Q We will now hear evidence from Dr Richard Harrison, director of Cambridge Crop Research and member of the BBSRC agrifood strategic advisory panel, from NIAB, and Professor Giles Oldroyd, professor of crop science at the Cambridge Crop Science Centre. Both witnesses are with us in person, and we have until 4.30 pm for this session. If you could both introduce yourselves, and then we will begin questioning.
I am Richard Harrison and I am director of crop research at NIAB. NIAB is an independent research organisation based around the country. It receives both public and private funding, and it sits in the area of strategic and translational research in crops. My role in NIAB is as the director of Cambridge Crop Research, which encompasses most of the arable crop research we do in the organisation. That include genetics, biotechnology and some of the statutory work that we deliver in seed certification and variety valuation for the Animal and Plant Health Agency on behalf of DEFRA. My own research is in the area of plant-microbe interactions in complex trait genetics. Most of that work has been done over the past 10 years in horticultural crops—strawberries, cherries, raspberries and other tasty things—where my group have worked on disease resistance but also developed and implemented gene editing technologies in those crops.
I am Professor Giles Oldroyd. I am professor of crop sciences at the University of Cambridge. I am a fellow of the Royal Society and I am director of the Crop Science Centre, which is an alliance between the University of Cambridge and NIAB. I am the University of Cambridge component of that alliance. My research focuses on how we improve the sustainability of farming systems, with a particular focus on removing the need for inorganic fertilisers from farming. I work on driving sustainability in developed-world farming, but also for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. I get most of my funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I currently have a field trial ongoing in Cambridge that uses a combination of genetically modified lines as well as genetically edited lines.
Q Good afternoon, gentlemen, and welcome. I will go for a broad-brush question. What impact do you think the Bill could have in terms of the benefits from translating research and freeing up research and development? Given your experience in particular, Professor Oldroyd, how will it help to address challenges such as food security, climate change and so on?
I think that the current Bill would be truly transformative in our ability to see impact from the foundational research that happens in many of our universities around the country. The UK is a world leader in plant sciences. It has been very frustrating for plant scientists to struggle to see impact from their research because of the restrictions that are placed on the release of potential products from their work.
I believe that gene editing is equivalent to what you can achieve from conventional natural processes, but the level of precision that it provides allows us to do things in a way that we could not—or found it difficult to do—when restricted to only what is available in the natural diversity of that crop. It really does allow us to move things from the lab to the field to the consumer in a manner that is much more straightforward, to apply the phenomenal knowledge that we have developed in plant research in the UK over the last 30 or 40 years, and really to drive what I believe is a crucial transformation in food production. We have phenomenal challenges facing us: we have to feed a growing population, drive sustainability and cope with climate change, all over the next 30 years. That is not easy and we cannot do it with our hands tied behind our backs.
I could not agree more with that synopsis. One of the major strengths in the UK is our fundamental research base. Over the past 30 years, we really have understood at a deep level how genes function—in plants and in animals—and the ability not only to capture what is there in nature through conventional breeding, but to use technologies that allow the directed introduction of mutations that could occur naturally but are not necessarily present or are not in the right pre-adapted germplasm. Bringing those into the gene pool and using them for crop and animal improvement is, as Giles says, transformative to our abilities to address the major challenges that we face in food production and the sustainability of food production.
Q When you are doing this research, you are bound by regulatory frameworks and have to keep the safety of the product. How do you, as leaders in science, challenge yourselves to make sure that the products that end up on our shelves—albeit that they have to go through FSA approval and so on—are bred for safety, and how we and the consumers assure ourselves of that?
There are currently very tight restrictions on validating the health and safety of GM products. For products produced by conventional breeding, we also have tests with regards to their performance in the environment, their performance relative to other varieties and their health. We have a robust regulatory framework in place that addresses the safety of the consumer, and it has served us well over many decades. I cannot think of an example where we can say, “Okay, this line has caused genuine risk to human health,” and that is because of the regulatory framework that exists.
Q Good afternoon and a warm welcome to you. May I say how much I enjoyed visiting your splendid new offices a few months ago to meet your new director?
My questions are about public confidence. We know that this has been a vexed debate over many years. There is fantastic science being done in Cambridge, but it often strikes me that the wider public have very little idea about it; that is hardly a unique issue there. Do you think there are sufficient measures in the Bill to secure the public confidence that is needed? If not, what extra could be put in to secure that?
