In June I sat on the Committee tasked with scrutinising the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill. Here are my conclusions about the Bill, after having looked at the legislation line-by-line, and questioning scientists and experts about the Bill.
Genetic Editing and the arguments for and against it
Bill Committees are not the most glamorous aspect of parliament’s processes – but they are critical in helping shape legislation as well as allowing opposition parties the ability to scrutinise their content. Far more in fact than is often possible during the debates that take place in a Bill’s various readings.
It’s this fact that made the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill Committee so important. As issues go, this one has great potential for controversy. And with good reason. At the heart of this bill is the ability to rapidly change (relatively speaking) the genetic codes of both plants and animals.
Well, according to proponents, enabling precision breeding in the UK (aka Generic Editing – ‘GE’) would enable a range of environmental, health and commercial benefits. Benefits that could be more easily generated in a shorter space of time (on average from years to months) than standard breeding techniques for both plants and animals. Such changes could in theory help produce crops that were more drought and pest resistant, or able to survive in harsher soils. Whilst for animals/livestock, it could mean edited genomes that would make the animal more resistant to certain diseases.
And of course, it would also give a boost to the UK’s biotech sector, a large part of which is based here in Norwich at the Research Park.
But there’s a downside, right?
Yes, very much so. Aside from the debatable ethics and implications of some of these processes (more on that later) the Bill itself is vague and in places contradictory. Given the controversial nature of the issue, this isn’t reassuring.
As some of you reading this may recall – back in the early noughties, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) were highly controversial, with public opinion turning on so called ‘Frankenstein foods’. This saw sweeping EU legislation, which restricted this technology and its ability to enter into our food chain, much of which is still in place today.
But public opinion on genetically altered foods has, according to its proponents, shifted in the last few years. One reason cited was the use of new GE techniques to help develop a raft of new vaccines in the fight against Covid. This, it is claimed, has helped soften public opinion as regards the technologies.
Nonetheless, in 2018 the European Court of Justice determined that GMO regulation should apply to new Gene Editing technologies (a decision that is currently expected to change in the EU.) However, here in the UK – post Brexit – the Government senses an opportunity for the UK to outpace the EU biotech sector and move away from what it considers to be the EU’s restrictive approach to this new technology. Hence, this new legislation.
The difference between Genetic Modification and Genetic Editing
The textbook definition is that GE is used to generate changes to native genetic material ie modify the existing genetic material of an organism.
Whereas GMOs can introduce novel configurations of genetic materials (transgenic) derived from other organisms. A classic example of a GMO are mice that have been genetically modified with a luminosity gene from a jellyfish, allowing them to glow in the dark.
Alas, nature isn’t always as easily defined
However, it’s not quite as simple as that. In nature there are naturally occurring ‘horizontal’ gene transfers. For example, we know some varieties of wheat have over the course of time imported certain fungal genes into their own genome, to help them resist certain blights. This transgenic activity is in effect a form of GMO albeit one that evolved naturally overtime.
Ultimately, the proponents of gene editing argue it is simply speeding-up what is already a natural occurrence ie an organism’s propensity for natural genetic mutations overtime via reproduction (which is of course the basis for natural selection and evolution). They argue too that some of these mutations may be beneficial from a human perspective ie for agriculture and livestock breeding.
I am of course acutely aware that for some people, treating sentient animals as simply a resource to be harnessed is offensive. More on that in a bit.
Knowledge is power
So, because proponents of GE claim it is a ‘natural’ process many have effectively lobbied for the Bill not to legislate for the labelling of food products that contain GE foods. The main reasons for this are as follows:
- Current technology cannot differentiate between GM products and non-GM products, hence guaranteeing the label is accurate isn’t currently possible.
- Because the process is ‘natural’ ie it occurs in nature already, there’s no need to add this extra cost.
