I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.
The UK is home to some of the world’s best agricultural research facilities. For some 70 years, plant breeders have used chemical and radiation treatments to generate random mutations in genes, in the hope that these might provide traits that are useful for plant breeding. For decades we have had F1—filial 1—hybrid breeding techniques, which were designed to create far greater genetic consistency in plant varieties that are grown commercially.
Precision breeding techniques such as gene editing are really a natural evolution of conventional approaches to plant breeding. They are simply a modern way of creating more targeted and predictable changes to DNA within a species than would have been possible using induced mutagenesis or natural breeding. They result in nothing that could not occur through natural breeding processes. In that sense, precision breeding techniques are distinct from genetic modification, which can involve moving genes across species boundaries. It is the recognition of this difference that is the reason for this Bill today.
In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that all gene-edited organisms should be legally regulated as genetically modified organisms. That has hampered our ability to take advantage of precision breeding techniques and of the clear opportunity to help the environment and food producers.
The UK Government disagreed with that 2018 judgment from the perspective of science. Now that we are outside the European Union we are free to consider what a consistent, coherent and science-based policy looks like. What we really need to achieve as we address today’s challenges is a fusion of the traditional principles of good farm husbandry with some of the best technology available to us in the 21st century.
The Secretary of State keeps using this language about precision breeding, but he will know that that is neither a specific technology nor a scientific principle. It relies on the creation of a hypothetical class of GMOs that could have occurred naturally. He will know that there is opposition to that definition from everyone from the environmental non-governmental organisations right through to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and to the Roslin Institute. Given that level of disagreement about the very principles of how he is framing this Bill, will he take it away and look at it again?
We have considered these matters in great depth. We ran a consultation. The overwhelming view of scientists are that these precision-breeding techniques, which do not achieve or do anything that could not be achieved through natural breeding processes, are not in fact GMOs. That is our view. That is why we are bringing this Bill forward today. As the hon. Lady knows, there will no doubt be a debate about these matters in both Houses as the Bill progresses.
Precision breeding techniques give us the ability to produce plant varieties with particular traits far more efficiently than was ever possible with conventional breeding. This opens up huge opportunities for our farmers and growers to produce nutritious food with a lower environmental impact.
Precision breeding techniques can improve crop resistance to diseases, reduce the need for pesticides, increase crop yields, improve resistance to climate change, promote drought resistance and reduce the need for fertilisers.
I do not believe that people need to fear this technology. This is not about creating Frankenstein’s monster or introducing DNA from another species. From developing disease resistant crops to bird flu resistance in poultry to PRRS—porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome —resistance in pigs, there are significant benefits, including: for food security; for the environment; and importantly, for animal health and welfare. Ultimately, there are also significant benefits for public health, as we are reducing medicines and therefore tackling things such as antimicrobial resistance. Does the Secretary of State agree that, ultimately, this can be a win, win, win for food security, animals and people?
My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about animal welfare issues in particular, raises some very important points. He will know that livestock breeders have long selected traits for polled cattle, for instance, so that they can avoid the need for mutations such as dehorning. It is also the case, as he says, that these new techniques offer the potential for us to breed poultry that is naturally resistant to avian flu, which is a major challenge, and some other issues that I will come on to.
As the Secretary of State knows, I have long campaigned against the badger culls, so the idea that gene editing may improve disease resistance in livestock is something that I find really interesting and could be, as my hon. Friend put it, a win, win. However, the Secretary of State will also be very well aware that, with the Department’s view that this could drive animals to faster growth and higher yields, there is significant concern from animal welfare charities that this would exacerbate the severe welfare problems that have arisen through selective breeding for increased productivity. Can he give some reassurances to those animal welfare charities that we are not seeking to produce more eggs, bigger eggs, or in any way harming breeding animals?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is already some work going on to breed natural resistance and to select, for instance, dairy cattle that have a higher level of resistance to bovine tuberculosis, and these techniques will allow that to be progressed far faster.
On my hon. Friend’s wider point, we address that in the Bill, and I was going to come on to it. I have listened carefully to organisations such as Compassion in World Farming; that point was highlighted to me some years ago by its head of policy, Peter Stevenson. That is why we have put in some very specific safeguards to protect animal welfare, so that there can be an assessment before any authorisation is allowed. We do not want to have a situation where there could be more lameness in poultry, for instance, or other animal welfare concerns. There will be a dedicated committee to assess that.
Has the Secretary of State considered the impact that this Bill might have on public trust? People might be suspicious of GE food products. For those who are worried, what reassurance can be provided that genome editing will only be used where there are no other less invasive alternatives available?
I think consumers want to see fewer pesticides in their food, and technologies such as this open the door for us to achieve that. As part of the notification process that I will come on to describe, we will ensure that there is transparency and that any seed that is marketed is listed in a transparent way. The Food Standards Agency will also conduct a very thorough and comprehensive assessment of any food safety issues. I think that will give people the reassurance they need.
Returning to some other examples of crops, UK Research and Innovation funded a study that has identified promising sources of genetic resistance to virus yellows in sugar beet, a group of viruses that can cause severe yield losses of up to 50% and are at the heart of the controversy around the use of neonicotinoids in sugar beet. Introducing resistance to virus yellows will reduce the need for pesticides, boost our food security and reduce costs to our sugar beet producers.
With food security high on the agenda, we also have the ability to develop wheat that is more resilient to climate change, helping successfully to grow a crop that 2.5 billion people are dependent on globally. Researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used gene editing techniques to identify a key gene in wheat that can be used to introduce traits such as heat resilience, while maintaining high yields.
These technologies also have potential to improve the health and welfare of animals, as some of my hon. Friends have mentioned. Research in farmed animals is already leading to the development of animals that have increased resistance to some devastating diseases. For instance, the Roslin Institute and Genus have developed gene-edited pigs with natural resistance to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a disease that causes mortality and major welfare issues in pig populations globally.
I turn now to the contents of the Bill. It will focus on four key areas. First, we will remove precision-bred plants and animals from the regulatory requirements applicable to the environmental release and marketing of genetically modified organisms. That will remove the necessity of adhering to the onerous regulations imposed by the European Union for plants and animals that could also have been produced through traditional breeding. The Bill does that in part 1.
The Secretary of State will know that section 20 of the Environment Act 2021 requires him to be able to affirm that this Bill does not weaken any existing environmental protections. Given that he has more or less just said that it precisely does, because it will weaken the EU legislation that we were following and will erode the existing regulatory system, how can he then sign section 20 in good faith?
As I have set out, as a point of science, the scientific community and the UK Government rejected the legal conclusion of the European Court of Justice. It is important to point out that that was based on an interpretation of the clauses in EU regulations, rather than on any coherent assessment of the scientific evidence. We will assess the scientific evidence, and it is on that basis that we are bringing the Bill forward.
The hon. Lady asks whether I can be confident that this will not undermine the environment, and I can. Indeed, I am confident that it will lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides, which is a key objective that she will share with Conservative Members. It could also lead to a reduction in the use of synthetic fertilisers—currently the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.
What restrictions are there around the world on the agricultural products of this technology? Does the Secretary of State think that in the very near future, when the European Union appreciates the benefits that this can bring to agriculture, it may well change its mind on it?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. In fact, I was at the agrifood council when the European Court of Justice judgment came in 2018. Even countries that had some scepticism about genetically modified foods, such as Germany and France, were very concerned about that judgment. It is also the case, as he may well know, that the European Union itself is now consulting on a change to its own laws. The EU will be some years behind us, but it recognises that the ECJ judgment in 2018 was scientifically flawed. He asked what other countries around the world do. The vast majority of serious agricultural producers with the scientific expertise to assess these things treat gene editing and these precision breeding techniques as being distinct from genetically modified organisms.
