. We should also thank those who gave evidence. We received a very good body of evidence, though with one exception, as some of the more vociferous external environmental groups chose not to give evidence. I am disappointed that they did not feel able to come up with some evidence.
When considering the topic at the beginning I felt that it was somewhat arcane and a narrow corridor of science. I have to admit that that view was wrong then and, now that the situation has developed, it is even more wrong. The challenges we face, some of which our chairman highlighted, show that the technology is highly relevant and absolutely on the money in addressing, or potentially addressing, some of those problems.
First, the report establishes that this technology really does have potential benefits. That is the most important thing—that it offers hope and potential benefit. As the chairman pointed out, these benefits come in two forms. In terms of agriculture, and especially as a result of climate change, biting insects will increasingly plague our herds and flocks and crops will increasingly be under attack from pests. So there are significant potential benefits for farmers in the northern hemisphere as the climate changes.
Secondly, there are potential applications in public health, which I will talk more about later. We have already heard about some of the elements of that effort. The chairman has focused on the situation with dengue. There are also hundreds of millions of cases of malaria, from which hundreds of thousands of people die. This technology might offer another avenue of support in the fight against malaria and we should not underestimate it. The committee identified dengue as one of the prime concerns—to which we later added Zika, which a fellow committee member will speak about later. We have an opportunity to use this technology in the public health arena not only to solve big global problems but perhaps to capture the public’s imagination in a way that some of the technology’s more agricultural applications have never been able to do.
The report also clearly identifies that the UK leads in this technology. We should always remember that we have a strong science base in this country and always cherish it. The creation of such a base does not happen by accident. One of its many outputs is the fact that we lead in this particular science. However, the fact that we lead in this science does not necessarily mean that this country and our companies will be the ones to apply it. Investment in this technology is vital and, as the chairman said, Innovate UK is one of the avenues for making it.
Perhaps one of the greatest existential challenges to implementing this technology has already been alluded to—the regulatory regime under which we are governed. The report highlights the brake on field trials created by the EU regulatory environment. The report also points to regimes in places such as Canada, where trait-based and other techniques are used to create the regulation. However, perhaps the magic bullet that some are thinking of—namely, that the European Union will cease to be the regulatory authority for science in this country—is not the magic bullet that is hoped for. Let us consider, for example, how the derogation has performed. It has given our Government an opportunity to step in. However, the evidence given in the other place does not indicate that there will be a rush to massively change our current regulatory environment, and there is no reason to assume that there will be a sudden turnaround. If an example is needed, consider the fact that some of the UK legislatures, such as the Scottish Parliament, have already made choices about what they think should happen regarding GM technology.
The challenge for scientists, those who advocate on behalf of scientists and those who wish to see a rational approach to the application of science is still the need to win the hearts and minds of the public. We have to sell this. We cannot rely on “one leap and we’re free from this terrible regime”. My proposition and prediction is that the regulatory environment will not change overnight if that freeing-up takes place.
There is already tremendous potential around genetic technology. Almost on a daily basis gene editing is producing news and a news flow, particularly around public health and human health. This science can start to catch the imagination of individual members of the public in a very positive way because it is a technology that can tackle genuine global health issues. Therefore, it is the health issue rather than the agricultural issue that provides the opportunity to really sell and talk about this technology in a positive way.
This is about development. As has been stated, the majority of the people who suffer from the public health implications of insect-borne diseases are not in the northern hemisphere; they are in the southern hemisphere, and they are in poor countries where this technology can best be used or trialled to solve problems. From a commercial point of view it is not a very attractive business proposition because it is about development. In this country we have the best technology but we also have one of the most highly developed and funded overseas development machines. It seems to me that we have the opportunity to combine the two to start the process of applying this technology in a very positive way in the places where it would be most effective.
I made my maiden speech during the passage of the Bill to introduce the 0.7% foreign aid target. The major point that I made was that, in order for there to be effective projects in overseas development, you need long-term planning, and you can only really have the prospect of long-term funding, followed by planning and proper goals which you audit against, if you know that the money is coming. That was my reason for supporting that Bill. Now that we have that money, here is a project where there could be some long-term planning. In the report we talked about money from the Ross Fund, but I call on Ministers in DfID and beyond to think about how to unite with the scientists to bring this technology forward. I believe that the chief technology officer in DfID will be coming before the committee quite soon and I hope that this is something that we can discuss. This science has great potential. The UK leads in the science and in overseas development, so it is time that we put those together and got going on something that could make a big difference to the world.
My Lords, I, too, start by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for his masterly chairmanship of the committee. I also thank our special adviser and the clerk of the committee for all their help. I was delighted to be co-opted on to the committee, as I was not a member of the Science and Technology Committee.
Before I address the issues in the report, I should like briefly to talk on a personal level. I often visit Tanzania, the country of my birth, as I am involved in a charity that trains doctors and nurses to treat women who suffer from obstetric fistula. On a visit two years ago, I went to the northern Serengeti—some of your Lordships may have been there—to observe the great migration of wild animals. It is an incredible spectacle. A tent—albeit a luxury one—in the bush surrounded by wild animals is an ideal culture medium for the breeding of tsetse flies, which transmit the vector- borne African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, caused by a protozoa. It is different from American trypanosomiasis, which causes Chagas disease. Over three days in the bush I must have been bitten more than 100 times. My driver tried to reassure me by saying, “You don’t have to worry until you’ve been bitten 1,000 times”. His interpretation of statistics was slightly different from mine.
Although the number of sleeping sickness cases is falling through the use of traditional methods, the current methods obviously are not working well in controlling tsetse flies—including the chemicals that are used to sterilise the flies. For these and other insect vector transmission diseases, traditional methods of control are not adequate for diseases such as those already mentioned—Chagas, malaria, dengue, Lyme disease and now Zika. The genetic modification of insects has to be an additional method of controlling these and other emerging insect-borne diseases. And rest assured, there will be other diseases on the horizon that are both insect and fly-borne.
