Amendment 275

Agriculture Bill - Committee (7th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 28th July 2020.

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Lord Cameron of Dillington:

Moved by Lord Cameron of Dillington

275: After Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—“Agricultural research(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations modify the definitions contained in Part VI of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in relation to products of breeding techniques for agricultural purposes where nucleic acid changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may only be made after the Secretary of State has held a public consultation on any proposed modifications to the definitions.(3) Regulations under subsection (1) may only be made in relation to England.(4) Regulations under subsection (1) are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”Member’s explanatory statementTo enable the Secretary of State to make changes to the Environmental Protection Act 1990, as it applies in England, in relation to breeding techniques after the UK leaves the EU. This would allow for regulation of new precision breeding techniques compatible with international definitions.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

My Lords, in introducing this amendment I declare an interest as chair of the advisory board of the Government’s Global Food Security programme. On this board we look at all UK research relating to food. We cover not plough to plate but one stage further at either end—soils to stomach—thus tracing a chain from the billions of bacteria in soil that convert sunlight and water into crops, all the way through to the billions of bacteria in our stomachs that convert those crops into human energy.

The first thing to say about crop research in the UK is that the days when it was all about yield per hectare are long gone. If there is a primary target in present research objectives it is nutrition per hectare but, most importantly, without any degradation of ecosystems and natural resources. This has been the case in the research community for the last five to 10 years. Actually, there are many objectives in crop and animal research these days, and there could be many more as the world changes. Crops that have resilience are often better than crops that have high yields.

The questions being asked include: how do you breed plants that can resist the many different diseases and pests present in every country without having to put chemicals into the environment? We have already debated the problem of agricultural sprays in this country, but it is even more important in the developing world, where literacy is a problem among farmers and chemicals therefore tend to get used far too liberally, often to the detriment of the farmer’s health. The other thing about gene resistance to pests is that it is better for biodiversity. Why? Because, unlike sprays, it does not kill the pest; it just protects the crop from the pest.

Next, how do you breed a plant that can resist droughts brought about by climate change? Irrigation schemes are expensive and use valuable water. Seeds are much cheaper, so you can breed either a plant that requires less water or, more often, one that comes to fruition—that is, to harvest—two or three weeks earlier, during which time its older counterpart might have shrivelled and died.

How do you breed a plant that resists flooding—either one that can stay alive underwater for several days or one that, when threatened, spurts upwards to keep its head above the floodwaters? How do you breed plants that are salt-tolerant or that produce crops less susceptible to the dreadful post-harvest losses you get in Africa, or plants that have a longer shelf life for our supermarkets and thus reduce the need for plastic?

How do you breed a wheat that minimises its gluten content to help coeliacs? How do you reduce the major allergy features of peanuts? That would surely save a few lives. How do you produce plants, such as tomatoes, that can be grown in an urban context—small plants that are covered with fruit but can grow on walls or in window boxes—or a cassava plant that does not have to be dried and processed within 24 hours, or a cocoa plant resistant to mildew or phytophthora? Finally, turning to yield, can you breed a wheat or rice that produces a much larger grain?

The answer is that all of the above are part of gene-editing research programmes at different stages of development in different parts of the world. We are not talking only about wheat, maize and rice here but sweet potatoes, cassava, cowpea, sorghum, millet, coffee, cocoa, fruits and vegetables, et cetera. Let us face it: we are too dependent on wheat, rice and maize, from the point of view of both resilience and, above all, nutrition. More work needs to be done urgently on these so-called orphan crops.

My point is that the opportunities and urgent needs are there in their thousands. If we are to meet our sustainable development goals and keep up with our exploding world population, speed is of the essence. Speed is the essence of what this amendment is all about —but not reckless speed. I want to make this absolutely clear: we are not asking or wishing for any reduction in the stringent regulatory requirements or supervision of all forms of breeding techniques of plants or animals. Defra’s Animal and Plant Health Agency insists that all new varieties must undergo at least two years of official tests and trials. Furthermore, the Home Office animal experiment regulations also license and test every stage of gene editing, over many years, so we already have a well-functioning UK regulatory system, with an impeccable track record of food safety, animal husbandry and environmental protection. This will continue and can easily embrace these new breeding techniques. But, as with traditional breeding, once the crops have passed all the tests and we know they are safe to grow, farmers should be allowed to grow them for sale.

The speed that is necessary comes from the scientific precision of breeding plants and animals using gene editing. Let me explain. Genetic changes used by traditional plant breeders are mutations that arise randomly in crop plants. Normally, a breeder will select for a handful of beneficial changes, in a background of thousands of other mutations that are either neutral or sometimes even negative. At a plant-breeding station, the greenhouses are full of hundreds of hybrids, of which probably only one or two are desirable. The removal of undesirable off-target characteristics, by back-crossing and selection, is what breeders have been doing for thousands of years since the domestication of crops and livestock.

In gene editing, the genetic changes are the same as those used by traditional breeders, but targeted more precisely. There is only a small or non-existent background of trial and error, so the precision of the breeding technique is the clue to its safety for the environment and the world around it.

One of the problems with a recent EU court ruling on this, which is raising concerns even among the most conservative member states, is how you can tell a gene-edited plant from a naturally bred one. There is no way of telling unless you were present at its conception. Some members of the German Green Party have also questioned the ruling. Their point is that, if the technique is regularly used in human health—to genetically manipulate antibiotic clusters, for instance—why should it not also be used to benefit the wider world? I agree with them. With the strong backing of more than 100 EU scientific organisations, the Commission is now looking carefully at the rules on precision breeding, with a view to reporting next April. I strongly suspect that the EU rules will change.

So we seek both precision and speed. Instead of taking 10 to 12 years or longer to develop a new seed, we are talking about two to three years. This allows the development to be driven by a wider range of research organisations, mostly led by small businesses and public research organisations, not just large multinationals. It allows some of the world’s best agricultural research stations, which we have in this country—places such as Rothamsted, John Innes and James Hutton—to team up with smaller research stations in developing countries, which have special crops, often with special local problems. By working with these poorer countries, as well as with UK agriculture, we can help farmers everywhere produce the food that their local population requires.

Another important point is that this proposed amendment would not affect, in any way, the control or current status of genetically modified crops, in which entire genes or even groups of genes can be transferred between species. This would remain strictly outside this law, with even their controlled experimentation, in government research stations, having to be licensed in exceptional circumstances. This amendment, however, would bring our rules into line with most other countries, apart from the EU, where precise improvements are made within the same species—improvements that could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.

Another final issue I will touch on quickly is the possibility of unintended consequences of gene editing. I have already commented on the greater likelihood of risks from traditional breeding techniques, both in plants and animals, but the main point to emphasise—and this applies to all scientists, whatever techniques they are using—is that modern scientists are always wrestling with the effects of their work on the wider environment. How will this affect the soil, the air, the local flora and fauna, including humans, and even the landscape? The idea is that their work should benefit the world in all its aspects. If they do not think like that, in this country at any rate, their regulators certainly do.

As we emerge from this Covid disaster, it is vital that our scientists are able to employ the precision and speed needed to breed the best and most useful crops with safety. I urge the Government to accept this amendment, which empowers them to consult and act on the possibility of making changes to the Environmental Protection Act 1990. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington, who has so beautifully set out the basis for this amendment. I am sorry that, on this occasion, I part company with a number of Peers whose views I hugely respect and with Greener UK, whose support, on this and other Bills, I have much appreciated. I speak as a career academic scientist whose specialism is ecology and the environment.

