Top geneticist warns UK of experiment could ’cause great harm’

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A leading geneticist has warned that the UK government’s plans for looser regulation of precision-bred animals and plants represent a “massive experiment” that could cause “huge damage” to the planet.

Well-known broadcaster and fertility expert Lord Winston told Parliament he was “deeply concerned” that the use of this technology could have unintended consequences as the bill moved through its reporting stage. in the House of Lords.

He said: “Every single piece of technology that humans have ever produced has a disadvantage that we do not anticipate and that we do not recognize and do not predict at this time.

“And I would argue that this is one of those examples of technology that we as a House in Parliament need to look at carefully, and I’m not sure we’ve done that.”

(David Cheskin/PA)

He added: “In my view, we are launching a great experiment that could have global implications.

“When we start introducing animals with a certain lack of diversity – or even diversity or in different species or different areas – we don’t have proper data that we can really analyze to make sure we’re doing it.” [are not] To do things that either harm the planet, the environment, human health, micro-organisms and viruses, or maybe promote viruses.”

Precision breeding describes a number of technologies, such as B editing. Gene, with which the DNA can be edited more precisely than with conventional breeding methods.

It differs from genetic modification in that it changes the characteristics of a plant or animal by deleting, altering or replicating genes already present in the population of that species, rather than introducing new ones, and therefore arose naturally or through traditional methods could have been generated. .

Lord Winston highlighted concerns about the implications of epigenetics, where the expression of a gene is influenced by its environment, and the fact that genes can be influenced by other genes in their environment, arguing that the research on this is “very, very advanced. from being absolutely clear”.

He said: “When we start to interfere in things, we find that things are not necessarily as we expect them to be – and sometimes very very different.”

The Genetic Engineering (Precision Breeding) Act aims to remove EU measures that prevent the development and marketing of precision-bred animals.

Despite the concerns from peers, the bill passed its reporting stage in the House of Lords without any changes.

Lord Winston’s warning came as Defra Secretary Lord Benyon said that the Government planned to start the new regulation with a gradual approach, with certain species being introduced first, namely those used in agriculture and aquaculture.

He added that precision bred animals are unlikely to appear on the UK market before the next decade.

Lord Benyon said: “I would like to commit myself in this House that we will take a gradual approach to start action on this bill related to animals.

“Initially we will take the measures in this bill only for a selected group of animal species before we take those measures in relation to other species.

“For example, in the first phase, they are likely to be animals that are typically used in agriculture or aquaculture.”

He added: “Building regulations for plants will come into force in 2024 but I don’t expect plants to be ready for market within 4-5 years of Royal Assent unless the science develops particularly quickly .

“Animals I suspect will be 2-3 years after this.”

Defending the government’s actions, he said: “For me, it’s looking at the crops that I see roasting in heat waves that we never had when I was young, it’s talking to farmers who have cows Belgian blue, which can only give birth to calves. by caesarean section because they have been bred using traditional breeding methods in such a way that natural birth is impossible.

“And it’s about correcting some of those anomalies that were there and the opportunity – we can go for the negative – but the opportunities of this legislation, what it offers for animal welfare and to deal with issues like climate change, they are huge.”

The Government got rid of an attempt by the Labor Frontbench to design its gradual approach on the face of the bill.

The House of Lords voted 206 to 192, a majority of 14, to reject an amendment by former Shadow Labor Secretary Defra Baroness Hayman of Ullock, which proposed a set of conditions and a time frame.

The government later rejected an offer from peers to ensure stronger welfare protections around precision breeding in animals.

The House of Lords rejected a call for additional guarantees in the permitting process by a vote of 193 to 173, a majority of 20.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch urged additional protection, saying: “As the law stands, too much is left to chance.”

Liberal Democrat Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville said: “The level of interest in this bill and its implications is such that we believe a belt and braces approach is necessary.”

But in response, Lord Benyon said: “Existing animal welfare legislation is in place and this bill is designed to work alongside it to enable responsible innovation.”

He added: “I think you can err on the side of caution in these circumstances and stop the system.

“The bill already outlines a regulatory framework for safeguarding animal welfare that goes beyond existing requirements in traditional farming.”

An amendment led by the Liberal Democrats, also related to animal welfare, was rejected by colleagues.

The Lords voted 176 against 161, a majority of 15 in favor of the Government.

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