Examination of Witnesses

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 28th June 2022.

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David Exwood and Dr Helen Ferrier gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

We will now hear evidence from David Exwood, vice-president, and Dr Helen Ferrier, chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, both of the National Farmers Union. Thank you for coming this morning. I can see that you are both there—both our witnesses are appearing via Zoom.

Before calling the Minister to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We must also stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. This session will finish at 10.10 am. With all witnesses, I will first call the Minister and then the shadow Minister, before opening up to questions from others in the Committee.

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

Q Good morning, David and Helen, and thank you very much for attending this morning. I will start with a broad question, if I may. What are the views of farmers on precision breeding and how the Bill is likely to impact across both the crop and the livestock sectors? Perhaps we will go to David first.

David Exwood:

I think farmers welcome this Bill, because of the possibilities it offers. I am really clear that the big gains, the big changes, in farming are all around breeding. Yes, there are gains in productivity around my machinery, but really the exciting things in the future are all around breeding and the possibilities that brings, and the Bill will help with that.

For all my farming career, I have used pesticides as part of the process. I am very happy about that, but we now genuinely have an opportunity to produce as much food as we do now but with much less impact. So I think farmers welcome the Bill, which opens a world of possibilities and addresses the challenges we face at the moment. There is so much pressure on land use, and the ability to produce the same amount of food as we do now but with less environmental impact and more sustainably is something all farmers welcome.

Dr Ferrier:

Ultimately, the market will decide whether this technology is adopted here, but I think that, before that happens, the regulatory system and the legislative process will decide whether farmers and growers have access. The technology is clearly being developed around the world, and regulatory processes are being reviewed and put in place around the world. Farmers and growers are not going to be able to access the products of the technology and realise those benefits that David has talked about if companies are discouraged or regulation is not enabling. So the impact of the Bill depends on how well it is written and whether it will be proportionate and fit for purpose and will therefore encourage the investment of breeding companies that then enables farmers to adopt the products of the technology.

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

I have other questions, but I would like this process to be collegiate, so perhaps we should go to others, because they may ask the same questions as I will.

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

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our witnesses. I would like to go straight into a real-world example. One example cited of a possible real benefit is in the sugar beet sector. I come from the east of England; I am sure you are familiar with the issues in that region about neonicotinoids, virus yellows and so on. Could you talk us through the potential there, but also comment on the issues that might arise in trade terms if our friends, our European partners, take a different view and what the risks might beQ ?

David Exwood:

Virus yellows in beet is something carried by aphids into the sugar beet crop in the spring and it can have a dramatic effect on yield. We saw two years ago reductions of up to 80% in the beet yield in affected fields. So that is a real-life example of a pest that can dramatically affect the productivity of a crop. We produce about 1 million tonnes of sugar beet in this country each year, and that can be dramatically reduced through virus yellows.

Through precision breeding, we have the ability to breed in genes resistant to virus yellows so that the plant just will not be impacted and all the issues of neonicotinoids and using synthetic insecticides to try to control the aphids and control the impact of virus yellows will disappear. That is a real gain in an industry that clearly needs support and could be really impacted. That is the really clear gain and potential of this technology that the Bill will allow. And there is the point about the sustainability of that business. It is such a concentrated business in a certain area of the country.

To move on to the trade environment, this technology absolutely has to be one that is used widely. I am really clear that the EU is moving on gene editing and precision breeding; it is very clear about that. Actually, my greatest worry is that the UK gets left behind on this technology. The rest of the world is moving, and we need to move with it. We absolutely live, work and trade in a European environment and a world environment, but, given that the EU is moving, my concern is more that we get left behind, rather than us moving ahead of them and nobody coming with us.

Dr Ferrier:

Obviously, it is very difficult to predict, but the indications from companies are that, should this legislative change happen, it would be at least five years before products start come on to the market for farmers and growers to use. Clearly, the international trade impacts will depend on the harmonisation across trading partners in terms of the legislation in their jurisdictions. I believe that within the period necessary for those products to come on stream commercially, there will be much more harmonisation. As David said, that will also happen in the EU, which plans a legislative proposal by quarter 2 of 2023. We are not concerned about imminent trade issues, because no products are available for us to use at the moment.