I will make three points. First, I will reiterate the scientific difference between gene editing and genetic modification. Gene editing is like traditional breeding, but more targeted. It involves tweaking the genes that are already there in the organism. It is roughly analogous to adjusting one of the ingredients in a recipe to improve the flavour of the dish. On the other hand, traditional genetic modification involves inserting new genes from a different organism. It is a bit like the introduction of a new ingredient into the recipe to change the nature of the dish. For example, one of the major GM crops is Bt maize, with a toxin gene from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis that confers resistance to corn borer. Gene-edited crops, with their ingredients adjusted, could be safer, more nutritious, more productive and more resistant to climate change, as my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington so eloquently explained.

But—this is my second point—the difference between genetic modification and gene editing is not relevant to those who object to gene editing. The objection is not about science but something else. Opposition to modern genetic technology, whether gene editing or GMOs, is often presented as three worries: the food made from GM crops is not safe to eat; the crops are not safe for the environment, for instance because genes could jump into wild plants or because it is part of the intensification of agriculture, which destroys habitats and biodiversity; and genetic technologies favour big agritech companies at the expense of small farmers.

The worriers also invoke the precautionary principle, saying that we should never adopt new technologies until we are 100% sure they are risk free. Ironically, the same individuals often invoke the precautionary principle as a call for new technologies to be used, even when the science is incomplete, for example on reducing pollution levels in the environment. In reality, these arguments are all code for a different vision of the future of agriculture, one that returns to traditional low-intensity methods, such as organic farming. In fact, organic farming and gene editing should not be in opposition. Organic farmers have as much to gain as conventional farmers, if not more, from the genetic improvement of their crops to make them more disease resistant without pesticides, more nutritious, more productive and so on.

My third point is that the amendment calls for public consultation, which is key if we are to avoid the mistakes of the 1990s. Noble Lords will recall that the first GM food on sale in the UK was tomato paste made with Flavr Savr tomatoes. These tomatoes do not go squidgy on ripening, so they produce a sweeter product. The GM tomato paste tasted better, was slightly cheaper and was clearly labelled. It sold well, until the campaigning groups launched their highly successful “Frankenstein foods” campaign. Before long, the supermarket shelves were cleared of all products involving GM.

You might say, “So what? We still have plenty of delicious food on our shelves and we have no need for new technologies.” However, there is a moral dilemma for those who argue against new genetic technologies. We are fortunate in having enough to eat, at least for the moment, but other parts of the world where food is scarce have suffered directly as a result of the campaign against modern genetic technology. For example, in 2002 there was a famine in Zambia and the President of Zambia refused US food aid in case it contained GM material. I was head of the Food Standards Agency at the time and a deputation from Zambia came to see me to find out why, if EU countries rejected GM foods, they should be considered suitable for Zambia. I tried to explain, without success, that there was no human health problem with eating US maize, but the President of Zambia subsequently said:

“Simply because my people are hungry, that is no justification to give them … food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health.”

The truth is that, as novel foods, GM foods and, in future, gene-edited foods, are subject to rigorous scrutiny for safety and environmental risks—although, as I have said, the gene technology debate is not really a debate about the science. Furthermore, in future it is not just going to be the people in sub-Saharan Africa who are short of food who will need new technologies. We in this country will have to be smarter about how we produce food for ourselves—more food with less damage to the environment.

The amendment we are debating would enable the Government to start a public consultation on harnessing the potential of the brilliant UK plant science research community to make our agriculture greener, more productive and more sustainable. It is often claimed that the public are against novel gene technology but the most detailed study of this issue, by Professor Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University, shows that this is simply not true. Nevertheless, it would be wise for us to proceed cautiously by an open and transparent public consultation before we adopt gene editing as part of our armoury for producing food in future.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench 8:00 pm, 28th July 2020

My Lords, I should apologise to the Committee for making my first contribution on the Agriculture Bill at what I think is the seventh hour of the seventh day. I hope the Committee will give me a few minutes to speak to the amendment to which I have added my name, and which has been so ably described by my noble friends Lord Cameron and Lord Krebs. Their comprehensive and lucid explanations mean that I need not delay the Committee long.

I served two decades ago as a Minister at MAFF with responsibility for GM issues. As my noble friend Lord Krebs said, it was not a happy time. There was a highly polarised and often bitter debate to which I have no desire to return, certainly not in the form it took then. I very much hope that any future discussions on GMOs will be much more nuanced, seek to find common ground and be focused on the outcomes we are trying to achieve, rather than on very divisive attitudes. The term “culture wars” was not in such common usage then, but it was an early example of that.

That debate brought me into contact with many plant scientists who inspired me with their vision of the potentially beneficial effects of crops that could be transformative, particularly in the developing world; that could withstand drought and thrive in high salinity and soils that needed fewer pesticides and herbicides; that could improve the nutrition and yield of very basic crops on which people’s lives depended; and that could improve the environment and build resilience to climate change.

Gene editing techniques offer these potential benefits, providing specific, targeted changes that conventional breeding could achieve but which might take 10 or 12 years, in one-quarter of that time. These are not just dreams for the future: as my noble friend Lord Cameron made clear, these are actual pieces of research that plant scientists are working on. They are relevant to this country as well as to the developing world. Work is going on to produce elite varieties of sugar beet that are resistant to beet yellows virus, which threatens to reduce the yield of sugar beet in this country by 50% and is of such concern to my farmer neighbours in Norfolk. Meanwhile, the possible development of salt-tolerant strains of rice, maize that can withstand drought, and many more applications, could mean the difference between famine and survival for many families in some of the most deprived areas of the world.

In that context, I argue that it is our responsibility to provide the appropriate regulatory framework for these advances, after what has been widely seen as the flawed ECJ judgment of 2018. We do not have to create something de novo, because we have regulatory frameworks in place for assessing varieties that are bred conventionally to have new qualities, but which, with gene editing, would simply be produced quicker and with more precision. We have the rules available, and this amendment would allow us to consult and see whether this is publicly acceptable when the difference between gene editing and introducing new DNA into a product—transgenic work—is actually explained. I believe it is possible to do that in a responsible way. I feel that very strongly because after I left MAFF, I became, for a time, a regulator. I chaired the Human Tissue Authority and served as a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. We faced similar issues to those that underlie the debate today: exciting scientific possibilities and new technologies, the risks and acceptability of which needed to be assessed. An appropriate level of regulation that commanded public support was essential.

These are never simple issues but if we approach them openly, they can maximise the benefit of scientific advance within the framework of public safety and confidence. We have set that framework in this country in other areas, such as human fertility and embryology, and those frameworks have been admired and followed in many other parts of the world. I believe we need now to do the same in the field of gene editing. I hope that the Government, who have on many occasions accepted the logic behind this amendment, will respond positively when the Minister speaks at the end of this debate.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

My Lords, it is an absolute pleasure to follow the noble Lords, Lord Cameron and Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I was privileged to be able to put my name to the amendment. It is the only time my name appears on any amendment, because I was not sworn in to your Lordships’ House until late June and I missed part of the early debate. I do not want to repeat points, but my experience is worth sharing with the House.

