Examination of Witnesses

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

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William Angus, Professor Johnathan Napier and Professor Nigel Halford gave evidence.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 2:35 pm, 28th June 2022

We will now hear oral evidence from William Angus, owner of Angus Wheat Consultants Ltd, who will join us via Zoom, Professor Johnathan Napier, research group leader, and Professor Nigel Halford, who is a crop scientist. Both are from Rothamsted Research and are with us in person. Could you introduce yourselves for the record? I will go first to William Angus.

William Angus:

My name is Bill Angus—christened William, but anyway. I am a wheat breeder, and my job is to breed new varieties of wheat. I have been doing it for quite a long time. I started in the public sector at the Plant Breeding Institute, and then moved to the private sector with Nickerson. I started my own wheat breeding and oat activities in 2016, which has resulted in us being the largest privately owned wheat and oat breeder in the UK. That is not too hard, because the agricultural landscape is dominated by multinationals. I am also vice-chairman of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre board of trustees in Mexico. This is the largest publicly funded wheat programme on the planet, breeding for 200 million hectares. To put that into context, that is 100 times the size of the UK. Their focus is primarily on the developing world.

Professor Napier:

Hello. My name is Johnathan Napier. I am a project leader at Rothamsted Research. I am a plant biotechnologist. I have a degree—PhD and DSc—from the University of Nottingham. Rothamsted is a publicly funded research institute. I am passionate about using basic research for public good and translation. I am very keen to see the research move beyond just discovery. I ran the first gene edited field trials in the UK in 2018. I have run GM field trials at Rothamsted since 2011 or 2012, and I am looking forward to talking with you.

Professor Halford:

I am Nigel Halford. I am also at Rothamsted Research. I have been there a long time—all through the biotech period. In fact, I was involved in GM wheat trials in Bristol in the 1990s. Like Johnathan, I am very passionate about taking our research through to products that are actually going to help British farming, agriculture and consumers. I am currently running a gene edited wheat field trial at Rothamsted. We are looking at reducing the acrylamide content of wheat products, so it is a food safety target.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Good afternoon Bill, Professor Halford and Professor Napier. I would like to declare for the record that Bill is a constituent of mine, but I think we have only met once, in a field—to my memory—looking at wheat. I will ask Bill one question and then move on to the professors.

From the point of view of small and medium-sized enterprises, do you think this Bill will help smaller players to have some access to market, or would you like to see this Bill enable smaller breeders, such as yourself, to have access to these technologies?

William Angus:

That is a good question. I have worked for a large multinational company. I was interested to hear both Johnathan and Nigel talk passionately about public good—that is what I do. When I was at the PBI this was part of your culture and it became part of my culture when I was at Limagrain.

I love the entrepreneurial spirit that we have in the UK. We started off this, which may be considered by some to be a slight mission of madness, but I had the opportunity to do it. We started in my lounge, then we moved to the greenhouse and then the garage, and now we have built up quite a significant activity.

I am worried about perhaps an agenda that this could be dominated by large multinationals, although one of the joys of wheat-breeding globally over the last 100-plus years has been the freedom to exchange germplasm. As soon as we start putting constraints on that, as soon as we start having people talking about ownership of genes and ownership of genetic material, or licensing genes that are already in the public domain, it starts to fill me with a great sense of foreboding.

Also, being on the CIMMYT board, I am really concerned and very passionate about the smallholder farmers that we have around the world. It has changed my life being on CIMMYT, in that it opened my eyes to the fact that there are millions and millions of people in very dire circumstances. Many people do not realise that the vast majority of farmers in the world are women.

So, yes, I am concerned about that and I would like to see some mechanisms whereby the freedom that currently exists for small companies, or individuals, to start up is not diminished. Therefore, I hope that some protection will be put in place.

Johnathan and Nigel may agree or disagree, but what we have in the UK is that, if you go back 40 years ago, we had a publicly dominating plant-feeding activity in the PBI. We have a really mature situation now. Globally, we are probably the best, and I have seen a lot around the world, of having these public-private partnerships. These guys at Rothamsted, or the John Innes Centre, or whatever, cannot take it to the market and we have a wonderful relationship with them, in that they do the fundamental research and then we, as the plant breeders, translate it into the field. And I include the multinationals in that.

We have a very mature situation and we must make sure that, whatever comes out of this Bill, that relationship is not damaged in any way and continues.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Lovely; thank you. Perhaps a question that you could think about is how gene editing, in your view and with your international experience, might help those developing countries.

