Clause 3 - Restrictions on release of precision bred organism in England

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 5 July 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:30, 5 July 2022

I beg to move amendment 32, in clause 3, page 3, line 35, at end insert—

“(c) the organism has been developed for or in connection with one or more of the following purposes—

(i) producing food in a way that protects or enhances a healthy, resilient and biodiverse natural environment;

(ii) growing and managing plants or animals in a way that mitigates or adapts to climate change;

(iii) producing food in a way that prevents, reduces or protects from environmental hazards;

(iv) protecting or improving the health or welfare of animals;

(v) conserving native animals or genetic resources relating to any such animal;

(vi) protecting or improving the health of plants;

(vii) reducing the use of pesticides and artificial fertiliser;

(viii) conserving plants grown or used in carrying on an agricultural, horticultural or forestry activity, their wild relatives or genetic resources relating to any such plant;

(ix) protecting or improving the quality of soil;

(x) supporting or improving human health and well-being;

(xi) supporting or improving the sustainable use of resources.”.

This amendment would require that a precision bred organism has been developed to provide a public benefit, if it is to be released into the environment.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Amendment 10, in clause 4, page 4, line 24, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”.

Clause 4 stand part.

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

Amendments 32 and 10 concern the requirements for releasing a precision bred organism. I go back to my mantra—we are pro-science and pro-innovation. We want to find ways to maintain and improve the efficiency, security and safety of our food system, while addressing the environmental and health damage that the modern food system has sometimes created.

In our view, the UK has the opportunity to create a world-leading regulatory framework that others would follow and that provides a clear public good. We recognise that the laws need to be updated to match current scientific understanding, as we talked about earlier. We want our scientists to succeed, and we want them to use their skills for good here in the UK.

To get the legislation right, the Government must balance several risks and benefits. Without consumer and business confidence, we fear we will not see that innovation happening here in the UK and we will not see the subsequent improvements to environmental sustainability and better food security that we all seek.

We want the UK to prioritise innovations that provide public benefit and prosperity. There are so many good examples happening across the country, including in my constituency of Cambridge. The Minister has already referred to the many examples presented to us in the evidence sessions last week. I pay tribute to the passion, expertise and dedication that all those people bring to their work.

I was particularly struck by the evidence given by Bill Angus, in which he noted the motivations behind the work he does as a wheat breeder and as vice-chair of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico, and the passions that drive it. Likewise, Professor Giles Oldroyd gave compelling evidence on the work being done at the University of Cambridge, focusing on improving the sustainability of farming systems and, in particular, removing the need for inorganic fertilizers. Those are clearly areas where gene editing could bring significant benefits for environmental sustainability and in reducing food insecurity across the world. Those should be the innovations that are championed.

However—there is always a “however”—we also heard evidence that while gene editing could be used for good, it could be used for ends that to many of us do not seem so desirable. I found the evidence from Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming very persuasive. Here I am thinking of some of the harmful impacts that, sadly, traditional breeding methods have wrought on different animal species, whether that is farm animals that have been bred to produce high yields, which shortens their lifespan, or companion animals such as dogs, which have been bred to have bodies so small that they can barely sustain their internal organs. There is a risk that the Bill could be used to breed animals in a way that meant they would suffer more or be made to tolerate harsher conditions.

There is widespread agreement across the House that we are proud of the animal welfare and environmental standards that we have in the UK, but we know that not all countries around the world share that ethos or those aims, and that they might have different intentions for these new technologies. The question we pose in our amendments is, how can we ensure that the technology is used for good here in the UK, and who decides what that good might be?

The Bill includes some animal welfare tests, which we welcome—we shall discuss them in more detail later—but that is about it. There is a question in my mind: is development of further herbicide-resistant crops allowing more herbicide to be used, not less, what we really want to see? I do not think so. Are there tests in the Bill to stop that? That is where, again, I worry. I am not convinced, although I am happy for the Minister to point those tests out.