The key point is proportionality. In all the preamble to the Bill, it is suggested that there is a proportionate response to how the technology is regulated. What we must never forget about gene editing and the scope of the types of changes that can be introduced is that they are indistinguishable from nature, so fundamentally we are not doing anything that could not happen or arise through natural processes.
The level and proportionality of the regulation of, and the transparency of, those products is important, and it is important that the public are aware, which I suppose is why there are systems in the Bill to register intent to put into the existing system gene edited products, but I do not think we need to stretch much beyond that. We have, as Bill Angus said, very well established regulatory frameworks in which to evaluate the performance of crops. We have the DUS system—distinctiveness, uniformity and stability—and we have the value for cultivatable use system. They have shown over many years that when varieties are put on the market, they are safe. The legislation that exists beyond that gives any country the right, if they find a problem with a variety, to remove that from what is the common catalogue in the EU, or, in our case, from our national list. As long as the proportionality is adhered to, the Bill is appropriate.
There are a lot of studies that have looked at the general public’s position on biotechnology. There are really only a few at either extreme—who absolutely support it outright or who are very scared of it. Most of the general public are looking to people like me—to scientists—and to the regulatory framework to define what is safe to consume.
Within precision breeding, as is intrinsic to the Bill, is the fact that these are events that could happen by exactly the same natural diversity and so already could be introduced, theoretically, through a conventional breeding process. One of the issues is that some—in particular, those on the previous panel—have taken as a presumption that anything that is biotechnology is inherently dangerous, and that is not correct. It is not correct to say that just because it is being developed by this mechanism there is an inherent danger in that approach. That is the erroneous position to take when comparing with conventional breeding.
We use many varieties that have been generated by mutagenesis breeding, by double haploid production. These are conventional breeding approaches. There is very little about gene editing that is different from that in the end product; it is just how you get to that event.
Where do you stand on the labelling issues? What kind of labelling do you think would be appropriate, given the advice from the Food Standards Agency?Q
My personal view is that I do not think there is any scientific rationale to have additional labelling criteria for gene-edited products, because they are fundamentally indistinguishable from nature. There is a sort of logical incoherence in saying, “Well, they are indistinguishable in nature, yet we must discriminate and show that they are different.” I think there is transparency in the system because there is a register. When farmers choose to grow varieties or there is a protected chain of production to discriminate one set of things from another, people are growing varieties—it is not magicked out of thin air. When people are planting, they will know whether it is a gene-edited variety or not. That is the point at which the choice can be made. I do not think there is any scientific rationale for then extending that labelling requirement to the post-marketing of products.
Everybody has said, and many panels have shown, that there is a need, when you are bringing a new technology into the market, to have an additional level of transparency in order to inspire public confidence. I think the question is what level of balance you need for public confidence. I think that the registers are there in order to say, “This is a product that has been produced with this technology,” and there is therefore then the ability for people to choose it, should they want to. That is what I see them being there for—to give people freedom of choice.
That is why I was saying that, at the time of planting, people can choose. The supply chain fits around that decision, at that point, much as it does with other production systems. To distinguish a gene-edited product on the basis that it is somehow different from a conventionally bred product is the thing that I am saying is a bit logically incoherent.
If I may add to that, the Bill itself states that only those that are considered to be equivalent to something that could be achieved by natural transformation are included under the Bill. So by definition we are saying that this product could be achieved by more conventional methods. Therefore, it is illogical to separate it out at some later stage and say, “This product is different”, when intrinsic to the Bill is the fact that it is not different. That is the only way it can be taken forward.
Which begs the question of why you had to register. However, I think we could probably go round in circles on this. Chair, I am quite happy for us to move on to other questioners.
Q Professor Oldroyd, you mentioned tight restrictions on validating the safety of gene-edited organisms. I just wondered whether it is possible to use field trials to assess sufficiently whether there are major impacts, or even minor impacts, on local ecologies once the crops are grown at a commercial scale. How do you take that into account?
Let me describe how we get to the point. For instance, I have some gene-edited material out in the field right now and we measure everything we can possibly measure in that material, from its effect. These are affecting plant microbial interactions, so we are particularly looking, for instance, at what is happening in the soil. We have the wild type and we have the gene-edited line, so we can precisely compare, to understand any differences in the local environment caused by the gene-edited type or the wild type. That is intrinsic to the research programme and we have to do those field trials before anything even gets close to commercialisation.