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

Thank you, Mr Stringer. Mr Exwood, the Minister asked you about your members’ views. Have your members been surveyed on the Bill, and if so, what did they say? Is there a difference in views on this matter between, say, organic farmers or small family farms, and larger farmsQ ?

David Exwood:

Absolutely. We run our consultation process and work up our policy as one organisation that brings in all sectors—organics being one of them. I think everybody recognises the advantages of technology; everybody recognises the benefits that breeding brings. That goes for organic farmers and smaller farmers as well as large farmers. We have to co-exist alongside organic farming in all circumstances—we are very clear about that. We do not see that as a challenge; we already run slightly separate systems and it does not significantly alter business in any way.

The key element of the Bill for small farmers is that it is drafted in such a way as to make it as widely available as possible. It needs to be open to as many farmers as possible—that is how it will bring the most benefit. Breeding actually brings benefit to all farmers, and a good variety of wheat or sugar beet, say, is something that all farmers will benefit from, regardless of their size.

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

Q Do you agree that sufficient safeguards can be put in place to protect organic farms from what they might see as a sort of contamination—if I can call it that—from those products?

David Exwood:

Yes, I do. As I said, we run existing codes, and conventional and organic already co-exist. This does not change that in any way. We have to make sure that we are able to do that. There has to be a co-existence—I am very happy about that—which is a key part of our policy and our ask. I do not see the Bill as being a challenge to that.

Dr Ferrier:

The market for organic versus conventional or other systems currently enables segregation for different specifications that the market might ask for. We see that continuing to run as it does at the moment. When a buyer has particular specification, there is certification for organics. As we understand it, the certification for organics would not currently allow the use of precision bred organisms. Obviously, that could change, allowing for segregated supply chains, just as with food-grade versus industrial-grade oilseed rape, or with sweetcorn and forage maize, which are kept apart.

If you are getting a new variety of a particular crop, for example, and you grow a crop for seed multiplication purposes, the high-purity requirements for that seed are there and are managed within the supply chain. We see that continuing to apply for organic farmers.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Earlier, you were asked about our relationship with the EU on this matter, and you mentioned progress in precision breeding across the world. How does that fit together, where is most of the research taking place, and which countries should we look at to make comparisons with the UK?Q

Dr Ferrier:

Certainly, the most recent development in countries reviewing their legislation, and one that I think would be really useful for you to look at, is what Health Canada, the Canadian authority, has done. It has recently reviewed its legislation and put out some technical guidance. The key thing is that it confirms that precision bred organisms do not pose any additional safety risks compared with conventionally bred plant varieties. That is driving Canada’s regulatory process. It is not proposing different authorisation and risk-assessment processes. It does not believe that that would add any significant benefit for consumers or the environment, because the science does not show any additional risks—that is very similar to the European Food Safety Authority opinion from the end of November 2020.

Argentina is certainly a very interesting case. Since it has put in place proportionate and enabling regulations—such as those that the Government propose in this Bill—it has seen a real increase in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises and public-good breeding R&D activities taking products through that regulatory process, so that it is not just the preserve of the largest companies that are able to pay for and absorb any uncertainty in a less ideal or dysfunctional regulatory process.

Japan is another example of where a product—a tomato—has been through that process. In countries that put in place proper regulation, the actual process is functional and works well for the companies. Those countries then see investment in R&D and into commercial companies. That is bringing through the products. South America, North America and Japan are investing in this. It is interesting to see how quickly the science develops into commercial opportunities once the regulations are right.

David Exwood:

The challenges that we face as farmers in the UK—sustainability, climate change and so on—are the challenges faced by farmers across the world, and we are all looking for solutions to those problems. It is interesting that across the world, there is a move on this technology, which we are seeing quite widely. That is because everybody is looking for answers and solutions to the challenges that we all face.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the witnesses for their time. I want to turn to animals specifically, which some people are surprised to see included in the Bill so early on. Animal welfare charities are anxious that using gene editing to improve productivity and disease resistance could lead to more intensive farming. What would you say to thatQ ?

Dr Ferrier:

There is no evidence that that would be the case, but we understand that people have concerns about existing farming systems. We see that expressed, and we work hard to address it. To me, that is a separate issue from the Bill. We can have discussions about how to improve animal welfare, but I really do not think that it would be sensible, I guess, to design special elements of this particular Bill to address general concerns about farming systems.