Genome editing with engineered nucleuses that act as molecular scissors is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted or replaced in the genome of an organism. Most people have heard of genes, even if it is not clear what all genes do. A gene is the name given to a section of DNA. Genes produce proteins that influence everything, including diseases. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genetics is the science of studying and manipulating genes. It is now more than 50 years since Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA—by the way, this is Crick’s centenary year.
Genetics has contributed to many important scientific developments, including: understanding and treating diseases such as cystic fibrosis; developing drugs for the treatment of cancer such as Herceptin, which is used in the treatment of breast cancer; and enabling the manufacture of human insulin to treat diabetes. With the more recent advances in gene editing, we now have the ability to manipulate genes in many different ways to treat human diseases and, in agriculture, to improve crop output. As we read recently in the media and saw on yesterday’s “Horizon” programme, we now have the ability to use gene editing techniques to grow human organs in animal chimeras.
The genetic modification of organisms is not new. It dates back to 1970. One of the early results of genetic modification was insulin production by bacteria through the insertion of human genes into bacterial DNA: producing pure insulin by synthesising the human protein. Similar technologies produce proteins of growth hormones, blood-clotting factors and others. Also, the hepatitis B and human papilloma virus, or HPV, vaccines are produced using similar techniques. Genetic modification has the potential now to develop new types of cancer vaccines in future.
In the context of today’s debate, the company Oxitec, spun out of Oxford University, has applied a technique for controlling populations of insect vectors that carry diseases. Our committee chairman, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned in his opening remarks the control of diseases such as malaria, dengue, Chagas disease, Chikungunya and now Zika, which I am sure the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, will address. I did threaten him that I would speak about Zika and he gave me a bad look. I am sure that he will have something to say, and that most of us read his excellent article on Zika in his Times column.
I believe that the genetic modification of insects as vectors of organisms that cause much human death and misery will become a key component of vector control to reduce, or even eliminate, risk to humans from some of these diseases. If techniques of genetic modification and gene editing to control, treat or eliminate disease are to become more acceptable to the public, then, as is addressed in chapter 5 of our report, public concerns and anxieties have to be addressed from the outset. Recent coverage of gene editing being used to treat human diseases helped raise public awareness, particularly of the benefits of such biotechnology, as did the reports in the media following the publication of our report. History shows that the genetic modification of organisms is an area of high public interest. It raises public anxiety and ethical issues, sometimes real but most of the time perceived, that need to be addressed. The mostly positive comments in the media, as I mentioned, are helpful.
It was suggested to us in our inquiry that public perception of GM insect technology is likely to be influenced by attitudes developed in response to the public debate on GM crops, often promoted through misrepresentation of the science and its effects. We therefore recommend in our report that early action should be taken to inform debate and involve the public in relation to the genetic modification of insects to control human diseases—and the methods used are both for the control of insect populations and for population replacement strategies.
It has to be said that, despite the ethical and safety concerns that were highlighted to us, we did not hear any suggestion that GM insect technology should not be explored. We recognise that the public debate that relates to the use of technology for public health initiatives should be considered separately from the debate that relates to the use of technology for agriculture. In our recommendations we see a strong role to be played by the Government in initiating such a debate, but the Government’s response in this area was lukewarm. I therefore hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to put on record a strong commitment that the Government will lead the debate in these and other areas of potential benefit from the technology, such as gene editing and the control and treatment of diseases.
While I admit a bias, I believe that the use of gene editing and genomic modification technology in prevention and treatment offers huge potential for the future of medicine.
My Lords, I, too, begin by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Selborne’s chairing of this committee. The subject could not have been more topical, the science more ground breaking or the policy lessons more vital. We produced punchy recommendations which received, I am afraid, a disappointingly limp government response—I will come back to that.
I also echo my noble friend Lord Selborne’s comments about Chris Clarke, Cat Ball and Mike Bonsall, who gave us tremendous support during the committee, and what he said about Lord Peston—it was a privilege to experience his remarkable brain at close quarters and I am sorry I will not have that chance again. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for suggesting this topic to the committee in the first place.
The terrifying discovery, about a month after our report came out, that Zika was causing birth defects rather dramatically underlined the vital timing of our inquiry. I want to focus on Zika, as has already been suggested—I did not mean to frighten off the noble Lord, Lord Patel, to whom I apologise; he could have talked about Zika if he had wanted. The noble Lord said that it is 100 years since Francis Crick was born. Tomorrow will be 100 years precisely, so, again, the timing is good.
We have an extraordinary British innovation which was by good fortune already being tested in Brazil on the very species that is a vector for Zika. Oxitec is the only company in the world currently in a position to defeat this outbreak, because we do not have a vaccine and we can use the technology. Oxitec’s CEO, Hadyn Parry, testified to Congress last month and gave a very bullish account of what the company could begin to achieve. Yet the technology is being stifled by EU bureaucracy at home—I promise I will resist the invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, to talk about Brexit on this occasion—so it is doing all its work in the Americas.
It is disappointing that the Department for International Development did not join in the response to our report, because, as has been said, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, this is an important area where Britain could help the developing world. We should proactively fund trials of GM insects in the UK—on agricultural pests, for example—but also in UK Overseas Territories, where we can more readily apply them to vector-borne diseases. We should fund the expansion of facilities to breed GM mosquitoes in countries such as Brazil. We should help smaller countries put in place the right sort of regulation to encourage safe use of GM insects. We should fund efforts to combat the disgraceful misinformation about this technology that has been promulgated by some irresponsible Greens. Will the Minister address the point that the £1 billion Ross Fund could carry out some of the agenda I have just listed?