First, I want to make a topical point, which is that I was not impressed on Sunday by the BBC “Countryfile” programme, which dealt with this subject, nor by “Farming Today” yesterday. I will not go over the details, but they were not impressive examples of how to explain the technique to the public. It is a simple change to allow faster methods of plant breeding by access to novel gene-editing procedures. Such changes that take place would be the same as, but faster than, traditional plant breeding methods. Plant breeding is not politically sexy; it does not get a high profile in journals and on TV, and most members of the public would not have a clue about what goes on with the plant breeding technology we use.

As has been said, gene editing has nothing to do with genetic modification, because no foreign DNA is used. The European Union currently makes no distinction between gene editing and GMO technology, and that is the purpose of the amendment, although that might change. The EU regulations have emptied some UK laboratories, because people and companies left to work outside the EU. Companies abandoned first-class labs, one of which I visited in the Home Counties after I left the Government in October 2008, and it was tragic to see the empty space and the lost scientific opportunities.

Of course, new methods need handling with care for plants and consumers. I have got scars from 1997 to 1999, when I dealt with genetic modification. Going back to the previous debates, I was taken by what the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said about Monsanto. During that time, I met the man from Monsanto, and I explained to him that lectures to me and other Ministers about how we should grow our food from the company that gave us Agent Orange did not go down very well. Monsanto, of course, does not exist now; it is subsumed into the companies.

When I arrived at the Food Standards Agency, when I was at Defra the second time, from 2006 to 2008, it did not really figure. When I got to the Food Standards Agency in 2009 as chair, we had been charged by the Government with running an information campaign. In fact, we had started the process, we had appointed Professor John Curtice to chair some of the public meetings and deliberations. But it was ended. There was a reluctance from some groups to embrace any idea of new technology. The anti-science groups are still vocal and are clearly deliberately linking Amendment 275 to GMO technology. I have had hundreds of emails and notices, like everyone else, and I have actually read the standard line. It is more difficult to describe products in a single plant species as Frankenstein food, so they do not do it. But the idea is to link the two together using the letter G, which is alleged to be the one that frightens people. It is precision breeding, nothing more nor less.

We need better productivity in agriculture and better resistance to disease and climate change. We cannot stand still while our competitors—the United States, Brazil, Australia, Japan—are able to use gene-editing technologies. It does not make sense. The EU, over the years, in my personal experience as a Minister and as a regulator, has moved away from the science as a result of lobbying by pressure groups, which are almost at a religious zealotry in terms of opposition to the technology. Unlike with GMOs, there is no reliable test to distinguish between gene editing and conventional plant breeding. Why should there be? It is the same plant. Nothing extra is added from another species, so I am not surprised there is no test.

I appreciate that some see gene editing as the thin end of the edge, but I do not see GM technology as negative. We use it in imported products. Reference was made to tomato paste, which in 1997 was outselling non-GM tomato paste by two to one. It tasted better, it was fully labelled and it fulfilled all the conditions, but the minute that there was talk of Frankenstein foods, it was off the shelf quicker than you could say “tomato paste”. To use GMO technology as a means of attacking gene editing is backward and anti-science, and there is also a degree of dishonesty about it.

I finish with adding to the list of examples that we were given by colleagues as a result of some of the applications from a recent paper by the German institute. We are not just talking about England and the United Kingdom. Our science has a contribution to make to the rest of the world where it is more difficult to grow crops, where people cannot grow enough food, where starvation is the order of the day and where there is a lack of water. There is more likely to be a war over water than a war over oil if we are not careful. Crops that can exist with less water and are less prone to difficulties with the climate must be a gain. There could be wheat with bigger grains and a bigger grain weight, powdery mildew resistance in wheat and tomatoes, bacterial blight resistance in rice, reduced gluten content in wheat, drought tolerance in maize and wheat, and salt tolerance in rice.

Behind all those examples and some 40 others across the world, work is going on and products will come to market. Why should we not use our science when we know we can give a lead and take the public with us? It is very important that the contributions are handled publicly, and I hope that this debate will be part of that. The House of Commons did not have an opportunity to debate this amendment because of the way the Bill was truncated right at the end. I do not think that the all-party group’s deliberations had finished in time. There has to be a much wider opportunity than this Bill in terms of our food production, and the science of food must be explained and used to make the case to the public. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, organic farmers have nothing to fear from this. Indeed, they should embrace the science because it could be of great assistance to them.

Photo of The Earl of Lindsay The Earl of Lindsay Conservative 8:15 pm, 28th July 2020

My Lords, as vice-chair of the APPG on Science and Technology in Agriculture, I believe that the Bill is a timely opportunity for the Government to consult on and thereafter create the option in future to oversee and regulate precision-breeding tools such as new gene-editing technologies. I therefore fully support the amendment and agree with everything said so far in its support. I also note the wide support that the amendment has attracted from reputable institutions across the UK, in mainland Europe and elsewhere in the world.

It is universally accepted that agriculture and food production must become more sustainable in a world that faces considerable challenges from climate change, environmental degradation and an increasing and more affluent global population. Most would accept that we need to be more innovative if we are to reduce the dependency on pesticides and fertilisers and tackle biodiversity loss while at the same time providing food that is sufficient, nutritious, sustainable and affordable.

The new generation of precision-breeding tools, properly regulated, would make a major contribution to delivering these vital objectives. It would be a step change in our ability to deliver a more sustainable, productive and climate-resistant agriculture. Finally, it would also align with the regulatory stance of other countries around the world whose scientists, breeders, farmers and consumers already benefit from access to these valuable precision-breeding technologies.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I have rather drawn the short straw in being the first speaker to disagree with the rather stellar line-up promoting Amendment 275. I have huge trepidation in doing that because all noble Lords who have spoken so far are people whose views I hugely respect and who have the best possible motives.

I have listened very carefully to what they have said and remain pretty concerned about any loosening of the regulation of gene-edited crops. I shall not talk about health issues and the health impact, but will focus on the environmental issues associated with gene-edited crops. I was chairman of English Nature at the time that this was giving the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, scars in the late 1990s and I was on the opposite side from him then, but I hope that the noble Lords who have spoken so far will not dismiss my arguments as emotional. I am talking about science as much as they are, and I would be disappointed if that were dismissed as Luddism. One of the failures of this debate to date, as it was 20 years ago, is that it immediately starts polarising, opposing voices are demonised and there is a sense of battle lines being drawn up. That is something that we should not repeat.

There is no doubt that there may be benefits from gene-edited crops that would be hugely valuable in the face of growing world populations and climate change. Some have already been talked about, including high yields, increased nutritional content, greater proof against drought, pests and extreme weather, less use of land and less application of fertilisers, but there are undoubtedly well-evidenced down sides as well. Let me go through those that bear weight with me. First, there is the undeniable issue that once gene-edited species have been released, that is irreversible and if there are any consequential ill effects, they cannot then be put back in the bottle. So this is important and tricky stuff. Secondly, there is the possibility of gene flows taking place between crops and close wild relatives. The impacts of that, which may be unforeseen, need to be carefully taken into account. Thirdly, and I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on this one, producing insect-resistant crops is not just stopping the insects eating the crops; it will have an impact on the biomass of insects in just as dramatic a way as killing insects with pesticides. We have to think about what is happening to our insect populations if many of our crops are to be developed with insect resistance. That is their food source. Fourthly, although gene-editing tools are coming on by leaps and bounds, even CRISPR and the like are not yet as precise as is claimed and there is substantial research evidence of unforeseen changes in other parts of the genome.

