Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor J M Bainbridge OBE (A 57)

POTENTIAL OF NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION

  Much has been published about failings of CAP and the current status of UK agriculture has been analysed in depth.

  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.

CONSUMER ACCEPTANCE OF NEW TECHNOLOGY

  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 life—modern approaches to agriculture and the food chain must permit food choices.

  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.

FOOD CHAIN AND NON-FOOD CHAIN TECHNOLOGIES AND IMPACT UPON AGRICULTURE

  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 advantage—cash 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 traits.

    (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 be repeated.

23 January 2002


 
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