Our amendments propose something more explicit. Amendment 32 would create a public benefit test before precision bred organisms could be authorised and released. An organism would have to have been developed for any of the purposes described in the amendment, and I am sure all members of the Committee agree that that is an excellent list. Sharp-eyed Members might think that they have seen the list before. Labour Members are keen recyclers, and Government Members will be delighted to know that those worthy goals have been lifted from the Agriculture Act 2020. The added benefit is that that makes it all much easier for Conservative Members to support all this. What is not to like in the proposal?

The amendment would ensure that we got the most out of the Bill. As Professor Sarah Hartley of the University of Exeter said in evidence:

“The Bill enables science to develop in this area, but it does not enable us to direct the science and technology towards doing any good. That would require a different form of governance.”––[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill Public Bill Committee, 30 June 2022; c. 123-24, Q193.]

That is the key point, but there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that that will happen. Members might remember the exchange I had with the scientist who is developing the tomato with added vitamin D. I love the enthusiasm of scientists, which is fantastic, but they are great optimists in many ways, and they assume that everyone is, like them, developing positive stuff that will be good for the world. I hate to enlighten them about the fact that there are people out there who do not take exactly the same view.

When making legislation, we have to ensure that, as well as welcoming those who are undoubtedly trying to do good, we guard against those who are not. Amendment 32 would strengthen the Bill, harness the good that can be created through such technologies, and properly encode the Government’s stated aims for the Bill in the text itself.

Amendment 10 concerns the notification requirements for the release of a precision bred organism. The secondary powers in clause 4 are important, as they will specify the information that a notifier is required to disclose before releasing a precision bred organism. That is important not just to ensure that concerned members of the public remain informed, but also for what is termed “co-existence”—the ability of organic growers to maintain the integrity of their product.

We heard evidence from representatives of the organic sector. They made it clear that they cater to a group of people who do not want to see genetically modified or edited organisms in their food. Whatever our wider view of the Bill, I think we can all agree that those people have a right to that choice. With thorough information in release notices, organic farmers can make informed decisions about their crops or animals, take the necessary measures, and track their supply chain. That is an important set of issues, and given the clause’s importance, we believe that any powers created through it should be properly discussed and given proper scrutiny by this House rather than being waved through.

I fear that we will make a number of similar points as we discuss whether legislation should be decided via the negative or the affirmative procedure. It would have been helpful and desirable for the Committee to have had details on the powers, rather than being asked to give the Government a blank cheque to do what they think is best. In the absence of any detail, I think that we should be able to debate and scrutinise the secondary legislation when it is laid before the House. That is what amendment 10 would secure.

Although we will not necessarily press both amendments to a vote, I think amendment 10 is sufficiently significant for us to divide the Committee, but let us see what the Minister says.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

In speaking to amendment 32, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge quoted oral evidence. I had a bit of a Twitter conversation with David Rose, professor of sustainable agricultural systems at Cranfield University. He was due to give evidence but could not because of ill health. Professor Rose said that the Government have not considered how the Bill will lead to more sustainable agriculture, and that, although gene editing does have potential, it could, if used badly, make agriculture less sustainable.

Professor Rose posed a number of questions. What is gene editing for? That goes to the very heart of what the Committee is trying to nail. Who benefits? Will it reduce chemical use? Will it facilitate further monoculture? Will it intensify animal protection? The fact that those questions and concerns exist mean that gene editing could be used for good or for bad, so it would be helpful to have a public interest test in the Bill.

The Agriculture Act 2020 contains very clear tests on public money for public good, and establishes quite a clear idea of what is regarded as a public good in food and farming—certainly in how people farm their land, although not so much on the animal side of things. There is concern, however, that the Government are rowing back a little on that agenda as they start to consider how to distribute subsidies to farmers.

As we look at the more technical side of things, it would be good to reiterate that the Government do see that there is a need to promote the public good with regard to this legislation. Sue Pritchard, chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission—with whom I am sure the Minister is familiar—agreed with Professor Rose, saying that his comments were “consistent” with the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission consultation response; she also agreed that DEFRA must anticipate good and bad consequences. That is our concern: while we have heard lots about the potential, it is just not clear that the safeguards are there against potential misuse of the legislation.

