House of Lords debate on genome editing…what was the point?

March 6, 2020 by Pat Thomas

This week the House of Lords ‘debated’ how the UK might regulate genome edited foods post-Brexit.

Very often when a question is asked in the House of Lords it is an opportunity for the government to put out details of policy changes.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has, from his first day in office, said that he wants to ‘liberate’ the UK biotech industry, and open doors for agricultural biotechnology. UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Theresa Villiers, says that policy will always be guided by science.

So here, then, was an opportunity to show an understanding of the issue and begin to provide clarity.

Unfortunately, we also know that sometimes a question in the House of Lords is little more than stirring the pot or prodding, and that any debate that follows can be shallow and meaningless.

For this reason, we did not expect too much of a question being put to the House by Viscount Ridley, who is famously pro-GM (and who is also, for those who are interested, a climate change sceptic).

However, the level of this debate, which we reproduce in full below, really did demonstrate a staggering lack of understanding of genetic engineering, and of new genome editing (GE) techniques in particular.

We were particularly concerned at the description of genome editing as something that “merely escalates a natural process” and at the way that new genetic engineering technologies were casually being lumped together with conventional breeding and natural processes – a tactic the biotech industry sometimes uses to blur any distinction between these and thereby avoid any complicated questions around GE’s use and/or regulation.

Our expectations were low – and we weren’t disappointed

This was a very poor show from a government that talks a good game about the wonders of genetic engineering but clearly has no idea what it is, what it can do – and what it can’t, what it has promised to achieve and what it has failed to achieve, what it’s potential risks are, how it squares – or not – with aspirations for a more sustainable agricultural sector in the UK, for the restoration of biodiversity or for the need to ‘feed the world’, with what its impacts will be over the longer term or, importantly, how to regulate it.

It’s a very poor show from a government so out of ideas that the only thing it can think to do with those who have legitimate questions about genetically engineered crops it to call them ‘Luddites’.

It very starkly illustrates that the ‘science’ our government relies on is written (and represented in government) largely by those who have a financial interest in seeing genetically modified crops commercialised, e.g. Rothamsted Research Institute, but also the Earlham Institute, the James Hutton Institute, the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre all mentioned below.

It was also telling that a recent blog from Nuffield Bioethics (ironically titled “Genome editing to improve farmed animal welfare. What’s not to like?”) was wrongly referenced as a ‘report’ in this debate and no mention was made of its content, which highlighted some of the potential problems with this technology, even when it is purportedly used for reasons of animal welfare.

We are very concerned about how the UK will regulate GMOs post-Brexit. We are concerned with the loss of the Precautionary Principle and the departure from the considered judgement of the European Court of Justice. In our work, as part of our A Bigger Conversation initiative – which brings stakeholders with a wide variety of perspectives together – we have yet to meet anyone, ‘for’ or ‘against’, who feels that there should be no regulation of GMOs. That notion is a bunch of out-of-touch government ‘blah blah’ that has no place in a serious or well-informed debate.

Elsewhere in the world, governments are struggling to understand some of the nuances of this issue. Here in the UK we are treating it like an afterthought – and that is unacceptable.

A question and a ‘debate’

The oral question, which was put to the House on 4th March by Viscount Ridley, was:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to regulate genome-edited crops after December 2020.”

Here is how the debate went::


Viscount Ridley (Con)

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in doing so declare my farming interests.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con)

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The UK Government will take a science-based approach to reconsidering the position that all genome-edited organisms must be regulated as genetically modified organisms – GMOs. Our view is that genome-edited organisms should not be subject to GM regulation if the DNA changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. However, we have strict controls to safeguard health and the environment. Products must pass a robust case-by-case safety assessment, taking full account of scientific evidence.