Clause 1 of part 1 describes what a precision-bred organism is. Clause 2 establishes the scope of what is considered a plant and an animal for the purposes of the Bill. Part 2 introduces two simpler notification systems.
On definitions, the Secretary of State may be aware that the British Veterinary Association has expressed some concern that perhaps the definitions have been broadened somewhat in the Bill—in particular, that organisms or techniques that would insert exogenous genetic material could be allowed under those definitions. Can he confirm whether that is indeed the case?
The Bill defines this quite tightly and lists what classes of animals are to be included. On some of these very specific technical issues, I am sure that hon. Members who have read clauses 1 and 2 will see that there are quite a lot of different processes, which we will all have to make sure that we learn a lot more about as the Bill progresses. I am sure that this will be discussed in great detail.
There is no doubt that a lot of the Bill is potentially of huge advantage, particularly in terms of animal welfare. However, my right hon. Friend will be aware that concerns have been expressed that people should at least have the right to know what they are buying. Does he have any comments to make about food labelling in this respect?
There will be transparency in the sense that any authorised product will be listed. No marketing authorisation will be granted for the sale of any food unless it has been properly assessed. However, it is not currently our intention to have some kind of labelling requirement specifically for food, because a loaf of bread might have some of these crops going into it and others produced through other techniques. We do not currently, for instance, require people to label that a crop has been produced using an F1 hybrid technique such as an open pollination. That is the comparison that I would draw my right hon. Friend’s mind to.
Part 2 introduces two simpler notification systems—one for research and one for marketing purposes. Developers will have to submit information to DEFRA that will be published on a public register, and this will support consumer transparency. Clause 3 sets out the conditions under which a person may release a precision-bred organism in England. Clauses 4 and 5 set out the notification requirements for the release and marketing of a precision-bred organism. Clause 6 describes the application process for obtaining a precision-bred confirmation. This will ensure that each precision-bred organism is assessed on a case-by-case basis. Clause 7 sets out the requirement for there to be a report of the advisory committee, with further provisions in clauses 8 and 9 regarding the precision-bred confirmation and its revocation if necessary.
The Bill will not compromise animal welfare standards. As I said, it establishes a regulatory system to safeguard the welfare of precision-bred animals. This system is described in clauses 10 to 15. Clause 10 establishes that precision-bred animals will need to be authorised before they can be marketed. Clause 11 describes the application process. Clause 12 describes the involvement of an animal welfare advisory body. Clause 14 makes provision for regulations requiring information on the health and welfare of these animals once they have been placed on the market.
Finally, the Bill also makes provision to ensure that there will be no compromise whatever on food safety and that there will be a comprehensive assessment of the safety of any products placed on the market that result from precision-bred organisms.
I am keen to understand something. Although the territorial extent of the Bill’s provisions is rather limited, what consultation did the UK Government have with their Scottish counterparts? Scotland remains opposed to GE food products being sold there, but legally cannot prohibit it.
This is a devolved matter, as the hon. Lady says. The Scottish Government have taken a particular position, which is broadly that if the European Union changed its law, Scotland would change its law at that time, but not before, and it would appear that the Scottish Government do not want to move early on that. Of course, many of the leading international research institutes, such as the Roslin Institute and James Hutton, are world leaders in these technologies. They will probably be acutely disappointed if the Scottish Government do not take this opportunity to lead the world, rather than waiting and following the European Union.
Finally, part 3 of the Bill, in relation to an assessment of food safety, sets out the powers for the regulation of food and feed derived from precision-bred organisms and includes a new regulatory framework governing the placing on the market of these products, a public register and a monitoring and inspection regime.
In conclusion, it is more than 30 years since the current GMO legislation was passed. In that time, unnecessary and unscientific barriers imposed by the European Union have stalled the development of the agritech industry in the United Kingdom. Our legislation has not kept pace with our increased understanding of the safety and benefits of technologies such as gene editing. By removing these barriers, we will enable investment in these technologies, which have the potential to tackle some of the great challenges faced by the United Kingdom and the world today when it comes to producing food in an environmentally sustainable way. I therefore commend this Bill to the House.
Before I call the spokesperson for the Opposition, I note that we do not have very much time. It is likely I will have to put on a time limit of about four minutes. I simply issue that warning now so that people can take out six or seven pages of their prepared speeches.
This Bill comes in a week when food, how we produce it and what it does to us and how food production impacts our planet have been at the forefront of public debate. The Bill was an opportunity to tackle one of the great issues of our time, but instead of rising to that challenge, I am afraid that the Government have flunked it. There was a minimalist response on Monday, when failing to set out a proper food strategy for the future, and a minimalist response today on setting up the right structures to enable innovation to flourish. That is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. These issues require a long-term view, and an understanding and appreciation of the wider public good. This Government are now reduced to slogans designed to get the Prime Minister to the end of next week. The country deserves better, and many on the Government Benches know that.
Let me set out the position on this side of the House on an issue of significance for the future. Let me start by thanking the many serious people from learned societies and institutions who have done the thinking and spent time briefing me and my team as we grapple with some very big issues. As an example, I wave the weighty report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Genome editing and farmed animal breeding”, which runs to many hundreds of pages. I can recommend it to Members—it is actually a very good read. Unlike this Bill, which takes the narrowest possible approach, it stood back and asked the bigger questions about our food system, our treatment of animals, where traditional selective breeding has brought us, how we might approach novel foods, and the great changes that we may see in just a few years. The Royal Society criticises focusing narrowly on just one technology and argues for an outcomes-based approach.
There was a big opportunity, but a weak and disintegrating Government could not take it. I understand that, so I turn to the proposals that we have before us, which are a start. For reasons that I will explain, however, they risk having the opposite effect from those intended. Unless public and investor confidence is maintained, research will stall and opportunities will be squandered. Although we will support the Bill’s progress today, we want to see it significantly strengthened and we will propose an array of amendments in Committee, which I genuinely hope the Government will consider carefully.
The Opposition start from a clear principle: we are pro-science and pro-innovation. We want to find ways to maintain and improve the efficiency, safety and security of our food system while addressing the environmental and health damage that the modern food system has caused. That is the challenge that Henry Dimbleby set out in his national food plan, which the Government were unable to meet in their proposals this week.
With that challenge, there is an opportunity for the UK to create a world-leading regulatory framework that others will follow, but sadly this Bill is a rushed job—too thin on detail. With that lack of detail comes a risk, because the public need assurance that those new technologies are being used for the public good, not just for narrow commercial advantage. We have no doubt about the possible benefits. We understand the pressures that are put on farmers when we rightly say, as has been cited, that they cannot use neonicotinoids because of the harm they cause to pollinators. If gene editing can be used to safely ward off virus yellows in sugar beet, that is a definite good that we want to see proceed as quickly as possible.
Surely not, but they are not always the same thing, and that is the point.
We do not want a gene edit to modify an animal to allow it to tolerate more cramped conditions; we want a regulatory system that ensures that those technologies are used for the right purposes. We recognise that there will be people who are not convinced that it is right to intervene in these new ways, and who are not convinced that it is right for them or wider society, but we believe that if the system is regulated in the right way, most people can be reassured.
