Clause 11 - Application for precision bred animal marketing authorisation

Part of Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 5th July 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:15 pm, 5th July 2022

The measures all refer to the animal legislation, which, as we said at the beginning, we are not convinced was sufficiently developed. Nevertheless, we have some detail here so it is worth looking closely at what is proposed. Unfortunately, a lot is, again, left to secondary legislation under the negative procedure; given the likely interest in this topic, which I have mentioned often today, that gives us cause for concern.

Clause 11 concerns applications for precision bred animal marketing authorisations. Among the clause’s provisions is some pretty thinly laid out information about the associated requirements. A person who wishes to put a precision bred organism to market will have to apply to the Secretary of State for permission, and their application must include

“a declaration that the notifier does not expect the health or welfare of the relevant animal or its qualifying progeny to be adversely affected…by any precision bred trait”.

Ignoring for now the fact that, in our view, the Bill does not define what it considers to be adverse effects—I will come to that later—that is clearly pretty important to animal welfare.

The clause also states that an application for marketing authorisation “must be accompanied” by an animal welfare risk assessment, an

“an explanation of the steps that the notifier has taken to identify” any risks, and any other required information. That is all fine, but Committee members will remember some of the points made in the evidence sessions about the findings of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ public dialogue in respect of the public’s concern about genetic editing being applied to animals. Similarly, Professor Sarah Hartley spoke persuasively about the importance of getting the regulation right on this issue.

It is concerning that the clause contains such key provisions on animal welfare but the precise form and content of the information to be provided is left to secondary legislation. I still have several questions and, given the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, the Government have not taken the opportunity to publish draft statutory instruments and have not included detailed information on the provisions in the impact assessment, we are trying to proceed without knowing much detail.

Ultimately, the applications will be considered by the welfare advisory body, but it is not at all clear how that body will make its decisions, what its terms of reference will be and, frankly, who will serve on it. That is rather important. It is not clear what evidence the body’s decisions will be based on. We have already gone around the loop in respect of who the appropriate people are a few times today; I say gently to the Minister that in my experience as shadow Minister it is sometimes pretty painful to try to find out from the outside about some of the detailed questions in respect of how decisions are arrived at.

Let me give the example of the issue relating to neonicotinoids a few months ago. It was a very important decision, with considerable public interest and the same kind of set-up, with expert committees meeting, and there was an issue as to whether the advice was in the public domain. I think it took a freedom of information request from an advocacy organisation to get the advice. The Secretary of State was entitled to take his decision on the basis of that advice, but it was very hard for people to see what it was.

The point is that it seems to me that the Government are creating a similarly obscure set of processes that will take us down the road to the same difficulties, because it will be hard for the wider public or those who are particularly interested in such issues to get to the root of how decisions are made and on what basis. In the end, the problem with that is that it feeds public mistrust, because if people cannot see how the decision is made and on what basis, people will jump to conclusions that may well not be justified. The Government should be a bit more confident about these processes. We know that there is always an element of judgment in such decisions, and trade-offs, but if that happens without the information being shared with other people, people will inevitably be suspicious. That is why we are concerned about the process.

I shall move on. Clause 12 lays out further details on the reports that the welfare advisory body will be required to make in its consideration of an application for a precision bred animal marketing authorisation. It states that the welfare advisory body will have to determine whether the notifier, in its animal welfare declaration, has paid regard to the risks to an animal due to a precision bred trait, and whether the notifier has taken reasonable steps to assess those risks. All those things are fine, but they are all loaded phrases. Depending on how those things are phrased, any judgment made in reaching a decision will be different.

The Opposition do not think there is nearly enough detail in there, and that is why we have tabled a number of amendments. We are trying to set out through our amendments some of the processes and frameworks that we think the Government should have set out. It may be that the Government will do that, but we are not going to have an opportunity to test that.

Amendment 4 would require the welfare advisory body to undertake its own assessment of the potential impact of a precision bred trait on the health and welfare of an animal and its qualifying progeny. Part of the problem here is that without knowing much about what this body will be and what resources will be available to it, there is a concern that all it is doing is taking a proposal, written by an applicant, and making a judgment on the basis of what it has been told. It may well be that it would need to check some of the evidence presented to it.

This goes back to the questions we were discussing earlier around how much trust and good faith there is. In an ideal world, everybody would be making a submission and it would all be perfect—there would be no attempt to hide anything. However, I am not convinced that is what happens in the real world. People, quite understandably, want to get their application through, so they will present it in the best possible way. The new body needs to be able to interrogate that properly.

This is not always a benign world. It has come to my attention that some of the major players in this space are no longer entirely run from the UK. Some of them are Chinese-owned; I make no comment other than to point out that that fact clearly bothers some Members of this House in other contexts. We have to ask whether we are entirely sure that the evidence presented to the Committee can be taken at face value. If we want to interrogate that more thoroughly, how would we do that? We do not have any answers in the Bill as it stands. It is only right that we point that out.

Amendment 5 would require the advisory body to assess the welfare impact on animals where a precision bred trait is developed with the aim of achieving fast growth, high yields or other increased in productivity. That refers back to a discussion my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East had earlier; we know through traditional selective breeding that we have produced creatures that are highly efficient and effective in terms of food production, but there are genuine concerns about the welfare characteristics of some of the poultry and cows. The question is: if we can take it further and further, how far do we go? We think it is reasonable that the body should be able to assess that welfare impact as well. It is not clear to us that this would be part of the process. I am sure there are other safeguards in place that will allow that to happen, but we think that it would be better to include that in the Bill.

Amendment 7 effectively adds to that. Amendment 35 requires the welfare advisory body to consider welfare impacts on breeding stock. That is a further ramification; if we begin to develop animals in certain kinds of ways, I am advised that it can have an impact on breeding stock. With all those amendments, we are drawing out that there are potentially unforeseen and possibly unintended consequences to such developments, which we think should be addressed properly.

Amendment 36 requires the welfare advisory body to consider direct and indirect intended and unintended impacts in all these circumstances. It will probably not come as a surprise to hear that we have been informed in our thinking on these issues by Compassion in World Farming. I take its concerns seriously. It has highlighted that the Bill only really considers the impacts on health and welfare of the precision bred animal and its progeny, but it argues that the experience of selective breeding shows that altering an animal’s traits might have an unexpected impact on the health and welfare of the breeding flocks that produce future generations of the animal. In its view, those should be safeguarded too, and I rather agree.

In addition, many of the effects of selective breeding, as I have outlined, have been unintended. They include the susceptibility of hens bred for high egg yields to bone fractures and, indirectly, the inability of male turkeys bred to achieve heavy weights and a high proportion of breast meat to mate naturally. What we are saying—this is borne out a bit by the excellent work of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics—is that the system we have created through traditional selective breeding poses a range of problems and challenges. This technology could exacerbate those issues, and therefore we need to look at it carefully.

Finally, clause 13 concerns the issue of precision bred animal marketing authorisation. We would amend the Bill to tidy up that section with amendment 8, which specifies that the Secretary of State can issue precision bred marketing authorisation only if satisfied that there will be no adverse health or welfare impacts on the animal.

I am afraid that there are rather a lot of amendments relating to a number of clauses. We do not intend to divide on all of them, although on some of them I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response before we get into that particular set of complications.