All 3 Lord Curry of Kirkharle contributions to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023

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Mon 12th Dec 2022
Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Committee stage: Part 1

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Excerpts
Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB)
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My Lords, sadly the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, was delayed in his transport arrangements and arrived in the Chamber 16 minutes late. He is with us now but was scratched from the speakers’ list. It was his great task to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Roborough, to this Chamber—so I will read out the first part of his speech instead of him. I also draw your Lordships’ attention to the noble Earl’s interests.

“It is a rare honour, indeed my first, to follow a dear friend as he makes his maiden speech. We have a new Member of intellect, integrity and good judgment, and what an excellent speech it was”—

I am sure we all agree with that.

“I am sure the whole House will join me in welcoming him to these Benches. I am also grateful to him for clearing up one or two issues regarding his antecedents. With the name of Lopes, I now understand his Portuguese roots. For the last three decades, I had harboured the romantic notion that his family had been brigands or buccaneers who had been shipwrecked on the south Devon and Cornish coastline.

After completing a degree in politics at Durham University, he embarked upon a career in the City, about which you have been briefed. My noble friend is being modest. He worked at Goldman Sachs and more recently rose to become No. 2 to Crispin Odey at Odey Asset Management. Perhaps the most exciting part of his career is that which he has recently embarked upon: co-founding a global trading platform for carbon trading and all aspects of natural capital. The carbon markets are currently like the wild west”—

they are indeed—

“so Circular Algorithmic and Data Systems Ltd is a welcome and trusted entrant into this market, and I am sure will have a large and responsible part to play. Finally, I cannot emphasise enough what a thoroughly nice and decent man my noble friend Lord Roborough is. There is not a bad bone in his body.”

What a tribute to the noble Lord. Had the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, been able to contribute, he would also have welcomed this Bill—and, by the way, the noble Earl owes me at least one gin and tonic for that. I also add my welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Roborough. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl’s assessment of his very impressive speech. I am sure he will be a great asset to this House and I welcome him.

I turn to my own contribution to this Second Reading. My interests are recorded in the register. I am no longer a practising farmer—but once a farmer, always a farmer. I welcome His Majesty’s Government’s progressive decision to introduce this Bill. It marks a key moment for agricultural science, which ought to be taken seriously if we are to attract investment in agri-food innovation and stimulate economic growth. Indeed, if we do not progress this Bill, we will find ourselves lagging behind other countries in the global food market which are willing to embrace this technology. The truth is that we are already lagging behind some of our global competitors in the application of science, for the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling.

I want to stress that I understand the concerns of those who have reservations about the Bill and the potential ramifications of precision breeding more broadly. I recognise that the debate requires a clear distinction between genetic modification and so-called precision-bred plants and animals, as we have already heard in contributions from other noble Lords. I am not a scientist, but I bow to the eminent scientific knowledge that exists in your Lordships’ House and look forward to the Minister’s response to the challenges from the noble Lords, Lord Winston, Lord Krebs and Lord Trees. What is clear is that the Bill has widespread support not just from the scientific community, which is understandable, but from a wide range of industry organisations which believe that precision-breeding techniques such as gene editing will be a time-efficient means of identifying important traits that lead to new varieties, compared to traditional breeding methods.

There is, of course, a need to ensure that breeding programmes have appropriate safeguards and standards embedded within them, as have been mentioned already, to ensure there are no negative consequences on animal welfare. I in turn welcome the Government’s step-by-step approach, which is set to create a regulatory system for plants first, followed by animals. Lots of questions have already been raised about the process, but I am encouraged by the positive comments of the noble Lord, Lord Trees, in this respect.

Precision breeding offers an opportunity to farmers in England to advance and improve their economic performance and productivity. Such breeding techniques have the potential to produce crops which are resistant to disease and with far fewer inputs, including fertilisers and pesticides. By removing allergens and preventing the formation of harmful compounds in food, precision breeding can create safer and healthier crops, with higher yields at a lower cost for farmers. Globally, 20% to 40% of all crops grown are lost to disease or pests; this is a huge waste. The genetic editing of crops may then become vital in securing future food security for an ever-growing global population which, as we have heard already, reached 8 billion last week.

I know that there are concerns about the risk of cross-contamination of neighbouring crops. There are also requests for traceability and separate labelling, but I need to be convinced of the need for that. I understand from the many scientists who have briefed me already that the risk to neighbouring crops is no greater from genetically edited crops when compared to those which are conventionally bred. For this reason, the benefits may far outweigh the potential risks.

