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Environmental Audit Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 879
Taken before the Environmental Audit Committee
on Wednesday 9 November 2011
Joan Walley (Chair)
Mr Mark Spencer
Dr Alan Whitehead
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dr Helen Wallace, Director, GeneWatch, gave evidence.
Q264 Chair: Dr Wallace, can I welcome you this afternoon, thank you for coming along and say how sorry we are that you are not going to be joined in the witness seats by Mark Buckingham, who is the Deputy Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council? We ask you to bear with us because what we had wanted to do was to get the two sides of the argument. We shall proceed with both sides, asking you to give your perspective. You may feel able to play devil’s advocate as well, I don’t know. That is entirely up to you. If we can go straight into the questions. As part of our food inquiry, we wanted to try to get some feel as to what extent genetically modified crops could be seen as a solution to providing sustainably produced food for the world and to hear your perspective on that.
Dr Wallace: There have been quite significant public concerns about genetically modified crops and quite a lot of controversy, so I would start by saying that to me one of the underlying reasons for that controversy is the shift in power, in terms of control over seeds and control over the food chain. The kind of integral properties of genetically modified crops and food mean that the companies involved gain patents that allow them greater control over the use of seed on the farm, which has significant impacts for farmers. It also means that the food itself can be changed in a way that is not immediately obvious to the consumer, so the consumer becomes dependent on risk assessments and regulation, for example, to tell them whether what they eat is safe.
Chair: My concern is to find out to what extent GM food may be a solution to the problems that we face.
Dr Wallace: Along with many other organisations, GeneWatch would be very sceptical that GM has a role to play. In terms of what is happening globally with GM crops today, we have seen some very significant problems arising; for example, in the United States and in South America, with herbicide-tolerant crops, where there has been a significant growth in so-called super weeds, resistant weeds, many different weed species that farmers are finding it very difficult to tackle, therefore needing to use additional, more expensive chemicals and in some cases even having to bring in hand labour. You are seeing a system where farmers are becoming trapped into paying for increasing seed price hikes, increasing chemicals, and also having these very significant problems impacting on their farming. If you apply that system in developing countries, then you have some very significant concerns about farmers potentially becoming trapped into a cycle of poverty where those kinds of hikes in prices for seeds, and so on, actually have a very detrimental effect on their livelihoods.
Q265 Chair: Before I bring in other Members of the Committee, there seems to be pressures that are driving the whole GM agenda so that it becomes almost inevitable or some people perceive it to be almost inevitable. Could you describe for us what those pressures are that lead people to see this as the only solution?
Dr Wallace: Yes. I don’t see the GM agenda as inevitable. Obviously, there have been considerable pressures and promotion of that agenda. We are currently talking about 10% of arable land or about 2.5% of agricultural land being planted with GM crops, mainly in North and South America, with also GM cotton grown in India and China. But recently, for example, you have seen rejection of Bt brinjal or aubergine in India, and also a slowdown in China where the Government has announced that it is going to have a go-slow on GM crops, partly because public concerns about eating GM foods are not restricted to Europe but do occur significantly in other continents.
The main use of GM grown today is not in food; it is in feed for animals or in biofuels. About half of the GM maize grown in the United States goes into subsidised biofuels and most of the rest into animal feed.
Chair: I want to understand what pressures there are, which are moving the agenda towards more use of GM in the UK or people wanting to have greater use of GM.
Dr Wallace: There are a couple of different pressures. Obviously, the companies involved; Monsanto, which is still the leading company in the United States, is actively involved in lobbying to expand its markets. In some of the recent Wikileaks cables we have seen evidence that the United States Government has strongly supported that in many ways. We also see the issue of animal feed, which is the main way that GM enters Europe at the moment, where we have to some extent become dependent on imports of animal feed for grain-fed meat, much of which is GM. The costs of non-GM are actually being borne by the non-GM producer, for example, the costs of segregation, which does exert some pressure on the food chain in that sense.
Q266 Chair: Presumably, you would say that the solutions are solutions other than GM. If you could summarise those for us?
Dr Wallace: Yes. The solution is to go back to thinking more broadly about how we create a more resilient and diverse food chain with more local food systems, more agroecology, for example, in terms of a way to improve the resilience of systems. In the United Kingdom, in particular, we can also look at a shift back towards more pasture-fed meat, which is also healthier and much more sustainable than reliance on grain-fed meat.