Let us not forget that Labour is the party of food safety. We established the Food Standards Agency, which will play a vital role in giving confidence to the public. Whatever it says and does, however, different approaches to food production must be respected with proper safeguards for organic production, for example, and for those who do not wish to go down these new routes. Their rights matter too.
We fully understand that laws designed almost 30 years ago for genetically modified products do not reflect advances in understanding and technology. We also see that many countries are recognising that gene editing should be treated differently. While we understand that, we must also recognise the importance of that distinction being drafted clearly and transparently, as has already been touched on.
The public will want to be assured that allowing the editing of genes in one organism does not also allow the introduction of genes from another organism. I hope that the Secretary of State can clearly confirm that today, because it is very important. Our reading of those complicated definitions, and the advice that we are being given, suggests that that subject is not entirely clear. I hope it can be explored in Committee.
We want our scientists to succeed and use their skills for good here in the UK. We know that over the years, traditional crop development and innovation has brought us all significant gains, but as we enter this new territory we need that strong regulatory framework to make sure that we get it right. As it stands, we are not convinced that the Bill provides that. It needs strengthening.
As it stands, far too much is being left to secondary legislation. We understand why that is always attractive to Government; it largely means, “Trust us.” As we all know, what is brought forward is unamendable and, almost without exception, it is always carried. It is a blank cheque, and on an issue that so relies on trust and public acceptance, that is not a good starting point.
We need more detail in the Bill, not least because this Bill covers both plants and animals, which makes this legislation much more complicated and difficult. In the notices accompanying the Bill, the Government have said they will only introduce new measures for animals after those for plants and after extensive consultation on the right regulatory framework for animals had been established. So far as we can see, there is nothing in this Bill to make that happen. Frankly, it is the wrong way around: sort out the preferred regulatory framework first, then put it into law.
As we have already heard, animal welfare organisations are rightly concerned. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says in its brief that it is “incredibly concerned”. Compassion in World Farming has joined 20 other animal welfare organisations, including the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, in raising similarly strong concerns. Their points are powerful, and Labour will require much stronger tests on animal welfare impacts.
As I suggested earlier, to get this legislation right the Government must provide a proper mechanism to balance the risks and manage trade-offs. Just saying that there is no risk is not that mechanism. In this country, we have always been pretty good at regulation. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is a highly regarded model for dealing with some of these very complicated issues, and a model the Government would do well to consider.
The case for having a strong regulatory framework is not just a matter of giving confidence to the public; that public confidence in turn gives scientists and businesses the confidence to invest here in the UK and sets the example for others to follow. That will be important as many of our trading partners go down the same route. How much better to have something worth copying, giving us first-mover advantage, but also settling some of those tricky trade issues if we end up with different rules.
As part of that framework, we need to recognise that the modern consumer wants and expects good information. Research carried out by the Food Standards Agency and others has clearly found that, while consumers support genetically edited foods having a different regulatory system from that for genetically modified foods, they want clear labelling and effective regulation of gene-edited products. Just telling them that they need not worry because there is no difference just does not cut it in the modern world.
Clear labelling is the way to help deal with another potentially difficult issue, which is the legitimately held views of different Administrations within the United Kingdom. I think it is fair to say—I suspect we will be hearing this in a minute—that the devolved Administrations are not happy with the way this has been handled so far, and I suggest that the Government should tread carefully. Clear labelling is a sensible way forward.
In conclusion, we are in no doubt that gene editing could bring real gains in improving environmental sustainability and reducing food insecurity. The world faces huge global challenges, and although much can be done by reforming global food systems, science and technology used for public good can be a huge boon. We need a regulatory framework that prioritises that. At the moment, as ever with this Government, the approach is to leave it to the market, and that risks repeating the mistakes of the past.
These are big and important issues. They will be explored in much greater depth in Committee and the evidence sessions, and the Opposition look forward to working with the Government to improve the legislation and create the strong regulatory framework that is needed, but currently lacking.
Order. We have to start with an immediate time limit of four minutes.
I am speaking today in full support of the Bill, precision breeding and our outstanding scientists, who are looking to this House to unlock barriers to solving many of the most important problems facing us on earth. I want to see this Bill unleash their capability and energy on those problems, and I hope to be supporting the Bill throughout the whole of its passage.
Let me explain why I stand up with this bouncy enthusiasm. To take the House back to the 1990s, when I was young and thin, I was honoured to be at the Nottingham University life sciences department doing a biology degree. If the House will bear with me, I have a little practical knowledge of DNA editing techniques, as my undergraduate paper was using transgenic Caenorhabditis elegans as a biological monitor for freshwater sediment toxicity.
Quite. That is a mouthful, but the key here is “transgenic”. We were putting a gene from Escherichia coli—E. coli—into an itty-bitty nematode worm, an animal, and making a cross-species C. elegans. Those little guys were effectively harnessing natural stress repair mechanisms to produce something that we could measure easily.
I was a scientist; I was fascinated by that, but it did not always sit brilliantly with me, and the mechanisms that were used to produce that transgenic environment were at best embryonic and new. It was effectively taking DNA material in vectors such as plasmid, and pebbledashing a target DNA area. We did not know where it was going to land, and we had a lot of wastage where bits of DNA were going in the wrong place. That is not what the Bill is about, and I look forward to going into that in more detail.
We have heard concerns that people feel that an exogenous species of DNA would be coming in. Does my hon. Friend agree that this technology is not about that? This is not about an external species coming in, and perhaps the Bill could be tightened up by clarifying that, which would appease some of people’s potential fears.
Yes. If the Bill contained a way of opening up the transgenic debate, be that in plants or animals, it would not enjoy my support.
While I have put on a lot of weight since the mid-1990s, science has also massively moved on. In response to the intervention by Caroline Lucas, this is a bit like comparing a 1997 diesel car with modern zero-emissions vehicles. Yes, they both have wheels, go along in a straight line and are called cars, but the two things are completely different. The British public were right to be cautious at the time, but let us explain why this is different. We now know the genome sequences of other target species and plants, and we have exact tools that are effectively like clever genetic snippers that will go along a genome and only cut in the exact place. There is confidence and science behind that point. We then insert something that, as my hon. Friend Dr Hudson highlighted, comes from the same species. If we have wheat that does not taste nice but is good at growing in dry conditions, why can we not give it that dry condition gene, so that it tastes nice and is nutritious and can help feed the third world? There are scientists chomping at the bit to have a go at that—I really cannot wait.
As part of my undergraduate degree I went to Rothamsted and saw the scale that has to be put in place for traditional breeding techniques—think fields and fields and fields. Variant 1 has been crossed with variant 2 in a modern way, but it then needs to be tested, because in traditional breeding techniques we basically take the whole genome, throw it up in the air and ask nature to pick one variant out of two. That means we are looking at multiple generations to try to keep the tasty wheat, as well as the dry, coarse wheat. This is a fantastic opportunity to use fewer resources while doing that research, and to use fewer resources from the environment.
Let me highlight some of the extremely exciting opportunities that I have pulled out of the literature: disease-resistant wheat that needs less pesticide, as mentioned by the Secretary of State; tomatoes with a little extra vitamin D; wheat with reduced asparagine to ensure that people are not exposed to carcinogens, especially if, like me, they cannot cook properly and always burn everything; or chickpeas with high protein levels that help those who are making an environmental choice by being vegan or vegetarian. The possibilities for health, climate, environment, farming and our planet are as endless as the natural variation within species that had Darwin so fascinated. We must do this, and I totally support the Bill.
