Examination of Witness (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2002
240. Of the various strands of biotechnology
that this country could be focussing on, when you relate them
to the agricultural sector, which do you think have the greatest
(Professor Bainbridge) Well, I think it is important,
first of all, to be clear what we are talking about in terms of
using the word "biotechnology". I personally do not
use the word "biotechnology" as synonymous with molecular
genetics and GM technologies. Biotechnology started in pre-biblical
times when they were making wine, cheese and bread, et cetera,
so in that broadest sense I think biotechnology used for sustainability
will be very, very significant. I think that will be an accepted
use of biotechnology and that, I think, is one of the key things.
That is not new. As a very new academic, I worked with a student
on a project in the Highlands of Scotland installing a very small
anaerobic reactor to treat distillery waste because of the problems
of disposal of the spent mash from the distillation process into
the local water supply which clearly was not desirable. That technology
never took off two decades ago, but I believe the whole economic,
the whole environmental and the whole consumer scene has moved
on so much that technologies which have been in existence will
actually become cost-effective. Quite clearly new technologies
will constantly be developed. I think they will be all around
the decreasing scale, the diversification and almost for the case-by-case
example I think it will be far too trite and too general to say,
"This technology will solve all this group of problems".
I think it is very much we are talking about small-scale solutions
to small-scale problems using modifications of single generic
241. Taking you back to your first answer to
David's question, there would appear to be two strands of technology
that I could identify that appeared likely to be applicable on
some scale in UK agriculture. One was biomass, simply the process
of converting waste into energy or some other form of product
which can be used. Do you feel that that offers a strong potential
of converting what is, after all, a relatively well-established
(Professor Bainbridge) It could be the production
of crops for burning to generate energy or it could be dealing
with waste problems.
242. What are the issues that we are confronting
in moving from a well-known technology or a set of well-known
technologies into something that can be applied on a scale which
is of value commercially?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think the issues are all
around the platform technologies and who is going to do it and
who is going to decide. When you are talking about a very large-scale
technology and large-scale sewage treatment or water-processing
plant, et cetera, with the scale you have got the available expertise
there to deal with problems, to deal with issues, what if it goes
wrong, et cetera. Once you move to the small scale, once you have
established what the appropriate technology is, having the appropriate
reactor designed to solve the local problem, then you have got
to ensure that the day-to-day running of that technology is adequate
so that there is no issue, as you know, related to generation
of unwanted hydrogen and explosive hazards, smells and all these
other issues, so you sort of magnify some of the potential small-scale
problems as you scale down.
243. In a way, it is a way of finding ways of
dealing with known risks, but in a small, local environment rather
than in the substantial large-scale environment where those things
are currently tackled, and devising technologies that can control
(Professor Bainbridge) That is right, yes. It is using
a mix of technology. It requires control engineering, it requires
engineering design, it requires a lot of biological sciences,
a lot of analytical work, so it is a mixture of technologies.
Traditionally in the UK we have a very good history of scaling
up technologies, and we see this throughout the chemical industry,
to fewer, larger plants. There is not the academic background
of academic knowledge related to scale-down. I am working with
a team at Newcastle University doing some reactor design on scaling
down, but it is a different problem. It is not the sort of problem
that we are used to dealing with, but I think it could be the
244. Could it not be argued that one of the
skills that we have latterly demonstrated on some scale is the
ability to convert known technologies for application in a Third
World environment, for example, where access to the level of capital
may not be available and some of those skills of converting technologies
into safe products which can be handled within a relatively low
education environment without access to power, some of those skills
could be applied in this sort of context? Is that right?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think so because the basic
premise of case-by-case examples, training individuals in terms
of operating the technology, applications to suit particular needs
small-scale, all of those things are in common.
245. The other strand you mentioned was genetically-modified
crops. Do you feel that there are particular crop varieties which
are suitable for exploitation within this country on which our
efforts should be concentrated?
(Professor Bainbridge) Undoubtedly the science, some
of the molecular genetics is easier in some species than others.
That is one fact and there are issues around some species that
are not prevalent in others. For instance, the farm-scale evaluations
that are being carried out at the moment with maize, beet and
oilseed rape, maize has category C consent because there are not
the issues of very light, very friable pollen that is transmitted.