The other important thing to be aware of is all the existing animal welfare rules and activities within Government and industry. Obviously the Animal Welfare Act 2006 applies, so we need not duplicate elements of that in the Bill, and there are codes of practice for each sector that are being reviewed all the time. Also, the action plan for animal welfare is in place, and the animal welfare pathway is being developed. We therefore think that concerns in the area, which are freely expressed, are being, and can be, dealt with through appropriate parts of legislation and industry action.

The Bill, which relates to just one particular technology, is not the place to address those areas. We have talked about the challenges. It is not just a challenge for growers of crops; there are a lot of difficulties that are climate change-related, and disease, health and welfare-related production challenges for farmers. There are genetic solutions to some of those challenges that we would like to see explored. We would like farmers to have the benefit of them, but we will only be able to explore them if the legislation enables companies to invest in the technologies to work out whether some of them could help. We can only see benefit from using this technology to address some of those problems.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Mr Exwood, do you want to add anything specifically on gene editing and animal welfare?

David Exwood:

I understand the concerns about animal welfare, but it is really important to say that with animals the ability to produce sustainability with less impact applies just the same as with crops. I have dehorned thousands of cattle in my farming career, and the ability to breed out horns in cattle is a clear gain for people and livestock. It would be good for everybody. I would be very happy if I never had to dehorn another calf again. I understand the nervousness, but there are things that this Bill will offer that are clearly a gain. It is wrong to assume that it will just lead to an intensification of production.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

We have already spoken this morning and asked a question about regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU. Your response was that you were not concerned about that so much as you were about the UK being left behind. Some of us are quite concerned about areas of the United Kingdom being left behind, given the Scottish Government’s reluctance thus far to look at doing the same sort of thing that we are doing, so I want to ask our two guests: do you have any concerns about regulatory divergence within the United KingdomQ ?

David Exwood:

Yes, we do have concerns. The main concern is that farmers across the UK should have access to this technology. I would urge that the gains we see are available to all. I understand the politics of the situation, but again I think that the fact that the EU is moving on this and has made clear signals about the direction of travel gives us some reassurance that across the whole continent we are moving to a different position on this technology. Therefore, the other countries of the UK should be looking to where everybody is moving and our market is moving, and think about how they might want to be in line, alongside what we could do in England.

Dr Ferrier:

To be honest, I think it is a real shame, because clearly some of the best scientists and geneticists are operating in Wales and Scotland. There is a real strength. A lot of investment goes on under our devolved Administrations to invest in the science, but in order for there to be a return on that investment, it needs to lead to some kind of commercial adoption. It is a real shame for those scientists to consider that their work will not go beyond the lab if those Administrations’ positions remain the same. I do not think this should be a political issue, because it is about recognising a technology that has a lot of potential to do good things for the environment, society, animals, and farmers and growers; it would be a shame if it were a political issue. We will see. Time will tell whether movement within the EU—which certainly for the Scottish Government, as you know, is a key place where they are looking to see what approach they should take—will change the position. It would be a shame if this were derailed for political reasons when the issues are not political.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Would gene editing give us the ability to grow things in this country that we currently cannot? I am thinking particularly of the situation as we adapt to climate change. Is it the case that there are there crops that, because of weather conditions, soil conditions or whatever, do not flourish in the UK, but where this would mean we might be able to enter those markets in the futureQ ?

David Exwood:

A key example might be soya beans. The current situation is that people have tried over a number of years to grow soya beans. Clearly, it is desirable to grow more of our own homegrown protein, but given that that is quite difficult, it is the sort of opportunity that this technology could give us—the opportunity to make varieties better adapted to our climate, so that we can grow such crops. I do not want to promise too much, but clearly breeding, as I said, offers some of the big solutions in the future. It is those sorts of solutions that we perhaps cannot quite see yet but that may well help us to be much more sustainable in what we do.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q Is the UK is geared up for research into that side of things? We do not put an awful lot of money into food research and research on crops. I do not want to put words into your mouth. It is one thing for the opportunity to be there. Do you think that we are actually geared up for making the most of the opportunities?