At the moment these crops are regulated as GMOs and there is a full assessment of the environmental impact before they can be released. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, responding to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, on 4 March this year, said that the Government would take a “science-based approach” to gene editing and there would be “strict controls” to safeguard the environment with

“a robust case-by-case safety assessment taking full account of the scientific evidence.”—[Official Report, 4/3/20; col. 609.]

How does the Minister see such assessments taking place if there is a change from the regulatory framework for gene editing, and where will scientific advice on the impacts on the environment come from? I made some inquiries with the chairman of Natural England a couple of weeks ago, which formally advised the Government on the impact of genetically modified crops on the natural environment, and he has revealed that Natural England, English Nature’s successor, can no longer afford a specialist team in this area so it has disbanded any expertise that it had.

Of course, a perfectly good EU review of the whole issue of gene editing of crops and animals is under way and due to be published next April, so why are we rushing to make an amendment to the Bill that would jump the gun? Can we not wait to see what that review reveals? Rushing to deregulate gene editing, as some wish to do, to bring us into alignment with the US risks us pursuing the US market, which will always be a smaller, specialist market for UK food products, and risk our not being able to continue to do business with our major existing EU markets, depending on what they decide.

Therefore, why not wait to see what the EU decides to do after April 2021? In the meantime, the Minister would have the opportunity to lay out more clearly how his assurances on controls to safeguard the environment would work and it would enable a much broader public debate on acceptability. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, talked about open and transparent consultation, but changing the entire regulatory regime for gene editing under cover of darkness in the Agriculture Bill without any prior public consultation does not seem the right way to start off in an open and transparent way with the general public, who, for good reason or bad, are sensitised to this issue.

This artificial need for haste feels very like going back to the bad old days of the late 1990s, which the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, recalled during a debate on previous amendments. Monsanto tried to ride roughshod over British public opinion and the British political process. It got a very bloody nose and set any case for responsible genetic modification back by 20 years.

The signs are there again. One side has terrific zeal that this technology will solve all problems; the other side is denigrated as an unscientific bunch of woolly- pully tree-huggers. Public concerns are reduced to an equation that says, “Well, if we explain it more carefully to the public, of course they’ll accept it”, but that is the worst possible way of approaching a public consultation exercise that involves something very near and dear to the hearts of all people in this country—what they put in their mouths and what happens to the environment.

Let us not fall into the trap of 20 years ago. Let us take this steadily and have a properly scientific, open and transparent debate, and let us not set off on the wrong foot by accepting this amendment.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of a family farming and growing business, as listed in the register. Perhaps I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, that that is exactly what the amendment is about. It is about a consultation—it is about talking about the issue and trying to get some sense around it. I usually like to hear what the noble Baroness has to say but I found what she said today terribly negative and almost backward-looking.

At the heart of this is a consultation on a future regulatory status for new precision breeding techniques such as gene editing. I think we all agree that there is no foreign DNA involved in gene editing. It offers an enormous step change in the speed and precision of breeding crops and livestock. Therefore, it opens up significant opportunities for scientists, breeders, farmers and growers to keep pace with demands for more productive and sustainable production systems, with improved resource-use efficiency, more durable pest and disease resistance, improved nutrition and resilience to climate change. That is all to the good, I say.

The amendment has attracted widespread support, and not just the support of science. It will also ensure that our small and medium-sized breeding companies have the same access to these promising new techniques as the very large multinational companies, which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, mentioned. For example, down the road from me in Spalding is Elsoms Seeds, an independent, family-owned business that recently celebrated its 175th anniversary. The company wrote to me to express its support. Why? Elsoms works with a wide range of different crops, including small-scale vegetable crops and speciality crops. Having access to these techniques in a proportionate and enabling regulatory environment would be a game-changer for the company and the growers it supplies, not least in helping the fresh food sector to cope with the challenges of pests and diseases when so many chemical products are, probably rightly, being withdrawn from the market.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said, the main advantages of gene editing are speed and precision. One compelling example of how gene editing could transform future prospects for British farmers was presented at the recent meeting of the All-Party Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, which has been active in pressing for this amendment. It relates to sugar beet. We grow beet ourselves so I have an interest in the solution to a problem that all beet growers have to live with, which noble Lords can see on “Countryfile”. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, yellows virus is a real problem. While integrating these novel sources of resistance into elite beet varieties using conventional breeding could take 10 to 12 years, with gene editing it could take as little as two to three years for these varieties to be available to growers. These are game-changing technologies that could mean the survival of beet growing in this country.

The potential to help our plant scientists and British-based seed companies to address global challenges such as food and nutrition security, climate change and sustainable development means that we should adopt this technology. What the amendment suggests, and what I believe is correct, is a real and practical opportunity to have a public debate about reframing our legislation on gene editing and to help develop a post-Brexit food and agricultural sector driven by science-led and evidence-based policy.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 8:30 pm, 28th July 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for leading the way for those of us speaking in opposition to the amendment. As a relatively new Member of your Lordships’ House, I am very glad that such a respected Member went first.

I begin by reflecting on the scope of this debate. I think it was the Minister who said that it had taken 54 hours a couple of hours ago. There has been a great deal of dissatisfaction with this Bill. That is very obvious. We have just spent a long time on the trade issues. There is also the lack of agroecology at its centre, where it should be; the lack of duties on the Government, only access to powers; food not being a public good; and the lack of regular reporting.

I refer to all of that, not to try to use this speech as a round-up but to make a specific point about the amendment. In a discussion before Committee started, the Minister said that the Government were minded to consider this amendment outside the Bill’s scope at this time. I find myself in a slightly odd situation, since I am often in the Bill office arguing for things to be in Bills that I am told are outside scope. However, I put it to the Government that they need to ask themselves whether they want to engage in this debate in this Bill when so many other issues will be hugely contentious when we get to Report. Indeed, a noble Lord who has been in the House for many years suggested earlier that Report might be as long as Committee.

I will pick up on a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, made. Some people, primarily advocates for this technology blazing ahead, try to turn this into a culture war. They try to label those who say, “Hang on, slow down, what are you doing?” as anti-science. I regret that, because my first training was as a scientist. I very much embrace and am fascinated by agroecology. I share the interest in soil science of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. I am very much interested in the science of nutrition. All these sciences take a holistic approach to our interaction with the natural world and with our food system. They are fundamentally different kinds of science and approaches from the silver bullet, single-step approach that GM technology represents.

In the past, we have seen that kind of approach and technology dominate for decades. It is the approach that produced the green revolution. We have seen quite a few reports coming out of India reflecting on the huge damage that taking that approach has caused, including enormous problems with water, pests, pesticides and a lack of variety in diet.

I refer to some of the issues that noble Lords have already raised. In an earlier debate, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, talked about rapeseed and the difficulty of growing it here without neonicotinoids. Of course, that crop was only introduced to Britain in the 1970s. There has been quite a bit of discussion about sugar beet, a crop that is responsible for 10% of the entire soil loss of some of the richest soils, certainly in England. This crop also produces sugar, which we already have far too much of.

We need to think about what crops we grow and whether we grow them in the right places. I often discuss with farmers the growing of wheat in Scotland. There is a reason why Scotland is famous for oatcakes. Wheat is a crop that is fundamentally unsuited to the Scottish climate. We need to look at these things holistically, rather than essentially trying to ram square pegs into round holes, often for the convenience of large multinational companies that want a small number of certain crops and their food to taste the same all around the world.