Q267 Mr Spencer: I am struggling to understand the difference, because you talked about regulation, control and monitoring of food that was GM. Conventional food today is fairly highly regulated and the Food Standards Agency keep a very close eye on whether our food is safe. I don’t see the difference between what might happen and that conventional monitoring system. Then you mentioned about the cost of those imports. Today conventionally produced food in Europe is fairly highly dominated by BASF and Syngenta, who control pretty much all of those agrichemicals and imports, so I am struggling to see the difference between conventionally produced food and the GM model you talk about.
Dr Wallace: Yes. First, on the regulation issue, we do have specific regulation for GM in Europe whether you agree with that or not. The underlying reason for that is that genetic modification does allow you to introduce properties into crops that have not previously been in the food chain. At one extreme you can engineer pharmaceuticals or production of industrial chemicals, things that we would all agree should not be in the food chain. Also that process of genetic modification introduces different changes in gene expression, where there is a lot of controversy about whether that can introduce other health impacts, issues of potentially new allergies, and so on. Those effects do at least have to be assessed, although there may be a wide range of views of the extent to which that is necessary. There is essential regulation and also regulation if you agree in principle with the idea of choice; in other words, with the idea that people should be able to continue to eat non-GM either conventional or organic food if they choose to do so. If you agree with that principle, then for example you do have to have a system of segregation, a system of labelling and a system of separation distances if anything is commercially grown. Currently-
Q268 Mr Spencer: To cut in there, just like you do have between the organic sector and conventional food today?
Dr Wallace: What we see with the GM sector is there have been a large number of contamination incidents. Even in the US, which is growing a lot of GM food, there have been incidents that have cost conventional farmers very significant sums of money. When an unapproved experimental variety, or a variety grown just for feed for animals, has ended up in the food chain you get costs to conventional farmers. You also get loss of markets, whether you agree with that or not. For example, with the Canadian flax contamination incident, organic farmers and conventional farmers lost markets as a result of that contamination. If we did grow GM here that would be a cost to both conventional and organic farmers.
In terms of your second question about control and control over pesticides, the key difference is that we have moved from a system of control on plant varieties to this idea that you can actually patent the seeds. That has given companies like Monsanto much greater control over how those seeds can be used; for example, within their licensing agreements, preventing replanting of those seeds by farmers. That means that, in both Canada and the US, there have been many lawsuits where those companies have tried to accuse farmers of illegally planting seeds, in some cases presumably rightly but in other cases there have been farmers who have pleaded innocence but could not afford to pay the costs. So one of the big concerns for developing countries is that, of course, farm-saved seed is a much bigger part of what they grow on their farms. If you restrict farm-saved seeds, then you can trap farmers into this system where the only seed they can get is much more expensive. In India, for example, cotton seed prices have increased very significantly with GM.
Q269 Zac Goldsmith: Going back to the first question that the Chair asked-which I would love to have been able to put to Monsanto, had they turned up-and that is on the potential benefits of GM. If Monsanto were here now, at a stretch what would they describe or list as the biggest successes in the GM story so far?
Dr Wallace: One of the interesting things about the GM industry, including Monsanto, is they very much like to focus on future benefits of products that they don’t yet have. They will tend to talk about salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant crops; for example, nitrogen fixing crops that they aim to develop in the future. These kinds of developments were promised 30 years ago in a report to the US Office of Technology Assessment. They are not on the market. Monsanto’s recent drought-tolerant GM variety, on which there is a draft assessment from the USTA that makes it very clear that it is not any more drought-tolerant than conventionally bred varieties that have been created for that purpose. A lot of the hype we have seen and claims of benefits simply do not stack up when you look at what is actually on the market.
Q270 Zac Goldsmith: I am asking you in a sense to play devil’s advocate. If Monsanto were here, knowing that you are sitting next to them, knowing that you have access to the information you have just provided, what would be one or two examples that they would be able to confidently put forward? Not futuristic technologies but things that have happened so far over the last 10 to 20 years?
Dr Wallace: Monsanto would argue that farmers in the United States have been planting their herbicide-tolerant crops-for example, their biggest product, the Round-up Ready crops that are tolerant to their own herbicides-and that they would not do so unless there was some benefit to them as farmers. Certainly, there were benefits to large-scale US farmers in the short term, in that they did simplify the herbicide regime. It was kind of a one-spray, less labour-therefore, although you paid more for the seeds, you did cut costs in management. But what we are seeing now in the United States is that technology is failing so that farmers have to spray multiple times. You have multiple resistant weeds and so any benefits that they saw in the short term are disappearing. That means they have become locked into a system that appeared good to them in the early days but is now backfiring. You are seeing more and more comments in the US farming press, where farmers are saying, "Perhaps we should go back to conventional breeding, maybe this has been a mistake."