Finally, Joanna Lewis, the policy and strategy director at the Soil Association, said to the Committee that

“It is really important to emphasise the very legitimate public concerns about the fact that breeding as a whole—plant and animal breeding—has been on an unhelpful trajectory that is not up to the challenge of the Government’s goals on sustainable farming transition.”––[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Public Bill Committee, 28 June 2022; c. 56, Q92.]

I think that what she meant by that is that, on the one hand, the Government are talking about trying to promote a more sustainable approach, about the public goods in the Agriculture Act, about the relationship between farming and nature and about animal welfare, all of which are good. At the same time, though, when we look at what is actually happening in our food and farming system, there is a move towards more intensification and more industrialisation, which is not a good thing. There are real concerns about the impact on animals as we move towards an American or Australian-type system, where animals are kept in conditions that we frankly would not want to see here. I do not want to get into the whole debate about the imports of those products again.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire 10:45, 5 July 2022

Can the hon. Lady provide the Committee with more evidence for her assertion that we are moving to an American or Australian system of farming? None of my farmers want to deviate from any of their world-class standards, so I am curious about where she gets that idea from.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

We have seen planning applications, for example, for huge pig farms where there have been lots of concerns about the impact on the local environment. One of the problems is that although those planning applications can be rejected on the grounds of the environmental impact—slurry leaking into the soil and the water supply, for example—they cannot be objected to on animal welfare grounds. There are quite a lot of examples of that happening. I have also been to chicken farms with high numbers of chickens kept in close confinement and a high turnover, as it takes 28 days to bring a chicken up to market weight. My concern is that if gene editing allows us to accelerate that process even further, the sheer number of animals involved could lead to welfare concerns.

There were also some very good arguments that gene editing could reduce the need for antibiotics. It would allow us to deal with disease at source, so we would not have to worry so much about disease spreading. Obviously, reducing antibiotics use would be very good, given the impact it can have on human health if it leaks into our food supply chain. At the same time, though, if we are less worried about disease spreading among animals because we have managed to breed out that concern, that could open the door in some sense to putting an awful lot more animals in close contact and, perhaps, not being as worried about husbandry.

I think it is very good that, for the most part, British farmers do not want to go down that American route. We had that argument over the Agriculture Act and the Trade Act 2021—about protecting standards and trying to support British farmers who do not want to do that. That is a very good thing. However, given the possibility that British farmers will have to compete with imports that are produced to lower standards, there may be some who do want to go down that route. We see that with some food producers because they want to be able to produce more cheaply.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, scientists want to do the right thing and use gene editing for the right purposes. By and large, farmers in this country also want to do the right thing and farm to good, sustainable standards. However, if market forces are against them, there will always be the temptation to take advantage of being able to put animals in close contact; there will always be some people who choose to do that. I do not see the harm in trying to have safeguards in the Bill to prevent that. That is not to say that everyone will try if the safeguards are not there.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I am struggling to see where the evidence is that, through the passage of the Bill, our animal welfare standards, which are covered by other legislation, would somehow be cancelled out.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

When we discuss clauses 11 to 13, I might raise some examples of where I am concerned about animal welfare standards. I do not think the farm animal welfare codes are particularly effective. There was concern about seven years ago that the Government wanted to put them on a self-regulatory footing. I need to check what happened with that, because there was public outcry about self-regulation on that front. The Government did a complete U-turn, but I am not sure whether they have tried to do it by stealth in the time since. I have a mental note to check what has happened to that since I played a leading role in trying to stop it being moved to that footing.

There have been undercover exposés filmed at certain farms about the way some animals are treated. I like to think I have a very good relationship with the National Farmers Union and Minette Batters. The vast majority of farmers want to do the right thing, but looking at some of the red tractor farms that are meant to be higher welfare and seeing what is being uncovered as a result of people going and filming, we cannot be complacent. The red tractor mark is meant to be a badge that consumers can trust to mean higher welfare, but there are many examples where they do not seem to have met those standards. That is proof that something is going wrong in the system.