I referred to the issue of time. I do not think that this is the place to engage fully with the issue of technology and its potential dangers, but I want to pick the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, up on a phrase he used, which I think another noble Lord repeated. He said that GM technology is producing precise changes. I refer noble Lords to a report in Nature on 25 June. The headline read: “CRISPR gene editing in human embryos wreaks chromosomal mayhem.” This actually refers to a series of pre-print reports that have not yet been peer reviewed, which, in the age of Covid, is very much the way a lot of medicine is going. If noble Lords want to wait and see on that one, I refer them to a debate in your Lordships’ House on gene editing, when the House considered a Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. I quote from that debate the noble Lord, Lord Winston, whom I am sure noble Lords would wish to listen to on these issues. He said:

“CRISPR is not an accurate technique.”—[Official Report, 30/1/20; col. 1530.]

So, there are far more issues and questions about these technologies than has been suggested in the debate thus far.

I want to come back to the practical arguments that those who do not really want to engage with the scientific debate might be interested in listening to. I want to make a point about subsection (3) of the new clause proposed by the amendment. It states:

“Regulations under subsection (1) may only be made in relation to England.”

If you were to bring an amendment such as this at the next stage of the Bill—whether a government amendment or otherwise—certainly, it should refer to widespread consultation and discussion with the other nations of the United Kingdom. Seeds and pollen and other such crops will not be stopped by Hadrian’s Wall—even less so by Offa’s Dyke. This issue has to be considered on a scale across the United Kingdom; then, of course, Ireland may raise some pretty interesting concerns about and issues with the land border.

That brings me to a final point and gives me a chance to engage with the noble Earl, Lord Devon, who talked about the wonders of Devon cream teas. I am going to indulge in Yorkshire parkin and the wonderful products of the rhubarb triangle. Many noble Lords at many stages in this debate have spoken about the reputation of food from the UK, its potential in export markets and how that reputation is founded on images of cleanness, wholesomeness and quality. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, reflected on international views of the use of GM technology in crops and how that affects people’s views. If noble Lords are concerned about promoting in that area of export markets—it is not my personal focus, which is on producing local food for local consumption—some of which can be small volumes of high-value products that are valuable and useful ambassadors for Britain around the world, they want to look very carefully at this amendment and consider what its impact would be.

Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, this is my first contribution on this Bill since Second Reading, but I will be brief and I declare my farming interests. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, is one that the Government and the House should embrace with enthusiasm. Noble Lords will recognise that I have been raising precisely this issue of gene editing in plants in Oral Questions for some years. I have become something of a cracked record on the subject. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that the amendment would not change British policy on biotechnology; it would merely require the Government to consider doing so after consultation. Who can be against debate? If we then decide to go ahead, we would be in a position to rescue the British plant breeding industry, as my noble friend Lord Taylor said, which has a perfect safety record but is being left behind in the rush to make crops that need fewer pesticides and less fertiliser, are more nutritious and more drought-tolerant and can be grown with fewer emissions. If we fail to act today, British farming will be using more chemicals and generating more emissions than it would otherwise.

I was therefore surprised at Second Reading to hear the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, argue against this proposal. I genuinely do not understand why Liberal Democrats or Greens would argue effectively in favour of more chemicals and more emissions in agriculture. Indeed, harking back to the very lengthy debate on previous amendments today, I suggest that if we do not take steps in this direction we may find that other countries reject our agricultural exports because of the low environmental standards of this country. That is where we are headed. We will be hoist by our own petard.

Many modern varieties are produced by scrambling the genes of seeds with gamma rays or chemical mutagens and then selecting from the resulting hopeful monsters. That is an extremely imprecise technology, but it is the one, I am afraid, that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, is recommending because that is the method by which much-loved organic varieties, such as Golden Promise, the barley variety used in brewing, were generated. To quote the noble Baroness, Lady Young, once these varieties are released, it is irreversible. They cannot come back. Is that not a worse technology? However, that method is not subject to strict regulation, despite the fact that it produces lots of unintended changes to DNA. It is specifically exempted from the GMO rules in the European Union.

In July 2018, as we have heard, the European Court of Justice decided, against the advice of its Advocate-General and virtually all European scientists, not to give gene editing the same exemption as that mutagenesis method. This puts the EU and the UK at odds with the rest of the world. Japan, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Israel, Canada and the US all say that if no foreign DNA is introduced, the plant is not a GMO, which is what the Cartagena protocol gathered by the United Nations also says. India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya, Paraguay, Uruguay and Norway are all moving towards enshrining the same position in law. Only New Zealand is still in the same camp as the European Union.

I refer to one other point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young: if we use gene editing or genetic modification to make crops resistant to insects we will reduce the biomass of insects. That is not the case because, as the example of sugar beet, raised by my noble friend Lord Taylor shows, the alternative is not no resistance against insects but using pesticides—insecticides, in the case of sugar beet. We have had to give up on neonicotinoids, so it is worse pesticides. They kill not just the aphids you are aiming at but innocent bystanders—other insects that happen to be about—so the effect on the biomass of insects of introducing insect-resistant crops has been shown to be positive, not negative.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the point of agroecology, and some argue that organic agriculture is a better way to go to achieve fewer emissions and chemicals in farming. However, organic agriculture is a very small and declining sector of British agriculture, covering just 2.7% of this country’s farmland, and falling. Organic farming actually has higher emissions because it depends on more mechanical methods of weed control, such as ploughing and tilling and, as I have said, it depends on far more unpredictable and massive genetic alterations through mutagenesis to produce its varieties. Gene editing offers the greenest future for farming. If we want more skylarks in our fields, we should support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench 8:45 pm, 28th July 2020

I support this amendment as tabled and ably presented by my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington and supported very convincingly by other contributors this evening. I support it for two reasons: first, it is in line with the stance that has been quite rightly taken by the Government when debating these issues in Brussels, so why would they not support it?

Secondly, this is an important test case in that our ability as an industry to explore new science is at risk if we are denied the opportunity to consult on this technology. We have world-leading science institutions and we need to re-establish our reputation as a place where sound science is welcome, trialled and tested. Scaremongering by comparing gene editing to genetic modification is unhelpful and the difference has been explained very convincingly by my noble friend Lord Krebs. I hope the Minister will support this amendment.

Finally, I endorse all the compliments that have been paid to the two Ministers—the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield—for their endless patience and gracious responses during the seven days we have spent on this Bill, and to the staff who have enabled these debates to take place with remarkable efficiency in difficult circumstances.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat

It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Curry. On this occasion, however, I believe this amendment is a Trojan horse seeking to end the classification of gene editing as genetic modification and replacing the EU regulatory framework with the Americans’ proof of harm.

Good regulation is about managing the risks and the benefits of a process, and while we have heard about the potential benefits of gene editing from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and other Peers, there are risks too. Although the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, may not wish to acknowledge these, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for articulating some of them. For brevity’s sake, I am not going to repeat them now.

I accept that the amendment sets out some undertakings before the Secretary of State could uproot regulations governing the food on our plate, but this Bill is not the place to do it and the amendment is, at the very least, pre-emptive. The Government must do two important things: first, they must lay before Parliament the policy statement on environmental principles as committed to in the Environment Bill, which will explain how environmental principles, including the precautionary principle, will be interpreted now we are outside the EU.

The Government have said that they remain committed to the precautionary principle. We are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which invites governments to take a precautionary approach with regard to synthetic biology. The Americans, with their proof-of-harm regulatory framework, uphold neither the convention nor the precautionary principle. Until Parliament has fully debated how environmental principles will be interpreted now we are outside the EU, there should be no consideration of changes to gene-editing regulations.