Q271 Zac Goldsmith: Our inquiry at the moment is that we are looking at food security, sustainability on a very broad scale in Britain and the world. You think the only contribution the GM sector can promise, in dealing with these huge issues, has to be based on futuristic hopes and there is nothing in what we have seen over the last few years that would allow them legitimately to claim a role in the sustainability agenda. I am paraphrasing what you are saying but I am asking a question.
Dr Wallace: Yes. If you look at the market, it is completely dominated by herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops in the main commodity crops, and both of those types of crops have had some short-term benefits for some farmers in some circumstances. But you are also seeing insect resistance being eroded now with the development of insect resistant-
Q272 Zac Goldsmith: Presumably, those things you have just described were designed principally in order to help the companies involved take more control of more of the market, nothing to do with food production in real terms or food security?
Dr Wallace: The whole driver for the innovation system was that desire to patent the products and to gain that increased monopoly control. As a result of that decision, you have seen a very great consolidation within the seed industry where many smaller companies, which would have provided competition in the seed market in the US and in India, for example, have been wiped out of business or taken over. Yes, they have gained that monopoly control and that is a very significant benefit to them.
Q273 Caroline Lucas: Following up on that further. To the extent that there is growing concern about the degree to which industrialised agriculture is dependent on fossil fuel inputs, where does that put the whole GM revolution in terms of the future, presumably looking at rising costs of oil and other inputs?
Dr Wallace: There are many other ways to look at reducing inputs. Hopefully, local food systems is one, and systems that work with nature, in terms of agroecology, and trying to use techniques such as rotations and co-planting, and so on. There are many different methods in which you can reduce inputs without resorting to GM. Further, GM is not a technology that has successfully reduced inputs in any way. In fact, in a great sense its main application has been harmful. Monsanto’s core business is selling soya and maize to the animal feed industry and for biofuels and, as I am sure you have been looking at the issue in detail, both of those businesses are not sustainable in the longer term.
Q274 Mr Spencer: I wonder to what extent you feel the UK could act unilaterally in trying to put the cork back in the genie’s bottle.
Dr Wallace: I don’t think the UK can act unilaterally. Obviously we are part of a global world, but there are many decisions that we can take in the interests of Britain and many decisions we can take in co-operation with other countries; for example, shifting back towards more pasture-fed meat as I have mentioned. That is not something that is going to happen overnight, but it is certainly a step that we could take to make the whole system more sustainable and also more self-reliant.
To some extent I would also dispute the idea that there is this rollercoaster that is going to take over the rest of the world and make our system unviable, that it is inevitable that GM is going to spread elsewhere. It is a significant problem in the animal feed sector but there is still plenty of non–GM animal feed available. There is no shortage of supply. It is simply an issue of cost around segregation costs.
Q275 Mr Spencer: I wonder if you would acknowledge then that if meat consumption stayed at the same level it is today, and we moved to a pasture-based production system, that would lead to a greater importation of meat products. If that was coming from, say, reclaimed Amazon rainforest, and shipped round the world with aviation fuel, it would not be as sustainable as a more intensive system in the UK.
Dr Wallace: That is a very good question. It highlights that you do have these very difficult pros and cons, balancing and weighing up between these different factors that potentially affect the system right across the globe because of our globalised system now. That is why in my evidence I talk more about the idea of local food systems, of entrusting people involved in those systems to try and make them more sustainable using their own initiatives and using support from policy and Government. I don’t think there is a single answer. I don’t think you can simply say, "Cut food miles," for example. That is too simplistic a measure. I don’t think you can simply say, "Let’s not have any grain imports anymore." That obviously would not work. But you can see where the problems are and you can try and develop more resilient, better systems that do reduce dependency, for example, on imported feed.
Q276 Mr Spencer: Would you acknowledge that, in terms of what we have done over the last 10 years in reducing the amount we are importing, we are doing pretty poorly and we are importing a lot more? Those meat products that we are importing are much more likely to have been fed on GM-produced grain than the ones that we are producing in the UK.
Dr Wallace: Both are an issue. So certainly, yes, imported meat products are likely to be fed on GM. But a lot of the meat products are produced here and there are also ways to try and turn that around. One method we would strongly support, which is being used in other European countries, is the idea of a GM-free-fed label that farmers can use to gain the added value from using GM-free feed, which many farmers want to do and certainly want to have the option to do. That would allow them to gain the market value for making those kinds of choices. The idea of using labelling as a way to drive standards upwards and also to enable farmers to capture that added value would be something that we would advocate.
