Examination of Witness

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:50 pm on 30 June 2022.

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Ed Barker gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 3:29, 30 June 2022

Welcome to the Committee. For the next session, we have until 3.50 pm. Would you please briefly introduce yourself by telling us your name and position?

Ed Barker:

I am Ed Barker, head of policy at the Agricultural Industries Confederation. We represent agri-supply businesses in the UK, including animal feed companies, manufacturers, seed suppliers and distributors, fertiliser suppliers, arable marketing companies, grain traders and crop protection distributors. We also run a number of assurance schemes covering those individual commodities and products.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q For the sake of transparency, I would like to put on record that I have known Ed for some years and many of his family are constituents of mine.

We have focused a great deal on food in our two days of conversations with witnesses. Can you expand a little more on what benefits there might be within the feed sector?

Ed Barker:

We can certainly see potential benefits in the feed sector. There are a number of challenges across UK livestock sectors at the moment, and feed is a considerable way in which we can address issues such as reducing our reliance on imports, particularly of high-protein products such as soya from South America, and divert that to UK—in this case, England—sources. We also see huge benefits by way of having a greater number of crops available to UK growers. By doing that, we also provide a better feed market, particularly in crops such as oilseed rape, peas and beans, which often either provide direct feed or are made into feed by processing.

We can also see other potential benefits in feed additives and feed products as a way of reducing emissions. It was interesting that the food strategy announced a couple of weeks ago referred to this issue, and innovation technology is certainly a way in which we can look to address that. Looking far ahead, there is some really pioneering work looking at the digestibility of certain grasses that can be fed to monogastric sectors, such as pigs and poultry. There are some very interesting areas where we could really look to change a lot of the challenges that we know the supply chain has with regard to animal feed.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Some of those comments looked at the positive impacts that might be available through the use of this technology moving forward. Do you think the uptake across farmers and the wider supply chain—I think your membership covers the UK, so feel free to speak from a UK-wide perspective—would be large, and could you give me your views on labelling? Would it be possible to have a compulsory focus on labelling, and would that be an enhancement? What do you think about that?

Ed Barker:

To take those one by one, certainly the opportunities are there, and the uptake opportunities would certainly come in. A question we often get asked is: “How soon can the benefits be realised?” That is very difficult, particularly in combinable crops, which obviously have a much longer cycle of research and turnaround to be able to realise the benefits. From our point of view, however, the Bill’s benefit is that it provides long-term flexibility—five, 15 or 20 years—for growers, farmers and agri-supply businesses around the UK. We know the world is moving on quite quickly. We have heard about Canada and Japan, and even the EU is not static on this issue. There is a huge amount of interest. If nothing else, we are preparing ourselves for the inevitable demands on innovation in the future.

For take-up from a farming point of view, one area that we really want to focus on, particularly in the trade, is what we call the fungibility of goods. If you take cereals, for example, a real benefit to growers at the moment is that there are multiple markets available to them. For feed wheat, there are markets in the animal feed sector. It can also be exported or go to biofuel sectors. Having that flexibility is a real benefit to a lot of growers, and it provides a lot of resilience in businesses.

A short-term challenge that we could see is that if a product were considered to be gene edited, of course, at the moment in the EU that would be considered GM. As a result, we would have to go through quite an extensive approvals process to export that product to the European Union. That is a big part of the fungibility and flexibility of the product, so in the short term, we are only really likely to see benefits if it goes into the UK or England as a market.

However, a potential opportunity would be to have within the Bill a parallel process in place whereby authorisations were made for approval in the European Union when a product is approved for release by the Secretary of State. That would make a big difference, because inevitably, no farmer or grower is going to grow a crop that has a very limited market available to it. The next witness will probably be able to talk about that in a lot more detail. That is a real difficulty, and in the trade, if you are trying to buy and sell these products and you have a very limited outlet market in place, you might actually find that the product has less of a market the more of it you have, and there may be a deficit. To take the example of assurance in the supply chain at the moment, if you have unassured wheat, it usually trades at a discount because the market available to it is less. I do not want that to stop the Bill from progressing, but it is a short-term to medium-term challenge that we have to recognise, given the EU’s importance. In the past year, for example, we have exported about 1 million tonnes of cereal grains to the European Union, including the Republic of Ireland, so that flexibility is important.