- No aspect of agriculture is completely ‘natural’ by definition. Crops and livestock have been bred and manipulated for thousands of years. More recently even organic produce has undergone mutagenic processes. Many of the non-GM crops and livestock currently on shelves have been derived by bombarding their genetic structure with radiation to speed up the mutagenic process. This, they claim, is just another example of older genetic manipulation technology that just isn’t as precise. These products, now long established, do not require labels either.
So, what do I think?
To say this is a complicated issue is an understatement. By that I don’t just mean getting your head around the different technologies. I mean the potential consequences – both ethical and moral that any new technology throws up.
In questioning scientists and specialists as part of the Bill Committee process on everything from unintended consequences of GE through to the Precautionary Principle, I have sought to balance two key aspects for agricultural (not livestock, more on that shortly) use of GE:
- Balancing the science with our current dominant model of the economy. Our current economic model prioritises the drive for profit and market dominance above all else – including public safety. This model is of course constrained, to some degree, by laws and regulations – which this Bill definitely has a light touch approach to, and which is as aspect I find concerning. That said, opening up this technology and allowing smaller scale organisations, with the proper regulatory framework, could see the current dominance of a handful of corporations blown open as the costs of research and scaling up these technologies reduces due to the loosening of costly and probably outdated restrictions. Of course, as we have seen, left unchecked markets tend, overtime, to distort into monopolies. But that possible but not certain future isn’t enough to warrant the virtual ban on this new technology.
- Because of the economic model above and because of the failure of governments like our own to properly tackle and mitigate the climate crisis, we must give a rational and pragmatic hearing to all new technologies that can help our society adapt to this new and terrifying reality – if that is at all possible.
GE provides adaptions that could help our society: growing crops that use less or no pesticides; can thrive in drier or harsher soil conditions; can withstand a wider range of blights and can ultimately increase crop yields – this is a technology we must carefully utilise in the interests of all humanity.
Clearly, the motivation of big business is profit. But that doesn’t mean those of us who seek a different society and economy can turn our backs on such technological possibilities given the climate shocks to our biosphere and food supplies, that lay ahead.
What about livestock?
It’s at this point I think I need to explain that whilst this Bill covers the genetic editing of both plants and animals, I could not vote for a Bill that allowed genetic editing of animals on the scale this Bill currently does. Whilst there is possibly a very limited use of GE on animals for specific welfare issues, its use on them in the same way they could be legitimately used for crops, is not acceptable.
Listening to the proponents of GE for livestock, I was frankly sickened by what they were proposing. They claim GE will enable higher welfare standards. But the reality is this technology will be used in the same way mutagenic and natural husbandry practices have been: namely to increase ‘yields’ of meat, eggs and milk at the expense of the animals’ health. And any diseases they can make livestock more resistant to, would inevitably lead to greater overcrowding and insanitary conditions as a result of their new resistance and thus suffering.
I would be unable to support this Bill as it’s currently configured. The lack of overall regulatory oversight is concerning, as is the inclusion of animals into this bill. Finally, there’s also a grey area around intellectual property (IP) rights.
As things stand, many scientists see GE as a sort of analogous to open-source programming. So, if a new app is created by the open-source programming, the intellectual property rights would be owned by the person that created it. But the open-source programming itself could be used and built upon to make an entirely new and different app.
In the agricultural world that would mean new hybrids/varieties would generate royalties for those who created them. But just as plant breeders today enjoy so called ‘breeder exemptions’ they’d be allowed to create new hybrids and varieties based on those patented variants. Whilst this isn’t perfect, and there a multitude of other issues with IP, it does, if legislated for properly ensure large corporations cannot ‘own’ the essential genetic codes for food and ultimately, life.
Thus, this Bill, like the technology itself, has elements to commend itself to support. But in its current configuration, with animals included, and given the fact this government operates exclusively in the interest of big business and the wealthy, it’s not a risk I would want to take with the Bill before us at present.
House of Commons Library Research: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9557/CBP-9557.pdf