It is worth going into the background of the Aedes aegypti, the mosquito in question, to understand how crucial GM insects will be in this battle. It is a domesticated species—that is to say, it only lives around human habitation, has done so for thousands of years and only feeds on people. So its viruses will adapt to human bodies or they will die out. Yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and now Zika have done that—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, there are bound to be more to come. Humanity is a sitting duck for this mosquito.
Even if we eventually get a vaccine against any new Aedes virus, as we did against yellow fever, we need to control the mosquito in order to prevent the next virus coming along. It is the only preventive option. As the noble Lord, Lord Selborne, said, unlike mosquitoes that carry malaria, Aedes is day active, so bed nets are no good, and nor is spraying the inside of houses during the day. We can continue to defeat malaria without GM insects, but that may not be true of Zika or dengue.
Brazil eradicated Aedes aegypti entirely between 1947 and 1958 using insecticides, but it came back and it is not possible to repeat that eradication today because of the vast expansion of urban areas and the fact that people are much less happy now to let people with fogging machines invade their private property and spray their children’s toys and so on, because of a general distrust of spraying. Anyway, the best you can do with insecticides these days is probably to reduce populations by about 60%.
Oxitec’s five trials in the wild, of suppressing the population by releasing males that produce offspring that cannot survive, achieved 92%, 92%, 93%, 96% and 99% reductions in population—three of them in Brazil, one in the Cayman Islands and one in Panama. There was no risk to human beings because these male mosquitoes do not bite and, by definition, of course, they cannot breed because their offspring cannot survive to adulthood. So, the trait cannot persist in the environment. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, will discuss the ecological impacts of these insects.
Oxitec is rapidly expanding its facility in Brazil. It will be in a position to release half a billion mosquitoes this year and 3 billion next year. However, it is uphill work. Outrageous and disgraceful rumours repeated by some organisations, even over here, that the GM mosquitoes actually caused the Zika birth defects have hampered the spread of this technology. This cannot be true for three reasons. First, Zika caused birth defects elsewhere in the Pacific where Oxitec has never set foot and long before it started its trials; secondly, there is a huge geographical separation between where the trials took place and where the birth defects first showed up; and, thirdly, for the basic scientific reason that it is an RNA virus and the insert is a DNA insert.
We cannot allow this remarkable technology to slip through our fingers in this country, as happened with genetically modified crops. Twenty-five years ago the UK led the way in GM crops. The John Innes Institute and the Plant Breeding Institute were world leaders in that technology and are now ghost laboratories. The technology proved to be world conquering but we played little role in it. Global economic benefits are now reckoned to be in the order of $150 billion, according to the latest report.
The net effect of the anti-GM protest, led by lords in white boiler suits, has been to make us more reliant than the rest of the world on chemicals, according to the PG Economics report. As Oxitec told us:
“As an applicant we believe that the European system does not work because it is just not predictable. You put an application in and you can never predict when you are going to receive a response. That is bad for innovation and it is bad for companies”.
Innovate UK told the committee:
“The UK has the capability in the underpinning science and technology to benefit economically whether that deployment is within the UK, EU or elsewhere. However, where deployment is only possible in overseas markets, the UK risks losing its world-leading talent”.
So it is vital that we unblock the logjam in the European Union. National derogation is supposed to help do this, but there is precious little sign that it is working. In any case, it applies only to GM crops and not to GM insects. Perhaps I may ask the Minister if there are plans to tackle that omission. As we said in our report:
“We are concerned that a situation has arisen whereby applications are not received due to concerns over the regulatory framework, yet the regulatory framework cannot be tested nor improved until such an application materialises.”
This is a Catch-22. There are no applications for GM insects in Europe because everybody knows that it is impossible to get through the bureaucracy. Yet there are obvious applications here in Europe: olive fly, diamondback moth and spotted wing drosophila are all terrific agricultural pests. Indeed, the impending threat from Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, which can carry dengue and probably Zika, will also be a concern because it is spreading through Europe very rapidly. Anyone who has been on holiday in Italy or the Balkans will have been bitten by it.
We can use this technology to combat invasive alien species. I raised in the committee and raise again now the serious point that the signal crayfish, which is devastating many rivers, including the River Blyth in my native Northumberland, cannot be controlled by chemicals or biologically and is rapidly wiping out our native white-clawed crayfish. As a matter of some urgency, we should try to fund research into ways of suppressing its population using exactly this technology. I wonder if my noble friend can respond to that suggestion—I am sorry to put him on the spot.
We have a golden opportunity to suppress the populations of major disease vectors thanks to a new and inherently safe technology, and I believe that we should grasp it.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for his excellent chairmanship of this inquiry, to which I was co-opted as a member of the committee. I would also like to echo the thanks given to my colleague from the University of Oxford Department of Zoology, Professor Mike Bonsall, for his wise and authoritative advice as our specialist adviser during the inquiry. I should perhaps also declare an interest in that Oxitec, about which we have already heard, was set up by another colleague in my department, Professor Luke Alphey, and eventually my department will benefit financially from the sale last year of Oxitec to Intrexon, a US company, for $160 million.
We have heard a great deal already about the potential benefits of the genetic modification of insects both in agriculture and in relation to the control of insect-borne diseases in human beings. I do not wish to go over that ground—rather, I want to make a single point which was put to the committee very forcefully by Professor Chris Whitty, one of our witnesses. He pointed out that we must remember that GM insects, while they have their place, will not be a magic bullet. They may be more applicable in certain situations than in others. The ways of limiting the spread of human diseases that are transmitted by insect vectors depend on three factors. You can control the number of insect vectors around, and that is what we have heard about in terms of population suppression. You can control the longevity of the insect—how long it lives—and what is known as the bite rate: how often it attacks human victims. In the case of night-flying mosquitoes that carry malaria in Africa, controlling the bite rate by distributing bed nets impregnated with insecticide is an effective strategy and may indeed be more effective than GM population suppression. However, as we heard so eloquently from the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and others, for day-flying mosquitoes such as Aedes aegypti, that transmit the Zika virus and dengue, using GM to suppress their population may be a powerful control strategy.
