We will now hear evidence from Dr Alan Tinch, vice-president of genetics at the Centre for Aquaculture Technologies. He is appearing via Zoom, as we can all see, and we have about 20 minutes for this session. Could the witness please introduce himself? Thank you also for joining a little bit earlier.
No problem. I joined five minutes early just to be prepared. My name is Alan Tinch. I work for the Centre for Aquaculture Technologies, which is a company involved in developing technologies for use in fish breeding and aquaculture. I work on projects in genetics, genomics and gene editing. In terms of my background, I am a geneticist. I graduated from the University of Edinburgh and Roslin Institute in Scotland many years ago. I have worked on a number of different species, both terrestrial and aquatic. Throughout my career, I have worked on genetics, genetic development of breeding programmes and developing new systems for improvement of livestock.
Q Good afternoon, Dr Tinch. Can I ask how you anticipate the Bill helping in the area of aquatic species? How do you see it fitting in with the international regulatory environment?
That is an interesting question. I think all livestock breeding is now very much international, so it is difficult for small companies based in one country to operate successfully. There are a number of large international operators in genetics. In aquaculture in particular, we are not as far down the development of the species as some of the terrestrial species. We have been farming and breeding fish for about 40 to 50 years, so we are domesticating many of the species already. We are working hard to improve things such as disease resistance. There is good evidence, and we have seen very good examples, of genes that can be used to improve health and welfare of fish—particularly with Atlantic salmon, where a Scottish group identified a gene that accounted for over 80% of the variation of disease resistance. That was bred into the salmon populations and is now in most farmed salmon populations, making them resistant to the infectious pancreatic necrosis virus.
I see the implementation of gene editing allowing us to do similar things. Without having to go into the field, if you like, and look for animals that are carrying favourable mutations, we are able to identify genes that affect things like disease resistance, make targeted changes in those genes and make fish resistant as a result. I think that is a very positive way of taking breeding forward. It is not the only tool in the toolbox, but it certainly allows us to do some very interesting and valuable things for the health and welfare of the animals we farm.
Q Good afternoon. You will probably find my line of questioning fairly predictable. Animal welfare organisations have consistently said that they are concerned about the introduction of traits, which would allow animals to be farmed more intensively. Given the concerns that have been raised around aquaculture in general, how concerned are you that that is the way it will be perceived and seen? My second question is more to do with the trade issues and comes almost on the back of the first question. If our European partners take a different view on this issue, what effect would it have on your industry’s exports?
That is a tough question. The association between improving the ability of animals to perform and changing disease resistance, and the idea that that means we are going to increase stocking density and make welfare worse, is very simplistic, and it is not as simple as that. That is not the way farmers tend to operate, and it is not the way that breeders operate practically. That argument is raised quite often as being a reason not to improve farm animals, but it is not like that.
We should use the technologies that we have to improve animals. We are putting them in a farming environment that is different from the environment they evolved in. We have to adapt them, using genetics, to the farming environment, and that is what we aim to do. We aim to improve health, welfare and the sustainability of the animals from an economic point of view and an ecological point of view, and we use a number of different methods to take that forward. The tool is genetics, and gene editing is the next step forward in our ability to change different things. We should look at how we aim to improve animals in a constructive and welfare-driven way.
On the trade issues, if the legislation put us in a position where we were restricted in the use of the technology, we would be faced with the problem of people farming gene edited animals in other countries, and we would not be as competitive. We are already seeing gene edited animals being farmed in Japan, for example, and there is very permissive legislation in places such as Canada and Australia. I think those countries will be the first to bring in this technology. I see that coming first in some of the economic traits, and we will face competition as a result—maybe not in the species that they are planning and gene editing at the moment, but as it comes through the system in these areas, we will see our industries being uncompetitive in their performance.
Q To follow up, I was thinking more of it the other way round. If there was a time lag or a different view was taken in Europe, would you have to have two different production systems—one using gene edited animals, and one not? What are the practicalities of that?
If the legislation puts in place a system whereby gene edited animals would need to be labelled, you would need to have parallel systems. My argument would be that gene editing is a means of creating genetic variation that is identical to the variation that would occur naturally. As a consequence of that, we are not seeing products that are different.