The regulation of genetically modified foods is a devolved issue. It is important to emphasise that at the start because, as in a growing number of policy areas, the UK Government pay only lip service at best to the powers exercised in the Scottish Parliament, while at the same time running roughshod over devolution with their post-Brexit deregulatory agenda.
Although the intended scope of the Bill may be England only, it is explicit that it will have significant impacts on devolved areas. The devolved Administrations were, however, only informed of this just one day before the Bill was introduced, in a letter from the Environment Secretary encouraging them to adopt the Bill’s principles. A UK-wide approach can, of course, sometimes be desirable, but this invite creates an illusion of collaboration and choice when in fact DEFRA is acting unilaterally once again. Frankly, it smacks of contempt for our democratically elected Government.
If the Scottish Parliament refused to allow gene-edited crops to be planted in Scotland, we would still be prevented from stopping GMO products from being sold in our shops under the devolution-violating United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. This is exactly the kind of scenario the SNP warned against when the Tories forced that legislation through this place. I understand that DEFRA officials have now suggested that the Department discuss the UK Government’s plans to diverge from the common UK-wide GM regulatory regimes. Well, thanks very much, I am sure, but any discussions of that nature should have taken place prior to the introduction of the Bill so that potential policy divergence could be properly considered. The fact that they have not is deeply regrettable and unacceptable.
The SNP is committed to ensuring that Scotland operates to the highest environmental standards, and that we protect and enhance the strength of Scottish agriculture and food production. If we end up with unwanted gene-edited products in Scotland, diverging standards with the EU could cause further damage to our sales, risking damage to Scotland’s reputation for high-quality food and drink.
The way the hon. Lady is talking about gene editing implies that one can tell the difference. It brings in variant genes from the same species. It is literally scientifically impossible to identify a gene-edited product if it is done properly.
I accept the hon. Lady’s experience in this area, but there are many scientists who would differ from that opinion.
I am going to make progress.
As previously, where the EU offers new scientific advice and moves to change legislative frameworks, the Scottish Government consider the implications for Scotland and seek to stay closely aligned with that approach where practicable. Holyrood passed the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 before Brexit, committing the Scottish Government to alignment with EU standards and regulations. In keeping with that, we are closely monitoring the EU, including its public consultation which I believe is continuing at the moment, as it reviews its policy on certain new genomic techniques.
Does the hon. Lady not appreciate that farmers are also businesspeople and that a farmer will not grow something that the consumer does not want to buy? Does she insult the intelligence of Scottish farmers by suggesting that they will grow crops nobody wants to buy?
This is about the devolved responsibilities of the Scottish Government and our intention to stay aligned with EU regulations, as we have committed to in the 2021 continuity Act. We are in constant discussions with farmers and will continue to be.
Surely it would be practical for the UK Government to follow the approach of monitoring the EU and its ongoing public consultation as it reviews this policy, ensuring alignment and avoiding divergence that could further threaten trade with our largest trading partner. As the European Commission’s formal policy announcement is expected in the first half of 2023, the wait would not greatly undermine the UK’s competitive edge but would ensure minimal trade disruption. The UK economy suffered a 4% reduction in GDP, according the Office for Budget Responsibility, thanks to a hard Tory Brexit. The last thing Scotland needs is further disruption to EU trade.
It is worth noting, too, that the EU’s 2021 study into gene editing and new genetic technologies highlighted that research into animals and micro-organisms is “still limited or lacking”, especially when it comes to safety. The SNP would advise the UK Government to return to the precautionary principle in the deployment of such new technologies, especially those developing produce for human consumption.
There is no doubt that these issues are complex and emotive, with a variety of views across science, industry and other stakeholders. The SNP does not oppose further research in this area and it acknowledges the work of the James Hutton Institute, the Roslin Institute and other Scottish scientists and researchers. The more empirical data available in this area, the better we can understand exactly the effects in crops and animals, and in genetically modified organisms. However, the SNP will always listen to the concerns of the public and producers and take them into consideration in agricultural matters or in scientific development. Indeed, DEFRA’s own consultation last year found that 88% of individuals and 64% of businesses supported continuing to regulate such organisms as GMOs. The strength and range of opposition to the use of gene editing should give us pause to reflect.
The hon. Lady is making a lot of points about how this is, of course, a devolved area, but does she therefore disagree with the president of NFU Scotland, Martin Kennedy, when he says that precision breeding techniques such as gene editing, led by scientific expertise available in Scotland, have considerable potential to deliver benefits for food, nutrition, agriculture, biodiversity and climate change?
I thought I had made myself fairly clear. We are waiting for the EU review of this technology to take place, then we will weigh it up carefully and decide whether to continue down that route ourselves. The trouble with farmers and the NFUS at the moment is that they are so desperate to find something in place of the trade they have lost as a result of Brexit that they have seized on this. I think that the precautionary principle should always apply with new technologies of this sort.
I will keep going for a bit.
Let me give the view of some of the organisations that have listed their concerns. The view of the umbrella group of individuals and organisations, GM Freeze, is that the proposed new approach would take away scrutiny and transparency, and as these are patented technologies, it is concerned that big business will be handed greater leverage and control over what we eat. The Soil Association warns that in the absence of a proper governance framework, gene editing is likely to be driven by industry interests. The question has to be asked: without rigorous democratic forms of governance in this area, how can we stop monopolies forming and companies acting in the service of profit rather the public interest? I hope very much that we will hear that question answered as the Bill progresses and, as the Minister is nodding, perhaps even this afternoon.
Deregulating GE products also loosens the strict controls that allow modified plants and animals to be traced with ease, making the impact on the general animal and plant population harder to track and assess. There are also fears that deregulated gene editing risks displacing high-welfare agro-ecological farming systems such as organic farming. If there is no tracing or labelling, the future of organic and other non-GM farming is threatened. Citizens deserve to know how their food has been produced; that goes to the very heart of food sovereignty.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Is she aware that the last generation of new varieties were often produced using induced mutation, gamma radiation or chemicals such as colchicine, which was equivalent to smashing up DNA with a sledgehammer rather than this keyhole surgery? Varieties such as Golden Promise, which can be grown organically in Scotland and go into the majority of Scotch whisky, have been produced in that way and she has not raised any concerns about them.
As I say, we are prepared to consider the technology as things progress but we are waiting on the EU, because the EU has the strictest standards in the world—[Interruption.] The EU has some of the strictest standards in the world, and if it is content after it has examined this process and had its consultation, that is certainly something we are prepared to consider.
Ministers insist that no changes should be made to the regulation of animals under the GMO regime until a regulatory system is developed to safeguard animal welfare. However, as has been mentioned, a coalition of 21 of the UK’s leading animal protection organisations has called those safeguards
“poorly defined and largely inadequate”.
Among multiple other concerns, the group cites increased risk of regarding animals as things that can just be modified for human convenience. That, of course, contradicts the central premise of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022.
DEFRA cites the potential for gene editing to address concerns over food security. I held a debate recently on the subject and talked about the need to prioritise sustainable domestic food production and build long-term resilience into our farming system. There is a danger, as the Soil Association points out, that gene editing is used as a sticking plaster for industrial farming systems, targeting symptoms and not root causes. The Secretary of State mentioned porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which, as I understand it, is caused largely by poor living conditions. Why not try to address that rather than using the new technology as, as the Soil Association points out, a sticking plaster? The UK Government appear to be rushing to adopt untested technologies to distract from the real issues in our food system, such as poor soils, lack of crop diversity, intensive industrial farming and falling domestic production.