I am not going to go over the problems of the European regulatory regime which we have already heard much about. Instead, I want to talk about the risks associated with GM insects in the environment. Here I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, for his trailer. What exactly are the ecological risks? The important starting point is that no control strategy is risk-free: spraying with pesticides to reduce insect populations is not risk-free; vaccinating people against diseases is not risk-free; and GM insects are no exception. The sensible questions are therefore: what is the relative risk, how do the risks associated with GM insects compare with alternative strategies, how does the balance of risk stack up against benefits, and are the risks acceptable in light of the potential benefits?
We took evidence on the worries that people have about releasing genetically modified insects into the environment. Some of these are general concerns about the control of intellectual property, “playing God with nature”, and a lack of trust in scientists and, in particular, in business. More specifically, the risks that relate to scientific understanding were of three kinds: the possibility of the evolution of new and more virulent pathogens; the possibility of transfer of genes, for example, genes for sterility from the genetically modified mosquitoes or other pests released into the environment to other harmless or even beneficial insects; and the unforeseen impacts on ecological communities.
All of these are real possibilities and deserve proper scientific scrutiny on a case-by-case basis, which is one reason why we need field scale trials to gain proper understanding. Let me briefly elaborate on the question of unforeseen ecological impacts. Would drastically reducing the population density of insect vectors, particularly mosquitoes, have unforeseen ecological consequences? This is a reasonable question. We know, for example, that the decline in the song thrush population of the United Kingdom is probably partly as a consequence of the use of molluscicides that kill snails—one of the main food items of song thrushes. Are there comparable unforeseen consequences? That question is relevant, of course, whether the reduction in the insect population is brought about by genetic modification, the use of pesticides or habitat removal.
In seeking to answer this I went to my academic colleagues—experts on the ecological consequences of mosquito control, notably Professor Charles Godfray and Professor Owen Lewis. I asked the question: what is the point of mosquitoes? That is another way of asking what mosquitoes do for us, apart from transmitting diseases. One possible consequence would be that predators that live on mosquitoes and are beneficial or nice to have around would suffer if mosquitoes were removed. There is a salticid spider called Evarcha culicivora that feeds on engorged mosquitoes in Africa. One possible effect would be to lose the population of salticid spiders.
Another possible consequence would be what ecologists call “competitive release”—the removal or reduction in one species leads to an increase in another species that is a competitor with the one taken away. However the view of the experts from whom I sought advice is that the ecological impacts of drastic reductions in mosquito populations are likely to be minimal. There is evidence of that because where spraying or bed nets have been used to reduce anopheles populations—the mosquito population—in Africa, there have been no detectable unforeseen ecological consequences.
The only way in which to resolve these questions definitively and reduce uncertainty is to take the bold step of carrying out carefully conducted and monitored field trials. They could either be in the UK or, as has already been said, in the British Overseas Territories, such as the Cayman Islands. There is a real case for the Government to take firm leadership and say that they will carry out field scale trials to further knowledge, reduce uncertainties, and therefore indirectly feed into the regulatory regime. If the UK wishes to be a leader rather than a follower, I urge the Minister to reconsider the Government’s position on this matter.
Let me turn briefly to the question of public perception of GM technologies; we have heard a substantial amount about this from the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Patel, as well as the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. I want to make three brief points, taking lessons from GM crops and GM medicines. First, the so-called rejection of GM foods by the public is no such thing. When GM tomato paste, clearly labelled as such, was first introduced by Sainsbury’s on to our supermarket shelves in the 1990s it sold well because it was very slightly cheaper and tasted better than the comparable conventional variety. It was only after certain campaigning groups, aided by irresponsible print media such as the Daily Mail, whipped up unnecessary fear with absolutely no evidence that the supermarkets retreated and declared they would not sell GM foods of any kind.
Secondly, the last time the Government tried to test public opinion on GM foods, the consultation process was hijacked by campaigning groups and the results were misleading. In the early 2000s the Government launched a consultation called GM Nation?, which included setting up a website. More than 37,000 people logged on to the website to express their views about GM foods. Those 37,000 responses were overwhelmingly negative. However, at exactly the same time, Professor Nick Pidgeon, then of the University of East Anglia, carried out a properly designed, stratified random sample survey of public opinion, which showed something quite different. It showed that the public did not object to GM foods. So when we think that the public are frightened, we really have to wonder whether that is simply a myth.
Thirdly, although the press and campaigning groups worked hard to prevent GM foods being marketed in the UK, they said nothing about GM insulin, about which we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and which is taken by many diabetics. Why is that? I believe the reason is, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, already indicated, that GM insulin has an immediate direct benefit to people in this country, while the first generation of GM crops primarily benefited producers in other countries. When I explained this to the then US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, his laconic response was—I will try to do the American accent—“I see what you mean, John. What we need is the tomato with the Viagra gene”.
As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, eloquently explained, the health benefits of GM insects in controlling human diseases—we have already heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, that Zika is probably on its way to Europe, transmitted by a different species of Aedes—give us a real opportunity to take the promotion of GM technology out to the public. Perhaps we can learn useful pointers on how to do that from the lessons we learned over GM foods.
Finally, only last week the UK was ranked fourth in the good country index by its global contribution to humanity. One of the reasons why we ranked so highly was that in science and technology we rank at the very top in the world. Promoting use of GM technology judiciously, with careful thought and study of the possible risks, is a way we can further contribute to the well-being of humanity globally.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the founder and subsequent chairman of the charity Sense about Science. Not only is this a very important report about GM insects; for some of the reasons mentioned, it may have an important influence on the future of genetic modification in general. The WHO has expressed increasing concern about the danger of infection by the Zika virus. The dengue epidemic spread by the same mosquito is spreading faster than Ebola, for instance, and while generally dengue is a more minor disease—not life-threatening—evidence of a link with microcephaly now seems to be strong and generally accepted. Severe dengue fever is a serious disease, though with a death rate of less than 1% with adequate treatment.