Therefore, intrinsic to working with this material is that we are already putting it out in the field. If I then hand it to breeder, they will then be doing breeding in their lines with that material and also doing extensive field trials, testing many factors, according to their performance relative to other lines. Ultimately, if it gets released as a variety, then NIAB, under the jurisdiction from the Government, tests and compares those lines relative to other lines on their performance in the field.
So there are many points along this track where we are actually testing the performance—as a researcher myself; as a breeding company; and then as NIAB, creating the recommended list. There are multiple factors all along the way that are already intrinsic to the process.
Q All of that would provide sufficient protection before any of these were grown commercially, at such a scale that it would be, I would imagine, quite difficult to prevent impacts, if they were happening.
That is the process that we have put in for mutation breeding, for instance. For mutation breeding, I irradiate the seed to create mutations in the seed, look for the lines that give a trait that is useful, and then breed that into the conventional lines. That is already happening; it underpins a lot of our food production and we have a regulatory framework to ensure that what we are actually releasing out into the world is safe and effective.
Q And you think that the regulatory framework contained within the Bill is sufficient?
Q Thank you. Finally, you mentioned that your funding was a mix of public and private, Dr Harrison.
What are your thoughts with regard to, say, Mr Angus’s previous points about the ownership of genes or the licensing of genes, and trying to ensure that that does not become a problem for breeders such as Mr Angus, or indeed for growers. We have discussed that in a few panels, so I just wondered how his point could be addressed.
Bill was talking about the breeder’s exemption, which means that once a variety has been protected it is put on the market, and any other breeder can then take that material, cross with it and do onward work.
If I understand it correctly—this is an area that is changing rapidly—there is still uncertainty, as Jonathan Napier said, about what can and cannot be protected. Patenting genes is very difficult, so it is more likely that the technology will be protected than the genes themselves. Even so, there could be some instances where there is some level of protection around a particular trait.
There are schemes now being set up that would allow the breeder’s exemption still to apply in the event of a licensing for a particular gene-edited trait in that variety. So those systems are being set up by industry at the moment, because ultimately there is a win-win there, because the licence holder of the intellectual property will want to see that out there at some level, and the plant breeders will want to use the material. I am not an expert in this area, and I am not a legal expert, but I understand that there are schemes being set up to take account of that. That is only in the instances where stuff is actually protectable; most stuff probably won’t be protectable, so the breeder’s exemption will still apply and people can still cross with it.
The bigger issue—the one raised by Jonathan—is that if you have an overly burdensome regulatory landscape of pre-authorisation to take something to market, for many that will be the thing that kills the technology. It is really important that that proportionality remains. It is only for things that may substantially affect nutrition that you would go down a route whereby the FSA would even class it under novel food regulations. I would expect that the majority of things being developed are agronomic traits, which would—as they do in many jurisdictions, such as Canada—sit outside the purview of food standards and are not classed as novel food in any way. They would progress to the market just as conventionally bred things do at the moment.
Q I suppose I am thinking back to the Soil Association representative’s point about 60% of seed grown in the US—or it may have been worldwide—being held by four companies. Is that a route that we would rather not go down, or is it not something that you are concerned about?
If they take over and buy out smaller breeders, for example.
Although it is certainly bound up in the arguments about gene editing and genetic modification.
In many ways, among the small and medium-sized enterprises such as Bill’s, in a landscape such as the UK, where there is a lot of innovation happening, there are start-ups starting now that want to do breeding and gene editing, so you may well see the opposite happening: a democratisation of the process and more people entering the market as the barrier to entry is much lower because of the regulation change.
The food production sector is no different from any other sector in this free market economy. I hear a lot of concerns about a few companies owning most of the seeds, but I do not hear the same about a few companies owning most of the drugs, cars, phones, clothes or any other product. That is a reality of our free market economy. The food production system is just like any other sector; there are major players who have a sizeable part of the market share.
Richard made a very important point. The phenomenal restrictions that are being put on traditional genetic modification have actually meant that only the big players that have deep pockets can use that technology. I feel as though we have ended up in the situation that most people feared, where a few companies have total control of a technology, and that is principally because of the cost of releasing those traits. If we follow the Bill and treat them as equivalent to conventional breeding, we absolutely liberate the technology for SMEs to get in the game. At the moment, they could not afford to do that with GM.
It is good to see you again, Professor Oldroyd and Dr Harrison. Your last comments have thrown my question in many Q ways. You said that not much is said about pharmaceuticals and other products in the free market, but that is quite a low bar. I have been involved with the trade-related aspects of intellectual property waiver campaign. A big part of the global south is campaigning to have access to the understanding of how to make anti-covid drugs, and they are struggling.
