Good afternoon, and thank you for having us here today. My name is Pat Thomas. I am the co-founder and co-director of Beyond GM. I come from a journalistic background. I am a former trustee of the Soil Association and the Organic Research Centre, and I currently sit on the board of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ dialogues on genetically engineered animals.
I am Lawrence Woodward. I am co-director of Beyond GM; I am also a director of Whole Health Agriculture. I am an adviser to the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland programme. My previous life was as director of the Organic Research Centre, during which time I was involved in setting up an organic seed breeding company, developing a programme of evolutionary plant breeding. I was also a founder and director of the European Consortium for Organic Plant Breeding.
Q Good afternoon. We have heard from witnesses earlier today, and on Tuesday, that this technology is equivalent to traditional breeding—that is the term I will use, just for ease—and carries the same level of risk. I understand that you have a different point of view. I would like to understand what the evidence base for that view is, with specific reference to precision breeding and gene editing, in both plants and animals.
The first issue is clarity of definition and terminology, which indicates concerns and differences of view regarding areas of risk. We start with this terminology, “precision breeding”, which is found nowhere else in any regulation of any other authority—it does not exist. It is a new term, and the definition of what that is, the description of what that is, only exists in this Bill and nowhere else, so there is a question about where safety issues and issues of regulation and risk assessment come in.
The Bill itself starts off with the premise that all these technologies arise from genetically modified organisms. The definitions in the Bill start off with GMOs as defined in the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002. Those definitions have given rise over the years to contested science in relation to risk assessment and safety. The Bill goes on to say that any of those techniques under those GMO regulations can be considered to be precision breeding if they could have been achieved by traditional processes, but there is no international clarity about what traditional breeding or traditional processes actually are. The narrative in the UK is, “This is traditional breeding”, but different people mean different things by that. In fact, I noted that several speakers on Tuesday talked about conventional breeding, which is probably more accurate. When we talk about that definition of traditional breeding or conventional breeding in modern times, the methods are very different, and the contention is that the damage within the breeding process—the potential risks within the genome—varies according to the different methods.
The evidence presented by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment and numerous scientific bodies in this country is that risk can be assessed adequately on the basis of the final product, on the phenotype: what it looks like, and how equivalent it is to something that comes from conventional or traditional breeding. That, it has to be said, is the opinion of most research establishments and plant breeders in the UK and in some other countries, but it is not true to say that it is an overwhelming consensus. There is a body of evidence that says, “Actually, there are other risks”, and that looking at and assessing risk in relation to the end product misses disruption within the genome, and the potential health and safety aspects of that.
Disruption in the genome is at the heart of genome editing technologies, because you are going right into the cell—into the organism. I have to say, I think it is unfortunate that this Committee has not taken oral evidence from the number of scientists who work in medical practice and agriculture who have looked at the evidence of the risks of this damage within the genome and what that means, and can talk about it much better than me.
In our view, the extent of the damage and disruption within the genome is a contested area. The question then is: what does that mean for the composition of the final product, and what level of risk assessment is appropriate? That is another critical issue in this scientific debate. A number of witnesses on Tuesday referred to proportionate regulation and proportionate risk assessment. We absolutely agree with that, but it is a question of how you discuss proportionate risk assessment. Other regulatory authorities work on a system of tiered risk assessment and risk safety analysis, with different tiers for different levels of the application of this technology. We think that really should be looked at. To come back to your question, the evidence of safety and the evidence of risk is in our view entirely dependent on that tiered risk assessment.
Q Thank you. With sufficient risk assessment, and defined as conventional breeding, you are not opposed to this technology? Is that what I should take from that?
We are not opposed to the overall application of biotechnologies. Some aspects of genetic engineering technologies are very interesting, and there is certainly some amazing science happening. We are not opposed per se; it is about the context, the framework, the risk assessment and the wider social utility and environmental impact assessments.
I should just say that it was probably out of scope to call people who are much more based in the world of the human genome, but of course we know what advances have been made there using this technology.