Secondly, the Government must introduce new laws on animal sentience, as they promised to do in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. These laws should place a duty to pay all due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings and, given that gene editing allows animals to be altered for food, would inform policy in this area. In America they sell AquAdvantage salmon, gene-edited to grow to size in half the normal time of three years. Animals are sentient creatures with intrinsic worth and should not suffer to obtain more productivity and profit. These invasive procedures can be painful, and animals that do not deliver the required traits are euphemistically “wasted”. It is not just me who is concerned. The Royal Society conducted research on gene editing in 2017 which found that the public were very concerned at its use on animals, particularly to increase the productivity and profitability of meat production.

The Bill rightly commits to the highest animal welfare standards and working within environmental constraints to enhance biodiversity and provide the food that we need. Into it has been smuggled this Trojan horse, studiously avoiding the words “genetic modification” or “gene editing”, at a parliamentary stage that limits wider debate. I cannot support this pre-emptive approach to remove a regulatory framework that takes a precautionary approach and requires mandatory food labelling. The welfare of our farmed animals, our biodiversity and public trust in our food are too important for that.

Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 275, proposed by my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington. Under strict regulatory processes, and after consultation—I emphasise that that is in the amendment, as referred to by other noble Lords—it is about applying exciting new technologies, supporting our superb UK biotechnology industry to continue as a global leader and an economic success. Above all, it is about strengthening global food resilience and security while potentially reducing chemical or drug use.

The amendment has particular relevance to plants but I want to support it with respect to animals and their diseases. I draw a contrast with the opinions of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who I respect immensely. The priority of disease control in animals increasingly lies in prevention, and key tools in prevention are management and husbandry, vaccines, and genetic resistance. Genetic resistance has of course occurred spontaneously by natural evolutionary processes in wild animals.

Apart from knowing what the R number is, many noble Lords will now be aware from the Covid-19 pandemic of the remarkable innate resistance of, for example, bats to viral disease. They carry infections that are lethal to humans, such as rabies and the Covid-19 virus, without apparent clinical disease. By definition, the process of natural selection occurs over many years, so conventional breeding methods to create disease resistance in domesticated animal species are extremely slow and raise real ethical problems.

Now we have the amazing potential ability to very precisely identify the parts of an animal’s DNA that permit specific pathogen invasion and then, in a very targeted way, adapt them by gene editing so as to be non-permissive to infection. This mimics changes to an animal’s DNA that might occur spontaneously but very rarely in nature, and does it in a fraction of the time. It is distinct from the wider techniques involving genetic modification yet is currently included within them and prohibited in current EU legislation, as many other noble Lords have said.

In relation to animal disease, there is already promising research to breed pigs with resistance to African swine fever, a highly infectious pathogen in pigs, distributed worldwide, that in recent years has killed millions of pigs in China, is now killing pigs and infecting wild boar, which are symptomless carriers, in continental Europe, and presents a real and present danger to our own domestic pig population in the UK.

The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh has recently created, using gene editing, pigs with resistance to the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, a disease endemic in the UK pig herd and a welfare concern as a cause of severe disease and high mortality, as well as having a substantial economic impact.

Finally, I stress that unlike processes involved in gene cloning, for example, using gene editing to establish a founder stock which breeds normally involves relatively few animals and no more intrusive processes for the animals initially than are used in normal veterinary practice. I very much support this progressive, forward-looking amendment.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I call the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. We are having problems, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his sterling work over the last seven days in Committee, for his incredible stamina, and for his courtesy and politeness when replying to debates. I will be very brief, since the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has set out very clearly and convincingly the essential case for permitting gene editing as soon as we are free of the EU, very ably supported by my noble friend Lord Ridley, who also made a thoroughly learned speech.

Did we not hear passionate speeches last week on controlling the use of pesticides? Gene editing will give us crops which will not need pesticides because they will be pest-resistant. I passionately believe in growing more of our horticultural crops and a lot more under glass. That is expensive, but what if we could double the yield of tomatoes grown under glass? That has been achieved by Professor Lippman in the United States with just one type of tomato. We can do that with all crops, vegetables and fruits, increasing yields, making them more pest- and drought-resistant. We might be able to make them more water-resistant so that we do not lose so many thousands of tonnes of potatoes, as we did in the wet autumn of last year.

Imagine the health potential of crops which are more nutritious, sweeter but with less sugar or gluten, crops which ripen with less heat or sunshine or mature in a shorter period. The potential, as described by my noble friend Lord Ridley, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and other noble Lords, is enormous. This will be the next agricultural revolution and the UK can be in the lead in Europe and the world once again. Our crop geneticists will also overtake America once we are freed from the dead hand of the EU. Those who argue that we still need the EU court controlling our affairs should remember that it was the EU court which ruled that gene editing should be governed by the same controls as genetic modification, a decision that made no sense in science, morality or logic.

I hope that the Government will look favourably on this amendment, and, if the wording is not perfect, that they will bring forward a government amendment on Report.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I too rise with some trepidation after the contributions from luminaries with such vast experience, for whom I have tremendous respect.

In his first speech on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister set out his priorities for government. He outlined the role that genetically modified crops could play in our future:

“Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules, and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”

Given that statement, it is surprising that this amendment was not introduced in the other place when the Bill was debated there. Did the Prime Minister not trust his fellow MPs and colleagues to pass the amendment?

In November 2017 the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, ruled out allowing more GM foods in the UK. However, negotiations for a free trade deal with the US are expected to include a push for loosening restrictions on GM foods in the UK to create a market for US GM crops. The cultivation of GM crops is currently banned in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Liberal Democrats are concerned that growing GM crops on a commercial basis will lead to cross-pollination. However, we have been in favour of allowing field-scale trials. Liberal Democrats adopt the EU precautionary principle; the US uses the proof-of-harm principle. As my noble friend Lady Parminter said, the sentience of animals is important and should be protected. There is evidence that gene editing causes harm to animals.

The Prime Minister’s new-found love for GM crops is motivated by a desire not to feed the world but instead to ingratiate himself with President Trump, to achieve a successful US trade deal and to pit himself against strict EU regulations that the UK could free itself from.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, introducing his amendment, made some powerful points in favour of relaxing the rules around gene editing, many of them relating to providing more food for countries that cannot grow enough crops to feed themselves. He gave several examples of how altering the genes of crops could make them more resilient to climate change. He was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who gave the powerful example of Zambia’s resistance to taking GM food when the population was subject to famine.

I am extremely sympathetic to helping third-world countries to be more resilient and to be able to feed their populations properly, but is the Agriculture Bill the right place for this to be introduced? Is not the Agriculture Bill for addressing the agriculture industry in this country? While growing crops that can withstand climate change should be addressed, this can be done only in conjunction with radical moves to address climate change itself, not working around it so that we can carry on as normal.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, also addressed what the unintended consequences of gene editing might be. My noble friend Lady Parminter also spoke knowledgably about this aspect and presented a different synopsis. The changes to gene editing crops could be used as a cover to water down all UK environmental and animal welfare legislation and allow poor-quality US food to be imported. Farmers have repeatedly called for amendments to Brexit Bills to guarantee UK standards in future trade deals—we have just completed a very long debate on this subject—but the Conservative Government have failed to provide reassurance.