Q277 Mr Spencer: Can I ask about the social aspect? There is more to this than just environment; there is a social aspect. I wonder where you thought GMOs could contribute socially, or can they?
Dr Wallace: One of the big problems with the industry is the extent to which it can undermine some of the social and economic systems that are in place at the moment. I have already mentioned the added cost to conventional and organic farmers if a neighbouring farmer started to grow GM commercially. If you talk about developing countries, there are all sorts of issues in terms of industrial agriculture moving in and taking over areas of land and people losing their livelihoods and losing their access to land. Finally, GM as part of a highly industrialised system can contribute to this feeling that most farmers and most members of the public are concerned about, about people losing touch with where their food has come from and how their food is being grown.
Q278 Peter Aldous: I have a very specific question and this seems the appropriate slot to put it in. Is the bumblebee a threat with GM in your opinion? I have had that put to me by others.
Dr Wallace: Nobody knows the full reasons for the problems with the bees. It probably seems to be more likely linked to pesticide use, but nobody has a definitive answer at the moment so I don’t think anyone can say.
Q279 Zac Goldsmith: Some of the issues I was going to raise have already been answered, so I am going to be brief. Historically, people in Britain and Europe generally have not warmed to GM food. That is one of the reasons, and probably the main reason, why supermarkets have taken quite a tough line. In the evidence that we have been sent by the ABC-the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, for those who do not know it-we had an opinion poll here cited that says that 52% of UK consumers consider GM to be a means of tackling global food shortages. Only 13% disagree, and 47% say GM crops would help farmers deal with increasingly extreme weather conditions-very positive from the point of view of the biotech sector. Are you aware of the polls that they are using and do you have a comment on that?
Dr Wallace: I am not aware of that specific poll, so it is quite difficult to comment without seeing the exact questions that have been asked. Having said that, of course the industry has been involved in a very big PR push to try to convince members of the public that GM is necessary to feed the world.
Q280 Zac Goldsmith: Do you think they are winning in that?
Dr Wallace: I don’t think they are winning. They made a lot of headway with getting a lot of newspaper articles, but there is still very considerable scepticism and, for example, if products were put back on supermarket shelves tomorrow, there would be considerable public opposition to that.
Q281 Zac Goldsmith: I am assuming that you believe that there should be a much broader public discussion and debate around this issue than we have had so far and, from the work that you have done, that people do need to be more informed. Is it your view that the current British Government remains sufficiently open-minded on this issue, or do you think that they have been too susceptible-overly susceptible-to the call of the vested-interest lobby groups?
Dr Wallace: That is quite a difficult question to answer at the moment. We had many years with the previous Government where there were repeated attempts to convince the public that they did need to eat GM and that it was the future of agriculture. I would hope that the current Government is going to look more broadly at other options. I am particularly optimistic about the localism agenda and the idea that people can get involved more in growing their own food and in more direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, for example, and that will reintroduce different voices into the debate.
Q282 Zac Goldsmith: Because we are about to move on from GM, one question on that. I am also a strong believer in localism but, as you described earlier, the concern is the problem of cross-contamination. GM is not a local issue, it is not a national issue; it has to be a transnational issue. On that basis, are you worried about the moves towards localisation of the regulatory approach in relation to EU? Is that a concern or not?
Dr Wallace: It is quite a complicated debate, but there have been proposals from the European Union to devolve decision–making on commercial growing to national governments. Those have been very contentious, mainly because they have been linked with proposals to speed up the approvals process centrally and, therefore, to decide centrally that these crops are safe, healthy and environmentally undamaging, which would actually leave member states with no legal recourse were they taken to court by companies or under the WTO. The system very much depends on what powers countries have to make decisions of this kind and to be able to refuse to grow GM crops commercially, should they wish to do so.
Chair: We will move on in terms of research.
Q283 Peter Aldous: How well is food research in the UK and in Europe co–ordinated in order to produce sustainable benefits?