As has been mentioned, there is no vaccine against the Zika virus, and one is unlikely to be available for some years. But, as the report points out, field trials in Brazil of the release of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have been extremely successful, with a success rate of as much as 96%. It is noteworthy that public opinion generally has welcomed these experiments and that the Government of Brazil have approved further trials. This suggests that any public opposition can be overcome. Moreover, the modified mosquito is a form of sterile insect technique which stops mosquitoes breeding—a biological control to which the NGOs that normally oppose GM have not so far raised any objection.
Further, there is a possibility that gene editing might be one effective way to prevent the spread of malaria. One of the most interesting passages in the report, which was complete news to me, states:
“In November 2015, scientists announced that they had successfully used GM insect technology so that a modified mosquito passes on genes conferring resistance to a pathogen … to almost all of its offspring, not just half, as would normally be expected. This offers the possibility of a gene resistant to the parasite that causes malaria being able to spread quickly through a wild population of mosquitoes. In early December 2015, scientists, including Professor Austin Burt who gave oral evidence to our inquiry, announced findings that could speed up the development of techniques to suppress mosquito populations to levels that would not support malaria transmission”.
So what reason can there possibly be for not supporting and promoting the maximum, fastest possible application of this key technology? Could GM insects not finally be the breakthrough for a wider acceptance of the technique? Nearly two decades ago, many of us thought that GM golden rice, which could prevent half a million children a year going blind from vitamin A deficiency in south Asia, would persuade NGOs such as Greenpeace to drop their opposition to GMOs. They did not—and they succeeded in hampering and postponing its commercial development for nearly a decade. As this report shows, in many cases they are simply not interested in any evidence that conflicts with their prejudices. However, would they stop a form of sterile insect technique and possible prevention of the spread of malaria?
There may be some real problems to overcome, as was mentioned, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. If we can eliminate the Aedes aegypti mosquito, what will be the effect on the ecosystem? One question that I investigated, because it had been asked, was which species might be deprived of their food. True, there are fish and other insects that eat the Aedes larvae, and bats, birds and geckos eat the adults—but all these predators have other things to eat. Nevertheless, no one should ignore the possible ecological effects.
Then there are the Prince Charleses. “Editing genes? Playing God with nature? Divine vengeance might visit those who usurp His role”—or is it Her role? The report mentions the hostile reaction in many EU countries to genetic modification—but not, incidentally, from the European Commission, which has published many reports based on scientific evidence that dismiss the alleged dangers to health or the environment from GM crops. But health benefits—again, as has been observed—from genetic modification are generally easier to sell than those in plant breeding. Human insulin was mentioned as an example. Due regard for the possible problems, and careful handling of the publicity about the benefits that GM insects can produce, should, at the least, undermine the opposition that still exists.
My Lords, I also served on the committee that produced this report and thank the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for his wise chairmanship and the administrative team for their excellent support. My very short intervention will merely echo the main message of the report: namely, that in the fight against disease we need more tools in our toolbox, not fewer. Of course, by this stage in a debate it is inevitable that there are repetitions of points that have been made. I hope that noble Lords will support my view that repetition is a good way to strengthen an argument.
GM insects may or may not be the most effective, or even the most cost-effective, method of controlling disease, but we should not put barriers in the way of their development. For instance, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, during our investigation we heard from Professor Whitty, among others, that using population suppression or population replacement as a weapon against malaria might at the moment not be cost-effective. As others have said, we appear to be gradually winning the battle against Anopheles stephensi and gambiae, which could be described as night-time mosquitoes, using bed nets and wall sprays. As others have said, the targeted distribution of bed nets has so improved that in the last 15 years deaths from malaria have been reduced by some 60% and the incidence of new cases of malaria by 37%. Of course, the more you reduce malaria, the less chance there is of a mosquito picking it up and passing it on. So the economic case for spending a lot of money on GM mosquitoes to combat malaria is, at the moment, not very good—but of course that could change.
However, with dengue fever, which, as others have said, is spread by the Aedes mosquito, aegypti and others, which could be described as daytime mosquitoes, the situation is very different. You can suppress their numbers by avoiding stagnant water—but that is pretty difficult in tropical countries, which is one of the reasons why dengue fever has increased 30-fold in the last 50 years, with more than 40% of the world’s population now at risk. You can use intermittent fogs of chemical sprays during an epidemic, but that could have serious wider environmental consequences, so having a well-targeted tool such as a GM mosquito for population replacement could be a more risk-free alternative—if, of course, its effects are properly tested.
For me, I think that population replacement—that is, introducing mosquitoes with a gene drive that makes them no longer act as a vector—rather than population suppression, which has the possible risk of creating an environmental vacuum, looks like being the safest alternative. But, if properly tested for full effects, either might work. Equally in agriculture, it has always seemed to me that dealing with a disease at source, if that were possible, would always be better than the widespread spraying of chemicals into the environment.
As an aside from insects, I have always thought that using GM seeds to combat pests and diseases would be so much better for the environment than using sprays, both organic and non-organic. Sprays always have a wider effect than the target crop itself. The fact that the seed, or in this case the insect, might have been arrived at through genetic modification is frankly neither here nor there. It is the product and its place and effect in the environment that is the crucial factor, not how it was arrived at. As someone said in one of our evidence sessions, to think otherwise is rather like judging a book by whether it has been produced on a word processor or a typewriter rather than judging the quality and characteristics of the book itself.
So in the EU there could be a place for GM insects in the control of, for instance, Schmallenberg virus, bluetongue disease, the olive fly or the diamondback moth et cetera. We might also be able to use GM insects in our fight against invasive species, as the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said—although there we probably would be talking about population suppression. Of course, it may not work. This whole science is still in its infancy and may not produce a totally effective solution. But in terms of agriculture there is now a very thin pipeline of replacement chemicals to ensure effective crop protection and production, mostly because of the EU assessments being based on hazard rather than risk—but I will not go there today. So this new science must be given a chance.