That does not apply to maize, so that makes maize an ideal candidate
for the researcher and for the evaluation. Undoubtedly there will
be some crops which, by nature of its genome and the way the genome
is unstable, et cetera, will not be suitable.
246. Presumably, by implication, some root crops
might be a reasonable candidate?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think there will be some
crops which are easier to manipulate. I think the next sort of
generation of the science will probably not necessarily be looking
at the whole crop. It will be taking the biotechnology that stage
further and looking at cultivating the plant cells in containment.
A parallel here is the way Quorn is a myco-protein from mushrooms.
Now, that is not, I hasten to add, genetically modified, but that
is grown in a chemical plant in a very, very large-scale reactor.
It is taken away into the middle of the Yorkshire countryside
and it is processed to make a food product. Some of the answers
to the problems which may theoretically exist related to gene-stacking
and the other issues around the environment to which we still
do not have all the answers, although we are gradually accumulating
a sort of databank of answers to many of those questions, but
a lot of those questions will disappear if we move from the whole
plant to the bioreactor to cultivate the cells. Now, I am not
for one minute saying that I would like to live in a countryside
where there was no greenery, no plants and rows and rows of bioreactors,
but it is one possible solution which might be applicable in certain
247. Logically, if we removed subsidies, and
we are not going to remove subsidies in anything like the short
term, but if we significantly reduced subsidies, certainly in
other sectors that is normally a prompt for greater innovation
to achieve gain. Would that be your expectation in agriculture,
that a reduction in subsidies would produce greater pressure to
adopt new technologies?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think so, but I am not sure
about the reduction in subsidies. A reduction in subsidies certainly
would be a driving force, but it per se would not make
it happen because I think there is a very large gulf, if you like,
between the researcher and the potential applications and the
farm. As I said earlier, in any technology what we are not good
at in the UK is those sort of platform technologies and going
from the research laboratory through the various stages of application
to the final end use and I think there would need to be quite
considerable investment and drive actually to make the research
innovation happen in practice.
248. Which raises a further issue which is that
the Curry Commission criticised some aspects of the management
and research and technology in agriculture and particularly the
fragmentation of that research and its distance from the marketplace.
What is your impression as someone who obviously is closer to
some of those issues?
(Professor Bainbridge) I actually sit on the Council
of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, much
to my amazement because I thought if I was anywhere, I would be
on a biological science one, but I am there specifically to look
at inter-disciplinary areas. I think one of the issues is the
way we fund research in the UK. It tends to be funded on discipline
bases and the issues that we are talking about and the issues
that will be the answer for a sustainable agricultural system,
a sustainable environment and countryside actually cross such
a broad range of disciplines that they are not well served by
the current set-up. Now, that is not to say that things are not
moving, though the recent basic technology programme, which was
a cross-council programme, helped, but obviously there needs to
be I think much, much closer collaboration. I am not sure in my
own mind that setting up yet another body is the right answer.
One of the comments that I have on reading the Curry Report is
that they raised some absolutely, in my view, correct and pertinent
issues, but very often the solution is, "Well, we will set
up a body to do this, we will set up a new research group to do
this", and so on and if we are not careful
249. That is the usual way and that is what
we always do, so they are suggesting doing it again?
(Professor Bainbridge) Well, we must make sure that
the money that is removed from subsidies, if that is what happens,
and put into new developments, we must make sure that it is actually
channelled into actions which make things happen.
250. You gave a very good, concrete example
when we were talking about biomass and the production of energy
which would require skills from a wide range of scientific abilities
to produce a solution.
(Professor Bainbridge) Absolutely.
251. Perhaps our way of applying a solution
through technology in agriculture is less likely to produce that
type of co-operation from your description of the situation.
(Professor Bainbridge) No. I think we could do better,
but I think it is sort of cloud cuckoo land to say that this way
of doing it will be right. For every solution to major problems
there will always be issues raised. Wind farms might be a wonderful
sustainable way to generate energy, but actually if you happen
to live overlooking a wonderful view of the sea and your view
is suddenly obscured by wind farms, it is not the best answer
for you, so there never will be a perfect answer for everyone
and there never will be a perfect answer for every type of farm
in every environment and every type of management structure.