If I identified a gene for disease resistance in a group of animals in the population that I was farming and bred it into the population for supply into the food chain, or I gene-edited the animal with the same genetic change—the same mutation—those animals would be identical in their genetics and performance, but if we labelled them and identified them differently, we would be creating two levels of animals within the production system that are essentially different. That would cause more problems than required in terms of the science behind the technology and the proportionality of how we are dealing with that lack of genetic difference.
Q Hello, Dr Tinch. It is good to see you. We have heard from folk who have been dealing with arable crops and so on, and there is a suggestion that the commercial benefits of this Bill would not be realised for anywhere between five and 11 years, but I wonder what the difference would be for aquaculture. Say the Bill becomes law, how quickly could we see commercial benefits for aquaculture farmers?
The key difference—let me know if I get too technical, as I do not want to drift away—is in the amount of time it takes to go from generation to generation. Some aquaculture species have a very short generation interval and can grow up and produce eggs quite quickly. For a lot of the warm water species that are farmed, and imported and exported around the world, we could move quite quickly because they have a short generation interval and they produce large numbers of eggs, so we could quickly be in a situation where we are producing animals with gene edits. That would be species like shrimp and tilapia. Shrimp are consumed at high levels in the UK. Tilapia are not, but they are still consumed at high rates around the world.
Atlantic salmon are much slower in terms of their growth and maturation. It takes at least three years—probably four years—to go through that cycle from egg to egg. From a practical point of view, we are not going to do it in one generation—it would be a couple of generations—so for Atlantic salmon we are talking at least four years, probably nearer eight years, until there were significant numbers of Atlantic salmon edited in the populations.
Q Assuring quality control, if you like, would presumably add quite significantly to that lifecycle, so are we talking 10 years?
Well, if I go back to the example of the gene that was discovered in Scottish populations for disease resistance, it was described in 2008 and was at high levels in commercial populations in 2015-16. Do not quote me exactly on those numbers, but it was that sort of timescale to go from identifying the animals to using them in breeding, going through the multiplication system and coming into production. If we were able to do that, and the technology would allow us to move as quickly as that in some populations by editing the gene, making the change and then breeding from those animals, we could move as quickly as that—a generation and a half to get it to high levels in the population.
The process that breeders go through normally to assess their animals is as you describe: if you discover a mutation, you look at it in the population, look at its effects on a number of different traits, and judge that it is an animal that is capable of performing well in the production environment. If everything is favourable, you then take it forward into production. That was the example relating to infectious pancreatic necrosis in Atlantic salmon. The gene had an effect on disease resistance and it did not have any perceivable effects on any other traits. For the sorts of traits we are talking about in Atlantic salmon, the case would be the same: we would evaluate it within the populations in the breeding programme—typically thousands of animals—and then as that data builds up and everything works out, we would expand that to the commercial populations.
We could go as fast as that. Obviously, with short-generation species with higher rates of reproduction, we could go faster than that. That process of identifying the animal, looking at its performance across a number of traits and judging that is a process that can move at the timescale I have described.
Q I am not sure whether you will be able to answer this, but I was just wondering about food labelling. What are your thoughts on that, as opposed to the notification systems and the public register that is proposed in the Bill? Do you think there is a stronger case for labelling animal products than crops—plants?
Just before you answer that question, may I ask you not to lean too far forward into the mic, because we will miss your face, and we do not want that? Could you stay neatly there for lip readers who need to follow you?
No problem. On labelling—going back to the position that says the genetics we are talking about is indistinguishable and identical variation that occurs in the wild and in farm populations—if we say that they are identical, then logically I see no reason to label that. The product is the same, the means by which it was generated is slightly different, but it is identical, to all intents and purposes, to a mutation that would have occurred naturally. I see no need for labelling.
Given agriculture is a subject of some contention in Scotland at times, what do you think?