As I said at the beginning, we need more tools in our toolbox, not fewer, and that includes the possibility of having to use this sort of technology in the UK in the future to limit the effects of some life-threatening human disease, possibly dengue fever, malaria or the Zika virus now, as they move slowly northwards. In other words, we may need this tool at some point in the future as a matter of some urgency, and unless we have tested the problems of release in advance, it might take too long to get an effective solution under way. I should at this point stress that no one is asking that any corners are cut. While we have the time, we must take all the precautionary measures possible.
It would take years, maybe even a decade or so, of trialling and testing under controlled conditions before we would be in a position to even think of using such a solution to deal with diseases of either humans or animals in the UK. We truly need to know the total effect of such actions on the wider environment. Every variation or modification must be tested to the full—but the key phrase is, “while we have time”. When we really need these advances in science, we must be ready. It is by not being prepared that the temptation to cut corners could become more alluring. That is why the UK should be helping to run at least one controlled pilot scheme, either here or in partnership with a developing country.
In their response to our report, the Government thought that our proposal for a GM insect trial was an “interesting idea” for the future. They thought that there were no GM insects ready to be trialled in the UK, but that overlooks our overseas territories. They thought that such a trial would be unlikely to make much of an impact. Depending on how you interpret the word “impact”, in many ways that might be a good thing when you consider the absurd reaction to every other GM product. HMG also believe that the current regulatory framework is already able to cater for gene-drive mechanisms. All I can say is, “prove it”. If there is no appropriate product in the pipeline, the Government should clearly announce today their intended, immediate support for one when it comes along. As I said, we need more tools in our toolbox and not fewer.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Science and Technology Committee, and to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue today. The science is still very much in its infancy and we therefore have the opportunity to shape its future development before it becomes more pressing. On a personal level, I am grateful that the implications of this developing technology have been placed very firmly on my radar. I learned a great deal from the report, from reading around the subject and from the debate today. I have a great deal more to learn than some other noble Lords who have spoken. Even from my understanding, it is clear that there is a far-reaching ethical, commercial and scientific challenge to be addressed.
I make it clear, at the outset, that we have always sought to adopt a science-led approach, based on the best available evidence, to the application of emerging technologies, including GM. This includes taking heed of the very strong ethical and precautionary stance which underpins the work of the UK’s highly respected scientific community. Nevertheless, the report faces us with new dilemmas to be balanced and determined. It sets out well the public benefit which could ensue from curtailing the impact of insect-borne infectious diseases. On the face of it, the potential to genetically modify mosquitoes could play a substantial role in tackling, for example, malaria and dengue. However, I also take the point, made by a number of witnesses to the committee, that this would be only one part of an arsenal of controls already used to good effect, such as vaccine, bed nets and anti-malarial drugs.
As we have heard, since the report was published, the potential for GM intervention has come into sharper focus with the spread of Zika and the very real potential for GM insects to be used in a targeted trial. This crisis has accelerated the debate about the efficacy of releasing GM insects; this will now, inevitably, be somewhat superficial because of the timescales we are working to. However, it is understandable that the WHO, in the absence of other effective strategies to tackle the outbreak, felt it necessary to endorse the use of these emerging technologies. I take the point made by Margaret Chan, leader of the WHO, who said that the spread of Zika is the price we are now paying for having “dropped the ball” in the 1970s, when we could have made more progress in controlling disease-carrying insects. Whether we like it or not, the race to control Zika has the potential to create a crucial field trial experiment as well as helping to spark the much-needed public debate.
The report also, quite rightly, identifies the contribution GM insects could make to agricultural output. As we have heard, the GM debate has in the past been focused on the impetus for farmers and food producers to increase profits through more intensive farming and higher yields. As such, there has been little public sympathy for the proposals when weighed against the perceived risks. But clearly the challenge is now more complicated than this.
First, we are facing a huge global crisis in food availability. Global food reserves are at a 40-year low yet at the same time the growing population means that by 2050 we will face a 50% increase in the demand for food. In the UK our levels of food self-sufficiency have dropped from 80% to 62% and continue to fall. There is therefore an imperative for all Governments to ensure that everyone has access to enough safe, affordable, nutritious food. This will inevitably include harnessing new technologies to increase yields. Secondly, as the report points out, the current tactic for controlling insect pests, which can create huge agricultural losses, is an overreliance on pesticides, with all the potential health and environmental dangers that result. So could the development of GM insects prove to be a more benign application than the chemicals currently in use?
These dilemmas are not easy to reconcile, which brings me to the regulatory and ethical questions posed in the report. First, the report highlights what it sees as the failings of the EU and international protocols for the testing and release of GM insects. I understand some of those frustrations but I support the Government’s response to the report in this regard. Processes are already in place internationally to manage the handling, use and transport of GM organisms, including insects. As one of the countries at the forefront of developing these technologies, we should utilise and strengthen the existing protocols—and play a greater leadership role—rather than try to circumvent them.
Secondly, the report highlights the inadequacies of the current EU regime, which is underpinned by a hostility to GM crops. But again we agree with the Government that the initial focus should be to work through existing EU structures to argue for reform and modernisation. On this basis we share their reluctance to initiate a UK GM insect trial at this stage, before there is greater public and political awareness.
Finally, I return to the ethical questions posed by the report. It makes a compelling case for a stronger benefit/disbenefit analysis to be applied to GM insect applications but seems to dwell on the benefits rather than the risks. Arguably, the reason that progress in developing these technologies is slow is precisely because scientists and regulators are all too aware of the potential risks. Of course, releasing a self-limiting GM insect into the wild, which is programmed to die, is different from releasing one designed to breed and spread throughout the ecosystem. Unlike some of the other insect controls that the report identifies, this one would be irreversible and unable to be contained in a small geographic area. One country’s experiment could impact adversely on another. This is why we need a proper scientific analysis of the likely consequences of release before we can measure them against the acknowledged benefits. It is also why we need an urgent public dialogue and wider conversations with diverse interest groups, as proposed at a recent Nuffield Council on Bioethics workshop.