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

I draw attention to clause 17, which is about the importation of precision bred organisms into England in this case, although the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 means that it can affect the situation in Scotland, too. I am not clear what kind of monitoring there would be of the gene editing procedures that are taking place in the countries that will be importing those organisms into the UK.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

That is a fair point. Hopefully we will come to that when we get to clause 17.

To conclude, Joanna Lewis at the Soil Association talked about this “unhelpful trajectory”, and how that is in conflict with the Government’s goals on the sustainable farming transition. She says:

“We therefore need to ensure that we are not accelerating that trend through carte blanche deregulation.”—[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill Public Bill Committee, 28 June 2022; c. 56, Q92.]

I agree. She goes on to say that there is an opportunity to put good governance at the heart of the Bill, and to get that public interest test in there, which I support.

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

Amendment 32, as I understand it, would embed public interest into the Bill. We are very much aligned with the intentions behind the amendment, and are already undertaking a range of work across Government that delivers public good. Some of those have been mentioned. We want precision breeding technologies to deliver real benefits. They are a vital part of toolkit to deliver benefits for our food system and the environment. The hon. Member for Bristol East said—rather, implied—that our farmers were not doing the right thing.

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

Well, if they are doing the right thing and our researchers are, too, there is no need for that reassurance in the Bill. Throughout the Bill there is the PBO assessment via ACRE on both plants and animals; the animal welfare declaration and the animal advisory body; the PVS varieties listing for plants and seeds; the FSA and the food and feed marketing authorisation to check before food comes to market. There are checks and balances throughout the Bill. We are keen to see those things in the Bill that can deliver good—disease resistance, pest resistance and drought resistance.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Does the Minister agree that this legislation is simply a tool to help the industry to carry on the good work that it has already been doing? We have talked about antibiotic use in agriculture. Since 2014, through the responsible use of medicines in agriculture, antibiotic usage has reduced by 50%. We are the fifth lowest user of antibiotics across the European Union. Does she agree that this legislation simply helps the industry carry on that good work?

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

I agree very strongly that we should allow our farmers and fishermen to optimise research, with the appropriate checks and balances, to ensure they can bring to market produce that is trusted by the consumer and safe. That is exactly what our system has been set up to deliver. It is really important that they can use cutting-edge science to help them deliver those benefits. I believe we are on the same trajectory; we are just having a worthwhile discussion about whether things should be on the face of the Bill or should be embedded in our systems.

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

Will the Minister comment on the point I made about the development of herbicide-resistant varieties? We know there has been an issue with glyphosate and so on. That is not necessarily something that we would all welcome. Is there anything in the Bill that would allow the Government to express a view on whether that is beneficial?

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

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to carry on speaking, I may well get to his point. The research is there to drive forward the ability to grow sustainably. He referred to the altruistic way in which Bill Angus approaches his work. We also heard from Professor Cathie Martin. She had that enthusiasm, but I am sure that many Members heard her contention that if she could get more of the population eating more fruit and vegetables, she would feel that she had really driven things forward and used these technologies to deliver a public good.

Although I understand the intention behind the proposal, I do not think it is necessary because it applies to release into the environment. That is principally covered in field trials, which are crucial to building our understanding of how genetic changes impact organisms under field conditions. They are an integral part of pure research, as well as breeding programmes.

Once again, I come back to the fact that we are at the start of this journey. We already know that the UK is delivering positive research. Professor Martin from the John Innes Centre spoke about the vitamin D tomatoes that her group is developing. We also heard about her commitment to strive towards improving the food we eat for the benefit of our health. It is important that such research proposals, which are often supplemented by money from the public purse, both in Scotland and in England and Wales, go through these assessments. We did not hear from just one person; we heard from many conducting the research. We should be proud of the research and the regulatory framework, which I believe is in place through ACRE, the varieties listing and the animal welfare declaration, for products brought to market—we will discuss that when we come to the provisions in part 3.