Viscount Ridley

My Lords, there is not even a theoretical possibility that a genome-edited plant is less safe than a conventionally bred variety with the same trait. Environmental and nutritional benefits are accruing to consumers and producers all around the world from this technology, reducing dependence on chemicals – a race to the top, not the bottom. Given also the strength of British laboratories in this area, but their inability to develop these products because of strict regulation, does the Minister agree that it is vital to send a signal now to the private sector, perhaps by issuing draft regulations, that the UK is prepared to see rapid and timely approval of crops for commercialisation in this area, in sharp contrast to the impossible regime imposed by the European Union and as promised by the Prime Minister in Downing Street?


Lord Gardiner of Kimble

My Lords, we did not agree with the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling that all GE crops must be regulated as GMOs. There is an advantage in terms of seeking to improve the environment and productivity, and helping the agricultural sector, by exploring further how to better regulate genome-edited organisms. There is a lot of opportunity here. As I emphasised in my Answer, safety and the environment are of primary concern, but there is great scope here.


Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)

My Lords, I do not have any farming interests, but I declare my interest in Rothamsted agricultural research, which is in the register. There is no doubt that genome editing can make an important contribution to reducing pest-resistant and drought-resistant crops, but does the Minister agree that consumers will be properly reassured by the science only if it is published openly and shared for the common good so that everybody can see the background to that science?


Lord Gardiner of Kimble

I absolutely agree with what the noble Baroness has said. That is precisely what we need to do when considering any changes. The most important thing is consumer confidence. We are absolutely clear that there is merit in certain genome-editing activity. The noble Baroness mentioned the Rothamsted Research institute. There is also the Earlham Institute, the James Hutton Institute, the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre. All of our great laboratories are very positive about this research, and we do think that we should reconsider the current regulations.


Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)

My Lords, I commend the Minister on the Government’s focus on agroecology as the way forward for agriculture and on the inclusion of soil health in the Agriculture Bill. Does the Minister acknowledge that the 21st-century approach of working with nature, with a whole-farm approach, is the direct opposite of the simplistic 20th-century GM editing approach? Should not our research efforts be focused on agroecology and working with nature?


Lord Gardiner of Kimble

Obviously, much of what we want to do is to work with the rhythm of nature. The point I was seeking to make earlier about gene editing is that, in particular where it merely escalates a natural process, there is an advantage to it. In terms of enhancement of the environment, we want to get disease-resistant crops and to improve animal welfare. A lot of the research is in order to assist things that the noble Baroness would support.


Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)

My Lords, how will the Government regulate and monitor cross-contamination of so-edited crops, which will not be grown universally in the agriculture industry, to make sure they do not affect biodiversity and overrun existing species?


Lord Gardiner of Kimble

This is why we rely on the best science and have a science-based approach to how these matters are regulated. Clearly, confidence that this is about enhancing and helping the environment is the pitch by which we think that certain gene-editing activity and research could be extremely beneficial. It is eminently compatible with helping agriculture and the environment.


Lord Lilley (Con)

My Lords, I also declare an interest in Rothamsted, which I represented in Parliament for 34 years. Would it not be a wonderful thing if, instead of farmers having to treat potato crops with pesticides up to 15 times a year, we were able to develop disease-resistant crops? Should not all those who care for the environment be in favour of this, rather than taking a Luddite approach?


Lord Gardiner of Kimble

My Lords, we have somehow got to help feed the world, and that is why I think research work into disease resistance in wheat, rice and cucumber, improving the starch content and quality of potatoes, increasing grain weight and improving protein content in wheat are areas in which a contribution can be made by responsible scientific endeavour.


Lord Patel (CB)

My Lords, a recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said, “Genome editing to improve farmed animal welfare. What’s not to like?” Does the Minister have a comment on that?


Lord Gardiner of Kimble

My Lords, scientists have produced, for instance, pigs that can resist one of the world’s most costly animal diseases – porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus – by changing their genetic code by genome editing. This disease clearly affects animal welfare and costs the pig industry £1.75 billion a year in Europe and the United States.