Dr Ferrier:

We have really excellent scientists. We have some really world-leading plant science organisations here. An example is NIAB in Cambridge, as Daniel Zeichner will know very well. The scientific capability is certainly there. Obviously, it needs funding, and increasingly research funding is seeking to enable impact from research—impact beyond the academic world, but on society and the economy. Based on that, if research funders see that there is a route to market eventually for the science that they are funding, that will increase the investment in research and development. Of course, the statutory instrument passed a few months ago will enable and make easier the R&D for these particular technologies, which is a good first step. Then, if we have a clear route to market, that will be a further incentive to explore those funding streams.

Of course, with funding comes greater capability, because research organisations are then able to recruit the best researchers. When we were doing our consultation of our members on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation last year, we had scientists come and talk to our members, including a wheat scientist from the John Innes Centre, who explained the science he was doing and the potential for that to address some of our members’ challenges. We have seen in the food White Paper the reference of protein crops and finding ways to get sources of plant-based protein. Some considerable investment in R&D is required in order for that to become a greater commercial proposition for growers in this country.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Organic food was mentioned earlier. In shops and supermarkets, organic food tends to attract a higher price than other food. Where would the costings of genetically modified food sit? Would it sit between those two or lower than the current standard food price, if you will?Q

Dr Ferrier:

I guess we are talking about a new, not genetically modified food. I have not done a comparison of current GM foods on the market—the chocolate bars and the oils, for example—so I am not sure where they sit. Organic commands are premium partly because of the greater cost of producing organic. Maybe David could talk about that. On potential products that might come through precision breeding, it depends on the product. I think there is potential, as we have already seen with some conventionally bred products, such as a broccoli with higher antioxidant levels or eggs high in nutrients, for some premium products that have nutritional benefits, but initially there may not be any difference in the final price in shop.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

When you say any difference, is that from “normal” food or from organic food?Q

Dr Ferrier:

From conventionally produced wheat, for example, for baking a conventional loaf. It depends on the products that come through. It is difficult to judge, but there are examples, such as a heart-healthy tomato in Japan that has an extra benefit that may command a premium in shops. It is very difficult to tell. I think organic always has that premium. As I said, currently that premium will include the fact that they do not use biotechnology. They do in some of their veterinary medicines, for example, but I mean in the actual production of organic food.

There is a premium for organic. I do not know whether there is a premium for GM or if it is cheaper. Clearly, if it is easier to grow a food product, there is potential to pass that on to the consumer. One relevant element that we may come to later is other requirements around the marketing of precision bred organisms. For example, extra labelling always increases the cost of getting food on a shelf. That could be a cost for the final consumer.

David Exwood:

Could I just add to that? It is worth pointing out that, rather than perhaps massively increased yields, what this will increase is the sustainability and reliability of crops. Being able to grow crops consistently with less volatility is the real gain here. You will not see wild swings due to crop impact, or maybe a pest impact such as we were talking about with sugar beet earlier. Its sustainability is the great offer, and that is clearly a real advantage at a time when the global food supply chain is under pressure. That is probably one of the main advantages offered by this technology.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Q Just to finish off on that point, then, obviously worldwide prices of grain and wheat—whichever staple it may be—have grown considerably with the situation in Ukraine. Would this actually disassociate itself from those prices, or is it still totally reliant on world events, no matter what the sustainability and yield may be in the UK?

David Exwood:

It is really interesting. What is happening in the world grain market is a coincidence of problems: the political situation in Ukraine, obviously, but also production problems in the rest of the world. We have serious drought in the US midwest and problems in India, so it is that combination of climate and politics that has created the current spike in prices. Clearly, for example, if we can breed varieties that are more drought-tolerant, that will help with the food supply chain. Again, it has the potential to offer quite significant gains in the sustainability of our food supply.

Dr Ferrier:

It is many years away, but I am sure these kinds of shocks will return. Obviously, whatever happens with this Bill, we are not going to have an immediate silver bullet to answer our current issues and shocks within the supply chain.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I have three Members indicating that they want to ask questions, and we have nine minutes left, so the time allocation is fairly obvious.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

Thank you to the witnesses for the excellent information so far. Obviously, you represent NFU England. This is an England-only Bill, and we welcome the opportunity for devolved Administrations to take part in the process, but I was wondering, from an NFU perspective—this is for Mr Exwood—what engagement have you had with your counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for example? Is there any divergence at all between the different NFUsQ ?

