Clause 18 - Precision breeding register

Part of Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 5 July 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:45, 5 July 2022

As I made clear on Second Reading, it is absolutely clear that consumers want information about what they are eating and where it has come from. Excellent research by the Food Standards Agency has found that most consumers think it is appropriate to regulate gene edited foods differently from genetically modified foods, but that they want transparent labelling, reassurance about the thoroughness of regulation and safety assessments, and consideration of animal welfare impacts. I suspect that we will talk more about that as we proceed with our consideration of the Bill. We have already discussed the animal welfare impacts, but clause 18 includes some important points on this front.

The clause will establish a publicly available register of precision bred organisms, which we welcome, and lays out the sort of information that the register might include, ranging from release notices to information provided by the welfare advisory body. However, the clause also states that the Secretary of State can disapply those requirements in the interests of commercial confidentiality, requiring only disclosure of the name of the notifier and a general description of the organism. Something tells me that quite of lot of applications will cite commercial confidentiality. Given the importance of transparent information to consumers, and the lack of any explicit labelling requirements in the Bill as it stands, the very least we need is a strong and publicly accessible register.

The importance of nutritional and allergen information was raised several times in our evidence sessions. Despite the Government giving a reassurance on nutritional labelling, these promises are not made in the Bill, so far as we can see, so the register is the only public source of information that is absolutely guaranteed within it. If a plant or animal has been gene edited so that its nutritional content differs from its natural content—we have talked repeatedly about tomatoes with high levels of vitamin D, for example—consumers might need to know about that. My constituent with a vitamin D allergy will need to know if she can no longer buy certain tomatoes. I pursued that with one or two witnesses in evidence, and we will come back to it.

Given that the register might be the only mechanism by which people can find that out, it is important that we consider more closely what it will contain and, in particular, how the commercial confidentiality provisions will work. If every application is subject to commercial confidentiality, the register really will not achieve the purpose that the Government have set out. However, as I tried to pursue with one or two witnesses, when we look at the impact assessment, we see that the purpose of the register is not so much to inform the public as to check whether more registrations are coming forward—in other words, to see whether the deregulatory intent behind the Bill has had an effect. We have not discussed that until now, but it seems rather different from what most of us understand the purpose of the register to be. There are issues with the register that we think will need to be revisited when it is introduced in secondary legislation. I suspect that the Minister will not agree and that the Committee will have to vote on this, but I will listen to her comments with interest.