Labelling has been mentioned. I think overall, labelling would be extremely difficult for the trade, because you need to label something right the way from start to finish. Let us take milling wheat as an example. You have to be able to define whatever the label is—gene edited or non-gene edited, GM or organic—and demonstrate that across the whole supply chain, and the compliance is quite strong. To do that, you have to segregate, and segregating throughout the supply chain is extremely challenging, very expensive and very difficult to do. The reason why it happens, for example, in the organic sector is that there is a market for it; the organic control bodies ensure that, but there is a market for it to ensure the additional costs of segregation are put in place.

With precision breeding—which, according to the Bill documents, can be bred by conventional means; it is just that it is quicker—the market would not see any great benefit from that. There has to be a pull factor for labelling, which would usually come as a result of added value, a health claim or a fortification, and the FSA and other bodies would already be asking for that evidence. If you are providing a claim on allergens or fortification with vitamins, the burden of compliance and providing that information will probably be much higher than anything that you do on precision breeding or gene editing labelling. The traders in the agri-supply business and throughout the supply chain would see no benefits whatsoever from labelling. In the trade, it would probably kill off a lot of the provisions in the Bill completely, because it just would not be economically viable to do.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q You have probably answered some of my questions already, but I am going to explore some of those points further. If I understood you correctly, the risk is that if we end up moving a bit more quickly than our European partners but it is not clear that we are getting to the same point, it is quite likely that the industry as a whole will look at it and think, “This is too expensive and too risky, so we will wait.” Is that your analysis?

Ed Barker:

It would depend on the approval processes set out by the FSA, in this case. Breeders, companies, developers and the market would look at the process to go through for receiving authorisation as laid out in the Bill, whatever it might be for—an environmental benefit, lower inputs at the crop end, or a fortification or a food benefit at the other end—and if they feel that it is too laborious and too challenging, and too much evidence or time is required to do it, it is very unlikely that those technologies will move ahead, so the implementation of this is really important.

We see it, for example, in the UK for certain minor use crops such as linseed, where a number of businesses have had to seek authorisation for individual farm protection products because they are essential for that particular crop. The problem is that it is often unviable to make that authorisation because the crop in the UK is such a small size. That does not necessarily mean it will always be unviable—far from it. It depends entirely on the role of the FSA and the approval processes that are set in place.

It could well be that UK markets are available for precision bred goods, whatever they might be. We have mentioned animal feed, but other food items and even non-food and feed products could have a genuine market uptake. For example, a retailer may well want to seek to remove or lessen the amount of soy in monogastric diets, and may look to work with a plant breeder to develop a crop that has a high protein source. That could be carried right the way through to the retailer’s end products. In those situations, I can see it as viable in the short term, but it depends on the type of products we are looking at and the type of markets we have in the UK.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q So you are saying it depends on the FSA’s approvals process. What would need to be in this Bill to give the levels of reassurance that you would be looking for?

Ed Barker:

In looking at the Bill, the experience of Canadian authorities has been very intuitive to the process in place, because they take an outcomes-based approach. Another area that we are very interested in is the time taken to reach approval. It would be really positive if we were to have a set time-specific limit on authorisations within that. A big problem that we have at the moment with a number of approvals for plant protection products or GM feed imports from South America is that we have a very indeterminate approval process in terms of time. That has caused a lot of problems in the past eight or nine months, when the market has not known whether or not we should be making purchases of GM goods from South America. That uncertainty over time and time lags is a real challenge for the industry, and I think that would be the case. Some certainty over time or statutory requirements on approvals, even a requirement or expectation of turnaround, would be very helpful. At the moment, that is making a lot of difficulty for the trade on existing GM approvals.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q One final question for the moment: to the lay observer, these flows backwards and forwards between different countries and within the UK are quite staggering. I may be pre-empting the next question, but, given the issues you have just talked about, how much will the different approaches taken in the different parts of the United Kingdom impact on your people?

