Examination of Witnesses

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:06 pm on 30 June 2022.

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Professor Wendy Harwood, Professor Cathie Martin MBE FRS, Nigel Moore and Professor Mario Caccamo gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 4:31, 30 June 2022

Q Thank you and welcome to the Committee. May I ask you to introduce yourselves and your position, very briefly, please?

Professor Harwood:

Hello. I am Wendy Harwood. I am responsible for the group that focuses on crop transformation and genome editing at the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research Park. I am also a member of the Food Standards Agency’s advisory committee on novel foods and processes.

Professor Martin:

I am Professor Cathie Martin and I am also at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. I am also a professor at the University of East Anglia. I am a group leader responsible for focusing on the nutritional improvement of foods that we eat, and I have experience in trying to do that with GMOs and getting them through regulatory approval in the US. More recently, I have been involved in doing genome editing to improve vitamin content in tomatoes—my favourite fruit.

I should also say that the John Innes Centre is a member of the European Technology PlatformPlants for the Future”. Paradoxically, I am chair of the working group on new breeding technologies, which is a collective of academics, industry, breeders and farmers in Europe looking to lobby for changing the regulations in Europe.

Nigel Moore:

My name is Nigel Moore and I am the head of business development and strategy for KWS Cereals. KWS is a German-headquartered mid-sized company and we have a significant breeding activity here in the UK.

I have worked in plant breeding and seeds for more than 30 years now. I am a past chairman of the British Society of Plant Breeders and a past president of Euroseeds, the European seed association, where I am also discussing this topic regularly with Commission representatives.

Professor Caccamo:

Good afternoon. I am Mario Caccamo and I am the chief executive officer of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, or NIAB, which is a research and technology organisation based in Cambridge. We have more than 13 sites across the UK. We are an independent organisation, and we deliver field trials on those sites. We also have expertise within NIAB in genome editing and GMOs. Also, we work with breeders and we do breeding ourselves.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Thank you. We will finish this session at 5.10 pm. I will move straight to questions, but I ask our witnesses not to say if they agree with somebody; that just takes time. If there is a different point of view, we are interested in that.

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

Q Good afternoon everybody and thank you for taking the time to join us. I will start with Mario. I know that NIAB works with a range of partners across industry and academia. What effect do you think the Bill would have on research and the plant breeding industry? Where would you look to improve the Bill? What challenges or areas would you like to bring up?

Professor Caccamo:

I think there are two components to the question. First, the benefit is clearly in incentivising investment in human capital. There is a lot of expertise in the UK—we are global leaders. Investment has come from the public sector. Taxpayer money has been put in place to develop skills, and seeing those skills put into practice would be fantastic. I see that as the biggest benefit. I will leave that there because my colleagues here will probably bring in other points.

On concerns and improving the Bill, I think the Bill is very balanced in terms of the definitions. There is a space left open for how much downstream regulation might be required, which I think is probably unnecessary and not proportional to what we might want to achieve with the Bill. The principle behind the Bill is that we would like to consider genome edited crops in the same way as any other crop that has been bred using traditional technologies. With that in mind, we should look into anything that comes downstream in terms of how we use outputs from these technologies in a proportional way. There is probably space there to be less specific and include so much detail, which could potentially be a deterrent for industry if it seen as adding unnecessary steps downstream. That is my main concern.

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

Q Thank you. That is helpful. Moving to Nigel, do you think the legislation allows for enough transparency from breeders? Could you talk a little bit about the current seed system and whether we need to enhance the regulatory framework?

Nigel Moore:

Transparency is really important. As plant breeders, we do not have anything to hide. One thing that is often overlooked is that within the current regulatory regime around plant rights and seeds, there is already inherently a lot of transparency and traceability in terms of registering new varieties on national catalogues in the public domain, which will have had an identity check and at least two years of performance checking through DUS and VCU, which test for distinctiveness, uniformity and stability, and value for cultivation. The seeds of those varieties are then sold as certified seed with clear labels, with the variety name, batches, qualities, plant health status and operator identity all held within the seed certification regulation. We believe that allows a lot of traceability, so the transparency that is envisaged in the Bill of adding breeding method and genome edited varieties to the national register enables the market to segregate as it wishes.

Varieties will be suitable for markets or not. They can very easily select which varieties to enable within a standard, such as an organic standard. The one with the organic standard can say, “No, I don’t want to use variety A, B or C because it is genome edited”, and that is on the public register as envisaged in part 2 of the Bill.

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

Q Thank you. Moving to Professor Martin, in your current work researching the bio-fortified tomato—which, as you said, is your fruit of choice—what are the benefits of using gene editing techniques?

Professor Martin:

Really, getting something that might translate into a product. I am a fundamental research scientist. I want to do things that have social utility, and I believe very strongly in improving the number of plants in our diet because that benefits health. I started off trying to do this by genetic modification and we made purple tomatoes with their GMOs. Fourteen years later, I am about to get them approved for commercialisation in the USA. It has taken me 14 years to get to that point. For the pro-vitamin D tomatoes, because they qualify as having no foreign DNA in them, that means I can even start within 20 days of notifying DEFRA under the new legislation. I can have a field trial of them. I could not possibly have a field trial of the purple tomatoes, so for me, it is the realisation that this could actually be something we could give to people that would be better for them. It might actually happen.