However, I will direct my next question to both professors, in the hope that you both cover it to a degree. You have both expressed a passion, and have longevity about looking at this issue, and I think it was Professor Halford who said that he was involved in the GM trials in the ’90s. Can you please help us to understand how far we have come and say what benefits we should try to capture through this Bill in order to drive things forward?

Professor Halford:

Any target you can think of for plant breeding—whether it is something that aids farmers, such as nitrogen-use efficiency or simplifying weed control, climate resilience, which is an urgent problem that we have to address in agriculture, or the kind of things that we are working on, benefits to consumers—gene editing can play a role in it. It is not sweeping anything else aside, but it certainly enables you to do some things that other methods in plant breeding do not allow you to do. That is what we are talking about.

Professor Napier:

Nigel and I are veterans of the GM of the ’90s, the problems that emerged from that and the hiatus of seeing none of our research translated for a decade. Then, at Rothamsted, we restarted GM field trials in 2012, just because we realised that there was this urgent need to translate the research. The UK has a fantastic reputation for doing basic plant sciences, making lots of fantastic discoveries in labs, but that is no good to feed people or to solve the challenges of climate change and food security. You cannot eat promise; you really need a product.

The reason I am in agriculture is that it is the ultimate scalable solution: once you demonstrate that you can grow something in one field, you can grow it in a million fields. But until you have actually done it in the first field, you do not know whether the technology works. That is the exciting thing that has already changed in the regulation in the past few months—it is easier to do experimental gene edited field trials. Nigel and I are doing those at Rothamsted under the new regulations, and that is great, that is enabling. That is what we need.

We want to enable the technology to advance, which is not to say that we ignore the importance of safety and all those other things. On one level, it goes without saying that those are important, but it should not go without saying—you have to say that those are of paramount importance. What we want is enabling regulation. I am not totally sure I have answered your question, but it gives you the idea.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q That gives us a very clear picture: to be overly prescriptive might be as difficult, and the regulatory framework needs to be appropriate.

Professor Napier:

That is exactly right. Even if you look at the situation in the US, which is imagined to be the most tolerant and enabling of regulatory environments for GM, for example, it still costs probably $10 million to deregulate a crop. That is an utter barrier to entry to any small or medium-sized enterprise. The reason why the market is dominated by the large corporations is that they are the only people who can afford to pay those costs. If the barrier to entry is lower, basically you make it much more open to the more entrepreneurial, smaller, nimbler but less deep-pocketed organisations.

Professor Halford:

The GM revolution is now a generation old. It is a 20th-century technology. We see varieties in the Americas and Asia with multiple input traits, output traits, insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, high lysine with a cherry on the top. None of that is available here—absolutely nothing, not a single GM crop plant grown commercially in the UK. We have completely missed the boat on that one, and it is really important that we do not miss the next boat.

We will have to go some way to persuade plant breeding companies, biotechnology companies, that there is a market in the UK. Currently, I can tell you, nobody is thinking about developing a GM or GE commercial crop for the UK or Europe. We will have to have regulation in place that gives breeders confidence that when they get their product to market, they can actually sell it. If my wheat all pans out, it works really well and I hand it to breeders to incorporate into their breeding programmes, we are still talking probably five to 10 years before we could possibly see anything on the market. That is a lot of work and investment. So farmers need to be confident that, at the end of that, they have a market.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I remind people that we have until 3.15 pm for this session. A couple of Members have caught my eye. I will start with Daniel Zeichner.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Thank you, Ms McVey. Bill, I was very taken with what you were saying about your concerns about the intellectual property rights associated with some of this issue. I got the sense that you do not feel that the Bill as it stands answers those questions. What would you like to see? What would give the protections that would reassure you on these issues?

William Angus:

At the moment, what I would like to see is no change to the status quo. Let us take this as an example: company A produces a variety and he introduces a trait into that variety. In two years’ time, once that variety has been added to the UK national list, another breeder can use that trait. That is the freedom to operate. It is really important that that is sustained and that people are not locked out of new developments. What may happen—this is an area I feel quite uncomfortable with—is that we may start to see larger organisations move the goalposts in terms of trying to stop other breeders from using genetic resources that have been developed.

Now, I am quite happy—here, we develop our own genetic resources and we give those away freely, to anybody. If anybody on the Committee would like some wheat, I will send them some genetics, no problem at all. That is freedom to operate. That is really all that I would look for—that we do not change the current status so that people think that, somehow, a naturally developed product or a GE product is any different, and that there is still that freedom to operate.

