Select Committee on Agriculture Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Biology (R 12)

  1.  The Institute of Biology is the independent and charitable society charged by Royal Charter to represent UK biologists and biology. It has some 15,000 individual members and 75 specialist learned societies and so is well placed to respond to enquiries that cut across the various life science specialisms.


  2.  This response's principal points include:

    (i)  intensive farming is needed to feed a growing World population;

    (ii)  the UK has become a net importer of food;

    (iii)  MAFF's investment in R&D has declined markedly in real-terms over one and a half decades so that now we need to ask whether MAFF's R&D can actually meet UK needs;

    (iv)  potential health risks are present at every stage in the food chain, including those parts derived from organic farming, and intensification of production tends to enhance these risks;

    (v)  R&D is needed for both developing innovation derived from basic science, "D", and into minimising any risks associated with new processes and products. There are many agricultural research opportunities;

    (vi)  why is MAFF R&D set to continue in decline over the next two years? Decisions on which this policy is based need to be transparent and open;

    (vii)  departmental research programmes provide the necessary research infrastructure to meet day-to-day policy-driven departmental concerns. This infrastructure can prove invaluable at times of crisis when policymakers need to base decisions on best science in a hurry.


Population is still growing and there are signs that food production is now stressed

  3.  With the World population due to rise to between eight and 10 billion over the next few decades, there is an urgent need to continue to develop farming systems that are both highly productive (hence intensive) and sustainable. Though currently, in theory at least, there is enough to feed the World's population of six billion there are signs that the World's food production systems are under stress. We have previously identified some of these symptoms in an earlier report on the Genetically Modified Crops: The Social and Ethical Issues for the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and are pleased to attach these as an appendix.

The UK, as a net food importer, is more vulnerable to global shortages

  4.  The position is gaining urgency for the UK as it has become a net importer of food. In the 19th Century most nations of the World were largely self-sufficient with regard to their staple food supplies. At that time the World population was under two billion. During the 20th Century this situation has changed so that today most nations rely on a few net exporters to provide a significant top-up of staples. In short, the UK is likely to face increased competition to secure supplies from overseas to help meet its vital food requirements over the next few decades. It therefore should be a national priority to foster home-based food production and reduce the UK's strategic vulnerability.


The science R&D underpinning MAFF policy has been cut over one and a half decades, yet claims are made that policy is based on best science

  5.  Successive Governments have claimed to base their technology policy on the best scientific understanding available. Yet MAFF's R&D budget has been cut in real terms from over a quarter of a billion (1998-99 values) in the mid-1980s to an expected out-turn figure of £110 million for 2001-02 (according to the Government's SET Statistics 2000 table 2.2). This has undermined the biological community's faith in the reality of this "best scientific understanding" policy.

This decline is despite successive issues of great socio-political concern

  6.  Despite successive high-profile food safety issues—such as bovine TB, E coli, salmonella, BSE and GM crops—this decline in MAFF investing in its own R&D programme has continued. Yet such issues invariably incur a very high cost on UK PLC when there is a problem, and a not insignificant social cost on its people. It is almost certain that had MAFF's research capability been maintained a significant proportion of this cost would have been saved, and the less tangible socio-political costs reduced due to being able to inform better the public.

Has MAFF the resources to meet new research into TSEs and Intensive Farming?

  7.  Consequently if, to quote the consultation notice, "the Agriculture Committee . . . [is] to conduct an inquiry into the scale and focus of the relevant government-sponsored research following the publication of the Phillips report" then it may wish to assess whether MAFF has allocated sufficient resources to support such a research programme? Indeed, given the historic trends of MAFF investment in its R&D over the past one and a half decades, there is the suspicion that financial reductions helped undermine some of the 1990s research into BSE.