In the US, GM foods do not have to be labelled. Greenpeace and WWF have expressed concerns that GMs are presumed safe, with no additional testing required. Furthermore, one company, Monsanto, has a near monopoly on the world’s supply of genetically engineered seeds. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, spoke in favour of the benefits to crop and plant production. The noble Viscount is right that our organic farming is lagging far behind other countries’. It is time it was given a boost, and gene editing will not do that.

Stricter labelling and environmental assessments of gene editing crops would be required if the UK were to allow responsible GM. Furthermore, ensuring that our farmers are not exploited by GM food companies would be vital.

Those supporting this amendment are on a mission to get it accepted. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has spoken about the previous polarisation of the debate and the demonisation of those opposed to gene editing. I hope we will not degenerate into this state on this occasion. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, indicated, those of us opposed to gene editing are not anti-science.

The lobbying on behalf of a relaxation of rules on gene editing has been heavy. Cogent arguments have been made on both sides. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, spoke from personal experience and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is passionately in favour of gene editing. My noble friend and colleague Lady Parminter made a strong case for waiting until more scientific information is available, in particular in regard to animal sentience.

The fact that this amendment was not introduced in the other place leads me to believe that it has something of the back door about it and is not the way to proceed. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, also indicated this. We should wait for the interpretation of the environmental principles before we rush headlong into permanently altering the food on our plates. We need broader regulations and we need to prove that animal sentience is not harmed; then we can move on. Our current precautionary principle is the right one and ensures transparent food labelling. I believe that the country is not ready for us to throw this away. It will be essential to have proper public consultation on this matter, not just in England, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat

Hello, can you hear me? Nobody can. Just a moment—

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat

Then that is all right.

I have two apologies to make. First, I was listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, having followed the great debate with enormous interest—and admiration, to a large extent. Then suddenly the link with Zoom was broken and it has only just been restored, so I have heard no speeches since then. That is my first apology.

Secondly, I have not taken part in the debate before on the Bill, either in Committee or at Second Reading. The fact is that I was really concerned only to make some sort of contribution on Amendment 275. To declare an interest, I have been interested in this subject ever since I founded the organisation Sense about Science in 2002. I was its chairman for the first 10 years—so that is the background against which I now declare some interest.

I listened with enormous admiration to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. There is no point whatever in my attempting to rival him by saying what the merits of this amendment are, but I will say just one thing. I am very worried about the fact that the Lib Dems, who will debate this in future, have shown some signs—as I think the previous speaker seemed to indicate—that they are against the amendment. The overwhelming evidence, and an overwhelming amount of support from the science community, has come in favour of this amendment. It is not just from the Royal Society and SAGE but from all the agriscience businesses. They have all been very keen that it should be passed. Of course, we will see about this on Report; there will be a debate then and we will find out what the Government’s reaction is.

The Committee should also look at the people who sponsored this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, gave a wonderful description of his knowledge and experience in this field. He advanced arguments which it will be very hard for the opposition to answer effectively. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is a very eminent member of the Royal Society and a former chairman of the Food Standards Agency—again, a person of great scientific credentials. Then there is the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, our former Speaker, who also had a very good reputation as a Science Minister, and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who was another excellent chairman of the Food Standards Agency. Unfortunately I was unable to hear whether the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, spoke, but I think he would vouch for the fact that Sense about Science, the organisation I am associated with, is very reputable. He too was a very eminent Science Minister.

If somebody says, “We are not anti-science”, in light of the arguments advanced  and the overwhelming support from not only the scientific community but the National Farmers’ Union and the British Society of Plant Breeders—people with practical experience of agriculture—how could they possibly say that the evidence is against them?

I hope that the Liberal Democrats will prove that they are a pro-science party, as I believe they are. How can anyone say that they are pro-science when they completely ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence and support for this amendment? That is really rather like Messrs Gove and Cummings saying, “Don’t take any notice of the experts”.

I hope that the Government will give a favourable response. After all, the amendment proposes a democratic procedure of open discussion and consultation. I hope that, when they come to debate this, the Lib Dems will not take the path of proving—to their great disadvantage —that they are an anti-science party.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as the chair of Rothamsted Enterprises, which is part of the Rothamsted agricultural research institute, and as the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, throughout my career I have been inspired by many scientists, and certainly by those I have met in those capacities.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, introduced his amendment with his signature expertise. We have had a very good debate today, with a range of well-informed and passionate contributions. Not everybody was in agreement, but we heard some serious arguments why, when we leave the EU, we should revisit the European Court of Justice ruling that gene editing should be subject to the EU GMO directive. We recognise that some countries within Europe are already calling for that review.

I think we can all agree that, in the right context, advances in science and technology can make a huge contribution to our food production efficiency, environmental targets and climate change obligations. During the passage of the Bill, we have debated the great advantages of, for example, precision farming, robotics and satellite technology. Science can also help at a microbiological level by, for example, giving better analysis of soil health, crop variety resistance to disease and microbes in water quality, as we have heard.

The world of farming is changing, and we need to be alive to the opportunities that this brings for the sector. I am very excited about many of the developments occurring at research institutes around the UK. However, that does not come without risks, and we need to be alive to these as well. Therefore, we argued strongly for the retention of the precautionary principle in UK law when we were dealing with the EU withdrawal Act.

When dealing with food production and the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, the public need to have absolute confidence that the system of checks in place is robust and secure. The EU provided that security; some might say that it was overly bureaucratic and gold-plated, but it was based on the best scientific evidence and had the interests of consumers at heart. Therefore, when we leave the EU, we need to ensure that any alternative regulatory regime is equally robust. This was a point very well made by a number of noble Lords this evening.

A number of noble Lords have explained in detail the difference between gene editing and genetic modification; of course, I accept that there is a difference. Clearly, gene editing is more akin to the use of classical plant breeding techniques, or even natural variation, whereas genetic modification introduces DNA from another organism. We are therefore talking about two separate techniques. However, I think it fair to say that most members of the public do not make this distinction. They remain suspicious, and they have the right to be heard and to have their concerns addressed. I will not relive the history of our experiment of trying to introduce GM technology back in the 1980s, but much of that concern was fuelled by suspicion of the motivations of the seed and fertiliser companies, so any modern debate has to address those issues head-on as well.

This brings me back to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. In many ways, our disagreements are not fundamentally about the science; they are more about the process. First, it is unfortunate that the amendment has been tabled at this relatively late stage in the Bill’s consideration. If it had been tabled in the Commons, MPs could have had a genuine dialogue with their constituents, which would have helped shape its direction. An issue of this importance needs proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate. As it is, it is fuelling the suspicion of those who fear it is being slipped through for ulterior motives.

Secondly, the wording is not in the spirit of genuine public debate. It calls for a consultation on the use of the powers to change the definition in the Environmental Protection Act, rather than a consultation on whether these changes are the right way to proceed in the first place. It fails to set out proposals for a properly robust UK regulatory regime to oversee any use of gene editing, should the definitions in that Act be changed.

Thirdly, as several noble Lords have said, the Bill is not the right place for an amendment of this kind to be considered. Fundamentally, the Bill is about the alternative provision of financial assistance to farmers to replace the common agricultural policy. Unless it is being proposed that gene editing research should be funded as part of ELMS, I do not see its relevance to the point of the Bill.