David Exwood:

I can make you aware that my counterparts—the presidents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—wrote to their respective Ministers in support of the Bill, and urged them to support this legislation. I hope that gives you comfort that farmers across the UK see the benefits of the Bill, want to have access to this technology, and are urging—as Helen said—that politics should not override the clear gains here. Yes, we have consulted: we all agree as the four unions, and we would all like to see this technology adopted and available to all farmers in the UK.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

Q I have another question, if I may, for Dr Ferrier. I think you said something earlier in response to Deidre Brock’s question about being able to keep gene edited crops separate from organic crops, for example. Are the quality control measures that are already in place—separating seed barley from feed and malting barley, say, or different varieties of seeds and suchlike—enough to provide the safeguard that people may be looking for?

Dr Ferrier:

Yes, they are. We are having to ensure that at the moment, as I said, the certification requirements are obeyed and can be delivered on. It is the same as for other things that the organic sector cannot use that the conventional sector can, or for certain specifications, so I definitely believe that the current segregation arrangements would also apply here, enabling that certification rule to be followed.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

I would like to come back to the labelling, which Dr Ferrier touched on. Why is the NFU opposed to this? I have heard the argument about costs being a key issue, but I would have thought that, with a new technology, you would want to achieve public confidence. Transparency and—dare I say it?—genuine consumer choice would be something that you would want initially, as the public came to terms with something scientifically different from anything else that they may have come across in recent years. Why would you be opposed to that transparencyQ ?

Dr Ferrier:

We are definitely not opposed to transparency, and we are very much in favour of the notification arrangements that are set out in the Bill. That is something that we worked with Government on over a period of time—to be able to have a system within the supply chain, from breeder all the way along, as far as it needs to go, so that the supply chain is aware of the particular breeding technology used. That enables the transparency and the traceability to be there.

We are also not opposed to labelling, as such, because a lot of voluntary, market-led labelling exists already, outside of the statutory system, enabling a retailer, manufacturer or producer to alert the public to something that it particularly wants them to see to try to persuade them to buy that product. Market-led labelling is definitely something that could be achieved, if the market demanded it at the point where products were being used, because we have the notification transparency system within the Bill.

We are opposed to statutory labelling—I guess that position is in line with DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency—because there is no scientific basis for statutory labelling for products that could have been produced through conventional breeding or natural mutations. We therefore believe that, actually, it would be misleading for consumers to have products that were labelled as different when they are not different from their conventionally bred counterparts. We are pleased to see that in the Bill—that any marketing of these products must not mislead the consumer. Of course, the food information to consumers regulations mean that producers of food cannot mislead consumers anyway. So, there is not a scientific basis for statutory labelling, and it would not benefit the consumer. It is really about the safety of the food, so it would not apply to this particular technology because all of those authorisation processes would be in place.

On consumer surveys, which are often quoted, if you ask, “Would you like this particular thing to be labelled?” consumers will generally want that. However, with lots of other breeding techniques, such as radiation-induced mutagenesis, polyploidy induction—don’t ask me to explain what that means—or somatic hybridisation, if you asked consumers “Would you like to see that on a label if it is being used?” they would say yes. We need to be led by the science of whether these products are actually different if you are going to put a statutory labelling requirement in place. If the market wants to label when the time comes, that will certainly be possible with the transparency arrangements in place.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Q There is an argument for greater transparency in food production, not less. I am struggling with the NFU’s position of leaving it to the market. Markets can do lots of things, but the reason we are here, as regulators and legislators, is to try to ensure that this has public confidence. I would have thought that the NFU would want public confidence on this. If this were the same as other food production mechanisms, I could just pack up and go home now because I would not need to be here, but clearly there is an issue. I am trying to tease out why you do not think that transparency is needed. You have made your case and your arguments, so nothing more needs to be said, unless you want to add anything in the 15 seconds you have left.

Dr Ferrier:

I just do not think labelling is a way to deliver policy. It is very blunt.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Thank you, Dr Ferrier and David Exwood, for your time and valuable contribution. We now move on to our next witness.