July 29, 2020 by Staff Reporter
In its last meeting before the summer recess, the House of Lords finally debated Amendment 275 of the Agriculture Bill, which proposed to deregulate products of gene editing in UK agriculture.
The debate, which lasted nearly two hours, saw Lords raising numerous issues, though only a few stepped off the well-trodden path of the decades-long, adversarial debate about genetic engineering in food and farming.
In the end, the amendment was withdrawn but only after the government renewed and re-emphasised its commitment to push, promote and facilitate the wide use of genome editing in the future of UK farming and food.
Defra minister, Lord Gardiner also announced that there would be a public consultation “in the autumn” but gave no details about its form or scope.
We were particularly keen to press the point – privately to ministers and peers and publicly – that, irrespective of one’s views about the technology, this Bill is not the place to seek to deregulate genome editing.
We argued that, the amendment was badly constructed to the point of being disingenuous, that it proposed a wholly inappropriate tampering with the existing Environmental Protection Act and was being introduced in a way which was lacking in transparency and essentially sidestepping democratic scrutiny.
Debates and comments in the House of Lords are notably polite and restrained, but the final statements of the Labour spokesperson Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, a supporter of genome editing, signalling their intention to vote against the amendment, showed that the message punched through.
It was also clear from Lord Gardiner’s closing remarks that despite its support for genome editing, the UK government has no taste for the ill-considered haste that drove this amendment. It clearly wants to get the public onside and believes this can be achieved with a consultation.
Government would have been encouraged by the debate. Amongst the 16 speakers, those in favour of the amendment greatly outnumbered those against it (11 to 5).
However, they may need to check that optimism. As Beyond GM director Pat Thomas says: “Our supporters sent hundreds of letters to the Defra secretary and to Lord Gardiner. They would have been left in no doubt that, in addition to the strongly held view of our organisation, and that of our colleagues, that this was the wrong amendment in the wrong Bill at the wrong time, and that deregulation was simply not something that British people wanted.”
Our goal was to stop the amendment in the Lords – and it is certainly satisfying to have this outcome. However, this not an issue that will just go away. In truth it is likely to escalate over the next few years. If it is not raised again in the context of the Agriculture Bill you can be sure it will be raised in the context of the UK’s trade, bioeconomy and industrial strategies.
Inasmuch as this is true we must stop thinking of gene-editing as an ‘agricultural issue’ which we can approach through the usual agricultural channels. The future of agriculture in the UK is more likely to be shaped by these other influences.
The proposed consultation is, of course, welcome. But the shape it takes is crucial. If it follows the usual format it will involve an opportunity for members of the public to submit their thoughts online. Usually such consultations are poorly publicised and those that respond tend to be in silos representing one side of the debate or the other.
They are also, often, framed in such a way to provide government with the answers it wants. Thus it it concerning to hear Lord Krebs, one of the proposers of the deregulation amendment, describe it as “a public consultation on harnessing the potential of the brilliant UK plant science research community to make our agriculture greener, more productive and more sustainable.”
We would strongly urge the government to consider a different and more open and comprehensive format of consultation. Or as Baroness Jones of Whitchurch advised “…it should be a separate review with a programme of public engagement and debate. That is the way to build public trust in the activities of agricultural scientists and farmers in the future.” She added that such a review would “enable us to reach an informed outcome, in which the science, its potential and its limitations are fully and widely understood.”
This is no small ask.
In summing up the debate Lord Gardiner of Kimble stated that “The Government are committed to taking a more scientific approach to regulation.”
But which science will that be? It was quite clear that even as calls for a nuanced, inclusive debate were being made, many Lords fell back on tired clichés. Those who oppose or even question the narrative that gene-edited crops and animals are a panacea for all of agriculture’s ills were dismissed as anti-science, Luddite and ‘worriers’.
The authoritative way most speakers presented misleading hyperbole, half-truths and potential as certainty and fact, whilst dismissing risk and caution as unscientific and unnecessary, also indicates the way the consultation is likely to be approached.
This kind of engagement is tedious, old-fashioned and unproductive. It doesn’t have to be like this.
For the last three years, A Bigger Conversation has brought together people from across all sectors to discuss differences in perceptions and attitudes to genome editing. These events have been well-mannered, constructive and illuminating.
The webinar posed the question: Can genome editing and agroecology co-exist in the sustainable food and farming mix? It featured leading lights in food, agriculture and science representing a broad range of perspectives on the subject of genome editing.
During the discussion there was a general agreement on the need for some sort of regulation around genome editing, though there was no real agreement on what that should look like.
For example, Wendy Harwood from the UK’s John Innes Centre – a research centre which works with both conventional and biotech plant breeding – expressed the view that “some form of regulation oversight is going to be needed,” but expressed the view that it should be more focused on the product rather than the process.
Beyond GM director Lawrence Woodward felt that, moving forward, citizen involvement was crucial to regulation and, even research and development: “People are looking for trust, consumers and citizens are willing to be engaged, if they are given the chance and the opportunity to engage properly in this dialogue about choosing the development or regulation and indeed policy in terms of funding or not funding this technology.”
The webinar exemplified a different kind of discussion around gene editing that does not shy away from robust engagement but is still able to acknowledge differences and different kinds of expertise, refrains from disrespect and sarcasm and focuses where possible on common ground rather than conflict.
If our Lords and Ministers are really committed to making the discussion around genome editing inclusive and transparent, this is how to do it.