Examination of Witnesses

Part of Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 28th June 2022.

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Joanna Lewis:

Your mention of PRRS offers a good way to explain why the global organic movement currently does not support the genetic engineering approach. That movement is very much founded on the principle that you harness natural processes to stop pest and disease problems arising in the first place. For instance, PRRS is widely accepted to be a disease that arises from industrial farming systems as a result of overcrowding. The crucial thing is to make sure that there is a public interest test at the heart of the Bill, and that is what we are calling for.

We noted that the Regulatory Policy Committee has raised a red flag about the impact assessment—I am sure that it has been discussed before. We found that the impact assessment had overlooked three crucial areas: first, clearly, the freedom of choice for citizens; secondly, the needs and interests of organic agroecological farmers and growers, who have a key role to play in the Government’s ambitions for a sustainable farming transition; and, thirdly, the impact on the Government’s ability to achieve their own really important legal biodiversity and climate targets, and to address their professed concern about animal welfare and their desire to improve those welfare standards.

One does not need to doubt the good intentions of the research institutions that are involved in the research, but there are strong commercial drivers at play here. It is no accident that current and recent developments on gene editing of crops relates overwhelmingly to herbicide resistance. When you have four companies controlling 60% of the global seed market and two of them, Bayer-Monsanto and ChemChina, which owns Syngenta, account for more than half the agrichemical market, it is no accident that there is that commercial bias.

When it comes to the interests of farm animals, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics held a public dialogue on gene editing and farmed animals. The concern expressed by the public, now backed by the support of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and Sciencewise—I am on the oversight group for that dialogue—was clearly centred not so much on the distinctions between gene editing and conventional breeding, but on the fact that the direction of travel for conventional breeding had been to prioritise traits that came at the expense of animal welfare and which facilitated the keeping of animals in inhumane industrial farming systems. The concern was that gene editing might accelerate that trend.

That brings us back to the question of where the public interest test is that could allow the Government to do more than just presuppose and gamble on the benefits of this for climate, nature and health. Norway has developed a gene technology Act, which places that public interest test at its heart. I do not know if that has been discussed yet, but there is a test that requires evidence of community benefit and support for sustainable development, so we would like to see that considered in the deliberation of this Bill.