Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Lord Lilley:

    My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Since my wife is always accusing me of verbal pedantry, I suppose I should feel some sympathy for the noble Baroness’s opening argument, which seems semantic in essence—that the words “precision breeding” in the title of the Bill do not accurately describe genetic editing. However imprecise the wording may be, no one can doubt that gene editing is more precise than relying on random variations of natural breeding, let alone the radiative mutations that used to be permitted. I just suggest to the noble Baroness that a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, and that this Bill, under any other name, would be as good.

    I cannot claim the expertise contributed by many noble Lords in this debate but, for 35 years, I have had the honour of representing Rothamsted agricultural institute. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has the even greater honour of being on its board. It is one of the oldest agricultural research institutes in the world and it is world-leading. It aims to bring the best of science into practical application. I spoke to people there this morning and gathered that they are immensely supportive of this Bill. Someone said it removes the roadblock that an EU legal ruling has provided, which has prevented the institute implementing and gaining practical benefit from scientific developments that have already been made. Only a couple of weeks ago, it planted the seeds in a second trial for gene-edited wheat. I am informed that normally when wheat is cooked it can produce acrylamides, which are potential neurotoxins. This variant will produce fewer acrylamides and will be less toxic; it will be safer and healthier for users if all goes well. That is an example of how this sort of technology can be good for the health of humans, as well as for plants, animals and the ecosphere.

    As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said, we are having to change the law because we inherited law from the European Union that was based on the precautionary principle. I only wish that Viscount Ridley were here to contribute to this debate. He has often analysed the precautionary principle in the past and said it boils down to saying that you must not do anything for the first time. The principle has been around in Europe since long before the European Union was thought of. When tomatoes were first brought from South America to Spain, people said, “They are obviously deadly poisonous. You must not eat them. That red colour signifies their danger.” For two centuries, no one ate tomatoes—they were grown only for decorative purposes—until a couple of old souls tried them and found them tasty and nutritious. They are now a major part of our diet.

    We must avoid adopting the principle that we must not do anything alien, new and untested, particularly now that we are in a position to understand the science of what we are doing and to know that gene editing is not only essentially natural—doing what nature does but in a more targeted and specific way—but potentially safer. It focuses on benign and beneficial changes, which will increase yields; reduce reliance on herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers; and enable crops to adapt more to climate change. It will do so, I hope, with precision and without damage to the environment.

    By contrast, nature is not benign. It does not produce only mutants that are naturally beneficial. They can be harmful and dangerous. They often harm the particular organism that has mutated. I am told that, if the potato were now introduced as a new, freshly developed artificial product, it would almost certainly not be allowed in any country in Europe and probably not here: when potatoes turn green, they produce alkaloids that can be toxic. Peanuts would certainly not be allowed if they had been produced by artificial means. However, with this technology, there is every chance that we will be able to produce variants of peanuts that will not produce toxic anaphylactic shock. This would greatly benefit the many people who are potentially allergic to them.

    In the past, we have allowed radiation-induced variants. This involved putting seeds and plants into nuclear reactors and bombarding them, producing millions of variations and hoping that some would turn out to be beneficial. That is a far more random process than anything that we are talking about here. Golden barley, much loved by brewers, was produced by that process and contains literally millions of variations from the original, natural barley from which it was produced. We now have 25 years’ experience of various scientific approaches to genetic modification and editing, and no one has suffered or died. None of the fears and concerns that people have expressed has, as far as I know, been observed in practice. We can therefore proceed in the way that the Bill suggests that we should, and that way should give us all confidence.

    The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned how he had been vilified as a result of the Daily Mail campaign against “Frankenstein foods”, one of the most effective images ever conjured up. I am ashamed to say that, at that time, the party of which I was deputy leader played along with that and thought that there were votes to be gained from expressing opposition to those foods. I was certainly not supportive of that particular approach. I am glad that we—and the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats—have accepted, in principle, that we should go along with the scientific approach of allowing gene editing.

    One can understand that naturally people are concerned when something new, strange and unknown comes on the scene. However, I am sad that the hostility stirred up then by the Daily Mail and others was allowed to stop not just gene editing but genetically modified organisms over a generation. For example, it prevented golden rice, which was genetically modified to produce more vitamin A. If used in developing countries, it would have saved millions of people from blindness. However, until very recently, it has not been available—I gather that it is in the final stages of approval in the Philippines and one or two other countries. We should be ashamed of allowing such hostility to build up without examining the science behind it and reassuring ourselves that there was virtue involved, rather than risk.

    I very much hope that the Bill will go through. Of course, it may require some of the amendments that have been suggested. I hope too that, when it has been shown to work effectively and not result in the things that people fear, it will pave the way for us to allow other forms of genetic modification as well, to the benefit of humanity and this country.