Dr Wallace: There have been some recent improvements. But we have looked in detail about how the agenda promoting biotechnology has tended to lead the research agenda, both in health and in agriculture, beginning way back in the 1980s with decisions taken in the United States but then copied in other OECD countries including the UK and also in the European Union. We have seen a system that has privileged the idea that biotechnology would deliver solutions, and you have seen a big shift of research in agriculture into the laboratory, away from farmers’ fields, very much focused on genetics, particularly GM but also other genetic technologies, some of which may contribute but which have left enormous gaps in skills, for example, and in investment. For example, you have seen very little investment in agroecology. You have seen the closure of farm extension services. You have lost large numbers of botanists, soil scientists, plant pathologists and experts in all those other fields. We think the system needs significant reforming back the other way so that, for example, farmland management is treated just as seriously as issues like producing a new type of seed.
Q284 Peter Aldous: Should this research be looking to deliver more than the Foresight report’s idea of sustainable intensification?
Dr Wallace: Sustainable intensification has been interpreted in a number of different ways. I have a journal paper here, provided by Les Levidow, from the Open University, who is one of the partners who worked with us on the research project that I mentioned in my evidence. You can look at two completely different paradigms-two completely different ways of talking about the future of agriculture. Sustainable intensification has been used to promote the idea that you do need this very significant industrialisation and intensification of agriculture to deliver increased food supplies. In my view, that neglects very important issues about the use of land, about people’s control over their own land and their own food supplies, and takes a rather top-down approach. On the other hand, some people have reinterpreted sustainable intensification to mean that you can look at local food systems and that you can take that to mean agroecology and other things. That report was obviously very extensive and it had a lot of very good information in it. But the idea about sustainable intensification came from a computer model that was looking at how much land the world does have and how much land can the world use. We can’t make those kinds of decisions top down sitting here in London. It is a decision about land politics, land use and all the different options that are going to vary in very different habitats, different environments and different social environments around the world.
Q285 Peter Aldous: Finally, what is the role for Governments in food research?
Dr Wallace: Governments have a very important role to play. Obviously, in the UK we have direct funding from DEFRA for some research. We also have research councils-mainly the BBSRC now-funding some agricultural research. Government is responsible, both for the projects it decides to fund for itself and how it sets the agenda for those projects, but also for the entire structure of the research funding system. For example, we used to have an Agriculture and Food Research Council. That has been changed to one that is led by biotechnology, so I-
Q286 Peter Aldous: Is that a retrograde step in your opinion?
Dr Wallace: In many ways it was a mistake to make that change. It did coincide with this very significant shift into the laboratory and away from the fields that I have mentioned. How you should change the system to try and recapture some of the value that has been lost is a slightly more complicated question of course, but it does involve looking at whether we have the right institutions, whether we have the right funding structures, whether we have the right patenting system, for example, and trying to change that so it delivers sustainable food rather than a particular kind of technology.
Q287 Mr Spencer: So we are clear, would you condemn those who sabotage field-size experiments, who go out and actually stop those field experiments from happening?
Dr Wallace: I am not going to condemn those individuals. GeneWatch is not involved in that kind of activity, but we do understand why those people feel that they have no other way of intervening in the system.
Q288 Mr Spencer: I wonder how you rectify that, or how you can criticise the industry for moving to the laboratory but then not criticise those who deliberately sabotage field-scale trials when they take place.
Dr Wallace: My criticism about moving to the laboratory was not in relation to whether you do field trials or not. It was in relation to where the innovation is driven, so for example, whether it is about engineering something in a lab compared to changing farmland management systems. That was a slightly different point. I am not sure if that was clear.
Q289 Simon Kirby: You mentioned steps that could be taken in the UK. How do the current European regulations restrict the ability of the UK to take those steps?
Dr Wallace: Sorry, do you mean in terms of innovation or local food?
Simon Kirby: In any way you like, really.
Dr Wallace: In terms of innovation first, we have seen a system in Europe where there has been a very strong push towards biotechnology as a driver for research and innovation. We have seen technology platforms set up, led by Europabio, for example, which try very much to promote this particular agenda in which GM crops play a major role in innovation. Certainly, for example, a few years ago an attempt to set up a technology platform in organics was rejected on the grounds that it wasn’t a technology.
More recently, the people involved in that kind of proposal have found the Commission more open within DG Research to start spending more money on local food systems, on agroecology, and so on. But a lot more could still be done to change that system, so that it does look much more at what is good for farmers within Europe and what is good for local food, sustainable food, rather than starting with this top down technology approach.
In terms of local food systems rather than just innovation itself, we did a study-which I mentioned in my evidence, the FAAN study-with other groups across Europe, which took evidence from different individuals and groups involved in local food systems. I would refer you to some of the findings that we had from that. One of the key findings was that these people are very often invisible at a policy level, at a European level and also at a UK level, so you need more openness to seeing the consequences on the ground of European policy for small-scale farmers and for local food systems.