I will come to a close shortly, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I think you are looking at me sternly. It might be easier to take the Government at their word if they were not abandoning other plans that would have a positive impact on food security and inequality. The food strategy for England, which was published on Monday, has been remarkably watered down by rejecting many of the recommendations in the food system review and dropping the commitment to introduce a food Bill.
In Scotland, the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill, which is making progress, will produce plans that will be scrutinised according to various metrics, including social and economic wellbeing, health and the environment. A draft plan has been published on ending the need for food banks. The Scottish Government’s new vision for agriculture outlines how we aim to support farming and food production in Scotland to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
If the UK Government are serious in their intention that the Bill will affect the market in England only, they must amend it to ensure that products covered by it are not included in the mutual recognition and non-discrimination provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and that the devolved Parliaments can reject those products outright if they are not content. The Scottish Government think that the principle of devolution should be respected by the UK Government. The Scottish Parliament should be asked for its consent before actions are taken hastily that could undermine our trade with Europe and compromise the safety of our food.
This is our food system. We must surely ensure that every possible safeguard is in place before we adopt this Bill.
As someone who has a farming business, I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I warmly welcome the Bill. I commend the Government for pressing ahead on a matter that is vital for national and global food security, protecting the environment, supporting the developing world and advancing UK science and prosperity at a time of economic uncertainty.
In the limited time that I have, I want to firmly refute the misconceptions that have been spread, in and outside the Chamber, about how gene editing is allegedly bad for animals and animal welfare. It is right that we proceed with careful additional safeguards for animal precision breeding, as the Bill proposes, but precision breeding can provide animal welfare benefits so huge that to my mind it is actually unethical not to allow it. Stopping diseases such as PRRS in pigs, bird flu, swine flu and mastitis is obviously a huge advance for animal welfare, not a threat to it. Put simply, regulation should follow the science. It should be based on the evidence, not on superstition or political agendas.
I reiterate that gene editing is wholly distinct from genetic modification, so it is totally wrong for it to be aggressively restricted in the same way. Genetic modification is the introduction of new material from one species into another; gene editing is the adjustment of DNA within one species. It simply speeds up, and makes more precise, genetic changes that occur naturally through conventional breeding methods. Food from gene-edited plants is therefore indistinguishable from food produced through conventional methods. Gene editing speeds up natural changes that can otherwise take up to 15 years. Do hon. Members seriously want to wait 15 years to protect animals from horrific diseases, to aid farmers in sub-Saharan Africa or to start producing more affordable healthy food in the UK? I think not. That is why we have to support the Bill.
The Whips will not be surprised to hear that I have some concerns about part 3, which risks undermining the legislation aimed at ensuring that innovation and investment, through regulation, reflects the scientific evidence; that is what we must base it on. There is already disquiet that the Food Standards Agency has been gold-plating the innovation-killing precautionary approach inherited from the EU. On top of that, on current drafting, the ministerial powers on food and feed safety risk assessments and traceability in part 3 risk adding additional safety assessments and other hurdles, thereby piling investment-destroying costs on to the breeding process, which could ultimately deter scientists and businesses from innovating. We must be careful about that.
In essence, however, this is a great piece of legislation and must be supported. I look forward to following its passage through this place.
I believe that this is a flawed Bill—it is not strategic, it is not clear and it does not do what it says on the tin. Ministers breezily assert that it will deliver access to wonderful new markets, while failing to acknowledge that it actually risks hindering access to our closest significant market, the EU, as we create a divergent regime for regulating genome-edited products. As we have heard, consequences for trade with Northern Ireland are being ignored. With the Scottish and Welsh Governments currently taking a different approach from that of England, the Bill is a recipe for consumer confusion and significant operational difficulties for retailers across the UK.
These big questions are critical, but in the short time that I have, I shall spell out how the Bill falls down on some core principles that render it flawed and not fit for purpose. Those principles are scientific coherence and clarity, properly defined criteria—or the lack of them—and transparency.
On coherence and clarity, in its title and text the Bill uses the phrase “precision breeding”, yet that is neither a specific technology nor a scientific discipline. It is a marketing term: a vague colloquialism for a number of recently developed genetic engineering technologies, which do not form a coherent group of methods, and do not justify being called “precise”—not when the scientific literature contains reports of genetic technologies such as genome editing creating unexpected and unwanted mutations, genetic errors, altered proteins, and extensive deletions and complex rearrangements of DNA in plants. [Interruption.] I will not give way yet.
The Government give a nod to that uncertainty with their caveat that genetic editing of animals will not take place until animal protection can be safeguarded. Engineering the DNA of animals raises major animal welfare and ethical concerns. A wealth of problems are set out by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on gene-edited farm animals. As I understand it, there is nothing to prevent biotech-created disease resistance being used as a sticking-plaster for the intensive factory farming practices that are the underlying cause of disease emergence in the first place. That is why, given the current drafting, animals should be removed from the Bill’s scope, full stop.
Nature makes mistakes; that is how evolution comes about. So the mistakes that are reported in the literature are actually further evidence that such technologies effectively replicate a natural process. Does the hon. Lady agree?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As has been said, she clearly has expertise, but I am looking at the scientific evidence that has been put before me, and it is being suggested that the mistakes that can be made in this area, especially when it comes to nature, appear very different from those that are seen in nature.
I move on to the principle of properly defined criteria. Using a term that lacks any proper definition looks like an attempt to obscure the full scope of the proposed deregulation. The terms “precision breeding” and gene editing help promote a particular narrative—that the process is just a simple “cut” or “tweak”. The Government are also at pains to stress that any changes might have occurred “naturally” and do not involve the insertion of transgenes—so-called “foreign” DNA.
I have read that this is to some extent smoke and mirrors. The Bill seeks to deregulate all manner of genetic manipulations, and genome editing can sometimes involve the insertion of foreign DNA. As I understand it, the argument is that in such cases the inserted DNA gets removed before the product goes to market. That may well be the intention; but by using poorly defined criteria in the title and wording of the Bill, the Government are asking us to pass bad legislation.
Is it the case that, if the EU were to allow this technology to go ahead, the hon. Lady would, like the SNP, embrace it?
I am not making a blanket statement in that way. I am saying that if a whole load more safeguards were built into the Bill and if it were not based on a set of definitions that are being criticised by the scientific community, I would have rather more confidence in it than I do right now.
As we have heard, several learned organisations have challenged the Government’s creation of this hypothetical class of GMOs that could have “occurred naturally” or could have been created using traditional breeding. The Institute of Food Science & Technology has called the approach “overly simplistic”, and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics was
“not convinced that this is either the most proper or most popular framing”.
“No clarity can be achieved using this principle—we would not recommend using it as the basis for regulation.”
In response to last year’s public consultation, there was a clear view that this is a fundamentally flawed and unscientific basis for regulation.
Turning to transparency, there are no provisions in the Bill for the labelling of genetically engineered or so-called precision-bred food, despite this being what a majority of the public want, as the Government consultation made clear. In that consultation, 85% wanted genetic technologies used in farming to continue to be regulated in the same way as other GMOs. There are significant concerns over the commercial drivers of genome editing in farmed animals, for example. This makes labelling really important, not least if Ministers want citizen and market trust, and buy-in to any new regulatory regime. The public register idea is welcome, but it needs to be accessible as well as comprehensive, and it should include all genetic engineering events and organisms used in UK agriculture. Reduced data collection is worrying. Data that is not collected cannot be analysed. Ministers are simply assuming that risks are non-existent or vanishingly slight, but there is nothing scientific about such wishful thinking.