We do not think it is necessary to place restrictions on research using these technologies. We have no evidence to suggest that developers are doing anything that would fall outside the purpose of the Bill. The checks and balances, and the fact that ultimately it can be withdrawn if there is a concern over the technology—that is later in the Bill—give us what we need. We are striving to deliver public good.

As can be seen in the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Environment Act 2021, and in the sustainable farming incentive and environmental land management schemes, we are committed to developing a more sustainable and resilient food system, to ensuring and even enhancing animal health and welfare, and to protecting the environment. Recently, we announced the food strategy, which sets out a plan to make sure that we have a food system fit for the future, with sustainability from farm to fork and from catch to plate. We want to seize the opportunities and ensure everyone has access to nutritious and healthy food.

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We are also committed to funding innovation. We have put over £130 million into joint funding with UK Research and Innovation for food systems research and innovation, £100 million into the UK seafood fund, and £270 million into farming innovation. We have invested £11 million to support new research to drive improvements in understanding the relationship between food and health. In total, that is over half a billion pounds, which should show the level of the Government’s commitment. Through the net zero strategy and the national adaptation programme, the Government have as a top priority mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Our commitment to the environment is demonstrated through the 25-year environment plan. The Bill can help with all of that. We see precision breeding as an enabling tool to help us to achieve objectives across these critical areas. Public good is very much embedded in what we are already doing and aligned with the interests of our researchers in the UK, and the checks and balances are there to ensure it.

I will end by restating the principle of the Bill, which is to regulate these technologies more proportionately to their risk. Placing additional regulatory requirements goes against that principle, and against the science and evidence. I ask the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.

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

We have had an interesting and wide-ranging exchange, which touched on a series of the broader principles behind the Bill.

To respond to the interventions from Government Back Benchers, my concern is that when we look at the power relationships in the food system, we see that farmers and producers are not always in the strongest position. Quite often, they are under pressure, and they will be under particular pressure given the price issues that they face at the moment. Frankly, the people who are looking to invest in these new technologies, particularly the big players, will look for proper returns. That is perfectly proper; it is exactly what we would expect them to do. From the point of view of the individual producers, whether of crops or animals, people further up the chain may, in essence, be saying, “We’ve now got this tool and we want you to use it.” It is pretty clear that a lot of farmers pretty much have to do what they are instructed to do by people further up the chain. Consequently, the question whether something is in the “public good” or not becomes a very difficult one for people who may well want to do the right thing.

It also goes back to my question, which I am afraid the Minister did not address, about herbicide-resistant traits. That has been an issue previously, and we know that not all the developers of these technologies are looking to achieve the wider public good. Sometimes, all they are seeking to achieve is market domination and a significant return for themselves. That is not surprising, because that is what some of them are in business to do. What are we as legislators to do to protect wider society and our producers from that kind of pressure? I am not saying that will necessarily happen immediately, but the danger will be that if there is not any protection against that kind of thing, it can happen.

That is why I genuinely do not understand why the Government would not want this amendment to the clause, because everything the Minister said, which I think all of us would agree with in terms of the potential benefits and the good things that people are trying to do, would all be captured within a public benefit test like the one we propose, and only the things that we would not want to see would be discouraged by it. There is nothing to fear. Perhaps we should have spent more time on this during the evidence sessions, but my understanding is that other jurisdictions have introduced some kind of public benefit test for exactly the reasons I am outlining.

The issue goes right back—and I think we will keep going back to it—to where we started: what kind of regulatory framework we are setting up. At this point, I have to say that I think there is an ideological divide between the Government and Labour. Essentially, this is a highly deregulatory Bill—essentially it is saying, “Leave it to the market”. The market will do what the market will do: pursue the best possible return. Whether that always delivers the right societal return in environmental benefits and so on is a moot point. I think there is a genuine difference of opinion between us. The Opposition are clear that we would include such a public benefit test, because we are not convinced that the proposed framework will always work for the public good.

I will not waste the Committee’s time by having endless, pointless votes. I will withdraw amendment 32, but the Opposition would like a vote on amendment 10, because we think that it is significant. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.