252. Just following on this theme of the technology
and your observations about the biofactories looking at individual
cells and new products which come out of them, this has been talked
about a lot for certainly the last five or six years, but we have
not seen a lot of development in this area. Have you made any
effort to quantify in economic terms what we are talking about
because I have a picture in my mind of highly specialised, highly
prized crops being grown by a very select group of farmers on
behalf of chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies, highly
specialist work guarded around, because it contains a unique technology,
but not being in the same sphere of British agriculture. Just
help me to put it into perspective.
(Professor Bainbridge) I do not think that scenario
will be the same sphere of British agriculture and I do not think
any one scenario would be or could be. I think it could generally
be part of the solution and I think the way you have described
the technology is in the use of what you might call high value-added
products, maybe very, very specialist niche foods or pharmaceutical
intermediaries or additives or nutritional supplements. In addition
to that, I think we need to start to see, and this is very much
"we need to start to see" as opposed to "I think
we should do", whether we can use some of those technologies
to produce perhaps part of our commodity crops, perhaps starches,
perhaps specialised oils and fats maybe with a functional role
in a food or whatever, but I do not think that that technology
will ever replace the whole of British agriculture. If you were
to ask me to quantify it, in my wildest dreams I do not believe
that technology together, the high value-added and the potential
development for commodities, would ever be more than around 10
per cent, so you can see I am not saying it is a salvation, but
it could be very significant for some production units in some
regions and that technology could be subsidised so that it actually
happened on the farms in the countryside as opposed to the sort
of scenario you painted where suddenly the farms would become
empty and that technology would be concentrated in the regions
where we have exploitation of chemical technologies and large
253. You mentioned the word "subsidy"
in the context of the development and the application of these
technologies. Can you develop that thought a little more because
there have been discussions about redirecting the current subsidies
to alternative uses, particularly environmental goods, but you
open up a new opportunity?
(Professor Bainbridge) There is the issue of what
the science will allow us to do and how much it will cost and
then the overall cost-benefit analysis, so there is very little
to my knowledge, although I am not an agriculturalist, I hasten
to add, but I have not seen much evidence of real cost-benefit
analysis applied to parts of agricultural issues. You could not
do a cost-benefit analysis of agriculture, that is clearly stupid,
but of specific problems, and it may well be that we have the
research, it could be applied, it could be trialed out in various
regions and it may work, but in terms of the final product, especially
at first, there are always economies of scale and knowledge and
everything else, it may not be cost-effective, but if all the
indications are, and, as I say, the preliminary work needs to
be done, if there are potential benefits, then we need to install
some of that technology and we need to run it so that we can answer
some of these economic cost-benefit questions.
254. In your paper you mentioned the arrival
on supermarket shelves now of cholesterol-lowering spreads. How
much to produce those is down to the primary producer and how
much to the food processor? In other words, do the farmers who
produce these products today have to do anything that they did
not yesterday, whatever, to the raw material?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think in the case of the
two products that are currently approved and on the shelves, they
are very much developments that happened with the processor.
255. So the impact of these novel foods is effectively
zero on farming?
(Professor Bainbridge) It is, except that one of the
raw ingredients is actually based from lignin and lignin is a
plant material, so further back, yes, but those two current novel
ingredients do not impinge onthe farmer is not part of
that food chain.
256. Just help me to understand, moving along,
apart from the high value-added that we discussed a moment ago,
what are the kinds of development in novel food production which
would have a significant impact on what I call bulk British agriculture?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think as a result of GM and
as a result of other crop breeding technologies, new types of
crops, higher-yielding crops, a reduction in costs in terms of
pesticides, herbicides, developments to allow extension to the
growing season, I think in the future potential developments relating
to the soil, not quite bio-remediation, but improvement to the
fertility of the soil by biological means, maybe crops which can
be ploughed in, maybe the development of crops to have particular
features to add particular nutrients to the soil. I think there
is quite a wide range of those.