It has been a hugely successful industry in Scotland. Your public opinion is interesting. To give a broad analogy, the other example of products being very close in terms of their composition and quality but labelled for production-system differences is organic farming. There is a drive there that says, “Okay, people are interested in the production system and they ask the product to be labelled to identify it as premium.” There is that precedent, but I go back to the position that says these are products that have identical composition. They are produced in different ways at the point where the mutation is either discovered or produced by gene editing, but they are identical at point of sale. I see no reason for labelling that, unless, like with organics, there is a premium for that sort of production system.
Q I see. This is a bit out of leftfield, but I heard earlier that there is a genetic technology Bill that has been proposed—or has gone through—in Norway. Obviously, there is a considerable amount of Norwegian interest in aquaculture in Scotland. Is that something that you have come across, and if you have, are there any elements of it that you think could be applied to this Bill? Do you think it will have any influence on Norwegian-owned aquaculture in Scotland? You are closer to the field than I am, but I am wondering if that is something that might occur.
Similar discussions are going on. A position on describing technologies where the outcome is the same but the technology used to produce it is different has been adopted, as it has been in a number of other countries—Canada and Australia. The principle of recognising that the product that is being farmed is the same as one that would have occurred naturally is being adopted by several countries. The danger is that we might come out of line with that.
The influence that Norway has over the UK and Atlantic farming industry is interesting in that it is a major player in the Scottish industry. Norway’s industry is technology led; Atlantic salmon farming is technology led and it will take the technology forward. I would expect that Norway takes its responsibilities as farmers and guardians of the livestock seriously, and farms according to good practice. The technology can be used as a means of improving performance, health and welfare of our animals. We should bring those sorts of technologies forward and use them. Those are the arguments that have been made in Norway as well.
Thank you, Dr Tinch, it was very interesting to hear your perspective on that. I listened very carefully to your responses to Ms Brock about the time it would take for multiple generations to become viable and to get access to market. In terms of investment here and now, or at least in the shorter term, in research and development, we have heard from other witnesses about the attraction of promoting investment in other food sources. For example, not in today’s evidence but from elsewhere, we have seen reports from the Roslin Institute and James Hutton Institute that they are very keen for this legislation to come to pass. Would you say that is the same for your field of expertise, particularly in ScotlandQ ?
Absolutely. I am a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and studied at the Roslin Institute, and have collaborated on a number of projects with scientists at Roslin in aquaculture, developing genetic solutions to disease resistance and applying those in populations. We are a local leader in terms of our ability to understand these technologies, develop them to the point of application and then deliver them through production systems.
The danger if we do not lead in that area is that the technology will move elsewhere. I now work for an American company working in gene editing in agriculture. I am not saying the reason I am doing that is because there is a lack of investment in the UK, but there is certainly lots of investment outside the UK in the technology and a lot of the technology is going to be applied in breeding programmes outside of the UK in areas where the legislation looks as if it is more permissive.
The UK model, particularly through the BBSRC and identifying projects that will have meaning within industry, is a very good example of how science should be applied and carried out. I have benefited from that on a personal level and a company level, in terms of my career development and the development of companies I have worked for.
The danger is that if we do not allow the application of new technologies, we will become part of the second lane in the use of this technology. I would not like to see that. Our approach as a country towards animal welfare and the way that we set up farming systems is world class. In many cases, we lead the way in the development of technologies. We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and we will continue to review that, I understand, in a constructive way. We have very high standards in farming. If we prevent this sort of technology from being employed because of a precautionary principle, which is one of the areas where technology gets held back—“There’s a slight chance that there may be a problem that results from this technology, so we shouldn’t do it”— that is regressive. I do not think that is the way that we should take science forward.
We should understand the risks, evaluate the risks and look at the technologies. Where they are able to be used for good purposes, we should take them forward. That is the case for gene editing. If you look at the way that the research is lining up, and the way that the breeding companies are talking about the traits that they are going to use, these are examples of taking the technology forward to benefit animal welfare and the sustainability of animal production, and we should be one of the early adopters of the technology.
Q I think you have answered the question, but just a yes or no: do you think that this legislation would lead to more investment in research and development in agriculture in the UK?
I think there are some challenges. If it turns out in the detail to become regressive—if it becomes restrictive—that would act against the development of the technology. We should look to taking this forward by applying the technology in a constructive way. The detail should allow us to work that out and look for examples where we are taking animal welfare forward.