Top geneticist warns UK is embarking on experiments that ‘could cause great harm’

A top geneticist has warned that the UK Government’s laxer regulation plans for precision-bred animals and plants are a “major experiment” that could cause “major damage” to the planet.

Renowned publisher and fertility expert Lord Winston told Parliament he was “very concerned” that the use of this technology could have unintended consequences as the bill passes the reporting stage in the House of Lords.

He said: “Every technology that humans have ever produced has a downside that we didn’t expect and didn’t realize at the time.

“And I’d argue that this is one of those examples of technology that we have a duty to scrutinize as a house in Parliament, and I’m not sure we’ve done that yet.”

cloned cow's milk

(David Cheskin/PA)

“In my view, we are embarking on a very big experiment that could have global repercussions.

“When we start introducing animals that lack a certain diversity – or even diversity, or different species or different domains – we don’t really have appropriate data to analyze. [are not] doing things that are 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 number of technologies, such as gene editing, that allow DNA to be edited more precisely than conventional breeding methods.

It differs from genetic modification in that it alters the characteristics of a plant or animal by deleting, altering, or repeating genes already present in the population of that species, rather than adding new ones, so that it can occur naturally or be produced by conventional methods. .

Lord Winston highlighted concerns about the effect of epigenetics, where the expression of a gene is affected by its environment, and the fact that genes can be influenced by other genes around them, arguing that research on this topic is “far from absolutely true.” open”.

He said: “When we start meddling in things, we don’t see that everything is exactly as we expected, and sometimes very markedly different.”

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is set to repeal EU measures that prevent the development and marketing of precision bred animals.

Despite colleagues’ concerns, the Bill passed the reporting phase in the Lords unchanged.

Lord Winston’s warning came after Lord Benyon, minister of Defra, said the Government plans to introduce the new regulation using a phased process where certain species used in agriculture and aquaculture will be introduced first.

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

Lord Benyon said: “I would like to make a commitment on the floor of this house that we will take a step-by-step approach to initiating animal containment in this Bill.

“We will initiate the measures in this draft law only for a selected group of animal species at the first stage, and we will implement these measures for other species.

“For example, in the initial phase it is likely that animals typically used in agriculture or aquaculture.”

He added: “Organizations for the plants to start production will be put forward in 2024, but I do not anticipate that the plants will be ready to market 4-5 years after Royal Assent unless the science advances particularly fast.

“I think the animals will be 2-3 years from now.”

Defending the government’s action, he said: “The point for me is to look at crops that I’ve seen roasting in heat waves that we never had when we were young, talking to farmers who have Belgian Blue cattle that can only give birth to calves. They are carried out by cesarean section because they are grown with traditional breeding methods, which makes natural birth impossible.

“And it’s about correcting some of the aberrations that exist, and the opportunity – we can tie ourselves to the downsides with it – but the opportunities this law offers for tackling issues like animal welfare and climate change are vast.”

The government saw a Labor Party front attempt to get a framework for their phased approach to the Bill.

The House of Lords voted 192 to 206, a majority 14 votes, to reject an amendment made by Baroness Hayman of Ullock, the former Labor Party shadow minister of Defra, who proposed a set of conditions and a time frame.

The government then saw a proposal by peers to provide stronger welfare protections for precision breeding in animals.

The House of Lords rejected the request for additional assurances in the authorization process by a majority of 20, by a vote of 193 to 173.

“While the bill is in effect, a lot is left to chance,” said Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, who pressed for extra protection.

Liberal Democrat Baroness Bakewell, of Hardington Mandeville, said: “The interest in this Bill and the consequences that result from it are so great that we believe a belt-and-belt approach is necessary.”

Responding, however, Lord Benyon said, “Current animal welfare legislation is in place and this Bill aims to work with that to enable responsible innovation.”

“I think in these situations you can be overly cautious and clog the system.

“The bill establishes a regulatory framework for protecting animal welfare that goes beyond current requirements in conventional breeding.”

A Liberal Democrat-led change, which also deals with animal welfare, was rejected by colleagues.

The Lords voted 161 to 176, majority in favor of 15 Governments.

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