We will now hear oral evidence from Sam Brooke, chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders, who will be giving evidence in person. We have until 4.50 pm for this session. Before we open the questions with the Minister, could you please introduce yourself?
Good afternoon, everyone. I am Sam Brooke, and I represent the British Society of Plant Breeders, which is a not-for-profit society. We currently represent 80 members of the plant breeding sector, which is virtually 100% of the plant breeding industry in the UK. As you can imagine, because we have 80 members, we range from one-man bands and SMEs to multinational breeders, so we have a very good coverage of the breeding industry in the UK. Our main aim is to continue to promote plant breeding, the importance of genetics, and the importance of seed and where it fits into the scheme of things.
Q Having such a depth of commercial experience within your organisation, and looking—as you have said—from the SME through to the international plant breeder, what impact do you think this legislation might have on the seed production industry? In particular, could you talk a little about how we ensure fairness and equity, from SMEs through to the internationals? I saw you nodding when Professor Oldroyd was giving his evidence, but I would like to hear it from you.
From our perspective and that of our members, the legislation offers huge opportunities. It will definitely open up investment in the UK for plant breeders. When the European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 to legislate precision breeding techniques as genetically modified organisms, around 70% of our members classed as SMEs ceased investment in those new technologies because of the expense and political uncertainty around being able to bring those products to market. From our point of view, it is critical that these new techniques are now available and can be utilised.
We believe that the legislation will naturally bring the cost of those new techniques down, giving a broader range of our members greater access. As I have mentioned, we have guys who are literally one-man bands, who are breeding locally in the Cambridgeshire area where we are based, and we also have the bigger multinational companies. You have mentioned being fair and equitable: breeders have already established a network of trait licensing platforms, which we see working very well across the UK and Europe. A very successful vegetable trait licensing platform is already established, and an agricultural trait licensing platform is being established as we speak. That is a fantastic way of ensuring that those traits are available across all breeders and all entities, of all shapes and sizes, which is great, because it means they have access to broader diversity, more technologies and more traits. That is really important.
As a whole, the BSPB is incredibly supportive of the Bill and what it is trying to achieve. Our main concern would be around clause 3 and a risk assessment around food and feed. All the scientific evidence would show that there is no greater risk in using these technologies than in using what we currently are in conventional or traditional breeding—or whatever we want to call it—so I feel that there is no reason for that extra risk assessment step. We are very concerned that that could act as a blocker to early stage research and development.
Q Good afternoon and welcome. I will follow on from some of the previous questions and ask a similar question, really. In the end, it seems that one of the big challenges here is in maintaining public trust. While scientists may give a whole a series of assurances, if the public and perhaps some of the major retailers are not convinced, then there is a problem.
The key issue is getting the balance right between reassuring the public and following the science. However, to many of us, this Bill looks very thin on the “reassuring the public” side—so much so that, despite the FSA and its polling showing that the public would really like more information, as the Bill stands, that is not the way it will be. How convinced are you that the issue of public confidence will be resolved in favour of the science?
Having lived and breathed plant breeding for just over 20 years, I think we should have shouted more, and earlier, about how regulated the industry is, both at plant-breeding and seed level. We have a rigorous testing system in the national list process. Each variety undergoes at least two years of testing before it comes to the market. Every variety must be on that UK national list before it can go into sale. All that is underpinned, obviously, by laws on food safety, novel foods, and so on. We have this incredible history of safety of plant breeding in the UK, and of bringing those products into the market in a safe, sensible and secure way.
On top of the registration process, we also have seed marketing legislation, which really protects the user. Naturally, it protects the consumer in that it ensures that all seeds that go out into the market meet a common and prescribed standard. I think that is really important, and it is probably our fault as breeders that we have not shouted in the past about how legislated the process of producing new varieties and seeds actually is. That is what we need to go out and talk about, and tell the consumers. I am a consumer—we are all consumers—and I think, had consumers had more information and knowledge about how regulated varieties and seeds already are, we might already be a step closer to having that absolute trust.
Q I will follow up on that, in that case. If there is that confidence, why the reluctance to allow consumers to know how their food is being produced? Polling from the Food Standards Agency suggests that consumers want that. Is there not a danger that it looks as if you are trying to hide something?
We are absolutely not against full transparency of breeding methods. Most breeders have already taken their own initiative to highlight, on their websites and social media platforms, how varieties are produced. I think it was back in March 2021 that we wrote to the Secretary of State, George Eustice, and said, “No, BSPB is absolutely up for transparency on the breeding process.” It is just that the best way of doing that is through the chain.
We have worked with DEFRA and looked at how we can easily bring that step into the national list process by highlighting what breeding process was used, because we already do, to a certain extent. For example, if it was a hybridised crop, we would have to highlight if it was cytoplasmic male sterility or a chemical-hybridising agent system, so we are already doing that. That, for me, would be another step forward and would support the public register, which is in the Bill and which we absolutely support.
Naturally, we have been following EU legislation and have been historically aligning, quite rightly, with EU legislation on this, where we have our nearest trading partners and the majority of plant breeders. Because it is such an expensive industry, the majority of plant breeders are breeding at least for Europe if not internationally, because varieties travel quite nicely, especially to our nearest countries in the EU. We align with that. The key difference is probably that we have a lot of expertise in the UK and we want to keep that, because plant breeders are based here and actively breeding here—they have labs and food trials here and we have this fantastic, world-leading research and development in the likes of NIAB, John Innes and Rothamsted.
We had a plant breeder in before—Mr Angus—who talked about his concern about ownership and the licensing of genes and, I suppose, the potential concentration of ownership into larger companies. What are your thoughts on that? Do you share that concern?Q
No, I think the Bill has the potential to open up the technology a lot more. It will naturally open up what traits are available both publicly and privately, but I would imagine especially publicly. The majority of new traits that have come through historically have come through publicly.
For me, it is all about choice. That is the most important thing. We are not going to get great investment in these new technologies if these commercial business cannot make some money somewhere along the line. We have to be able to protect that IP, which we already do very well in the UK with our current royalty system. We currently protect new varieties and IP on varieties very successfully, which makes us a great area for investment in plant breeding. I would like to see that maintained.
As I mentioned, there are different trait licensing platforms already available. For example, Corteva is one of the big ones, as we may want to describe them, which has already initiated its own platform for accessing its traits. I do not think it should be seen as a concern. There are already breeder exemptions around using new varieties, and I do not see this being any different when we get to using precision technology.