In these contexts, I would have liked the report to address the identified risks and analyse and respond to them, very much in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, attempted to do this afternoon. I think that that analysis is key. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the committee for putting this important issue on the agenda. I hope it is the start of a widespread debate about the potential of the next generation of genetic technologies to make a real contribution to meeting our global challenges. As such, it is worthy of a much bigger scientific and public debate, which we have initiated today. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for introducing the issue of GM insects for this debate, and to your Lordships for such thought-provoking consideration. It would be fair to say that before the preparation for this debate, I came to the matter with an entirely fresh mind. It has been an exceptional debate, so I thank my noble friend and the other members of the Science and Technology Committee for producing such a valuable report on this matter. My noble friend was absolutely right to refer to the late Lord Peston, who was of course a very influential and important member of the committee.
It is appropriate that we should reflect carefully on this emerging and potentially important area of science and technology. In responding to the debate, I will first set out the Government’s overall thinking on this issue before perhaps moving to some of the specific points raised. I was very struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said in reference to the United Kingdom and our reputation as a leader on science. That is why I am very pleased that the Government have a strong record in supporting science and technology, which was shown by the decision in the spending review to ring-fence the overall science budget at £4.7 billion in real terms over the life of this Parliament. This means that by 2019-20, total expenditure will in fact be more than £400 million higher than today.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that the Government are supportive of the opportunities and benefits that GM technologies could bring for business, the environment and society in general. British businesses should have access to the best technology available to remain competitive and support growth. As part of our industrial strategy, we encourage GM alongside other technologies and will continue to sponsor GM research. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to GM insect technology offering significant new options for controlling insect-borne diseases and agricultural pests. I think that a number of your Lordships mentioned more about that. We therefore want to have the right frameworks in place to encourage research and innovation in this technology as with others, building on our already excellent science base.
Through the company Oxitec, the UK is leading the world in the development of a GM insect technology and offering the prospect of a viable approach to help tackle some very serious health issues, such as the Zika virus. I must of course accord my noble friend Lord Ridley the principal credit for referring to that in the debate. I should also refer to what the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said about malaria and to what was said about the agricultural issues. I was particularly struck by the reference of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to the demand for food around the world and that of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, to the potential agricultural benefits from this, which could indeed be immense. I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, was realistically pessimistic as to other diseases that we could find facing us in the future and our need to have preparedness. Oxitec has previously benefited from government support to help it develop. In the last five years, the research councils and Innovate UK have provided £5.6 million of funding for research on GM insects.
My noble friend Lord Selborne summarised for the House some of the main points of the report from his committee. One of its key themes is the regulation of GM insects, the release of which into the environment is subject to the same EU rules as apply for GM crops and other forms of genetically modified organisms. Under the EU controls, regulatory decisions on the release of GM organisms for trial purposes are taken at national level, as was referred to, whereas commercial releases have to be approved at EU level. In either case, the decision should be grounded in a science-based and case-by-case assessment of the potential impact on human health and the environment. The Government support this science-based approach and recognise that the public need to be reassured that appropriate safety checks are in place. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, recognised that particularly, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch.
No applications have been made for EU approval to release a GM insect. The only experience we have had with the operation of the EU regime has been in relation to GM crop plants, where, as has been referred to already, there is a lack of consensus among member states. This has meant that although Defra-authorised GM crop trials have gone ahead in England, the EU authorisation process has been slow, which in turn has not encouraged research and innovation. Because the EU regime is untested in relation to GM insects, it is not clear whether they would be subject to the same challenges which have arisen with GM crops. However, the regulations have not prevented work on GM insects progressing to its current state.
Your Lordships’ committee has suggested that the EU regime should be significantly recast, with one of the main ideas being that regulatory decisions should take account of potential benefits rather than just focus on risks in isolation. The Government accept that there is a strong case for rethinking how the EU should regulate in this area. Whatever the intellectual merits of the argument, however, we need to consider whether opening up a debate on the EU regime would deliver a positive outcome.
Because of the attitudes towards GM crops that influence the European Parliament and the policy of several member states, there is a risk that changing the current regime could result in it becoming harder to authorise a GM product than it is now. For example, requiring a consideration of potential benefits and disbenefits could add delays and burdens into the EU process, so that in practice it constitutes an additional barrier to innovation.
This is why, on balance, the Government believe that for the time being it is better to argue for the regime to operate as the existing legislation says it should rather than argue for a major revision. Within the EU, the UK Government have been a leading voice in calling for the GM regime to function more effectively. We want timely, science-based decisions to become the norm and will continue to pursue that line in discussions with our EU partners.
Another of the committee’s main recommendations was that the Government should consider targeted support for work on GM insects. The example of Oxitec has shown that it is possible for a UK company to develop a world-leading status in GM insect technologies within the existing framework for government-funded support. Researchers and technology developers can apply for responsive funding, whether pursuing basic research questions or work that would support UK industry and government objectives. Taking this and competing strategic priorities into account, the research councils and Innovate UK have concluded that investment in this area should continue to be responsive in nature rather than targeted, although they remain open to considering more directed funding should the circumstances change.
