Examination of Witness.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:50 pm on 30 June 2022.

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Ross Houston gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 4:06, 30 June 2022

Our next witness is Ross Houston. We have until 4.30 for this session. Can you hear us?

Ross Houston:

Yes, loud and clear.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Excellent. Would you introduce yourself for the record, please?

Ross Houston:

I am Ross Houston, I am currently the director of innovation at Benchmark Genetics, which is an agriculture breeding company supplying genetically improved Atlantic salmon, whiteleg shrimp and Nile tilapia for various global markets. I am fairly recent to the role; in my previous role I spent 18 years as a researcher at the Roslin Institute as part of the University of Edinburgh.

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

Q Welcome, Professor Houston. Could you explain how you are using precision breeding in your work, and what the potential benefits might be for aquaculture in the UK—Scotland in particular—and across the world?

Ross Houston:

What we are currently doing is running family-based breeding programmes for genetic improvement of several traits in Atlantic salmon, whiteleg shrimp and Nile tilapia. Those traits, of course, include growth, but we are also focused on improving the resistance of the animals to infectious diseases. Some examples in salmon are sea lice and some viral diseases. That is not precision breeding as I understand it but family-based selection using genomic tools. We are undertaking research and development in the use of CRISPR.

I am talking to you from Norway because I was attending a project meeting where there are two large consortia—one Norwegian funded, by the Norwegian seafood agency, and one funded by the BBSRC, primarily geared towards using CRISPR as a tool to achieve substantial and possibly complete genetic resistance to sea lice in Atlantic salmon. The reason we are excited by those projects is that sea lice are currently one of the most pressing environmental, cost and animal welfare concerns for the industry. In particular, I would say that some of the treatment measures that we are using and, indeed, are obliged to use, have several downsides that I think we could potentially avoid if we were to develop resistant salmon that did not require those treatments. In so doing, we are not only improving the animal welfare but reducing the impact on the environment and improving the economics of the industry.

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

Q I will ask one further quick question before others have their chance. You explained that you are using CRISPR technology and the broader technologies, hence why in the Bill the definition is slightly broader. Will you define how fast this field is moving and spend a moment discussing the Bill and whether you think that we have the balance right to allow research? Arguably, the Bill is about enabling; it is not about that further piece down the line. Do you think that we have got it about right in the Bill, and that regulatory environment domestically and internationally?

Ross Houston:

The Bill is a welcome initiative. It has been really useful to have this debate and discussion, because we see that CRISPR or similar technologies can help us achieve traits that are of benefit to animal welfare and the environment faster than we could do with conventional breeding alone—substantially faster in some cases. That is why we are investing in it. That is why the research councils, Government and industry in general are investing in this technology.

This technology is developing fast, I agree. It is exciting to scientists involved in it. We are narrowly focused on using CRISPR to introduce changes that could potentially have occurred naturally, so I think that is a welcome part of the Bill, that we are mentioning that those changes could occur naturally, via natural mutation. We are adding to the genetic variation that we have in our toolbox to select for. The way I see it is that CRISPR would ideally be a tool in the toolbox alongside the technologies that we use currently to develop improved strains of salmon and other species for production.

I think that a register of precision breeding would be a reasonable measure. I would be worried about going too far in trying to identify whether any particular product contained any particular edit, for example. That might be disproportionately difficult and complex, and to my mind without any real scientific basis. I do see that, if you were changing the genetic makeup of a plant or animal to have some potentially different human health benefit, such as removing allergens or something like that, there might be a rationale for labelling that particular edit. In this case, however, I think that the register is reasonable, but that the practicalities of tracing through particular edits would make that very unattractive to implement in practice, because of the logistical impracticality of doing so.

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

Q Thank you for joining us this afternoon, Mr Houston. Aquaculture is slightly different—I assume you are talking about the farmed sector—as there is always the issue of escape and the impact that could have on the wider environment in our seas and oceans. How do we protect against that? Given the measures in the Bill, how do we check, or what is the authority that would be overseeing, to see whether there had been any impacts as a consequence?