As we seek to move towards net zero and need to reduce the use of chemicals, along with emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture, the benefits of precision breeding are particularly significant. Gene editing will, I hope, help to produce crops that are resilient to the effects of the climate crisis, as has been said, and should reduce the environmental impacts of farming overall. This, in my view, is a huge prize.

However, I have two further issues that I would like reassurance on from the Minister. First, I too am concerned about the devolved nations, which are refusing to support this technology. As a separate point, there are important research institutions located in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which are global leaders in plant and animal science. Their scientific contributions have proved invaluable in the past in the Government’s mission to make farming more sustainable. Can the Minister confirm what he is doing to try to overcome the current objections from the devolved nations to this Bill? Does he believe that the Bill will exclude those institutions located in devolved nations from participating in the Government’s programme?

Secondly, there is a possibility, as we know, that, having been opposed previously to this technology, the EU may well adopt a similar approach. If this happens and the green shoots appear, will the Minister reassure the House that his department will monitor developments closely, so that, if possible, our legislative frameworks are aligned?

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Excerpts
Lord Cameron of Dillington Portrait Lord Cameron of Dillington (CB)
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My Lords, I realise that these are mostly probing amendments and, as ever, we await the Minister’s remarks with bated breath. But I cannot let the proposal to exclude all animals pass without comment because, like my noble friend Lord Trees, I believe that if we were to exclude all animals from the Bill, it would be an opportunity wasted to enable us to remove a lot of suffering on their behalf. My noble friend and I both mentioned the disease PRRS in pigs at Second Reading. It is a devastating disease for any herd, outdoors or indoors, organic or whatever. As a farmer, you just have to cull drastically to eliminate as much suffering as possible, and killing your herd is not a very pleasant thing to have to do. Breeding resistance to the disease is therefore a much more humane approach.

One of the great positives of the Bill is that if you alter the genes of one animal, say, to make them resistant to a particular disease, and succeed in making this a hereditary and stable characteristic—not always a given—you can get huge benefits for animals and even humans, because you will be taking more antibiotics out of our environment. Breeding resistance into future generations is so much more sensible than the ongoing use of antibiotics, medicines and even vaccines as a way to help animals live pain-free and disease-free lives.

The key to making the Bill work fairly and humanely for animals is to ensure that we continue to have the strictest monitoring and regulation every step of the way: in the laboratory and on the farm, and for plants and particularly with animals. We will obviously come to the tightening of some of these regulations later in our deliberations.

On the companion animal debate, I fear I disagree with my noble friend Lord Krebs, who I very rarely disagree with. I realise that they seem to present a slightly more unregulated environment than that of farm animals; people keeping pets are not subject to the strict regulations that exist on our farms—regulations that are, in theory, enforced by a variety of inspectors, not least those who come from the supermarkets, on which the farmers depend for their livelihoods. However, we are not debating how the pets are being kept: it is the ability of breeders to get the relevant licence and approval from the Home Office, and now from the welfare advisory body. If we had some form of guarantee that the welfare advisory body will have a remit—nay, a duty—to investigate in the home and on the farm the future quality of life of any relevant animal and its progeny, along the lines of my later amendments, I do not see it as necessary to exclude companion animals in total from this Bill.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB)
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My Lords, at the risk of appearing to be part of a Cross-Bench cabal, I would like to support the comments of my colleagues on the Cross Benches and include animals in the Bill.

This is a very minor point, but I would like to respond to the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on productivity. This is not, in my view, about ever-increasing yields of crops, the growth of animals, the yields of dairy cows or the growth of chickens, but about improving what is real productivity, which is reducing the cost per unit of production, and improving the welfare and well-being of the animals by reducing their susceptibility to disease. It is the cost of producing the unit of production that is the true measurement of productivity, not ever-increasing yields. I believe that to be able to use these techniques to do that will be of huge benefit to both the animals themselves and to those who farm them.