Can I make one comment on Johnathan and Nigel’s remarks? I have sat on a number of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council committees. I chaired the horticulture and potato initiative and so on. I am not saying this because they are here, but the UK is absolutely blessed with the best public research on wheat around the world. They are absolutely right to make the point about the fact that this is not developed as well as it could be, primarily because the promotion system is based on paper publications. It is lovely to hear both of these guys talking about taking stuff to the market. That would be another comment that I would make. It is great to hear.

Going back to your question, let us be careful that there are mechanisms in place to protect this freedom of exchange of germplasm that happens not just in the UK but globally. It is really important that we do that. There have been steps in America to patent genes. We really must not go down that route. In my opinion, it will stifle innovation and it would put the control of our food supplies in the hands of large multinationals, which I would be very concerned about.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q To be clear, this follows on from the notion that these could have occurred naturally. They should be treated in that way, rather than being put in a special category.

William Angus:

Yes. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say it occurs naturally and then I am going to change it and now it is different. I agree.

It is very difficult when I come from the environment I do—my views tend to be slightly different from those who come from large multinational companies—but I think it is a really important point, that we protect innovation from big companies and so on, but that we also protect the right of individuals to start up their own businesses. The way I look on it is, you know, Richard Branson started Virgin Atlantic—he was allowed to do that. One man started with one aeroplane, and off he went; brilliant, great, good for him. It would be sad if people like that or companies such as easyJet were excluded from the market because someone said, “This is an aeroplane, and you’re not allowed to fly it.” I would like to reiterate that we need that protection in there.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Thank you, that’s helpful. May I turn to the two professors? On innovation in general, in essence, the argument is that innovation will happen because obstacles are being removed. Is that enough to foster the kind of innovation that you would hope to see, based on your passion and excitement for this technology?Q

Professor Napier:

I think it was mentioned earlier that with innovation, it probably needs to be developed as a public-private partnership, which sort of implies that there needs to be a market pull. Using the term “market” can be slightly perturbing because, in reality, the drivers for what we want to see translated are much bigger than the economics. They are things like global climate change, food security and all the global pandemics associated with malnutrition and overconsumption. Those are the challenges enshrined in sustainable development goals and things like that. Those are the things that we should be occupying ourselves with. We need to use everything we can to try to fix those challenges. Rothamsted and other places like that—in fact, everybody—should be working towards those goals and overcoming those challenges.

Listening to what Bill said about IP, I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about IP because it is an area that I have to think about a lot. The beauty about the UK is that we have a really strong research use exemption, which allows us to operate in a way that is not encumbered, at least at the research level, by IP. We are in a really good place. I think the bigger barrier to innovation is what I have already mentioned: it is not IP but the cost of regulatory approval. That is why I am so worried that in new legislation, if we start building in layers of costs associated with more regulation, we are just replicating what we had previously under the EU regulation. I think that would be an enormous missed opportunity if we go down that road. That is my personal view.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I want to go back to Mr Angus’s comments about ownership or the licensing of genes and his concern about that. How would you address that, as people involved in this area? What measures should be taken? Clearly, people are concerned about the patenting of crops.Q

Professor Napier:

You cannot patent a gene. There was a case in the US that made it quite clear that you cannot hold a patent on a gene. That legal precedent is quite clear, from the famous case of Myriad. I am not too worried about that. In reality, it is analogous to what you see in the pharmaceutical sector and relates exactly to your point about understanding the drivers for innovation. You need to couple it with economics.

All these things are moving parts, which you need to make the whole thing work. To pull it forward, you need to have an economic case and some form of protecting your invention—patents are a good way of doing that. The example I always give is that my mobile phone probably has 2,000 patents-worth of components in. Nobody gets upset about that. It is about understanding how you can best use this technology. I also do not want to sound like some sort of gung-ho free marketeer, because I am absolutely not. I work in a Government-supported institute. I do not work in the private sector. I probably want the best of both worlds.

Professor Halford:

As public sector scientists, at times in our careers we have been told we should be patenting everything, and at times in our careers we have said, “Well, it's unethical to be patenting this stuff.” I think we have a pretty robust patents system. You cannot patent discoveries of genes; you have to patent an invention. That seems to have worked for mobile phones and it works with pharmaceuticals, many of which are biologicals. I do not see why it cannot work in crop high technology.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Professor Halford, you mentioned that you have the largest gene edited wheat crop trial in Europe—is that right? Could you talk us through what will happen if this Bill becomes an Act? What steps will you go through to get the product to market, and where will your involvement end? I would find some clarity on this really helpful.

Professor Halford:

We have used CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out a gene that makes an amino acid called asparagine, which gets converted to acrylamide. That is our target.

