A top geneticist has warned the UK Government’s plans for looser regulation around precision-bred animals and plants is a “massive experiment” that could “cause great harm” to the planet.
Renowned broadcaster and fertility expert Lord Winston told Parliament he was “very concerned” that the use of this technology could have unintended consequences as the Bill passed its report stage in the House of Lords.
He said: “Every single piece of technology that humans have ever produced has a downside that we don’t expect and that we don’t recognise and predict at the time.
“And I would argue that this is one of these examples of technology that we have a duty as a house in Parliament to examine extremely carefully and I’m not sure we’ve done that yet.”
He added: “In my view, we are embarking on a massive experiment, which could have global repercussions.
“When we start to introduce animals of a particular lack of diversity – or even diversity or in different species or different areas – we have no proper data that we can really analyse to make certain that we [are not] doing things that are either harmful to the planet, harmful to the environment, harmful to human health, harmful to microorganisms and viruses, or perhaps promoting viruses for that matter.”
Precision breeding describes a range of technologies, such as gene editing, that allows DNA to be edited more precisely than traditional breeding methods.
It is different to genetic modification in that it changes characteristics of a plant or animal by deleting, swapping or repeating genes already present in the population of that species, rather than introducing new ones, and so could have occurred naturally or been produced by traditional methods.
Lord Winston highlighted concerns around the impact of epigenetics, where the expression of a gene is influenced by its environment, and the fact that genes can be influenced by other genes around them, arguing that the research on this is “very very far from being absolutely clear”.
He said: “When we start to meddle with things, we don’t necessarily find things to be quite what we expect – and sometimes, very markedly different.”
The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is set to remove EU measures preventing the development and marketing of precision-bred animals.
Despite concerns from peers, the Bill passed its report stage in the Lords unamended.
Lord Winston’s caution came as Defra minister Lord Benyon said the Government plans to commence the new regulation using a phased-in process, where certain species will be introduced first, namely those used in agriculture and aquaculture.
He added that precision-bred animals are unlikely to appear in the UK market until next decade.
Lord Benyon said: “I want to make a commitment on the floor of this house that we will adopt a phased-in approach to commencing the measure in this Bill in relation to animals.
“We will commence the measures in this bill only for a select group of animal species in the first instance, before commencing these measures in relation to other species.
“For example, in the first phase, it is likely to be animals typically used in agriculture or aquaculture.”
He added: “Plants commencement regulations would come forward in 2024, but I don’t foresee, unless science moves at a particularly rapid rate, that plants will be ready for market for 4-5 years from Royal Assent.
“Animals, I suspect, would be 2-3 years after that.”
Defending the Government’s action, he said: “For me, it’s about looking at crops that I see frying in heat waves that we never had when I was younger, it’s about talking to farmers who have Belgium Blue cattle that can only give birth to calves by caesarean section, because they have been bred through traditional breeding methods in a way that makes natural calving impossible.
“And it’s about correcting some of these aberrations that have existed, and the opportunity – we can tie ourselves down with the negatives about this – but the opportunities of this legislation, what it offers for animal welfare and for tackling issues like climate change, are immense.”
The Government saw off a Labour frontbench attempt to get a framework for their phased-in approach on the face of the Bill.
The House of Lords voted by 206 to 192, majority 14, to reject an amendment by former Labour shadow Defra minister Baroness Hayman of Ullock, who proposed a set of conditions and a timeframe.
The Government later saw off a bid by peers to secure stronger welfare protections around precision breeding in animals.
The House of Lords rejected by 193 votes to 173, majority 20, a demand for additional safeguards in the authorisation process.
Pressing for extra protections, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch said: “As the Bill stands, there is too much left to chance.”
Liberal Democrat Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville said: “Such is the interest in this Bill and the consequences which flow from it that we believe a belt and braces approach is necessary.”
But responding, Lord Benyon said: “Existing animal welfare legislation is in place and this Bill is intended to work alongside that to enable responsible innovation.”
He added: “I think you can overdo caution in these circumstances and you can clog up the system.
“The Bill already outlines a regulatory framework to safeguard animal welfare which goes beyond existing requirements in traditional breeding.”
A Liberal Democrat-led amendment, also related to animal welfare, was rejected by peers.
The Lords voted 176 to 161, majority 15 in favour of the Government.