The committee also proposed that the Government should pursue one or more GM insect field trials to give impetus to the development of the technology and to test the science and regulatory processes involved. It is already open for GM insect trials to take place in England, when a company or institute wants to pursue that as part of its research and development plans. An application would need to be made to Defra for clearance, and Ministers would take a decision based on advice from an independent scientific expert committee. If the advice were that there is only a negligible or manageable risk, then there would be an expectation that the trial would be approved, consistent with the Government’s science-based policy. At present, the main focus of the company Oxitec is the release of GM versions of non- UK insect species, and for the foreseeable future there would be no grounds for trialling such insects here.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has suggested that, if not in the UK, we should support trials in our overseas territories and in developing countries. A number of such trials have already taken place as a result of Oxitec engaging directly with the host authorities to secure necessary approval. In particular, the GM mosquito, which may help to combat the Zika virus and dengue fever, has previously been released in the Cayman Islands, Brazil, Panama and Malaysia, and Oxitec is about to begin a further project to control mosquitoes in an area of Grand Cayman.
I reflected on what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said about Professors Godfray and Lewis, and the effect on the ecosystem. A number of your Lordships referred to it and I think that we will continue to reflect. Clearly, one of the important issues about all that we are seeking to do is to have a clear understanding of any of this work on the ecosystem.
It has been shown that the regulatory process for trials of GM organisms can function effectively in the UK, and an insect trial here would be unlikely to have any bearing on how the system might operate at EU level for approving the commercial release of GM insects. For the time being, therefore, the Government do not believe there is a strong case for proactively investing in GM insect trials, but this position will be kept under review. A further key theme raised by the committee’s report is the need to consider suitable public engagement on GM insect technologies. My noble friend Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, noted in particular the recommendation that public dialogue should be instigated in conjunction with the recommended field trials in the UK.
I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, said about Brazil, and perhaps how the public have reflected positively, given what is happening in their country. For any new technology, public engagement is likely to be the most productive when specific applications of the technology in the UK are in prospect, so that people can consider in concrete terms what it might mean for them, thereby avoiding the risk of an abstract and perhaps theoretical debate, which may be somewhat meaningless.
The EU controls require Defra to consult the public before reaching a decision on a GM trial application, and for relevant information to be made publicly available to underpin that process. A similar requirement would also apply in relation to an application for EU approval to release a GM insect commercially, with the European Commission responsible for inviting public comments. The scope of these engagement processes is constrained by the deadlines specified for reaching decisions on applications, and by taking as a given the overall terms of the existing regulatory regime. This in itself would make it difficult for the Government to initiate the more open form of public dialogue which the committee has in mind. Moreover, as I noted previously, the Government believe that they have to take a cautious approach on the idea of changing the EU regime, and support its core principle of science-based decision-making.
The committee also recommended that a broader programme of public engagement should take place when GM insects are close to commercial release in the United Kingdom. As things stand, this prospect is several years away at least, but the Government will keep this recommendation under review.
Noble Lords made a number of points. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, raised the issue of gene editing. At present, the European Commission is due to issue a paper later this year on whether organisms produced by gene editing and other new breeding techniques are subject to the GM regulatory controls. The Government are seeking an outcome on this issue at EU level that is science-based and proportionate and takes account of any safety considerations.
My noble friend Lord Ridley referred to invasive and non-native species—and I know he knows me well enough to know that I am fairly ferocious in my desire to deal with invasive non-native species. The Government are open to the use of GM technologies, subject to a science-based risk assessment affirming that there are no safety concerns. Potential applications of the technology have to be considered on a case-by-case basis but, in principle, if GM could help us to address problems with non-native species, that is something that we would be happy to explore.
My noble friend Lord Ridley also referred to the Ross Fund. The Department for International Development leads on applications for that fund. My department will bring to its attention for its consideration the proposal that the fund could be used to support the development and use of GM insect technologies in developing countries.
I remembered that there was something in my brief about GM olive flies. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, Oxitec withdrew its application for a trial in Spain relating to GM olive flies, but we understand that it intends to make a fresh application in due course involving a more recently developed and promising strain of GM olive fly.
This has been an exceptional debate. As so often happens in your Lordships’ House, I have learned a great deal. It is clear that our future well-being and prosperity depend on continued advances in science and technology. With our world-class science base, the United Kingdom also has a role in helping to develop the technologies that can address global challenges— we have heard about many of them today—for agricultural or health purposes. That will be enormously important in our long-term quest for global food security and freedom from disease. Tackling these complex issues demands a range of different policy responses: one is having the right conditions in place to support new technologies, such as GM insects, which could be beneficial. The Government are firmly committed to that objective. The committee’s report has helped us to focus on how best to achieve it. The committee’s work has been immensely valuable and will be used as a quarry and a resource. I express my thanks to all members of the committee, including those who did not participate in the debate, for a very interesting piece of work.
My Lords, it remains for me to thank all who participated in this debate, which has been of great interest. I thank the Minister for his response. He assures us that he will be using our report as a quarry and a resource but, alas, not too soon because he thinks that immediacy, so far as the United Kingdom is concerned, is some years ahead. Yet I detected a slight contradiction in his answer. He recognised that when dealing with alien species, for example, there might be relevance in the United Kingdom. Certainly in Europe the olive fly in Spain might well be addressed with the next application. If we do not get the GM regulatory regime in Europe to work, that will fail again. The Government’s attitude that we should not reopen this issue because the debate might go the wrong way is not giving enough credit to the public of this country and the wider public. Of course there are many people who rightly have great suspicion and wish to have an absolute assurance that the risks are being properly assessed and that the benefits and the disbenefits— by which I mean the effects on society or the ecological impacts we have heard about—are being quantified.
No control policy is risk-free, but I suspect that this technology will be much more relevant in a shorter time than may have been apparent from the Minister’s response. Defra should therefore continue to look at the possibility that there might well be an application for field trials in this country, certainly in Europe, as there has already been in our overseas territories. I hope that this report and debate have helped to encourage a wider debate about these issues which are of great interest to the wider public, remembering, of course, that we are custodians of a science the benefits of which are most likely to impact on countries without the resources we have. We have a responsibility to humanity and to feeding the world. This technology is not a silver bullet. We must not overstate its benefits, but we should not ignore them either.