I do not think that is a model that I would want to apply to food. Some of us would like to see something more robust that did not make the mistakes that we have made on pharmaceuticals, for example. Food supply is critical, especially as we move through the 21st century with the climate crisis and a growing population. When I was asking you questions as a BBC journalist a long time ago, I was always struck by your passion for the science and for communicating the science. As currently constructed, does the Bill provide the protections we need? Outside your laboratories, away from the pure science, there are free-market corporations for which the bottom line is the end game and the main driver. Do you feel that this science is beyond abuse and beyond being used in the same way that perhaps big pharma have cornered those markets?
Lastly, I understand the notion that reducing barriers opens up the market to small and medium-sized companies, but the history of any industry shows us that big players begin to hoover up small players over decades, and you end up back in an oligopoly or monopoly situation. That does not necessarily have to happen, but that is what usually happens with new tech. There is a free-for-all when everyone piles in, but ultimately people sell up and move on, and the big companies hoover up. When you get past the science and it reaches the real world, do you feel that there is the opportunity for abuse? Does the Bill protect us from that?
With the caveat of clause 3, legislating gene editing as equivalent to conventional breeding is the best way to allow small to medium-sized enterprises to become involved in the technology. If you really want to see a break in major corporate ownership, lowering the barriers to how you get a product from that technology is almost certainly going to facilitate that. As I said earlier, the big problem currently with GM is that it is so costly to release a GM variety that only “the big four” can afford to do that. I think that taking this approach will help that ownership of lines.
Certainly from me, as a researcher, the Bill as it currently stands greatly facilitates me to work directly with plant breeders and move products through the conventional plant breeding mechanism into the market and on to the consumer. Some of that plant breeding is in the big four, but quite a bit of it is not. Those are more the medium-sized enterprises, not necessarily BASF or Bayer, although they do have a role in some of that. I think the current Bill will certainly facilitate that broadening of ownership of the technology and a speeding up of the impact to the consumer.
If I could add one small point, our public research institutes in the UK have a pivotal role to play here. We do research funded by the Government in this area and we publish that. We can protect it before or we can just publish it so it is free and able to be used by many.
You could really think strategically about how those research organisations are used to direct change in the way that one would want to see, so that varieties come on to the market either nearly complete, so breeders can take them up, which is often what happens, or even release complete varieties, as happens in many other countries, from public funded research organisations. Again, that allows freedom of choice, so varieties come on to the market that have traits that are desirable and do not suffer from the problem you point out, which is that some small companies may become subsumed into larger companies.
Thinking about it more broadly—this is outside the scope of the Bill—there is an absolute opportunity for the UK to lead on bringing those traits to the point at which they can be taken to market, in a variety of different ways that are not just dependent on the big four.
Q You have said that you are funded by the Government for some of your work. To what extent is that related to potentially boosting economic growth by making these crops more profitable for farmers, or to what extent is it about achieving public policy objectives? I am thinking particularly about the drive towards net zero. Is that ever put to you? I am thinking about measures to improve soil quality and, in that way, carbon sequestration. Let us take a potato, which takes an awful lot out of the soil in nutrients and so on. Are you looking at that sort of thing in the broader sense?
I am probably the best person to answer that, because my research is entirely focused on trying to remove the need for the addition of phosphate and nitrate as inorganic fertilisers for food production. I am absolutely driven by a desire to have sustainable productivity for both rich and poor world farmers. Historically, I got most, if not all, of my money from the British or European Governments, but now, as I said, I get money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and also from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. In that regard, it is absolutely policy driven for sustainable productivity for smallholder farmers.
I echo that. For the UKRI-funded research that NIAB delivers there are two key components. One is scientific discovery. When you are working in crops, that is about strategic discoveries of things that are important to the strategic objectives of the research councils. Of course, BBSRC is the primary funder of agricultural research in the UK. It is absolutely in that zone of looking at how crop science and net zero intersect and how we can generate more sustainable farming systems. Much of the research, even if it is discovery and frontier bioscience, always has a strategic element to it.
Q The Government have been criticised for not having a net zero strategy for agriculture but you would say that there is a clear direction coming to you that it should be there.
Absolutely. In fact, it is more driven by that policy. The drive for sustainability is very much an active area of research in the public sector, probably more so than in the private sector. A lot of the public sector research is pushing towards some of those policy issues, in contrast to the private sector, which is looking principally at productivity.