Ross Houston:

Obviously, there are measures to try to stop escapees, but they happen from salmon farms. I think that CRISPR precision breeding technologies are a very promising route, and indeed the subject of much R&D, to ensure that the production animals are sterilised so there would not be any genetic introgression with wild strains. The way we are thinking about it, at least, is that we would be looking to farm sterile Atlantic salmon in the future. That is a desirable thing to do anyway, but in particular if we were to introduce gene editing in the future.

The other part to it would be, I suppose, the impact of issues such as sea lice, which I mentioned before, which could also impact on wild salmon. But, there again, that is within our toolbox, and the R&D is heading in this direction. That is what we would want to use the technology for: to try to tackle these problems in a sustainable, environmentally friendly and animal welfare-friendly way. So I see that these technologies have significant promise for reducing any potential impacts on wild Atlantic salmon.

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

Q I can see the potential benefits, but I am slightly worried about the potential risk in the wider natural world, and I do not see anything in the Bill as it stands to either monitor that or check that, or to provide sufficient safeguards. Can you reassure me?

Ross Houston:

Could you repeat the question, please?

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

Basically, I can absolutely see the benefits, but I can also see risks, and it is the risk side that I am worried about. What I am asking you is whether you can see anything in the Bill—I cannot—that provides a structure for monitoring and mitigating those risks.

Ross Houston:

I see the risks as very small, but I do not think that I am in aposition to comment on the detail.

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

Q That is fine. I am certainly not laying it on you; it is down to us to come up with the answer to that one.

Ross Houston:

Yes, but my practical point would be—this is the way we think about it—that we are aiming to ensure that there would be sterility of the farmed strains, and at least awareness of that potential risk of genetic introgression with wild strains, and essentially to eliminate that.

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

Q You will be aware, of course, that the Scottish Government want to wait until the EU’s consultation on gene edited products is complete, because they wish to retain regulatory alignment with the EU and there are concerns about the export of salmon, which is a huge sector for Scotland—and for the UK, for that matter—to Europe, and to France in particular. Given that you are in the sector and close to it, can you tell us about your concerns about that potential impact? If the EU retains its current opposition to gene editing, what would be the impact on UK products trying to get into the EU?

Ross Houston:

As I said, it is welcome that we are having this discussion, but of course most of the aquaculture in the UK is salmon farming, and most salmon farming occurs in Scotland. So from our point of view it is disappointing that we are not having similar science-based and open debates about the risks and benefits of these approaches in Scotland. The Scottish Government are also, via the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre, funding research that is looking to use CRISPR precision breeding technologies to tackle some of the sustainability concerns of the industry, such as resistance to sea lice and viral disease. Therefore, I think it would be welcome if we could have a similar discussion in Scotland.

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

Q Would you accept that, given the importance of Europe to the salmon export trade, it makes sense to wait to see what Europe is doing? I believe there will be some sort of response by next year. I am worried about the impact that moving ahead of Europe will have on salmon in particular.

Ross Houston:

There is maybe a double-edged sword there. The trade is not only with the EU, it is also with other countries. We are an international company; we have operations in Iceland and Chile, and we are selling our genetically improved salmon eggs to a very large number of countries. My concern would be that if we do not start having that discussion with some urgency, including in Scotland, then, bearing in mind that Scotland and the UK are at the forefront of R&D in this field, we might fall behind in the innovation landscape. The benefits of that R&D and innovation might impact on elsewhere in the world, while we are taking that cautious approach.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Q I was reading earlier this week about how in Japan they have been using CRISPR to change Japanese sea bream. I think the technicality is that you end up with bream that have 20% more meat, because it knocks out a protein that means muscle growth is supressed. Basically, there is less muscle in the fish and presumably more fatty meat—if that is what you call it on a fish. You mentioned the impact on human health earlier, and you mentioned allergies—that was with CRISPR rather than with gene editing—but to what extent do you see us getting to a situation where the finished product, the fish, is so changed that it is nutritionally a different product? To what extent do you think we would need labelling for that? Allergies are one thing, but I wondered about it from a nutritional point of view. People are often told to eat fish. Should it be marketed as something that is different?