Finally, the amendment has been tabled at a particularly difficult time in international trade negotiations. I do not want to rehearse the arguments from the previous debate. However, as we leave the EU, we should be maximising continued trade opportunities for UK foods to enter EU markets. If we unilaterally remove the restriction on gene-editing technology in England, there is a danger that we will incur additional barriers to exports at a time when the farming economy is already financially insecure. On the other hand, if we remove the UK’s restrictions on gene-editing technology, it would open the door to imports of food from America, which is already using this technology. This could easily undercut our own food production costs. I therefore argue that this is an added complication in the trade negotiations which our farmers could well do without at this particularly sensitive time.

However, I agree with many noble Lords that a review of the legislation governing both GM and GE is now due. However, it should be a separate review with a programme of public engagement and debate. That is the way to build public trust in the activities of agricultural scientists and farmers in the future. We cannot, therefore, support the amendment as it stands and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, despite his passion and good intentions, will withdraw it.

I hope that all noble Lords can agree that we need a separate, structured consultation that will enable us to reach an informed outcome, in which the science, its potential and its limitations are fully and widely understood. Perhaps, on that basis, we can avoid culture wars and get closer to some degree of consensus on this very controversial issue. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:15 pm, 28th July 2020

My Lords, this has been another thought-provoking debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, for tabling an amendment that seeks to address an issue with current regulations affecting the use of gene editing and other precision breeding techniques in agriculture. Until 2018, there was uncertainty within the EU as to whether the living products of this technology should be subject to the same regulatory framework as genetically modified organisms, because the legal definition of a GMO was open to interpretation.

In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled very clearly that these products must be treated in the same way as GMOs, even if the changes to their genetic material could have been produced by traditional methods, such as crossing varieties of the same species and selecting only the improved individuals. The UK Government intervened in the case to argue for a more scientific outcome. Our position was, and is still, that if the products of gene editing could have been produced naturally or by using traditional breeding methods, they should not be regulated as GMOs.

The Government are committed to taking a more scientific approach to regulation. Many scientific institutes, along with the breeding industry and some EU member states, such as Sweden, share our view that the current rules are unscientific and a solution is needed soon if we are to reap the economic and environmental benefits these technologies have to offer, such as more resilient crop varieties, reduced use of synthetic pesticides and more disease-resistant animals. The Government are committed to this task and to following due process, so that any necessary changes are properly informed and there is confidence in them.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, for his examples of gene-editing research from around the world. The UK is at the forefront of genetic research and the Government are keen to build on this excellence. We want farmers to have access to crop varieties that are more resilient and require fewer synthetic pesticides.

I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Trees, said. He is one of the most respected veterinary surgeons in the country and, of course, our veterinary surgeon in this House. I was struck by the potential and the opportunities he outlined for breeding disease-resistant farmed animals. Again, I cannot believe that he would promote something that in any way compromised the welfare or interests of animals. I have to be careful, because two members of my family are in the veterinary profession, but I think it is one of the remaining very well-respected professions. Eminent scientific bodies in the EU and UK have advised that it is the characteristics of an organism and how it is used that determines whether it is a risk to human health and environment, not how it was produced.

It is important to highlight that gene-edited organisms resulting from changes to genetic material that would not arise naturally or from traditional breeding methods will need to be regulated as genetically modified organisms. They should not come under the gene-editing exception. It is important that the Government address this matter, both by making any necessary legislative changes and by ensuring public confidence and trust. It is important that these issues are heard and addressed transparently. To this end, I place on record that the Government will consult publicly on this issue. Defra is working on the details so that a consultation can be launched in the autumn. I have given firm assurances that the Government will consult on the issues raised by this amendment and I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, will feel able to withdraw it.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly my fellow sponsors of the amendment. I also thank the Minister for his very full reply, which I shall read carefully and reflect on. It is clear that people on both sides of the fence feel strongly on the subject. I think we can all agree that the most important thing is to feed our grandchildren with the least possible damage to the environment and the future of the planet. Those in favour of the amendment believe that using precision techniques is the best and safest way to do this, while those against think that the tried and tested random mutation is better, albeit slower. I want to respond to one or two of the points raised.

One cannot put traditionally bred plants back in the bottle; nor can one stop any cross-fertilisation in the wild, but properly regulated precision breeding is just less likely to do so, in my view. However, I agree that the wider consultation is a really good idea, which is why this amendment specifically recommends it and why it seems that the Minister has picked up on it. As a Scotsman, I picked up the remarks about wheat in Scotland. I should tell the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that in the 1990s, a field in Aberdeenshire held the world record for winter wheat yields for several years. It is the long summer days there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also made a comparison with human medicine, with reference to an article in Nature. However, it is very misleading in this discussion about which is the best between precision breeding and traditional breeding. The removal of undesirable off-target characteristics is what traditional breeders have been doing for millennia. This back-crossing, as it is known, has never been possible with human medicine for obvious reasons, so the arguments and comparisons do not apply. Of course, scientists are cautious about the use of gene editing in humans. Meanwhile, compared with precision breeding, traditional animal and crop breeding is much more likely to produce off-target characteristics to be removed. Precision breeding is, as I said, much safer and more accurate.

I repeat what I said in my opening speech to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter: this amendment in no way affects the legislation on GMOs and is not the thin end of any wedge. Several noble Lords mentioned or hinted at this, but I am not sure how we are pre-empting parliamentary debate with this amendment. If that is so with this amendment, presumably all amendments over the past seven days are pre-empting debate. Surely it is the opposite: we are promoting debate. If the Bill is about only rewarding new ways of land management, presumably the debate that we have just had on trading standards is also trying to slide an amendment through by the back door. I will say no more, but we all know that the Bill will go back to the Commons, which can have its say over all or any of our changes.

On animal cruelty, also mentioned by the Minister, I strongly refute that gene editing could be considered more cruel than traditional breeding methods. Think of the results of traditional breeding from the wolf over the years, which include dogs with noses that are so squashed they can hardly breathe and Pekingeses whose eyes drop out. Meanwhile, the process of taking an egg from a chicken or fish and editing its genetic make-up is not in any way cruel. If, for instance with the salmon egg, you can increase its resilience to sea lice, as they are doing at Roslin, you would be doing both the salmon and its surrounding environment a heap of good as there would be no need for environmentally damaging treatment to remove the lice, which also harms the salmon.

With mammals, you also take an egg, treat it and re-insert it into the mother—a process no crueller than IVF in humans to help a mother have a much-wanted child. If, for instance, you thus increase resistance to PRRS in pigs, as again they are doing at Roslin, you are reducing the enormous suffering and deaths from that appalling respiratory disease. Of course, if you alter the genes of one animal, you should get hundreds or even thousands of their progeny with the same characteristics without touching them in any way. Breeding resistance to disease into future generations is so much more sensible than the ongoing use of antibiotics or medicines as the best way of helping animals live pain-free and disease-free lives.

I will stop there. But as this is the last time that I will speak in Committee, I want to thank the Minister for his extreme patience and professionalism, expertise in the subject and fluency at the Dispatch Box. I am full of admiration for the skill and extraordinary tolerance with which he has handled us troublesome Members, and I thank him for the conscientious way that he has dealt with the Bill. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 275 withdrawn.

Amendments 276 to 282 not moved.

Clause 43 agreed.

Schedule 5: Provision relating to Wales

Amendments 283 to 288 not moved.

Schedule 5 agreed.

Clauses 44 and 45 agreed.

Amendments 289 to 291 not moved.

Schedule 6: Provision relating to Northern Ireland

Amendments 292 to 294 not moved.

Schedule 6 agreed.

Clause 46 agreed.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 295. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.

Clause 47: Regulations