Q Good afternoon and welcome. Can I take you back to your opening point about definitions? It is right at the start of the Bill, and we have already had some discussions. A lot of us are struggling, quite frankly, to make the link between what the Bill was promised to be about and what we think the definitions end up being about. The basic question on which I sought an answer from the Government’s chief scientist this morning is: does the Bill as written exclude transgenic material?
No, the Bill is vague on definitions. Other regulatory authorities have been presented as basing their approach on end-product analysis and ignoring process, but that is not true. It is only Canada that only looks at the end process; all the other regulatory authorities look at the end product and the process. The scope of this Bill captures not just narrow gene editing, as presented by the famous word processing approach—“We alter a letter here and there and everything is okay”. The scope of the Bill is very wide, and it appears to encompass the possibilities of all new developments in biotechnology, such as RNA information sprays. This encompasses a range of things that are on the cards in the future, yet the clarity of that definition and scope are lacking, as are the assessment and consultation processes to deal with those new technologies coming forward. We have the possibility here of enlarging the scope into the future, ill-defined and without the regulatory framework to deal with that expansion.
Q Thank you. Could I turn to Pat and perhaps explore the wider environmental impacts and the extent to which the Bill provides reassurance and protections?
In essence, the Bill does not provide any reassurance about environmental impacts, because the Bill has decided that there are no environmental impacts. You have heard statements from scientists, and I will underscore my colleague’s point that it was a shame that dissenting scientists were not invited to present evidence to the Committee. The Bill itself has made a prejudgment that these technologies present no environmental risk, but it has not, as the Regulatory Policy Committee concluded, presented any evidence to prove that.
Particularly where we are talking about plants, which are the dominant lifeform on this planet, and a very wide scope of which are exempted in this Bill, we need to be very clear about what the environmental impact will be, not just in agricultural nature, but in wider nature. That requires much more comprehensive assessment than is currently being looked at. At the moment, the assessment is really whether it is good for business. That is fine—we all want to see business progress—but these kinds of disruptive technologies that cut across multiple areas of concern need to be assessed on a much broader basis.
One thing that would immeasurably improve the Bill would be to ensure that the assessment board is looking not just at something that is scientifically feasible, but at the impacts across environment and the social scale, from a practical, an ethical and even a vocational level. There are examples of that in the world: the Norwegians have an agricultural biotechnology board, for instance, which assesses genome edited products on all those bases. Science does not outweigh, for instance, ecological or social concerns.
A very interesting example of that was in 2017 when that board rejected a double-stacked maize that was engineered to produce its own insecticide and be resistant to herbicides. While it accepted that the maize was probably safe to eat or to grow, the deciding factor was that there was no social utility. There was no benefit for consumers or for the environment, and those concerns, given equal weight to science, were the concerns on which it was rejected. That is what we need here. We need a much broader consideration of the impacts of these technologies.
Q Following on from that, do you see anything in the Bill that limits the scope for herbicide-resistant edits in plants, or, for instance, pesticide-resistant bees, which I have been reading about? Those are both possibilities that raise some wider issues.
They certainly do raise wider issues. Within the scope of this Bill, as my colleague pointed out, there does not appear to be any type of genetic engineering that is truly exempted. If a plant or animal breeder can make a case—that case is not checked, it is simply made; it is a notification, not an assessment—that their plant is herbicide tolerant and that there somewhere exists a plant that is also herbicide tolerant, that plant becomes exempted under these provisions.
If I may just add to that, I had rather lazily gone along to some extent with the claim that gene editing technology will reduce the amount of herbicides and pesticides being used. I was therefore somewhat upset and surprised to see that Cibus, one of the major gene editing developers, put out its annual report the other day with a press release praising efforts around the world and in the UK to deregulate genome editing, because it saw the possibility of increasing herbicide-tolerant traits for sale, thereby increasing the use of herbicides in agriculture. It saw a way in which genome editing technology could increase the effectiveness of putting in herbicide-tolerant traits. That is an example of the complex nature of this area. The question of utility, sustainability, reduction of herbicides and so on, which people talk about, is really not a given.