The benefit of high productivity has the cost of facilitating the propensity for disease

  8.  By virtue of definition, intensive farming results in the benefit of having high-density growth, both of individual animals or plants, and their numbers. This greatly facilitates the propensity for disease, both parasitological (in the broadest sense) and toxicological. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

    (i)  selecting for high growth, if not done with care, can be achieved to the detriment of the organism's immune system;

    (ii)  high densities of plants or animals tend to facilitate pathogen transmission. (In terms of BSE there were concerns as to whether transmission was vertical or horizontal (between or within generations), or both.)

Health risks are present in both "conventional" and "organic" farming

  9.  Practices to increase the intensity, or productivity, of farming occur both in conventional and in organic farming—the latter usually being perceived by the public as low risk. For instance, by implication intensive farming suggests the efficient use of nutrients. This in turn, if precautions are not taken, can also facilitate the transmission of pathogens associated with those nutrients. With regards to BSE, there was the recycling of animal protein whereby cattle protein was fed to cattle that in essence became vehicles for prion reproduction before the next iterative cycle and the infection of yet more cattle. At the other end of the agricultural spectrum, in the organic farming of crops, the efficient use of nutrients manifests itself in muck-spreading and this can—if the appropriate precautions are not taken—lead to food poisoning by virtue of contamination with human pathogens.

Health risks are present at virtually every step of the food chain—for instance there is a possible association between the rate of development of symptoms of those infected with TSEs and organic grain

  10.  Health risks are present at virtually every step of the food chain. Food, in essence, is high-energy fuel for animals (both animal feed and human food). Consequently producing food invariably presents a (thermodynamic) opportunity for competing organisms that may not be suitable for humans or farm animals to ingest. For example even, what many lay people would consider a safe food, organically grown grain can potentially present health risks. Given that man-made fungicides are prohibited in organic farming, organically grown grain can become more easily contaminated with mycotoxins if stored incorrectly. Relating this to BSE, it is known that mycotoxins affect susceptibility to viral infection and it is conceivable that this might equally apply to prion infection.

An ecological perspective needs to be included

  11.  The Phillips report notes the link between BSE and intensive farming practices, and by implication, recognises an ecological dimension to the issue. Therefore any proposed follow-up research programme needs to include an examination of the issues from an ecological perspective.

There are many research opportunities

  12.  There are many research opportunities. For instance, mixed cultivation, and agroforestry systems can be arranged so as to make a farm less reliant on external feed sources and invariably necessitate some time in external grazing which has health and welfare benefits over intensive indoor rearing. Non-till farming helps preserve soils in marginal lands, such agricultural systems lend themselves to light grazing and, though not intensive farming, can help ecologically maximise sustainable yields. These are just some, of many, possible avenues of worthy research.

Research is needed for both innovation and to reduce risks

  13.  In short, there are, as with every area of human endeavour, risks associated with intensive farming. Here the risks are that increased animal or crop productivity can potentially increase crop-pathogen or animal-disease productivity. For this reason it is important that MAFF maintains its own strong research base not only to facilitate innovation (the "D" of R&D) in production but also to assess its health implications and determine good practice. Unfortunately this has not been happening.

Yet despite the demands made on MAFF R&D, support has been declining. Why?

  14.  Conversely, the proposed real-term decline in MAFF R&D as outlined in the Government's SET Statistics 2000 for future years through to 2001-02, at best betrays a lack of understanding by MAFF for the importance of its own R&D. At worse this is a cynicism of economy that undermines any political claim that policy is based on best science. Instead MAFF policy has, for the past one and a half decades, been based on its declining support for science. Presumably there is a reason for this? The public should be informed.

Why will the decline continue to 2001-02? It is important that decisions are transparent

  15.  The Institute of Biology's Agricultural Sciences Committee assumes that there must be a reason as to why—despite a string of high profile food safety and public health issues (paragraph 6)—MAFF R&D has been in long-term decline? Specifically, it would greatly appreciate learning why the MAFF R&D out-turn for 2001-02 is anticipated (SET Statistics 2000) to be some 58 per cent less in real-terms than it was for 1986-87? Given the importance of R&D to a technology based society and economy and given the issues MAFF has been called upon to address, it is important that the basis for funding decisions are transparent and sound.