In conclusion, we need a national conversation. Regulation and innovation need not be at odds, but products of agricultural genetic engineering, including newer techniques, should be subject to a robust and transparent regulatory and governance framework. This must include a strong traceability and labelling scheme that protects the interests of organic farms and allows consumers to make a choice in the supermarket. This legislation lets down consumers, farmers, the environment and animals. Rushing ahead with a badly conceived and designed Bill because the Government are simply desperate to claim some kind of success on post-Brexit deregulation is unacceptable, and I urge them to bring back something better.
I want to speak in support of the Bill. Anyone who comes to the rural idyll of South Cambridgeshire and sees the fields of golden wheat, yellow rapeseed and barley swaying in the wind, or indeed goes and sees the cattle herds in the south-west of England or the sheep in the north, might think that that was agricultural produce as nature gave it to man—and woman, no doubt— but that is not the case. Since agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, people have consistently bred the plants and animals they have been given, and those plants and animals have changed incredibly over the last 10,000 years. For example, there is very little in common visually between a chicken and the south Asian jungle fowl that it came from. All of that breeding was done by the natural mutation that happens randomly in nature, and most of those mutations are mistakes and do not get used.
We now have the technology to speed that up. We have radiation breeding, which various colleagues have talked about, where we speed up the mutation and do not just rely on the random happenstance of nature. We now have precision breeding, and gene editing in particular. We have the technology to do that, and my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher went into detail about how it works. This technology has huge advantages, but we cannot use it because it is banned by the EU and we inherited that legislation. This Bill is clearly designed to allow us to do it.
This is a huge issue in my constituency. It is not just that I have a lot of farmers; I also have a lot of plant breeders who are chomping at the bit to use this technology, and a lot of genetic companies. South Cambridgeshire is the genetics capital of Europe, and there is huge interest in this there. There are lots of advantages to it that many of my colleagues have mentioned. There is a win for food security as it will enable us to have greater crop yields. There is also a win for the environment because we can use fewer pesticides and fertilisers and there will be less demand on water resources, which is a big thing in South Cambridgeshire.
The technology also benefits humans, as colleagues have mentioned. For example, the Japanese tomatoes that are on sale at the moment will reduce blood pressure, there are US soya beans with less saturated fat, and there are less carcinogenic amino acids in wheat. All of those are benefits. It can bring benefits to animals, too, by ensuring chickens are immune to avian flu and pigs are immune to swine flu, but we need to make sure that this is not used in any way to reduce animal welfare standards—I strongly support the Secretary of State’s assurance that we will not compromise on animal welfare standards as a result of this Bill.
My hon. Friend Julian Sturdy mentioned the industry’s concern that part 3 of the Bill means the Food Standards Agency will require a full risk assessment for food and feed, as if it is a genetically modified organism with genetics from two different species, rather than the traditional breeding approval process. This adds time, cost and uncertainty. The developers and breeders will not know if their crop will be improved at the end, so the measure will damage investment in the sector.
Such decisions should be based on science and evidence. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, Health Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority agree that there is no difference between the risk profiles of traditionally bred strains and precision-bred strains, and therefore there should be no difference in the approval process. They are, in essence, exactly the same. It is impossible to tell the difference between them.
The irony is that, by gold-plating in this way, we risk ending up with a more restrictive regime than the EU’s regime. This is meant to be a Brexit opportunity, but it could end up with the EU taking the lead. A few amendments may be needed but, with that caveat, I strongly commend the Bill to the House.
We have heard today of the potential benefits and of how gene editing could have a role to play in reducing our reliance on fertilisers and pesticides and in creating food that is resistant to drought or food that is more nutritious. We have heard about vitamin D in tomatoes, and there has been a long-running conversation about vitamin A being added to golden rice, although it has yet to live up to its billing.
I agree with my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner that the Bill is very thin on the regulatory framework. Perhaps the Government ought to have put those measures in place before steaming ahead with developing these products. His points on labelling were well made, too. The concerns about cross-contamination and support for organic food producers and consumers are valid.
The Soil Association has raised concerns about the commercialisation of crops and tells us that just four companies control more than 60% of the global seed supply. I do not have time to go into detail on those concerns, but they need to be flagged up in Committee. I went to talk to farmers in El Salvador after the Central America free trade agreement, and they want to support organic farms and natural seeds but were told they cannot because, under the free trade agreement, alternatives from Monsanto and others have to be allowed into the market. I would be very concerned if such a situation were allowed to develop here at the expense of people who want to go down the organic route.
The most problematic part of the Bill concerns the gene editing of animals. I accept there are some positives, such as helping to reduce our reliance on antibiotics, but there are other ways to do that. Other countries have been much better than us in restricting the routine overuse of antibiotics.
Deidre Brock said the Bill is trying to tackle the symptoms, not the causes. If not for the ever-growing intensification and industrialisation of farming, where animals are crammed together in unsanitary conditions, we would not need to rely on the routine use of antibiotics, as too many farmers do.
We have had an interesting debate on whether we could use technology to suppress the birth of male chicks. At the moment, 29 million male chicks are killed by the poultry industry each year, and 7 billion are killed globally. They are fed into maceration machines—mincing machines—because they do not lay eggs but, again, other countries such as Germany, France and Sweden are already doing things to stop chick shredding without resorting to gene editing.
“precision-bred plants and animals which will bolster food production” and “drive economic growth.”
Existing livestock farming methods have already led to the creation of animals that are radically different from their original natural forms. We see turkeys and chickens that are bred to be so heavy that they cannot support their own weight on their legs; the milk yields of cows have more than doubled in the past 40 years, to about 22 litres per day in the UK—that is not natural; and we know that cows, as well as suffering from mastitis, now become infertile extremely quickly from intensive milking. Their life cycle has been reduced from 20 years in the wild to about three or four when raised in intensive farming conditions. Again, the causes, rather than the symptoms, ought to be tackled by the Government as well.
It is a pleasure to support this legislation, which is part of the Brexit dividend that gives us the freedom to regulate to support innovation. Unlike the stifling, overly complex EU regime, we have the exciting opportunity to take a proportionate, science-based approach to precision breeding. This is a welcome part of the Government’s focus on science and technology to drive economic growth. My county of Norfolk, and specifically the Norwich Research Park, is well placed to help realise these benefits, as it is home to not only world leading research institutes, but gene editing companies. Of course, it also plays a crucial role in our food production.
It is important to be clear what this Bill is about and what it is not about. Precision breeding is about enabling DNA to be edited much more efficiently and precisely than current breeding techniques to produce beneficial traits. Crucially, these traits can occur through traditional breeding and natural processes. Indeed under clause 1 that is a requirement in order to be classified as a “precision bred organism.” As my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy said, this does not involve adding DNA from a different organism, so this is not about genetically modified organisms. Of course, people will want reassurance about the safety of these techniques. The expert independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment has stated that precision bred organisms
“posed no greater risk than their traditionally bred or naturally arising counterparts.”
By adopting a more agile regulatory approach, the time taken to comply with existing GMO regulation for getting precision bred crops to market will be cut from an estimated 10 years to just one. That is a huge win to accelerate innovation, and secure productivity and efficiency gains in crop production.