I just want to add a brief point: within the scope of the Bill, the concept of risk is being used interchangeably with sustainability. Risk assessment and sustainability assessment are two entirely different things. A sustainability assessment will look more across the board at the sorts of effects that we are talking about here. We should not take for granted that risk or safety can be used as a proxy for sustainability.
Q May I return you, Ms Thomas, to the points that you were making about Norway? I think the Norwegians introduced a gene technologies Act fairly recently. When I read about the approach that they took to the issue, it seemed to involve a lot more public consultation and discussion. Will you expand a little on the approach they have taken to this issue? What can we learn from it? What would you like to see included in this Bill?
I think we can learn the value of citizen views. I have been a little disturbed, in the first session and this one, by the vague disdain for citizens—“Citizens must not understand the science, therefore they must not have a view.” Citizens are major stakeholders in the food system.
What that board does is to have a high percentage of civil society groups in particular, who are used as a proxy for citizens, but it also seeks out citizen views. What we have learned from citizen engagement in our work and in sharing the work of others is that citizens tend to ask a much wider range of questions of the food system. When they are not asking those questions, it is because some aspect of the food system has been hidden from them. For example, until we understood about battery hens, people did not ask questions about that, but they ask them now. When people began to worry about pesticides in their food, they began to ask questions about organic food.
A concern for me about the Bill and citizen engagement is that the term “precision bred” is not well known. It is in fact a way of sneaking genetically engineered foods into the food system. I can envisage a case in which—even if there was a turnaround on labelling—to label something “precision bred”, for example, is not useful information to people who do not understand what that term means.
To circle back to your question, the importance of including citizens in these kinds of assessments is that we get a much more well-rounded assessment, and something that takes into account questions such as, “Why are we doing this?”, “Is there an alternative?” and, “If there is an alternative, why are we doing this?” Those questions are very important.
May I add to that? The Norwegian law is one thing. People always think, “Okay, it’s in Scandinavia, they don’t do much GM anyway,” but I remind you that in 2015 the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee—of which I believe you were a member, Chair—recommended in its inquiry into agricultural technology the establishment of a permanent citizens panel to work alongside ACRE in assessing all these other aspects of gene technology, such as its application, its commercial roll-out and so on. That is embedded in the House of Commons proceedings. It did not get very far, obviously. The other point about that is that although that provision did not go into detail as to what would constitute a permanent citizens’ panel, the Norwegian one does, in terms of balance of citizen representation and stakeholder representation.
Q We received a briefing from GeneWatch UK, in which it talked about its concerns about a potentially significant impact on trade. As you perhaps know, the Scottish Government are waiting for the EU to complete its consultation on gene editing and GM, and the difference between those two, and whether or not it may allow them to be permissible within Europe as well.
GeneWatch UK said that if exempt GMOs are not traceable—because they are considered to be, as we have heard from several witnesses, the same as conventionally bred organisms—manufacturers should be required to publish a validated test for each GMO released. It suggests that all countries that require such organisms to be regulated could potentially refuse all imports of food and other products that contain that exempt GMO. Could you just expand a little on that for us? I would be interested to hear your points of view.
If I have understood GeneWatch UK’s position, it is pointing out one of the aspects of this situation, namely that if England proceeds by itself —isolated, without regulatory alignment—that would raise all kinds of trade transparency marketing issues, which are not really addressed and which the Regulatory Policy Committee identified as not being really addressed in the impact statement. You then have dysfunction in regulation and alignment, which leads to confusion in the marketplace, and I think that GeneWatch UK was pointing out the fact that England might allow non-labelling and non-traceability of some of these products would not carry a weight in other markets.
There are many different ways of dealing with that situation. What is absolutely clear is that there needs to be in this Bill greater consideration of traceability throughout the supply chains so that the market can function, and both farmers and consumers have choice. There are different ways of doing that.
