Mark Spencer – 2022 Speech on the Genetic Technology Bill

The speech made by Mark Spencer, the Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in the House of Commons on 31 October 2022.

I will address new clause 1 directly. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, “We are very pro science and pro this technology,” and then spent the next 15 minutes explaining why he was not in favour of this technology, so I will address some of his comments.

The objective of the Bill is to achieve proportionate regulation of precision breeding organisms, which are currently regulated as genetically modified organisms. Science is at the heart of this policy, and the Bill rightly requires the Secretary of State to make decisions based on the advice of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment—ACRE—which advises on the regulation of genetically modified organisms.

ACRE has considerable scientific experience on precision breeding technologies, and has an exemplary record. It is well regarded nationally and internationally for its advice, guidance and insight, and I assure the House that it operates to the highest standards of impartiality, integrity and objectivity.

Precision breeding technologies mimic traditional breeding processes, but more precisely and efficiently, which means that products from precision bred plants or animals contain only genetic changes that would occur through traditional breeding or natural transformation.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

There is concern among the cultured meat industry, which is unsure about the impact of the Bill on its research and trade. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to show our support for this important new technology, which the UK is currently at the forefront of developing?

Mark Spencer

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are many new technologies out there that we want to embrace and give the opportunity to come forward, albeit in a regulated format so that we can have confidence in our food systems, and that is the exact process that the Bill seeks to correct.

We do not label food products that have been produced through traditional techniques such as chemical mutagenesis, and we do not label foods as “novel” because precision bred products are indistinguishable from their traditionally bred counterparts. It would not be appropriate to require labelling to indicate the use of precision breeding in the production of food or feed. That view is shared internationally; many of our partners across the world, such as Canada, the US and Japan, do not require labelling for precision bred products.

The Food Standards Agency is developing a new authorisation process to ensure that any food or feed product will only go on sale if it is judged to present no risk to health, does not mislead consumers, and does not have lower nutritional value than its traditionally bred counterparts. In order to ensure transparency, the Bill enables regulations to make a public register through which information about precision bred food and feed products can be assessed by consumers.

I do not know whether it is appropriate to speak to other amendments now, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)

It is up to you, but you will have an opportunity to speak again at the end of the debate.

Mark Spencer

I think I will leave it there and speak to other amendments at the end of the debate.

Jim Shannon rose—

Mark Spencer

Before I sit down, I will of course take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Jim Shannon

I thank the Minister for giving me the chance to intervene. I am very conscious that because of the status of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, Northern Ireland is currently under EU rules in this area. That means that the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which my party and many farmers across Northern Ireland would like to see in place, will not apply to Northern Ireland. Will the Minister assure me that it is the intention of the Government to ensure that every part of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has the same opportunities? We want those opportunities in Northern Ireland as well.

Mark Spencer

The last thing I want is to see farmers in Northern Ireland disadvantaged. There will be a huge advantage to English farmers over other parts of the United Kingdom, so we want to share this technology. There are parts of the United Kingdom, outside of England, particularly with James Hutton in Scotland and the Roslin Institute at Edinburgh University, where we are world leading in this technology. We have some of the best scientists in the world who genuinely lead this field and we want to share that technology across the United Kingdom and to see it embraced and celebrated.

David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con) rose—

Mark Spencer

I shall take one last point from my hon. Friend.

David Duguid

A UK-wide approach would be preferred by food producers and farmers right across the country. Can the Minister confirm that the invitation is still open to the devolved Administrations, such as the Scottish Government, to help progress this technology on a UK-wide basis?

Mark Spencer

Of course it is. I encourage those devolved Administrations to get on board and to support this new tech. They should embrace it and give their farmers the same advantage that we will hopefully achieve in the world marketplace.

John Spellar rose—

Mark Spencer

I keep saying that I will take a final intervention—the Whips will start to get upset with me, but I will take the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention none the less.

John Spellar

I was hoping the Minister would expand on some other areas, but can he respond to my point about how the vaccine taskforce has shown that science and proper regulation can work at pace for the benefit of our people? Moreover, will he address the question of what protection the Government will give to institutions engaged in this area, whose facilities may be targeted for vandalism by those who are anti-science?

Mark Spencer

I can address many of those points when I sum up the debate, but I am interested to hear other comments from Members around the Chamber before I do so. However, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the sector already has some robust regulatory bodies, and we want to give them the power to regulate and oversee this technology. What we do not want to do is bind the hands of those bodies so that, in 20 years’ time, we have to re-legislate for another similar structure. We will have a robust regime in place, albeit heavily regulated, that allows the flexibility for this technology to go in directions that we cannot foresee at this moment.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I look forward to further comments from colleagues and to responding to them later in the debate.