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

Q I can almost feel your excitement. Thank you. To Professor Harwood, as a member of the advisory committee on novel foods and processes, which I think you said was your other hat, what are your thoughts on food safety in regard to the use of precision bred technologies? It is obviously of paramount concern to not only those in this room, but the broader population, as we have heard.

Professor Harwood:

I will just say that I am here in a personal capacity, not as a representative of the committee. Obviously, food safety is extremely important, and a lot of the things that the technology can do—we have heard many examples—are almost identical to things that could have been done using other methods, for example, through mutation breeding.

However, there are some things that the technology could do, and Cathie’s tomato is one example, and there are others, of where a change would be made. It would still be just a tiny change in the DNA—something that could have happened naturally, but has not happened naturally so far—but it is making a change that might cause concern for certain people in the population.

Another example might be something like a low-gluten wheat. You can imagine that this would be something that would need a bit of extra scrutiny. There might be a food safety issue there, so it would need to be looked at. It is very much looking at things on a case-by-case basis. You would need to pick out those things that would need that extra level of scrutiny and risk assessment from those that probably need very light-touch regulation.

Professor Harwood:

Yes.

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

Q Welcome to all of you, particularly the representative from NIAB. I have three quick questions, if we could rattle through them with each of you.

First, you will all recall the public confidence issues from 20 or 30 years ago, and that is one of the challenges now. I would like to hear whether you think the Bill has enough in it to reassure the public around some of those issues. Secondly, and in some ways related to that, most of you are plant focused, but this Bill obviously introduces animals, which is a very different set of issues and is, in some ways, perhaps more challenging. Do you think they should have been separated out? Thirdly, what do you think the public register will be used for and what benefit does it bring?

Finally, specifically for Cathie and Wendy, I had a constituent contact me, who has an issue around vitamin D being added to tomatoes. How will that constituent know whether these tomatoes have been modified in that way in future? It touches on Professor Harwood’s final point, and goes back to my initial point, on the question of labelling and reassurance. Where should that balance be struck?

Professor Harwood:

Shall I take the last question first? We have talked a lot about labelling. If there was something like a high vitamin D tomato, there would be a nutritional difference, which I imagine would be picked up on labelling. That would make sense.

Professor Martin:

You would probably want to advertise it.

Professor Harwood:

You probably would, yes. Where there is something that might be appropriate for certain members of public and not others, clearly you would want some sort of labelling.

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

Q But that is not in the Bill as it stands, is it?

Professor Harwood:

It is not, but I think that would probably fall under part 3, which looks at food safety. I imagine that it would be—not being an expert—covered there.

Professor Martin:

I want to expand a little bit on what Wendy said. What the Bill does is allow you to move forward with presenting examples. I have a real problem with trying to do a risk assessment on a technology and I know that lots of other people have said it should be on the trait, not the technology. It is a bit like 3D printing. Do we stop doing 3D printing or allowing people to do it because somebody could make a gun out of it? Or do we say, “We can make joints”? Okay, you can make joints by traditional methods, but you can do it much faster and better by 3D printing. Why do we not allow the technology and regulate the trait?

I absolutely agree about the pro-vitamin D enriched tomato that has never been considered before. There we have the regulatory system already in place from the FSA to consider it as a novel food. For environmental concerns, you take the specific edit that has happened and ACRE will assess. That is also why we want to do field trials. No person that is trying to produce improved varieties wants to produce something that is defective—it is just not in our DNA.

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

Not in yours, but possibly in others who are less public spirited.

Nigel Moore:

I think the critical answer to the question is that public confidence and reassurance is at the heart of the Bill, in the definition of a precision bred organism as something that could occur in nature or by traditional breeding. There are many genome editing methods that can create additional changes. Absolutely the key step to generating public confidence and reassurance is the recognition that the techniques that can create those sorts of changes do not create additional risk. The ACRE guidance on qualifying higher plants that accompanies the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2002 gave an extremely good evidence-based approach to which types of techniques create changes that could occur in nature.

The question is about an imprecise definition. We need the additional information to say, “These are the techniques that we confirm as PBOs—they are fine.” Public reassurance is at the heart of this and we must make sure that we only put into this regulatory regime things that have the same risk profile as traditional breeding. What is clear from listening to the discussion today is how little information is known about what sorts of genetic changes happen in conventional breeding, or about the scale of those genetic changes.

I brought with me the AHDB recommended list. I will not go into it, but if we were to look at it, we would see that there are 38 varieties of wheat on the recommended list for the UK. They have many different characteristics, including resistances, yields, qualities for processing and vastly different protein contents—there is a range of about 30% of different protein contents. You can see null-lox barleys that have a different framing characteristic in beer making. You can see non-GN barleys that do not create carcinogens in whisky distilling. There are many food-safety single issues all in this vast range of genetic resources that have been created by traditional breeding. There is a wide range.