Q When it comes to the new subsidy regime—public money for public goods—is that something that could be quantifiable? If a farmer switched to a gene edited product—this is getting a bit techy—could they be rewarded for looking after soil health under the public money for public goods approach? Do you see a situation where a farmer could make the switch because they know they would rewarded for that? Or is that outside your remit?
Q I suppose I am asking whether it is traceable. Could a product be badged as “This is better for the soil”, and therefore ticks the box when it comes to environmental land management schemes?
In the case of my research, we hope that what we are testing right now in the field are lines that will be productive at lower levels of treatment of phosphate as a component of fertiliser. By that it is absolutely measurable how much fertiliser you are putting on the field relative to your productivity. The landscape for subsidies for farming is changing rapidly, and I think within that there are great opportunities for incentives for farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester more carbon in the soil. The challenge will be how you measure that, and it is probably going to be by encouraging farming practices that we know on average reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
I think you absolutely have to measure it at a farming system level; the genetics alone, in isolation, will not do it. Of course, the system that we have at the moment, the value for cultivatable use, includes some public good traits, for example, disease resistance traits, which are ones that have a clearly measurable environmental benefit, because you are reducing the amount of fungicide sprays and so on. There is absolutely scope to look at that system and ask what additional measures could be put in place to ensure that the varieties, whether conventionally bred or using new breeding technologies, have some level of enhanced environmental service. That is a big opportunity for the UK, because we sit outside the common catalogue, so we can define our own value for cultivatable use and national listing system. Again, we could be progressive in the way that we look at this, and lead the way in making sure that the things that breeders are asked to do to put varieties on the market meet the wider policy objectives of sustainable farming and emissions reductions.
Q Just a quick question in conclusion: could you articulate whether, in your view, this will lead to more investment in R&D in this country, including philanthropically—you mentioned the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—for the benefit of others across the world? We know that the majority of the world tends to farm on less than a hectare, so enabling them to have disease-resistant crops or crops that do not need expensive inputs could arguably have a beneficial effect. What is the quality of our research? I think Dr Harrison said that we have the absolute chance to lead. Any comments? I am slightly hesitant, knowing where you are going to be shortly. How do we optimise that?
A lot of eyes are focused on this country at the moment, with regard to how we approach this. We have to recognise that we influence quite a bit. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are absolutely looking to Europe, to the UK, for leadership on this. Our position will influence internationally how these technologies are legislated for. Certainly, we have a lot. I am excited about the potential to drive up food production for smallholders, as well as the sustainability of farming practices here in the UK. The opportunities are immense. Definitely, having this, the ability to use gene editing, will facilitate that delivery both to smallholder farmers and to UK farmers.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is definitely paying attention to what is happening here in the UK. With regard to additional investment, this Bill opens up opportunities for the UK. We are already a leader—we really are a leader in agricultural research—and I think it will position us even more greatly to be spearheading the impact of all that agricultural research.
I, too, see a big opportunity for the UK not only to lead, but to garner additional investment. At NIAB, where we operate in both the private and public sectors, we have seen on both sides a big increase in the attention given to the services we offer to industry and academia for crop transformation and gene editing. I definitely think there is an opportunity here. In the kind of ecosystems that you see around major university cities such as Cambridge, there are a lot of start-ups that are very much trying to bridge the gap between the need to use crop science to transform food and farming to be sustainable, and the use of new technologies. A definite opportunity.
Q You made a powerful case for the development of SMEs, although you are publicly funded, and for allowing that space to develop for the public good—but it is a very Cambridge-y conversation, in the sense that we know that the Cambridge experience is often that small start-ups get bought up and are then used for other purposes. Would it not further the cause that you are promoting to have a public good test somewhere in this process to enable that to be done for the public good, rather than to be potentially lost down the line?
Personally, I would say that, and not just for this Bill and gene editing. If one wants a public good test, one should apply it to everything in terms of crop varieties, and not single out gene edited varieties as a unique case. I return to my comments on looking at the listing system and making sure that, again, it is proportionate. Breeders have to spend a lot of money bringing varieties to market, so if there was public good funding coming from Government, it should be to support breeders in developing those varieties that have enhanced public good traits. You should look at it in the round.
I think it would be very hard to define what is not a public good. Production is for the public good. We have to have production. Production tends to be where the private sector focuses—it is total productivity—but it has raised productivity across the past century. That has certainly given it a competitive edge as individual industries, but it has meant that we have kept our production up with the growing population and the growing demand. That is public good. I would find it very hard to differentiate what is public good from what is not public good when trying to manage such legislation.