The real world benefits are significant, as we see if we just think about the disease-resistant crops that reduce the need for pesticides and fertilisers. In my constituency, the yields of sugar beet have been wiped out considerably in recent years, as the Secretary of State said. The UK Research and Innovation-funded study has identified sources of genetic resistance that would reduce the need for neonicotinoids—for pesticides—thus helping to protect the environment, increase food production and reduce costs to farmers. There is also the potential for crops to withstand changing climates, and there are also health and nutritional benefits. Colleagues have referred to the pioneering work that the John Innes Centre is doing to produce precision bred, high vitamin D tomatoes. In addition, tomato leaves are usually only waste material, but by editing the genes, those leaves could be used to make vitamin D supplements, thus reducing waste.
The disproportionate approach by the EU led to advanced breeding being moved outside the EU, and now we can take a lead in catalysing food science and innovation, and attracting inward investment. We can do so on the basis that precision bred organisms that have occurred naturally, or through conventional methods, should not face unnecessary layers of regulation. That was the original rationale of the Bill. As others have said, there are real concerns among crop and plant breeders that the power to introduce sweeping new regulations under part 3 of the Bill could see the introduction of additional new hurdles that are not scientifically justified—new requirements that do not apply to conventionally bred crop varieties. That would be a major disincentive to bringing these new techniques in. It is essential that we do not remove the EU bureaucratic rules only to allow the FSA to reimpose requirements that are not proportionate or necessary. Otherwise, what is the point in diverging from the EU approach?
In conclusion, I look for an assurance from the Minister that this opportunity to boost our agritech sector will be based firmly on a proportionate approach, and that during the passage of the Bill commitments will be made and included in the legislation to ensure a light-touch, low-cost and pro-innovation approach.
In broad terms, I support the idea of encouraging a science-based approach to technologies such as genetic editing for precision breeding. In general terms, I accept that such methods will be helpful in the fight against climate change and excessive antibiotic use, among other things, and that they have the potential to reduce the need for pesticides in farming. I welcome that the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and the European Food Safety Authority have advised that no more risk is attached to precision-bred foods than to those from traditional breeding methods.
I would like clarification on some other implications of the Bill. First and foremost, I am concerned that it is a slight distraction from the current crisis facing British farmers. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s assertions this morning, Liberal Democrats are broadly supportive of the concept of the environmental land management scheme and the sustainable farming incentive, and we welcome a replacement for the basic farm payment. However, the farmers we meet, such as those I met on Friday, tell us that the reduction in the farm payment this year, when the replacement scheme is not yet in place, is causing genuine hardship. They would like to get on board with the new schemes, but the up-front costs make it unlikely that they will bother. A deregulated environment for precision breeding will not help them, because they might not be in business to benefit from it. We need to back farmers with a smooth transition between subsidy schemes to make sure we still have farmers who can benefit from the changes the Government propose.
The Bill is a bit light on detail on the new regulatory requirements for these crops and animals. Will the Minister clarify how the Government will identify any unforeseen environmental consequences once these products are released into the environment? It would be useful to understand how unintended downsides will be dealt with if they happen.
As many Members have suggested, there are concerns about animal welfare. While editing the genes of a pig, for example, to make it resistant to the worst types of disease is welcome, that must not be a shortcut to allowing pigs to be reared in less hygienic and more crowded conditions. Not only must their welfare continue to be protected; it must be continuously improved.
Given the amount of rhetoric over the past couple of years from Government Front Benchers about a bonfire of regulations, how can consumers be reassured that the Bill is not a back-door route to reducing animal welfare and environmental standards, in which our farmers have led the world? It certainly makes no provision for food labelling, that would allow consumers to decide whether or not they prefer a precision-bred product. Those concerns are a direct consequence of the fact that it is not at all clear how the precautionary principle outlined in the Environment Act 2021 and the Government’s environmental principles policy statement of
We are proud of the progress our farmers have made and the high standards they have achieved. We do not want all that effort to be wasted now through a back-door watering down of standards. I am worried about the impact that any reduction in confidence in British food and agricultural products would have on the export of our excellent food products to the EU, which we know takes a more cautious approach to gene-editing technologies.
I would like a complete overhaul of food labelling so that consumers know exactly what they are buying. Then, if there is a Union Jack on the package, they can be confident that the animal has been reared on a British farm by a British farmer, or that the carrot has been pulled from a British field, and that they have not just been butchered or peeled here. If the animal or carrot has been bred through a gene-editing process, that should be clearly marked on the package, so that the consumer can make the choice. It is vital to empower consumers with as much information as possible, so that they can make informed choices and have trust in the quality of the food they buy.
In conclusion, I support the Bill, but with qualifications. We need to build trust and confidence in our food chain. Transparency in labelling, appropriate regulation to provide readiness for unforeseen circumstances, and maintaining and improving animal welfare standards would help deliver that. I urge the Government to consider those points in Committee. As I said, the priority at the moment must be the viability of our family farms in the short term. They need short-term support—
It has been said, but it bears repetition, that gene editing is different from genetic modification, because it does not result in the introduction of DNA from other species. Gene editing creates new varieties similar to those that could be produced more slowly by traditional natural breeding processes. Without this legislation, that process would continue to be regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms.
The Bill will introduce simpler regulatory measures to enable these products to be authorised and brought to market more easily, but not without the appropriate controls. The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and however the legislation is progressed and scrutinised in Parliament, and whatever final form it takes, we can be assured that it will be more fit for purpose for our country than the EU regulations it replaces.
I am, of course, aware that the legislation will apply only in England, but I welcome the UK Government’s invitation to the devolved Administrations, particularly the Scottish Government, to take part in this process on a UK-wide basis. Although disappointed that the Scottish Government have so far declined to accept that invitation, favouring rather to remain aligned with the EU, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that that door remains open for them to take part. I am hopeful that, ultimately, they may welcome the opportunity to participate in that programme.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is clear that the Scottish National party would like to move at the more pedestrian pace of the European Union, some two years behind us on the introduction of this technology?
I may be tempted to agree with that, but, in my experience as a Scotland Office Minister, I think that it is much more productive to work with Scottish Government Ministers behind the scenes; outside the sometimes febrile mode of this Chamber, we can work together on these things. Again, I encourage the Scottish Government and my SNP colleagues in this House to come to the table and work on that basis.
From talking to farmers and food producers in my own constituency, as well as to the National Farmers Union of Scotland, I know that gene editing technology in food production is not only desirable, but one of many crucial tools that can be made available to all British farmers. I quoted the president of NFU Scotland, Martin Kennedy, earlier. He did go on to say that the NFU of Scotland
“is disappointed that the Scottish Government has chosen not to partake in the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in favour of a European ruling on gene editing.”
In my regular ongoing discussions with NFU Scotland over the years, one of its major concerns—not its only concern, to be fair—is maintaining the integrity of the UK internal market, which is something that I very much hope will not be impacted by any divergence in legislation across Great Britain.
Gene editing, as has been said, can improve crop yields by allowing scientists to modify crops to be more resilient to the changing climate and produce more nutrient-rich produce. I therefore believe that such a Bill will advance the UK’s crop resilience and agricultural economy for years to come.
I am glad to see that the UK, including the Roslin Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, are leading gene editing technology across Europe, promoting agricultural development in an environmentally sustainable way, and prompting, we hope, an increase in investment in United Kingdom businesses. I therefore believe that this Bill will help to energise the UK’s agriculture and food production industry.
I welcome this Government’s commitment to establish a proportionate regulatory system for precision-bred animals, which will allow the UK to retain its high animal welfare standards while increasing livestock resistance to health issues, such as respiratory syndrome in pigs, improving their welfare and quality of life. I do not think that it is an either/or proposition. We can be improving living conditions for animals and using this technology.
