Gene editing: Is Labour really a pro-science party?
Professor Johnathan Napier
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
As the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill completes its passage through the House of Lords, plant scientist Professor Johnathan Napier welcomes a significant milestone towards more enabling and science-based regulation of crop improvement techniques such as gene editing. But secondary implementing provisions could take another two years to pass through Parliament, meaning the new rules may not come into force before the next General Election. After supposedly ‘pro-science and pro-innovation’ Labour MPs and Peers characterised gene editing techniques as risky, imprecise and warranting additional safeguards, could a risk-averse future Labour Government stifle the Bill’s objectives to enable innovation and encourage investment in these technologies, he asks.
Last week, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill completed its passage through the House of Lords, having already passed relatively smoothly and without amendment through the House of Commons last year. It will return to the Commons for one final reading before Royal Assent when the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament – likely to happen within a matter of weeks.
As I have observed before, this is the most significant piece of legislation affecting the progress and application of agricultural genetic science for more than 20 years, and the first time in my scientific career that ‘pro-innovation’ regulatory proposals have been brought forward which seek to make our rules more science-based and proportionate.
Taking advantage of the UK’s new law-making freedoms outside the EU, the Bill will introduce a more light-touch regulatory regime for products developed using new precision breeding techniques (such as gene editing) where those products could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding methods.
In doing so, it will remove those gene edited crop and livestock products from the scope of restrictive GMO regulations inherited from the EU, reversing the effect of a perverse European Court ruling in July 2018 which classified such products as GMOs – and bringing our rules into line with the prevailing regulatory approach in most other parts of the world.
This is fantastic news for my own research, some of which involves the use of gene editing techniques to further enhance oilseed crops with increased levels of health-giving Omegal-3 oils, as a more sustainable feedstock for the burgeoning salmon farming sector, and potentially as a plant-based source of human health supplements.
At this stage, the rule-changes will apply to England only, with other Devolved Administrations indicating that they prefer to remain in step with EU regulations. Significantly, however, the European Commission is also expected to publish its own proposals in the summer for the EU to pursue a similar deregulatory approach, having accepted that their current regulations are “not fit for purpose”.
In the House of Lords, the Government brought forward a number of minor amendments intended to provide greater clarity to definitions used in the Bill, and to allow more opportunity for Parliamentary scrutiny of its implementing provisions. These were accepted.
Thankfully, however, proposed amendments supported by Opposition Peers, for example seeking to add new ‘public good’ hurdles, extra risk assessments and the creation of a new overarching Genetic Technology Authority to the approval process, did not make it into the Bill.
Of course, the underlying rationale for this legislation is that precision bred products could equally have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding, and the overwhelming scientific consensus not only from the UK Government’s own independent advisers but also from leading international regulatory authorities, such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Health Canada, is that precision bred products pose no greater risk than conventional.
And, as Robin Wood of independent UK plant breeder Elsoms Seeds observed recently, “the potential inclusion of additional…safety checks not applied to the products of conventional plant breeding could drive up registration costs and put these technologies out of reach for businesses such as ours. Instead, it would concentrate commercial activity in the hands of deep-pocketed multinational businesses and large-scale crops, as happened with GMO technology.”
This raises worrying questions about the motivations, and the evidence base, behind the Labour Party’s position in relation to the Bill.
Despite repeated assertions that Labour is “pro-science and pro-innovation”, Opposition MPs and Peers sought at every stage in Parliament to characterise the Bill as flimsy and inadequate, bringing forward amendments designed to add layers of unjustified regulatory requirements, and so make it more difficult, costly and time-consuming for research like mine to reach the market.
I am puzzled as to why they would want to do that, and it is concerning for two main reasons.
First, it is not comfortable for me to see Labour playing politics – and ignoring the scientific consensus - on such a critical issue.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is how the timetable for the Bill’s implementation, and what that might mean politically, will affect research and investment decisions in the short and medium-term.
Because the successful completion of the Bill’s Parliamentary passage, while hugely significant as a milestone, is not the end of the process. The provisions of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, once granted Royal Asset, will not fully come into force until around 30 separate pieces of secondary legislation, or Statutory Instruments, are passed.
This is expected to take a further 18-24 months, bringing us hard up against the timing of the next General Election (no later than January 2025) and, according to current polls, the prospect of a Labour-led administration.
Could a risk-averse Labour Government stifle the Bill’s objectives to enable innovation and encourage investment in these technologies?
Hopefully not, but only time will tell.
There is, of course, an argument from the Opposition side that public confidence is critical and ‘we must bring people with us.’
I wholeheartedly agree, and I have always been personally committed to being open and transparent with my research, explaining it to the public, putting the scientific evidence of risks and benefits in context, and helping to improve understanding of these exciting technologies and their potential to improve prospects for people and the planet.
But it is disappointing to see Labour’s mischaracterisation of gene editing as imprecise, risky and warranting additional safeguards, which does not reflect the weight of scientific evidence, and will do little to instil public confidence.
In the House of Lords, Labour frontbenchers were impressed by their fellow Labour Peer, Professor Lord Winston, the high-profile human fertility expert and TV personality, as he regaled the House with dire warnings for the future of the planet, as the unpredictable and uncontrollable effects of gene editing threatened to unleash untold harm.
These techniques were ‘relatively dodgy’ (a phrase I have never encountered in the scientific literature) Lord Winston said, warning that ‘we are embarking on a massive experiment which could have global repercussions’, singling out applications in plants as ‘more dangerous’ and cautioning Peers that ‘we have a grave responsibility to understand that we could do great harm.’ Ironically, one could imagine that similar things were said about Lord Winston’s research on human IVF several decades ago.
And while acknowledging that he is himself not a plant geneticist, Lord Winston paid a specific tribute to Michael Antoniou of King’s College for helping to inform his line of argument.
Dr Antoniou is not a plant geneticist either, but he is very well-known for his strident anti-GM views and for his NGO-funded research focused almost exclusively on seeking to undermine the established safety of GM crops and the herbicide glyphosate.
Indeed, Professor Lord Krebs, a zoologist, fellow of the Royal Society and a former chair of the Food Standards Agency, spoke of the ‘centre of gravity of scientific opinion’ supporting the safety of gene editing techniques, generously describing Michael Antoniou as ‘an outlier’ in his views.
And although Lord Winston referred on the record to Michael Antoniou and his affiliation to King’s College, it is not clear if Dr Antoniou was providing advice in a personal capacity or on behalf of King’s College, London (which of course has a proud history in science and innovation, including the elucidation of the structure of DNA).
Importantly, as a prospective governing party, Labour must think very carefully about where they turn to for scientific advice.
If Labour hope to be taken seriously as a pro-science party, they may have their work cut out over the next couple of years to convince people, including prospective investors, that in Government they would not seek to undermine the Bill’s objectives or its potential to encourage UK-based research and innovation in these technologies. Bona fide experts in the field stand ready to help with this challenge and collectively we (scientists, politicians, regulators) can deliver the innovations that are desperately needed to deliver food security within planetary boundaries.
Professor Johnathan Napier is a leading pioneer in plant biotechnology and an advocate for the power of GM plants to deliver for the public good. At Rothamsted Research, his flagship research programme involves both GM and gene editing techniques to develop oilseed crops with enhanced Omega-3 levels as a more sustainable, plant-based source of healthy oils for human nutrition and for the aquaculture sector. He is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group.