Research programmes not only help reduce risk but nuture future expertise

  16.  The Institute of Biology respectfully ventures that if MAFF properly resources its R&D programmes, answers to health and intensive farming matters will be more forthcoming. It also notes, with far greater certainty that the continuing decline of MAFF's research base will eventually remove the nurturing of appropriate expertise on which those facing tomorrow's agricultural concerns would like to call.

Research programmes provide a research infrastructure that is useful in fire-fighting agricultural crises

  17.  Departmental research programmes not only help guide Departments with regard to their policy issues on a day-to-day basis, but they provide the necessary scientific infrastructure that can prove invaluable at times of crisis when politicians need "best scientific advice" in a hurry. Given that a good proportion of UK agriculture and animal production is among the most intense in the World, it is likely that when problems arise—and problems can arise with any policy choice and in any area—that with UK agriculture they will relate to intensive farming and its alternatives.

The Agricultural Select Committee enquiry is welcome and reflects the concerns of other Select Committees and the biological community at large

  18.  The Agricultural Select Committee's enquiry is welcome and relects the concerns of other Select Committees and the biological community at large. Parliamentarian concerns over the past one and a half decade's decline of Departmental Research have been expressed before. Most recently the House of Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology, in its (2000) report Government Expenditure on R&D, concluded that "the long-term decline in civil Departments' R&D spend—both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total civil R&D should be halted and reversed."

  19.  In line with public policy on openness, the Institute of Biology is pleased for this evidence to be made publicly available. Indeed the Institute will shortly be placing a version of this evidence on The Institute would be pleased to provide the Commons Agricultural Select Committee with further information should it need it.

28 March 2001

Annex 1


    —  globally some 40 per cent of terrestrial primary productivity (the biomass produced through photosynthesis) is affected by systems managed by Man;*

    —  world food grain production has been very broadly stable since the late 1980s (1,600-1,780 million tonnes pa). Against a backdrop of rising global population this means that since 1984 to 1995 per capita production has fallen from 346 kg to ~293 kg;

    —  world meat production has maintained a steady increase throughout the second half of this century from 44 million tonnes pa in 1950 to ~192 million tonnes in 1995, such an increase that per capita consumption has also grown over the same period from 17.2 kg to 33.4 kg pa;

    —  though the World fish harvest continues to rise, this is due to the rise in aquaculture (fish farming), the total fish catch from the sea has declined from its peak in 1990;

    —  the World's carry-over stocks of grain have declined: and in 1995, at 296 million tonnes, stocks were at their lowest since the early 1970s. In terms of days of grain, carry-over stock was the lowest level since the mid-1960s. The forecast level for 1996 is to be lower still at around 50 days worth of stock;

    —  the World grain harvested area has had a slightly declining trend since the late 1970s. Putting this in context with a growing World population then the World grain harvested area per person has markedly declined from ~ 0.225 hectares per person in the mid-1950s to under 0.13 hectares per person in 1994. Whilst some of this decline is due to set-aside policies, the majority of it is due to a combination of the industrialization of land use (particularly in Pacific rim countries) and desertification. Set-aside land could be brought back into production but, for instance, the total area of corn set aside in the US (1995) is only two million hectares (less than 0.4 per cent of the World total grain farmland). [In short, set-aside land provides a negligible cushion.]

  *(This is not to say that 40 per cent of terrestrial primary productivity is managed, directly or indirectly by humankind, but that this productivity takes place within systems managed by humankind. In other words, we are not just talking about the food eaten by humans, or even this together with the food produced as animal fodder which is in turn consumed by humankind, but all the biological productivity that exists in farms, parks, moorland, woodland, lakes and boreal forests that are managed by our species to some degree or other.)

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