Select Committee on Agriculture Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by The National Farmers' Union of England and Wales (R 7)


  The NFU has recently made a submission to Government on MAFF's Research Strategy 2001-05, and some important points have already been made in this. To some extent all of them relate to the Agriculture Committee's present inquiry. The key points we made to Government are as follows:

    —  MAFF should direct its research and development funding into five priority areas: functional genomics, quality predictions, alternative crops, soil-root interactions, and organic farming and integrated crop management;

    —  there should be the fullest integration of public research in agriculture and food, whether through MAFF or the Research Councils, with agricultural levy-funded research and with privately funded programmes;

    —  there is concern about the collapse in farm incomes and the real need to ensure that publicly-funded research and development, which is intended to improve the competitiveness of UK agriculture, is sustained. Without a more prosperous agriculture the uptake of environment-enhancing research and development will be slowed and weakened;

    —  there is a need to retain a critical mass in key areas of research, and MAFF should actively consider whether the creation of "centres of excellence" can assist in cost-effective delivery of its priorities as well as retaining the science base of the UK as a whole; and

    —  there is concern about the somewhat uncomfortable research division that has arisen with the transference of "food safety related research" to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

  While there could be considered to be some relationship between TSEs and intensive farming, for the purposes of this submission we deal with these issues separately.

  We are not completely clear what is meant by the term "intensive farming" which, in popular perception, tends to have a pejorative meaning or has come to connote "unnatural" practices. In some ways the very process of farming itself could be considered to be "unnatural" and each farming method is in some way a compromise or balance between the need to adequately and safely feed the human and animal populations, while ensuring (a) sustainability, maintaining biodiversity, safeguarding the countryside and the environment, and protecting animal health and welfare, and (b) a fair return to the primary producer to cover the cost of his labour and a return on capital invested. Probably no single farming system fully satisfies all these desiderata.

  The average person probably conceives "intensive" farming to be the process of farming that utilises to a greater or lesser extent, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers and which, in livestock production, applies more closely confined housing (at least for some part of the husbandry cycle), the use of modern veterinary medicines and feeding regimes based on industrially-produced feeding stuffs. The NFU would prefer to call these "conventional" farming methods as they have predominated since the Second World War in the UK and other developed countries.


  The actual or potential presence of TSEs in a range of mammalian species—including humans—indicates the broad nature of research required in this area.

  The current MAFF programme subdivides into four headings:

    (a)  Diagnosis.

    (b)  Epidemiology.

    (c)  Pathogenesis.

    (d)  Transmission.

  The NFU is not scientifically competent to comment on the validity or even the potential or any single project, but we can attempt to identify priority areas from the point of view of the livestock farmer.

  The main policy objectives of the research programme relate either to animal or human health, with a pronounced leaning towards the latter. This clearly has funding implications.

  While resources must continue to be available to support work into a range of diseases, about which relatively little still is known, sources of funding should reflect the fact that TSE research is aimed in the main at protecting public health. In other words support for this work should not be at the expense of research in other areas of more direct animal health importance.

The Scale of Current Research

  There appear to be around 60 MAFF research projects spread over the disciplines listed above. Once again, the NFU is not competent to judge the merits and demerits, the usefulness or otherwise, of any part of this work. There are certain issues, however, which recur.

  One of these is the need to improve the reliability of the BSE post mortem tests which are currently available being developed. Related is the need for an inexpensive live diagnostic test in the foreseeable future for pre-clinical presence as well as for clinical infection. The need for these tests has been given particular impetus by the appearance of BSE cases in other EU member states. In addition to this the value of a test that differentiates between BSE and scrapie could be enormous. The Central Veterinary Laboratory project on "assessment and validation of emerging methods and reagents for BSE diagnosis" will be a particularly valuable part of the research effort.

  The behaviour of a TSE within its host species and its susceptibility to factors outside of itself (eg heat, enzymes) form a significant part of the epidemiological programme. This work is obviously crucial in terms of control of spread within a population, and in the calculation of risk factors. It might also help pinpoint causes, thus helping to identify the quickest route to eradication.

  The NFU recognises the importance of ensuring a complete knowledge of TSE strain types, particularly in relation to the assumption of a single predominant BSE strain. If other strains do exist, the implications for eradication and for human health, must be addressed. Similarly, the possible survival of the agent in the environment must be addressed.

  Work on pathogenesis in tissues outside the central nervous system will lead to a better understanding of infectivity, and enable differentiation between TSEs, a point of particular significance in relation to the scrapie/BSE issue in sheep. The associated identification of host factors influencing susceptibility to disease would have relevance for diagnosis, ultimately.

  From the point of view of the protection of public health the importance of determining experimentally which species are susceptible to BSE, and the tissues that might carry infectivity, is of primary importance. Work in progress, among other aims, looks to establish the extent of maternal transmission, and the relation of "dose" of agent to the appearance of clinical disease. We see these as valuable exercises, providing information on which control/eradication programmes, and therefore consumer protection, depend.


  The present research projects undertaken by MAFF are linked to 10 policy objectives, though one of these (Objective III—on securing a more economically rational CAP) does not have research projects associated with it as such. The following specific comments are made on what we see as the main research areas related to intensive farming.

