Lord Robert Winston says GMO deregulation could have "global repercussions", but voices of caution are drowned out by a sea of lies and falsehoods
In the wake of yesterday's debate in the House of Lords, in which the UK government's GMO deregulation bill passed the Report stage unamended, the renowned geneticist and House of Lords peer Lord Robert Winston has warned that the bill could "cause great harm" – see the article below.
Lord Winston is, of course, correct.
While Lord Winston and Green peer Natalie Bennett made especially strong and insightful speeches, the debate overall was disappointing. No peers pressed for labelling of these deregulated GMOs, doubtless because they felt the government would simply defeat the move. And most concerns centred around animals rather than plants.
While concerns about animals are well justified, the major threat to health and the environment comes from GM plants, which can easily turn out to be toxic or allergenic. And in the absence of labelling, any problems that do arise won't be traceable. Plants are also less containable than livestock animals and can spread their genes more easily, by cross-pollination.
During the debate, Baroness Parminter, one of the voices of caution, spoke of "the Government's protective carapace on this bill" which "we have not yet managed to make a dent in". We agree with this characterisation of the government's attitude, which has consisted of refusing to consult with, meet, or listen to, any expert who disagrees with their determination to press ahead with GMO deregulation.
Other aspects of the article below are worthy of note because they show the ignorance and dishonesty of those promoting the bill.
First, the article repeats the completely false narrative promoted by the government that gene editing:
* is precise
* is nature-mimicking
* is not GM, and
* doesn't introduce new genes.
Second, while the government has been claiming that deregulating gene editing will save us all from the food crisis brought on by the Ukraine war – implying that the products of gene-editing are ready to come online right away – promoter of the bill, Lord Benyon, is now quoted as saying gene-edited plants won't be ready for another 4-5 years.
Third, Benyon believes that gene editing can deliver crops that are tolerant to extreme heat, in spite of the fact that not only are there no such crops close to commercialisation but there's no proof that gene editing – or GM as a whole – has made or will make any significant contribution to drought tolerance in crop varieties. Yet conventional breeding has produced many such crops – check out some examples in our database of Non-GM Successes. Why doesn't Lord Benyon enthuse about these already-available crops? Could it be that because they aren't patented GMOs, they won't bring the profits and intensified corporate control that patents create?
Fourth, Benyon (bizarrely) seems to think that gene editing will provide a solution to that abomination of misguided selective conventional breeding, Belgian Blue cattle, which can't give birth naturally because they've been bred for extreme musculature in order to provide greater quantities of lean meat.
The obvious answer to the Belgian Blue issue is simply to phase them out, along with all such monstrosities, as a bad and inhumane idea. But gene editors have doubled down on the cruelty by deliberately creating a gene-edited super-muscled pig. The bill that Benyon promotes is designed to make the development and commercialisation of such animals easier.
Image of Prof Robert Winston by Andy Miah via Wiki Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.
Top geneticist warns UK is embarking on experiment that could ‘cause great harm’
Express and Star, 25 Jan 2023
Lord Winston told Parliament he was ‘very concerned’ that the use of this technology could have unintended consequences.
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.