Ross Houston:

Good question. I was using CRISPR and gene editing as synonymous—it is a gene edited product in Japan with the red sea bream. Those early examples are interesting, because they are markers that show that the regulatory environment is changing in countries such as Japan and some of the Americas. From our point of view, what we are doing here is running very advanced scientifically based breeding programmes. We are keeping 300 families of Atlantic salmon. With them we are pedigree recording, recording the genotype in each year, and recording lots of measurements relating to growth, disease resistance and fillet quality. We are doing that routinely, all the time. We are monitoring the important traits of our fish.

The R&D we are involved in is targeting gene editing to tackle issues such as resistance to sea lice in the salmon, resistance to a viral disease called infectious salmon anemia, resistance to a viral disease called infectious pancreatic necrosis—those are the targets of our research and development. In the foreseeable future—I could also go further than that—I do not see that we would be doing something similar to what you suggest in our breeding programme. We are able to improve growth and fillet characteristics through the process of routine measurement, family selection and scientifically based breeding programmes. It is quite straightforward to do it that way, and therefore it just would not be a sensible target for the technology in our case. We also see the public acceptance and customer preferences. The use of precision breeding technology to develop traits that have concurrent animal welfare, environment and economic benefits has to be what we are moving towards.

This sort of edit, where you are knocking out a myostatin gene and allowing for faster fillet growth, just is not on our radar. On the specific point about changing fillet characteristics, if you were perhaps trying to use gene editing to modify, for example, the fatty acid profile of the fish, with potential health effects for humans—hopefully it would target positive health effects—there might be an argument for it there. But I do not see the need with the sort of traits we are focused on and targeting; I do not see that the product would be any different, other than having the favourable trait of disease resistance, for example.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I want to try to get two questions in, very quickly.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

Q I will be very brief. There were tanks of fish when I was at university and I have seen the distress that sea lice cause to salmon. It is a problem that has been impenetrable to science, so I can see why that is exciting. My question, as someone who is going to practically implement this, is not necessarily about the technique for inserting the change, but about the thing that is concerning most people. How are we absolutely certain that we have made a very specific change and we have not missed a bit or left a bit of rogue DNA in the wrong place? Can you briefly talk about what you would do within Benchmark Genetics to ensure that, in the nicest possible way, you were getting what you had paid for?

Ross Houston:

I see what you mean. Of course CRISPR, the technique we are focusing on, is making a double-stranded cut to the genome and allowing the cells’ natural repair mechanisms to repair the cut and either introduce a small deletion or a small change, or possibly insert a synthetic template of DNA, which would essentially be changing the sequence in a slightly more precise way. There are a couple of parts to that.

In terms of the potential for the CRISPR molecule to make cuts elsewhere in the genome—called off-target effects—we would have to be doing some fairly rigorous DNA sequencing of our animals to ensure that we are not detecting any of those off-target effects. My opinion is that we are now getting very good data from research experiments showing that off-target effects are very rare, and as we learn more about the genomes of our species we are able to design the guide RNAs to take to a specific part of the region that is unique and precise. I see that as a very small risk, but also one that it is important to address.

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

Did I catch you saying that the Scottish Government are funding precision breeding work within your institute?Q

Ross Houston:

Yes. I moved job recently; I was working for a number of years at the Roslin Institute doing academic research together with industry. The Scottish Government centre, the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre, is funding projects using precision breeding technologies as a research tool with the goal of—

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

Q Brilliant. The “yes” was all I needed. Could you please expand? Professor Whitelaw, whom you must know very well, basically said that the value of moving now was that it enables us to enjoy the benefit of the R&D. You said we would fall behind. How would this affect our ability to potentially attract world-leading scientists from all over the world, some of whom I met at Roslin, to come and work with us on finding some of these solutions? Would it be detrimental if we did not move ahead?

Ross Houston:

Yes, of course. As I mentioned earlier, the Scottish and UK science base is really at the forefront of some of these technologies, moving through from genetics, traditional breeding, family-based selection, genomics and now gene editing. That is a real plus point for attracting researchers. If we were to stop unnecessarily, both in research and potential applications, then it is a fair assumption that we would lose talent to elsewhere, and I think we would also lose business to elsewhere.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Thank you. We will have to finish there, as we are out of time. May I thank you very much for your time and answers? We will now move on to the last panel, if they can join us at the table.