Professor Halford:

Acrylamide is a processing contaminant, so it only forms during processing; it is not in the plant. For consumers, it is not an issue—we could talk about that all day—but it is quite a big regulatory compliance issue for the food industry. We are trying to reduce the potential for acrylamide to form during processing by reducing the amount of asparagine in the grain of the wheat. That is where we are at the moment.

Because you do a GM step to put the CRISPR machinery into the plant, some of those components are still in most of the plants we have, so the field trial is running under GM regulations at the moment. The editing has been done, and it has worked. We have very low asparagine wheat grain growing in the glasshouse, at least. We are in the process of crossing away the GM bit, and we do have some plants now—not in the field trial, but under glass—that are now GM-free. They are a qualifying higher plant, and we have registered them as such.

Professor Halford:

We have five plant breeders working with us. If it pans out in the field and it all looks good, we could hand our genotypes over to those breeders and they could start incorporating the trait into their breeding lines. That process would take probably five to 10 years. We have five years’ consent to run the field trials. You need several years before you are going to convince a breeder that your trait is stable and it will give them what they need. There is nothing rapid about the process.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Q I am just trying to get my head around some of the comments that have been made so that I can apply them to the legislation. I think Mr Angus felt that intellectual property rights were a potential barrier to entry, whereas you felt that an excessive regulatory framework was a barrier to entry. What would the main barrier be?

Professor Napier:

In my opinion, it is regulatory approval that is the barrier.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Why? What does that do?

Professor Napier:

It is mainly the cost and the uncertainty. If you think about the way GM crops are regulated, for example, in the US it will cost you something like $10 million and take several years to get regulatory approval. In Europe, you could spend that money two or three times over, and because the approval process also has a political component, it will never be approved, so you have this uncertainty. From an entrepreneurial point of view and a commercialisation point of view, what you want is certainty. Even if you think, “Okay, the horizon is five years and I know I need to spend $10 million,” at least you know what it is. If there is uncertainty, I am not going to go on “Dragons’ Den” and say, “Here is my pitch. I don’t know how much it’s going to cost. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Can I have some money, please?” I suspect they will tell me to—

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Q So a stable regulatory framework is necessary. I am not trying to be some kind of QC; I am just trying to get to the bottom of this. I guess that profit maximisation in one form or another is a motivator for having a regulatory framework that enables you to do that. Whatever we think about the reality of the world we live in, that is probably the one golden rule that dominates markets and businesses in the mainstream. There are others—B Corps and others—that have different approaches.

I am interested in your views, as individuals who operate in the private-public sphere. When it comes to food security and the climate crisis, I would have thought that profit maximisation will probably not be the route map to solving those problems. What is going to be needed is a private-public partnership where we get the best of both, but some things may cost more. It is going to cost us to tackle the climate crisis; it is going to cost us to ensure that we can feed the world with a climate crisis in the 21st century, so it is even more important that we get the regulatory framework right and that it is robust. Freedom from regulations for businesses means freedoms against consumers, the public and those who do not have access to those sciences to be able to utilise them.

Professor Halford:

Look at what has happened to GM technology in Europe. The last GM crop approved for cultivation in Europe was approved in 2010, I think. Only one GM crop is grown to any extent in Europe, and that got approval before it became difficult in the mid-’90s. So nothing is happening—for climate resilience or anything else.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

That is the extreme version, isn’t it?

Professor Halford:

Everyone pats themselves on the back and says, “We’ve got a great regulatory framework,” but nothing is happening. Burkina Faso has more experience—

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Q That is an extreme example. Do you not think that there is a happier halfway house in terms of a regulatory framework for gene edited and gene modified materials?

Professor Halford:

The simple answer is that it has to be proportionate to the risk. You can also compare gene editing to what we have already. We already have chemical and radiation mutants; that technology has been going around since the 1950s. They are already on the market, with exactly the same kinds of genetic changes that gene editing introduces, but completely random.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Q But from our perspective as legislators, the risk is not just the science. History shows us that scientists—Oppenheimer and others—often have brilliant ideas, but it is then about how those ideas are used by corporations, politicians and others. The risk is not just the science, but how those patents and that science are used further on down the line. That is part of the risk, and it is the part of the risk that regulation—

Professor Halford:

You could make exactly the same comment about anything in plant breeding. The argument is, “Why should you look at gene editing as being different?” Is it more risky? Is it more likely to be misused? I would say no.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Q I think a really good case has been made today that gene editing is something that is found in the natural world, and it is something that we are just utilising. I get that. For myself as a legislator, yes, the risk is scientific—there is some—but it is also about how it is then applied outside of the laboratory, what the political implications of that are in the commercial world, and how other powers for whom profit is the bottom line may utilise those technologies in a way that is harmful to the public good.