 (a)   Zoonoses and Appropriate Control Methods for Animal Diseases

  In our view the area that needs increased priority is that of determining whether different methods of farming (eg organic farming, integrated crop management, conventional farming) can modify the carriage of the main bacterial human disease-causing agents (eg Campylobacter, E. coli O157, Salmonella). There are also concerns about the carriage of such bacterial agents on produce, such as leafy vegetables, that are likely to undergo minimal processing before human consumption. The NFU also supports increased funding devoted to bovine tuberculosis.

 (b)   Veterinary Medicines

  The NFU has already stated that it considers that the surveillance of food for the presence or absence of veterinary and pesticide residues is a food safety issue and should not be carried out by MAFF. As such the FSA should take the lead and run the present or similar programme.

 (c)   Pesticide Safety

  The NFU has already welcomed the increased funding of strategic research and development research on the biology, genetics and chemistry of pests, pathogens and weeds. This will assist in the increased adoption of organic farming, integrated crop management, and other low impact farming methods. An area that may require more attention is the use of viral control agents as alternatives to or in concert with pheromone or limited pesticide applications for the control of insect pests.

  A recent initiative to form a Working Group under the auspices of the independent Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) to examine possible synergistic health effects of chemical and veterinary food residues, may lead to new concerns, and point to areas where new or further research is needed. The COT advises the FSA on chemical safety issues, and so any new research that is initiated may need to be carried out with the co-operation of the Agency.

 (d)   Environmental Protection

  In this area research is aimed at controlling nutrient pollution (eg nitrates) from agriculture. However, we are concerned that any regulatory requirements also reflect any risks to human health. In this connection, it is important that research into any beneficial or negative effects of nitrates on human health secure definitive answers so that they can provide appropriate background information to inform the regulators.

 (e)   Development of Sustainable Systems of Farm Waste Management

  Research to assess the potential risks of the transmission of pathogens from animal manures to the environment is one item of relevance in this section.

 (f)   Quantification and Abatement of Ammonia Emissions from Agriculture

  Apart from the overall benefits of reducing the emissions of what is a global warming gas, there are also the aesthetic benefits to humans of reducing the emissions of ammonia produced by intensive livestock production.

 (g)   Risk Assessment of GMOs in the Agricultural Environment

  While a risk assessment clearly needs to be carried out, the risks to humans, if any, that accompany the introduction of biotechnology into farming, are likely to be minimal.

 (h)   Conservation, Farm Woodlands, Countryside Management

  Most of the projects in these three areas relate more to human quality of life.

 (i)   Organic Farming

  The NFU has lobbied for, and welcomed, the increase in funding for research into organic farming. With the continued expansion of this farming method, a further extension of this research is justified. However, to ensure that this research has maximum impact it needs to be fully integrated with appropriate conventional farming research and development. There is also a need to carry out research that investigates assertions that organic farming uses methods that produce food which tastes better, is safer, and is better for the environment.

 (j)   Arable Crops

  Three broad areas of research are supported under this heading: improvements in crops, in crop protection, and in crop management and nutrition. Research in this area is increasingly aimed at topics relating to sustainable production techniques, the NFU supports this approach.

 (k)   Horticulture and Potatoes

  Future research in this area is mainly aimed at genetic improvement, crop protection, and crop production. Current research on the antioxidant benefits of fruit and vegetables in the diet should be continued.

 (l)   Animal Disease Control

  Exotic diseases represent a serious threat to the UK livestock industry. Some of these exotic diseases could potentially represent a risk to humans. Because of the widespread impact that such diseases can have, the NFU has already urged that every effort be made to co-ordinate UK research programmes with those of other European countries to secure the most cost-effective research effort.

 (m)   Livestock

  Of necessity this area has comparatively high funding. However, in practice most of the projects do not have an immediate impact on consumers.

 (n)   Animal Welfare

  We strongly support Government research into a wide range of animal welfare issues. This is a complex and often emotive area and it is important to recognise that, in some instances, no single husbandry system may satisfy all the Five Freedoms and that acceptable compromises may need to be made. Nevertheless, in such areas, research should continue in an effort to discover improvements. In the meantime, a presumption that "intensive" systems are undesirable should not be allowed to prevail or to dominate the decision-making process and the formulation of legislation.

  Research should also bear in mind the possible links between animal welfare, intensive farming, food safety, and the quality of food.

 (o)   Chief Scientist's Science Policy Programme

  This gives flexibility to the overall research programme, and would potentially allow the funding of projects that could have an impact on the potential consequences for animal and human health of intensive farming.


  The NFU is only qualified to contribute general remarks to the Committee's inquiry as it relates to TSEs. Our concerns are focussed on the need to bring under control the TSEs that affect farm livestock, both for animal health and welfare reasons and for the protection of the consumer. It seems to us that the range of projects being carried by various Government agencies covers all those areas of study that are needed to provide the information on which such a programme can be based. By extension, it should be possible for the livestock industry to give consumers the reassurance that they are entitled to.

  The NFU recognises that there is a considerable range of projects funded by MAFF that relate in some form or another to "intensive farming". In general we are satisfied that the present programmes are sufficiently broad to address most potential concerns about such farming.

January 2001

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