People should have confidence that all the food and all the breeding has delivered not risk, but improvement, safety and better environmental outcomes compared with old varieties. There is a big misunderstanding about the position of precision breeding. The public confidence question is about information, education and transparency. For me, that is at the heart of what we are doing here.

Public confidence should also be triggered by a recent study on the socioeconomic impact of plant breeding, run by HFFA Research, and which studied all of Europe. It showed that over the last 20 years in the UK alone, breeding development has saved 1.8 million hectares from agriculture and delivered about 16 million tonnes fewer CO2 emissions than the same production at the same level 20 years ago. That is with no more fertiliser, no more crop protection and no more land use, so there is a huge benefit to the public. Can we keep pace with climate change, and with pathogen development on stripe rusts in wheat and so on, without going faster? We must go faster. Without new technology and innovation, I do not feel very safe. The world gets warmer, we get hungrier and we need innovation—and we need to do it fast.

Professor Caccamo:

I will be very brief. Labelling the technology would be a mistake. It would undermine the principle of the Bill, because these technologies should be indistinguishable from traditional breeding or something that would happen in nature. But it is also important to stress that these technologies are actually more precise, as the Bill says. Therefore, we are in a position whereby we can advance genetic benefits much faster. Trying to identify the technology through a labelling system would probably achieve the opposite with the public, because it would probably raise concerns about why we need to do that. I will leave it there.

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

Q I absolutely agree with you, Mr Moore. Public confidence and transparency around all of this is vital, but we have heard criticisms today that the category of “precision bred organisms” is not recognised anywhere else in the world and is not based on scientific criteria, which could potentially present problems for trade in these goods. Do you know where the term “precision bred” came from?

Nigel Moore:

I think we have developed it here, but the concept of things that could occur in nature or traditional breeding is exactly the same concept that is being discussed with the Commission. Health Canada has also come up with a similar concept. Does it have the same three-letter acronym? No, but that concept is the common concept.

Professor Caccamo:

I believe we are dealing with an anomaly, because what we are doing here is removing genome edited crops from the definition of genetically modified organisms. Countries that have adopted the technology have done a proactive measurement from scratch, whereby they considered genome editing to be a new technology that could bring new crops. The European ruling brought us into a position whereby we need to make an exception. That is the result we see in the Bill, which I consider, as I said, an anomaly.

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

Q Okay. I want to ask about clauses 6 to 9, which explain that applications for precision bred confirmation will be made to the Secretary of State by giving a marketing notice, and that he will then refer them to the advisory committee. For what seems to a layperson to be a fairly complex arrangement, it is rather lacking in detail. Do you feel confident that there will be sufficient protections in place, such as monitoring of persons who wish to apply for those confirmations? Do you have any concerns about that? Do you think that is an area that could be strengthened somewhat?

Professor Harwood:

I can have a go with that one. To be honest, this is obviously an area that is still being discussed. I fully support the notification system and the transparency, which is absolutely the right thing to do. Exactly what will be required in the notification is still being discussed, and it is very important that it captures the crucial information that would be needed to highlight whether there was anything that might just mean that that particular example needed an extra risk assessment rather than a light touch. It is something that I think is being discussed, and perhaps it just needs a little bit of extra detail.

Professor Harwood:

To be honest, I am not an expert on that. I would not like to comment on whether that sort of detail belongs in the Bill.

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

Q Okay. We have heard some criticism that there is not sufficient detail on the make-up of the advisory committee, for example, and concerns about not knowing who and what might be discussed on the board or the committee.

Professor Martin:

I have a little bit of experience of the notification for being able to do a field trial. The notification was very easy. I talked to my Italian collaborators and asked, “Can you get regulatory approval for growing plants outside in Italy?” and they said, “It will take two years.” It took me two days to notify DEFRA and I had to wait 20 days for that to be approved. However, it was thorough. They asked me about the type of information I had presented in a scientific paper and had peer-reviewed. It was based on strong scientific evidence. I felt that it was absolutely fair and just. It was fantastic that it was so quick, but it was absolutely right that they asked, “Have you shown that there is no foreign DNA?”, for example. That is the definition of the qualified—

Professor Martin:

You have to wait 20 days before you can start growing the plants outside after you have had your notification approved.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Q Just a follow-up to that: why can’t you do it for 20 days? What is happening during those 20 days?

Professor Martin:

It gives them a bit of time to look at your form.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Q I thought you said it had been approved, and then there were 20 days?

Professor Martin:

Let me just get this right. If you want to do a field trial, you have to say what day that would be. You have to notify them at least 20 days before you do that.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

If there are no other questions, I thank our witnesses for appearing and giving us such full answers. The Committee will meet again on Tuesday 5 July in Committee Room 11 to begin line-by-line scrutiny.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Gareth Johnson.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 5 July at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.