Professor Napier:

I know what you are trying to say. I tried to write an article about this a couple of years ago, taking the example of Golden rice, which was developed to deliver a public good and took decades to get to market. Why? Because it had been demonetarised. Effectively, all the economic drivers had been taken out of it, so the impetus for it to be delivered to market was not there. You could not monetarise it, which on one level is exactly as it should be: why should you be monetarising what is effectively misery—childhood blindness and things like that? But it also basically depowers the way the world works—the way that modern economies work. That is just the way of the world, isn’t it? We all know that.

I understand what you are saying. For us, we really want to see stuff applied and translated. People get far too hung up about intellectual property. I am not an IP lawyer, but I know a lot about IP. People feel it is a hindrance in plant biotechnology, but compared with the costs of getting regulatory approval, IP is not the barrier. The reason why we have all these big corporations dominating the field of plant biotechnology is that they are the only people who can afford regulatory approval.

When we ran GM field trials in 2012 at Rothamsted, there were big demonstrations about it. Most of the people had come from the Occupy London demonstration, so they were anti-globalisation protesters. They were protesting about the globalisation and corporatisation of the world; they were not actually that concerned about GM. That is not to dismiss their concerns, but that is what they were really worried about. You can end up conflating a whole load of things and saying, “These are all the things that people should worry about,” but I am not sure that is what you need to worry about. It sounds like I am telling you what to do, but I am absolutely not. There are other things to think about in the Bill.

Professor Halford:

If you are going to say that you should regulate how people use the technology—can you do that?

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

No—I think there is a discussion that will now take place in Committee about the level and type of regulatory framework that we have for these technologies and what the outcome of that is. There is obviously an argument for a low-regulation framework, and there are those of us who believe that there should be a higher level of regulatory framework. That is the debate, and I am just interested in hearing the points of view.Q

I am sorry, Mr Angus, that I have not brought you into this conversation very well, but that is not my job. If you would like to come back on anything—

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

William Angus, would you like to say a few words on this subject?

William Angus:

Yes, and I assure you that I will be brief. First of all, I have some comments about various things. This is not a short-term solution. It has been bandied about by many that this is like, “Oh, well, in three years we can do this and that.” We can develop genetic resources in three years already; we do not need that. I am actually a really big supporter of gene editing. I think it allows us to short-circuit when we have major key traits that will be of significant global benefit. Gene editing comes into that very well.

We already have a very strong regulatory system for national listing of varieties. The Committee may or may not know that currently, before we can put varieties into the marketplace, they have to go through a pretty robust national listing system. They have to be distinct, uniform and stable, and they also have to have a value for cultivation and use, so those mechanisms are already in place. I would feel confident that, by beefing them up a bit, we could cover the regulatory issues without huge quantities of over-regulation in terms of entry to the market.

I want to make the point that this is not the shortcut that people perceive it to be, because once you have your trait of interest, you then have to transfer it into a variety or something that is genetically good; then you have your in-house testing process, which is usually three to four years; then you have two years of statutory tests; then your wheat, for instance, gets a recommended listing, and then you have two or three years of seed modification. The idea that we can somehow wave a magic wand with gene editing and create something within three years is complete nonsense; it would take 10 or 11 years. This is the thing about plant breeding: it is a long-term venture.

I am weird—I admit that I am slightly strange. You are quite right that all the big companies are profit-driven. I have absolutely no interest in money, but as a plant breeder you can make a huge difference, not only globally but domestically. I suspect that if you have had a bit of bread today, you will have had part of a variety that I was involved with. That gives me a huge amount of satisfaction, and I hope you enjoyed the bread. That is what plant breeders do: it is about impact. Now that I work on a more global scale, it is helping so many people whom I have met who live on $2 a day. That is really the important part. I do not necessarily represent the interests of large multinationals, I am afraid.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Thank you, William. We have less than a minute left. I know the Minister wants a quick question—it is less than a minute for your question and the answer.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q You want to see this applied and translated. Bill, you stated that you already feel that, with some tweaks, we have a strong regulatory appeal in this country anyway. In one word, is the Bill proportionate?

Professor Napier:

Yes.

Professor Halford:

Yes.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

This feels like “Britain’s Got Talent”. There we go; we have finished before 3.15 pm.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

That brings this session to an end. I thank all our contributors for a really informative session.