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Excerpts
Lord Winston Portrait Lord Winston (Lab)
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I do not want to argue with the noble Lord about this too much but, actually, I have to say that there is good evidence. For example, with gene editing and the operation called i-GONAD where you can change embryos, most of those animals look perfectly normal and would pass without their gene being changed, but it turns out, of course, that they do not actually fulfil the requirements that you eventually have for the gene. That is one of the problems. That is a serious issue because you change other genes; not as a result of editing them, but by having those other genes edited. That is a big problem.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB)
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My Lords, I will briefly respond to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, on that point. It is a fair question, which we do need to respond to: what happens if we narrow the gene pool and expose animals to genetic risk? There has been evidence in the past that by narrowing the gene pool in dairy cows, we have had lameness problems; there has been an issue in other species. That is because we have not properly understood; indeed, random breeding, as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, has said, has resulted in that kind of action. Through better understanding of the genes, and through ensuring that we retain as wide a gene pool as possible from which to choose, but being selective and more careful and intelligent about the use of those genes, we should avoid that consequence.

Lord Benyon Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Benyon) (Con)
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My Lords, I start by reminding noble Lords of my entry in the register. This has been a fascinating opener for this afternoon’s proceedings. I know that this is an area of great importance to this House. I want to take account of the concerns raised in the debate and more clearly show our intention on this issue. Perhaps I should start by saying that, having been in, then out and now back in Defra over about a decade or more—and not being a scientist—I absolutely do take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I try never to use the words that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, attributed to me, which was that I was following the science. The science is imprecise, and what we have to do as policy- makers is take a view, listen to reputable people who advise us and organisations both here and around the world, and hope we get it right.

I shall say just two things at this stage of the proceedings on what my involvement in the Bill is not about. First, to tackle what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said—that this is somehow to satisfy the demands of the global agricultural corporations—no, it is not that. As far as I know, we have had no lobbying from any of those organisations, and this is about something else which I shall come to. Secondly, it is not about taking back control. For me, it is about looking at crops that I see frying in heatwaves that we never had when I was younger. It is about talking to farmers who have Belgian Blue cattle that can give birth to calves only by Caesarean section because they have been bred through traditional breeding methods in a way that makes natural calving impossible. It is about correcting some of those aberrations that have existed, as well pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. We can tie ourselves down with negativity about this, but the opportunities for this legislation, what it offers for animal welfare and for tackling issues such as climate change, are immense.

On the amendment to remove animals from the Bill completely, as was highlighted in Committee and in today’s debate, I say that it is vital that animals remain part of the Bill. We focused on farmed animals in debate because there is already research in the UK and abroad showing the exciting potential of precision breeding to help tackle some of the most pressing challenges to our food system, the environment and animal welfare. These challenges are significant, and while these technologies are not a silver bullet, they can work alongside other approaches to help us to improve animal health and welfare, enhance the sustainability of farming, and strengthen food security and resilience. It is vital that we create an enabling regulatory environment to translate the research that we have already highlighted in debates into practical, tangible benefits.

It is equally vital that these technologies are used responsibly. That is why we have included specific measures in the Bill to safeguard animal welfare. These go beyond what is required for traditional breeding and under current GMO requirements. We therefore do not see this legislation as a route to lowering welfare standards. Instead, we see it as a real opportunity to improve animal welfare and our food system.

The debate about outliers was fascinating. As a policymaker, I quite like challenging Defra scientists and those who advise us by pushing an outlying piece of science, something that may not even be peer-reviewed. It is one of my criticisms of the scientific lobby that, to get peer-reviewed papers, you have to be in the centre. In this case, I have looked at the broad range of views in the scientific community. I entirely endorse the sentiments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. However, I understand concerns raised in the debate about the use of precision-breeding technologies in certain groups of animals, such as companion animals, and I recognise and agree with noble Lords on the importance of building confidence in the regulatory system.

There is a case for prioritising where there is the greatest research interest and where there are greatest potential benefits for animal welfare in our food system. That is why I want to make a commitment on the Floor of this House that we will adopt a phased approach to commencing the measures in the Bill in relation to animals. In other words, we will commence the measures in the Bill for only a select group of animal species in the first instance before commencing them in relation to other species. For example, in the first phase it is likely to be animals typically used in agriculture or aquaculture.

As indicated during Committee, we intend to use the commencement powers within the Bill to achieve that. These powers allow us to bring the provisions in the Bill into force in relation to a specific list of species or group of animals; for example, we can apply the provisions to cattle by stating the species name as Bos taurus—domestic cows. That means that until the relevant commencement regulations applicable to them are made, some species or groups of animals, such as companion animals, will not be affected by changes in the Bill. Likewise, GMO rules would continue to apply to them if they are produced using precision-breeding technology. Taking this approach allows us to limit the practical effect of the Bill for a time, while retaining the flexibility and durability needed to capture the potential benefits in other species in the future.