Examination of Witnesses

Part of Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 28th June 2022.

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Professor Lovell-Badge:

I should say that dealing with plants and animals is not my day job—I work at an institute that is better known for medical research—but I do know an awful lot about genome editing methods and genetically modified organism techniques. I chair the Royal Society’s genetic technologies group, in which we discuss plants, animals and humans in this context. I helped to develop the Royal Society’s submission to the whole process at various stages.

I guess the main point that the Royal Society has been trying to make is that we are a little uncomfortable with having yet more regulations based on techniques rather than outcomes. For us, it would make much more sense to focus on the outcome—the purpose of what you are doing—rather than on the method you are using, partly because scientific methods evolve so rapidly that it is hard to keep track. When reading the first part of the Bill, which includes the definitions, I struggle in some places to understand exactly how certain techniques would fit into it. That is one issue.

If the argument is that genome-edited plants and animals are essentially the same as those that could be bred by traditional methods, yes, that certainly can be the case, but it is not always the case. To give one simple example, if you have two genes right next to each other in the genome, and they both need to be altered to have the trait that you are after—that is possible in normal circumstances—you can do that with genome editing, because you can target both genes at the same time. To do that by conventional, traditional breeding methods may be impossible, however, and it would certainly take an awfully long time to ever get both changes together in the genome. When two genes are next to one another, it is very hard to separate them in normal breeding processes.

There are all these complications that I envisage because that is what I do—I think about the techniques all the time. If your approach is based on outcomes, it is easier to justify, “I’m doing this; the outcome is this.” You can also judge what effect your change has on other things like farming practices, environment and so on. This is a little bit narrower, I think, in that respect.