257. What is the timescale and what are the
implications for the ordinary farmer? Would they require new growing
techniques, new equipment? It always seems to take an awfully
long time after the people at the front of the wagon-train of
technology have seized on any new idea for it to reach the guy
at the back.
(Professor Bainbridge) I think so. I think many of
these examples are not going to be a quick fix. Even in the context
of GM, as you know, there is the moratorium at the moment and
the farm-scale evaluations which will not actually end until harvest
2003 and then obviously there would be a need for the results
to be accumulated and the regulators would need to look at those
and that will take some time. In a sense there are the issues
of the development of the technology, the testing of the technology
and then when the technology is feasible, hopefully in parallel
with that the regulatory developments as well, so for these very
novel solutions, we are talking about a long timescale. However,
I think we are talking about the future sustainability of agriculture,
not just this year, next year, but in terms of ten decades and
possibly even tens of decades, we are looking to the future.
258. I was watching a fascinating television
programme on Sunday and I have now discovered that my life expectancy
is affected by the amount of oxygen damage that I am currently
suffering. It talked about free radicals and all the kinds of
foods to do with antioxidants to deal with this and I am getting
quite interested in this and I am thinking, "Do I rush out
and go on a total freak diet because that might have some effect
and it might give me another couple of years which would be good
news?"well, good news for me! I think I will stick
to the current diet. In terms of responding to health concerns,
a lot of which might be dietary associated, do you see the development
of products that could be beneficial to agriculture that might,
for example, tackle head-on the provision within mainstream food
of the types of substances which would minimise this oxygen damage
which certainly set me wondering about my life expectancy on Sunday
(Professor Bainbridge) I would think so very, very
much. At the moment the emphasis in terms of high value-added
food from a health point of view is to produce a food and then
to stick additives in or process particular ingredients in a particular
way and use them. I think the future, and this is what is often
referred to as the second or third generation of GM-type work,
for instance, will actually involve the foods being developed
that grow containing these materials and then I believe not only
will it have obvious added benefits to farming and agriculture,
but I think there will be major changes in consumer perception.
I have said many times that when they develop non-allergenic peanuts
by GM, people will say, "Maybe there is something in this".
We are already seeing the, not approved yet obviously, but we
are seeing the golden rice, high-protein, vitamin A cultivars
of rice which will save hundreds of millions of cases of infantile
blindness, so the technology is starting to be there and I actually
believe, as I say, that not only will that have the added benefits
of changing part of the face of agriculture in the UK and around
the world, but it will also have this added value in terms of
259. If we can go on to look at GM itself, where
do you think we are at in terms of this debate, not just in this
country? Let me explain what I mean by "this debate".
I mean by that the process of government trying to test the waters
in terms of public acceptability as well as putting in place a
scientific evaluation. Where are we in this country compared to
Europe and compared to the rest of the world?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think where we are is in
a different position from where we were two or three years ago.
I think the Food Standards Agency has undoubtedly done a wonderful
job in terms of opening up the debate to the public. I think that
the debate has shifted away from food because the supermarkets
took the decision to remove GM from the shelves, so the debate
has shifted away from food where we have perhaps more of the answers
to environmental issues, where the farm-scale evaluation will
come up with some of the answers, but not necessarily all of them
because of the issues of "What is the standard baseline and
what indicator species should we use?" et cetera, et cetera.
I think there are undoubtedly national differences. Certainly,
as a regulator, I am very aware of that working to a European
Novel Food Regulation. We can see a pattern of where companies
submit applications and the type of comments competent authorities
make in different countries are very, very different. I think
public opinion is shifting and I think that is largely the result
of extra communication, but I think it will take that extra bit
of impetus where, with high-profile new types of GM products that
really have added value to the consumer. The constant complaint,
and I have talked to all sorts of consumer organisations, they
all say, "What's the point? There is no shortage of food
per se. What does this GM do? It might benefit the rich
multinationals, it might benefit the farmer, the farming community,
but what does it actually do for the public?" and I think
once we can say, "Well, this product really does have an
increased nutritional value", okay, but the arguments about
the reduction of herbicides and pesticides are starting to come
through as well as people relate the environmental concerns that
they have with the advantages of GM.