In conclusion, this Bill is a valuable piece of legislation that should benefit our food production industry right across the UK, and I look forward to seeing its progress through Parliament. I again express my hope that, at this early stage of the Bill, the Scottish Government and SNP colleagues in this place—with their customary challenge and scrutiny, of course—decide to take part in this process for the good of farmers and food producers in Scotland as well as across the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition this interesting debate on gene editing. I must say that the level of input has been high quality, with important points made across the House.
I trust that the Minister was listening carefully to the words of advice and guidance given to her by hon. Members across the House, but in particular by my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner, who has led on this topic for the Opposition for several years.
Labour is pro-science and pro-innovation. We want to find ways to maintain and improve the efficiency, security and safety of our food system while addressing the environmental and health damage that the modern food system has caused. We also recognise, as has been said, that laws designed 30 years ago for genetically modified products need to be updated and that most countries are recognising that gene editing needs to be treated differently.
We are more than willing to work with the Government to achieve real gains in improving environmental sustainability and reducing food insecurity. We want the Government to prioritise innovations that would provide public benefit and prosperity. We want our scientists to succeed and use their skills for good here in the UK, and we know that crop development and innovation has brought us all huge gains. But that requires a strong regulatory framework to get it right, and this Bill does not provide that. It needs substantial amendment. We need a strong regulatory framework that will give scientists and businesses the confidence to invest here in the UK, while giving confidence and knowledge to consumers so they can make informed decisions—a point that my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy made eloquently.
We welcome the research and innovation currently under way, but to get this legislation right, the Government must have a strong plan to balance the risks and manage trade-offs. Of course we cannot afford to let risks paralyse our course of action, but we do need a system that manages those risks and provides security and transparency for businesses and consumers alike.
The Bill provides for the deregulation of genetic editing of vertebrate animals and includes a provision to establish a welfare advisory body. That advisory body must report to the Secretary of State to inform them whether the originator of a genetically edited organism under consideration has identified any adverse impacts on animal welfare and made an appropriate risk assessment for their proposals.
However, the Bill as it stands does not specify which adverse impacts on animals would be grounds for a GEO application’s being denied, nor does it lay out what evidence the advisory body will consider with regards to animal welfare. Several non-governmental organisations and civil society groups have criticised that element of the Bill.
The Government’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 made provisions for an Animal Sentience Committee to scrutinise and consider the impact of legislation on animal welfare, but the committee has not yet been fully established. Can the Minister explain in her wind up why she is pressing ahead with this legislation before the Animal Sentience Committee has had time to consider it?
Research has overwhelmingly found that consumers support genetically edited foods having a different regulatory system from that for genetically modified foods, but they want clear labelling and effective regulation of gene-edited products so they can choose the products that suit their lifestyle. Surely that is not an unreasonable ask.
Here we have a much-needed Bill, given the need for agri-innovation and scientific development, and of course the Opposition welcome the concept. But why oh why is this legislation being rushed in? We need strong and robust regulation of this important and developing field. We need clear scientific evidence and strong protections to safeguard animal welfare. We need clear and transparent labelling to protect and inform consumers. Yet again we see truth in the saying “Legislate in haste, repent at leisure”, and I urge the Government to consider our concerns and those of stakeholders and consumers and be open to constructive criticism in Committee. If they are prepared to do that, we will not push for a vote on Second Reading.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), for North West Norfolk (James Wild) and for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). I also thank Helen Morgan and the Opposition for the constructive way they have leaned into this debate today. I would immediately say, “Yes, we need to work together on this.” I think the majority of those in this House see the huge opportunity we have here.
“The emergence of genome editing is a significant moment, as it represents a possible step change in introducing a new generation of potentially transformative biotechnologies into the food and farming system.”
Those are not my words; they are from the Nuffield report.
I welcome this Bill, which will hugely enhance our future food security. May I draw the Minister’s attention to pioneering new genetic editing techniques being developed at the University of Nottingham’s Sutton Bonington campus, and invite her to join me on a visit there to see that groundbreaking research in action?
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble is an alumna of that august institution, as indeed am I, so I would be delighted to visit it. That intervention raises a key point that, because of the limited time, I will address in a general sense.
We do have some of the finest institutions, and many of them are lodged in Scotland. The James Hutton Institute and the Roslin Institute are beyond good in this space. They need to be supported. They do not need to wait for others to follow. Our door is open. We want to get this right. We want to work with Deidre Brock. Professor Colin Campbell of the James Hutton Institute has said that it is right. Professor Helen Sang from the Roslin Institute has given evidence to say that this is what we need. She is working on ensuring that we can beat avian flu, which attacks both animals kept inside barns and those kept outside.
We have the opportunity to improve animal welfare here, and I would like to address that point full on. Animal welfare is currently of a high standard in this country, and it is not true to say that this Bill will affect it. Our animals are protected by comprehensive and robust animal health welfare legislation, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007, passed by Labour. These provisions help to reinforce the fact that the welfare of animals is a key priority, and it is simply not true to say that the Bill will lead to a diminution in those standards.
The Bill allows us to take the opportunities that have been presented to us through leaving the European Union. It is important to celebrate our country’s strengths at Rothamsted, James Hutton, John Innes and Roslin, all of which I have visited, and I hope to go to Aberystwyth soon. It is important that we move on this as a country. By encouraging greater research and development in the use of precision-breeding technologies, we are supporting that drive. Innovation is key to enhancing the sustainability and resilience of our agricultural systems by harnessing the benefits of precision breeding to eradicate disease, as we have discussed.
My hon. Friend James Wild and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer addressed the issue of section 3. The Bill provides the Food Standards Agency with an opportunity to build from scratch a tailor-made framework that is proportionate for the UK. This will allow swifter progress for businesses wishing to market precision-bred organisms while still ensuring the safety of our food.
I could not agree more that safety, transparency, proportionality, traceability and customer confidence is what we are building here. The EU is currently reviewing its systems and has acknowledged that its current system is not fit for purpose. I would indeed be happy to share that documentation, which is publicly available, with the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith. It is important that we move ahead in this area, and our scientists, farmers and researchers all want us to do it. It is simply not true to say that this will allow multinationals and conglomerates to drive forward in this space. Actually, in the countries that have already driven PBOs into their system, we see democratisation, with a greater proportion of precision breeding patents being held by smaller and local businesses.
In response to Daniel Zeichner and Caroline Lucas, who is no longer in her place, I agree that food security is a top priority. We have taken account of the Nuffield report and public concerns, and we are constantly in dialogue with our stakeholders. On Monday, we met animal welfare stakeholders to talk about the declaration and how they can feed into that. I agree that consumers need clear labelling, but the FSA will authorise products for sale only if they present no risk to health and do not mislead customers.
As this technology brings no safety risk, labelling will not be required to indicate the methods used in breeding. It is unnecessary because, as has been repeatedly pointed out, it is the same as traditional breeding. The countries that are already in this space—Canada, Japan, the United States, Brazil and Argentina—do not do that. A public register will be available on gov.uk to ensure further traceability.
There is a great deal more that I could go into on the particular things that were brought up, but I want to finish by saying that this is a huge area of advantage. We need to go forward as a country making sure that we take our scientists with us, enhance our research and breeding practices, and enable consumer confidence. Ultimately the key aim of the Bill is to ensure that precision-bred plants, animals, food and feed products are regulated proportionately to their risk so that we can fully embrace the benefits and advantages of scientific progress that has been made over the past 30 years. The Bill is good news, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.