Clause 11 - Application for precision bred animal marketing authorisation

Part of Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 5th July 2022.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 2:45 pm, 5th July 2022

The Minister has gone into a lot of detail already as to why she does not support Labour’s amendments. I am not sure that I will be able to change her mind or whether she has another speech put to one side in case I make such a compelling argument—I suspect not—but I will get it on the record anyway.

My starting point is that I was rather concerned about how often she mentioned regulation, further consideration, talking to stakeholders and all those things that are yet to be configured. Actually, we have time to get the Bill right, to get things on the face of it and not to rush into it, rather than having such reliance on secondary legislation. We have made that point already and will, no doubt, continue to do so as we go through the Bill. However, it is a major concern.

I want to say once again for the record that I see that there are positives that could result from gene editing of animals. I am not totally against that. We have talked about improving resistance to disease, resistance to heat and the ability to breed selectively by gender. For example, 29 million male chicks are killed each year in the UK—in the UK it is by gassing, but in other countries it is maceration, which is a pretty horrible process by which they go along a conveyor belt and end up in a grinder that shreds them to bits—so we could avoid that. Interestingly, although people are keen to talk about how we are ahead of the field in animal welfare, parts of Germany have banned culling of male chicks, France has put a bit of money into it, and Germany introduced a ban at the start of the year. It is now all in-ovo testing, so editing the gene might be a quicker and cheaper way of doing it. However, let us not pin all our hopes on this Bill. That is something we could be doing without gene editing. I am surprised that we are not following France and Germany’s lead.

Another advantage we heard about is avoiding the need for dehorning, by preventing the growth of horns. That is all very good stuff, but we also heard about concerns, including the increased yields in particular. That is something that I would be very concerned about. Peter Stevenson from Compassion in World Farming said:

“The science about the detrimental impact of selective breeding on just about every main farm species is utterly clear.”––[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Public Bill Committee, 30 June 2022; c. 101, Q163.]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, some of the things that I have mentioned in the course of debate I will mention again in a moment.

The National Farmers Union said that the Bill is not the place to consider animal welfare and positive or negative outcomes in that respect, because we have legislation such as the Animal Welfare Act and the farm animal welfare codes. I have already made clear my doubts about the effectiveness of that. Some of the witnesses that we heard from argued very convincingly that the existing animal welfare regime does not offer enough protections. Peter Stevenson also said that

“it is vital that there is something in this Bill to protect animal welfare, because the current legislation…has really very little on breeding, which is why we have all these problems.”—[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Public Bill Committee, 30 June 2022; c. 108, Q173.]

I have already mentioned the secondary legislation. Amendment 13 is very important, because if applications are being made for the marketing of gene edited animal products, we need oversight of the related regulations. Otherwise there is a risk of a lax regulatory regime that lets applicants mark their own homework.

I noted the Minister said that the welfare advisory body could request extra information and decide whether the notifier had taken due account of the risk, and that it would be expert enough to know that. I also note that the welfare advisory body would also be told what metrics to include. However, the Minister went on to say how those arrangements would be set out in regulations, and that is of concern to me. At the very least, those arrangements should be subject to affirmative statutory instruments, rather than negative SIs, as set out in the Bill.

The role of the welfare advisory body needs to be fundamentally strengthened. As things stand, the onus is on the people who make the application. Compassion in World Farming notes:

“The way it is written puts the applicant in the driving seat—playing the lead role in determining which welfare risks will receive primary consideration.”

Instead, we need the welfare advisory body to be put in the lead. It goes on to say:

“The Bill must require the advisory body to carry out its own independent far-reaching investigations into the possible welfare risk. It should not be fettered by just what the applicant has said.”

I appreciate that the Minister has said that the welfare advisory body could ask extra questions, require more information and so on, but we all know when regulatory bodies are under time constraints, under-resourced and have an awful lot to get through. I would feel far more comfortable if the welfare advisory body’s primary role was to make the assessments rather than just to respond to what other people tell them. I do not know whether the Minister can give further assurances that that body would indeed be able to investigate.

It is not just about having the powers to do investigate, but having the resources. On paper the Environment Agency has a huge number of powers and can do all sorts of things, but in practice it does very little of what it is charged to do. I am concerned that the welfare advisory body would operate in the same manner.

Amendment 4 would give the welfare advisory body the power to make the welfare assessments and, crucially, to do so with reference to expert scientific advice that takes into account similar traits in other animals. That is a much stronger approach than that proposed.

The issue of yield was raised in our evidence sessions, and I referred to it on Second Reading. We already know how much suffering the explicit aim of increasing yield and speeding up growth has caused to animals through natural breeding techniques. Chickens now grow over twice as quickly as they did 60 years ago, and are bred to be so heavy that they cannot support their own weight, breaking their legs, and living a short life of agony. The same could be said of stock on turkey farms where the birds are bred to be absolutely enormous. Chickens often suffer from cardiovascular diseases, and are bred to produce 300 eggs a year, compared with 20 a year, which was the yield from the wild birds from which they descend. That also makes chickens vulnerable to bone fractures. They are simply not meant to yield so much, and have been designed to do something that is a million miles removed from their natural state. That has all been done through natural breeding techniques, but it is questionable whether they should be forced into that state.

In the past 40 years, the milk yield of cows has more than doubled to around 22 litres a day. That is obviously far more than cows would naturally produce if they were just feeding their calves. There are issues with mastitis for a start, and cows are becoming unfertile extremely quickly as a result of intensive milking. In the wild, a cow’s natural life cycle would be about 20 years, but when raised under intensive farming conditions, it is three or four years. All of that has happened through natural breeding techniques but that is incompatible with good animal welfare, because we are literally squeezing as much as we can out of an animal. Its life is massively shortened because of how it is treated. With gene editing, I am concerned about whether we are expecting to increase yield beyond 22 litres a day. What exactly are we expecting to get out of cows?