Ed Barker:

It is a concern of ours that we have a difference in approach across the constituent parts of the UK, or certainly within England, Wales and Scotland. That does not necessarily mean that we should stop within the context of this Bill. What we need to know as a trade is exactly what can and cannot happen within, say, Scotland or Wales. There is uncertainty on what a grower can do. I am sure growers or even livestock owners in Wales or Scotland would be interested to know where they stand on purchasing seed, if we presume there is precision bred seed in England.

My understanding of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, having read through the House of Commons Library interpretation and the accompanying notes in the Bill, suggests that, if a precision bred product is placed on the market in England, it can then be sold in Scotland or Wales—obviously not in Northern Ireland, of course—but if I was a grower, or even a maltster or a miller in the supply chain, in Scotland or Wales, my first question would be, “Where does that stand with regard to regulatory compliance?” There are clearly areas within this Bill and within scope of the 2020 Act that, to my reading, potentially come into conflict.

What seed can you use if you are in Scotland? Can you use precision bred seed bought from England, for example? Can you feed your animals on precision bred animal feed purchased in England? Similarly, we have very integrated pig and poultry sectors for genetics, breeding nucleus herds that move around the UK quite significantly.

For clarity, either way, understanding what obligations or requirements are on businesses and farmers in each of those territories is absolutely key, because any ambiguity would create the risk that the industry and supplied businesses would take a risk-averse approach and not undertake to put in place any of the precision bred products that we may have opportunities to use.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26)

Q Ed, you seem to be suggesting that while the EU is retaining its approach to gene editing and GMO, the UK could negotiate on a product-by-product basis with the EU on any gene edited products it wished to export to the EU. Could you take us through that process? You say that FSA has to approve that. Would there be costs that could come about as a result?

Ed Barker:

Yes. At this moment in time, if you are an exporter to the EU you make an application for approval of a GM product; these products are mostly feed and predominantly from north and south America. These go to the EU and the UK as applications for approval as GM. This is something that has happened for quite some time. Only very recently have the FSA in England and the FSS in Scotland approved seven or eight GM feed varieties that originated from north and south America, mostly maize and soy, I think. So that is the current situation we have.

Our understanding and reading is that, because the European Union currently considers gene editing to be equivalent to GM, if you were developing a really interesting new high-protein crop, such as rye or oilseed rape, and you wanted to try to export that to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or the rest of the EU, then it would be considered as GM, for which, as we know, there is a much higher bar for approval in the EU. It is difficult to determine the speed and the turnaround of approval of the application for that product for those markets. That is why it would be welcome, if and when the Bill progresses, for us to have a clearer position about what happens when a precision bred product is approved by the Secretary of State in England, so that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Trade very quickly try to establish approval for it in the European Union as a GM product, because that is how the EU defines such products. We would not be able to export there without that approval, so having that followed up as quickly as possible would be very significant for the market.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26)

Q Without labelling and really strong traceability, what do we do regarding cross-contamination? How do we prove to Europe, while Europe is adopting its current approach, that the product has not been contaminated—I know that is a loaded word, but you know what I mean—by gene edited products when there is no traceability in the scheme and no labelling?

Ed Barker:

Is the question how does an EU importer know that what they are importing is complaint with EU legislation with regards to GM approvals?

Ed Barker:

The challenge that we often have, particularly with some GM products but also with gene editing, is that testing is very limited, which is a concern. For example, at the moment the prevention of imports of unauthorised GM varieties from south America to the EU is largely done on a chain of custody basis, because the liabilities involved for importing something that does not fall within the remit of the regulatory compliance within the EU is extremely high. The major importers are large, multinational companies that have an extremely high compliance burden placed on them, with the chain of custody and contracts supporting that.

Inspections take place and each company will have very clear audit trails regarding those supply chains, to keep reinforcing that, and that is what we would expect to happen in this case as well. I suppose you are potentially moving into what would happen if an individual company wanted to export a product knowingly. That would fall under existing regulations regarding fraud and claims based on export notifications.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I’m afraid that brings us to the end of the session. Thank you for your time and evidence.