Memorandum submitted by Professor J M
Bainbridge OBE (A 57)
Much has been published about failings of CAP
and the current status of UK agriculture has been analysed in
In general, several reports articulate the issues,
few offer solutions, actions or potential ways forward, biotechnology
can offer some solutions and new directions.
The UK policy of moving public funds from subsidy
to rural development and environment is recognised and accepted.
It provides a unique opportunity to reshape agriculture. It is
important that actions lead to agriculture production, which is
sustainable from the environmental point of view, non-sustainable
agriculture should not be supported. UK agriculture has been driven
by innovation; the plough, agricultural machinery, plant and animal
breeding, chemicals as fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and
veterinary medicines etc. Hence, biotechnology in the agri-food
chain is not a new concept.
Relatively simple actions such as the production
and sharing of a benchmark set of indicators for sustainable agriculture
to be communicated to farmers who wish to move from over intensive
methods would not only help the farmer and the environment, but
would be accepted by consumers who are increasingly aware of the
origins of their food.
Biotechnology has now provided a toolkit of
methodologies to help us gear up the innovation and we must seize
on this expansion of knowledge.
Any mention of biotechnologies, especially in the
context of food and food production leads to the assumption that
it must be GM. Not all biotechnologies are GM. Many new innovative
foods are the product of simple chemistry or make use of natural
plant grown materials. Phyto Sterols and phytoslanols are a case
in point in the functional cholesterol-lowering spreads. This
being said there is great potential for specialist agriculture
where production is geared to small scale, high value crops, possibly
grown, harvested and part processed in the farm. These would then
be used for food, pharmaceutical or environmental purposes. (The
change from bulk crop production to small specialised crops or
products mirrors the change of the UK Chemical Industry from bulk
to speciality chemicals).
I am working with my RDA, One North East, to
develop a coherent and integrated sectoral agri-food strategy
that will action initiatives to address issues across the food
chain embracing agriculture, rural economy and food production.
Developing the potential of biotechnology is one important leg
of the strategy development.
We need understanding of the environment in
which agriculture and food production exists. There is a need
for a National Centre of Excellence, a one stop shop dealing with
training, best practice, business support to allow the flair and
innovation that goes beyond new product development. This will
enable exploitation of the research base, creation of entrepreneurial
attitudes, technology transfer, inward investment and help us
build a knowledge-driven rural economy.
Agricultural biotechnology can profit from recent
experiences. The Industry has become more open and responsive
to consumer opinion and will need to ensure that government listens
to it as well as the anti-biotechnology opponents.
It is timely to grasp the challenge to rebuild
public confidence and create conditions for embracing new technologies
to meet the needs of the consumer for safe healthy foods with
added value at the farm, production and consumer interface.
The consumer demands more information and education
to allow formulation of personal choices. The Food Standards Agency
has made good progress. Dialogue with citizens, frank discussion
and debate of options on the basis of accurate information will
ultimately reassure and allow rational consumer choice about food
consumption. People demand choice in all aspects of lifemodern
approaches to agriculture and the food chain must permit food
The Task Force Debate on the Use of Technology
in the Food Chain arose from the Food Chain Crops for Industry
Foresight Panel. I chaired this group and the DTI will launch
the report of our work on 28 February 2002. Preliminary research
findings suggest that it is possible to engage the consumer with
the hypothetical. Hence, the launch of new technologies can be
carried out in partnership with the consumer. Expensive technological
developments, which are all but lost due to poor consumer acceptance
can be avoided. Hence the waste of public and private money can,
and will, be avoided. It is clearly necessary to educate consumers
to the positive benefits of novel types of agricultural product.
The task force work will lead to the empowerment of the consumer.
The Unilever Chairman Niall FitzGerald called
for a "fresh start" in the debate about GM foods. He
referred to the food industry needing to begin afresh on GM crops
setting a lead and communication directly with consumers.
Globally the area GM crops under cultivation
is 52.6 million hectares (130 million acres) grown by 5.5 million
farmers in 13 countries. The represents a 25 fold increase over
the last 5 years. There is a lot of ground to be made up by the
European farmer and a lot of prejudice to be overcome if European
agriculture is not to lose out.
World opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of
GM technology for health and food application. In Europe the arguments
for GM crops are moving away from outright rejection.
Animal cloning is not my field and the industry
has to date generated little profit for companies involved, but
industry is reported to be optimistic predicting that cloned beef
and dairy cattle sales could eventually be worth 100 million dollars
p.a. Dairy farming, the introduction of new proteins into milk
will provide new pharmaceutical products in specialised farm units.
The use of transgenic cows expressing human serum albumen (to
treat burn victims to avoid risk of developing AIDS from human
blood) is possible within 3 years; such technologies are likely
to gain consumer acceptance. There are many potential applications
of GM technology in animal husbandry.
Genomics and the sequencing of many plant genomes
will not only lead to GM crop developments, but are unravelling
complex cellular processes at molecular level enabling development
of analytical tools and possibly leading to new regulatory processes.
Commercial crops capable of accumulating metal
ions from contaminated or naturally rich soils are being developed.
If the crops are burned to create an energy by-product (the metal
residues would be in the ash) there is a double advantagecash
crop and bioremediation.
The economics of processing manure into methane
(possible but formerly uneconomic) need urgent re-evaluation,
as does the production of biodiesel and other biofuels. Even waste
poultry features can be enzymatically processed for conversion
into high grade animal feed.
Clearly, biotechnology can have a major impact
at various points along the entire food production chain. There
is an urgent need for:
(i) Economic evaluation of promising technologies.
(ii) Translation of key technologies from
the laboratory via platform application/feasibility studies.
(iii) Education of the consumer in all aspects
of agricultural and food production processes.
(iv) Development of novel experimental agricultural
systems using new non-GM biotechnologies.
(v) Increased dialogue with the consumer
on issues relating to GM technologies to address a remaining key
issue ie GM foods will be likely to be more acceptable to the
public when we see products coming forward with modified output
traits. Some of the biggest benefits in terms of diversification
of agricultural production of GM crops are with modified input
(vi) We must find ways of helping the farmer
to diversify and embrace change and ensure that this is done in
parallel with public education, transparent regulation and the
protection of consumer choice.
Perhaps most of all, we must invest in feasibility
projects. We have a unique window of opportunity, which will never
23 January 2002