GeneWatch UK pointed to the need to develop specific analytical tests. Those analytical tests are being developed. Robin May at the Food Standards Agency pointed out—I think he made some comment that labelling is useless if it cannot be verified. In theory that is true but, first, analytical tests do exist, they are being developed and they can be developed faster. Secondly, we already have in a lot of areas geographical identification and source of origin identification—in egg marketing, whether they are free range eggs or barn eggs. We already have marketing verification based on provenance and audit trails. There is no reason why traceability cannot be built up on that, if the right kind of mandatory information is put in the Bill.
There is a separate discussion about labelling. Obviously, we are in favour of labelling. How that would be, where it is and so on—we recognise the difficulties.
To add to that, we have heard a lot over these sessions about how it is not possible to trace these organisms and that simply is not true, particularly for a patented organism. There must be something in place to trace that, in order to protect the patent. So, alongside the development of these organisms, there is also the development of the tests to trace them. The question is whether we will put those into effect or not. I would assume that if the developers want to protect their patents they would want to ensure that those tests are there and available.
There are a number of things that I think we have heard robust evidence on, but you have clearly spent a lot of time looking at this in a global context. Countries such as Canada, Japan and Argentina are forging forward and allowing their scientists to develop new lines and strains to move forward their agriculture. Do you have any comments on how they are doing it? In all candour, I am worried that, to prevent worries and questions such that you are raising, we almost throttle something that has the potential to be genuinely transformative. What assessment have you made of what Canada, Argentina and Japan, who are forging ahead, are doingQ ?
People often forget in this conversation that European research establishments overall have made an awful lot of research investment into GMO technology and gene editing technology. Some great work is being done in UK research establishments. It is not that we have a block on this. On how much faster would deregulation, in terms of what is envisaged in the Bill, increase that research activity, others can speak more on that. It is not entirely clear to me that that is the case. It might be a benefit in terms of increasing inward investment from multinational companies.
Q I can believe that. It is already happening out there in the world, I just wondered what you thought about what was going on in Canada, Japan or Argentina?
The impact statement pointed to the development of research in Argentina by pointing to the increase in the number of patents that have been registered in Argentina since it altered its regulation. You might say that is a proxy for research and development activity. It is not necessarily. There is not really that much published information that says how much research is going on, who is funding it and where it is being funded. On the development of traits and the interesting science, it is not clear that it is any greater in Argentina or Japan than it is in Europe and the UK.
Q Sorry, what I meant was, obviously they have stuff in place and they have some sets of regulations in their countries to address your concerns, along with the laws that they have passed to allow gene edited, precision bred products. I wondered whether you have looked at what they have done to protect the safeguards while being able to forge ahead with scientific research.
In all those countries, the answer is that it depends. There is a patchwork of regulation throughout the world, with not much in the way of harmonisation. What is very clear is that the media narrative around these countries deregulating gene editing is exaggerated. In some countries such as Argentina there is a much more nuanced type of regulation that looks at things on a case-by-case basis. It is not a wholesale deregulation, which is what we are looking at here. That puts us out of step with those countries. China is the latest one to come on, again, with a much more nuanced approach to regulations. I think you have looked at the Canadian regulations, Lawrence.
The Canadian regulation is product-based but with a greater analysis of where the end product differs from conventional, so there is a trigger mechanism. I am probably still not understanding what you are asking. In the last five years we have had a lot of discussions with conventional researchers, GMO developers and so on. One of the telling things in our roundtable on the use of genome editing in animals was that the research and development very much depended on the commercial partnerships and roll-out. That very much depended on the markets that those companies could see. That depended on the type of agriculture that they were seeking.
It is not a surprise that most of the development is going into pig disease and those conditions that effect elite breeding lines, because that is where, for the breeding companies, the genetic ownership sees most return. That is not to say there will be no spill-over or benefit to small agroecological farmers and so on, but that is not the thrust. The thrust is about the commercial roll-out.
Order. It is 2.50 pm. We have to finish there. I thank both our witnesses for their time and their full answers in this session. I am sure the Committee finds them very helpful.