Another key thing we found was that there were some positive aspects and particularly the Leader programme within the regional development programme, which is one of the few bottom-up funding schemes where decisions are actually made at a local level. We found that had been relatively successful at promoting local sustainable food systems.
Q290 Simon Kirby: Can I touch on that bottom–up approach. We are currently considering reforming the CAP, and I am interested in how you can protect UK farmers’ interests by having a bottom-up approach because clearly different countries have different geographies and different climates. I wonder how you can make it a level playing field.
Dr Wallace: With that particular scheme, my understanding is that Governments have a certain amount of flexibility in how much money they put into Leader or elsewhere, but it was driven by decisions made by local bodies that were set up to consider those issues involving stakeholders at a local level. Our study involved five European countries, and where we spoke to people Leader was mentioned by every country as being a positive approach. I would also suggest to the Committee, though, I am not an expert on the whole of CAP and its implications for all the different farming systems, but there is a website called ARC, www.arc.eu, where civil society organisations have put together a much more comprehensive programme about the Common Agricultural Policy, where they advocate many of the things that I have mentioned in my submission and also some other steps that would support sustainable farming across the EU.
Simon Kirby: That is fine for me. Thank you.
Chair: Unless there are any more contributions, can I say thank you very much indeed for coming along. I am sorry that you were here on your own. We were trying to have both sides of the argument here but we will see how we can follow up. Again, thank you very much indeed.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Ian Crute, Chief Scientist, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Emma Hockridge, Head of Policy, Soil Association, and Peter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Association, gave evidence.
Q291 Chair: A very warm welcome to all three of you. I am very pleased that you were here to hear the first session of our evidence this afternoon, which perhaps touched upon some of the points you may wish to add to. We are looking at food policy in the round and we want to start off by going straight into aspects of research, which Mr Spencer will zoom in on.
Mr Spencer: I wonder if you could outline how agricultural research is conducted and directed in the UK and Europe, and how that might compare with China and the US.
Chair: Whoever wishes to go first?
Professor Crute: If you forgive me, I will go into a little bit of history because I think it is necessary in regard to the question. In fact, the previous person that you were talking to made reference to times past.
If you look at the UK, let’s say when I started my career in the 1970s, we had what was referred to as an Agricultural Research Service. It was an analogue of the Civil Service. There would have been somewhere in the region of in excess of 25 institutions and we also had an Advisory Service. Essentially, everybody knew their place-basically, Government funded research. It was transferred into an advisory service, an advisory service that was free, and farmers got the advice that they needed. This was the post-war period.
The 1980s was a time when I guess you could argue that the world was awash with food, and in many ways it was. You can see from the point of view of the graphs on volatility, and suchlike, we had 20 years of significant stability in global markets. Most countries in Europe, most countries in the world-with the exception, I am pleased to say, of China and Brazil, who actually bucked the trend-effectively started to divest themselves of capacity and capability in agricultural research. The UK was probably right in the front of that.
Essentially, we saw the research arena and particularly-let’s call it-"the knowledge transfer arena" as a marketplace. We created competition between organisations. Many were closed, many were privatised. Effectively, what we have now are three Government-funded food research institutes; probably four, if you include the Scottish situation, so a very small number. I suppose this was on the back of the concept of market failure, in the sense that you might say markets were working.
But coming back to the actual specifics of the question, in the context of research even the largest farming business in the UK, which is the Co-operative, is not large enough to essentially support a research activity. At the same time, the point that was made in the last session, there was a perception-incorrect in my view-that the way in which research was going to be transferred into practice was essentially using a pharmaceutical model, which was the patenting of intellectual property, protecting that in the laboratory or in the university environment, training good people. The industry, the Syngentas of this world or the ICIs of this world, as it then was, would then recruit good people who were well trained, license the intellectual property and produce products, whether it was seeds or agricultural chemicals, whatever it might be.
In reality, what very rapidly happened was that this notion that the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors of these companies would come together in fact lasted for a very short space of time. Substantially, what the system is still playing to is the notion that public funding should be aimed at, let’s say, discoveries that can be protected and translated into economic benefit through the commercial process. We have missed a substantial amount of activity, which is not to do with products but to do with practices. Of course, practices are not easy to translate into markets. They can be through paid for advice, and the 1980s spawned a whole range of small consultancies that still substantially exist, but we can now see at this present time the anarchic situation that you have in England and Wales. It is clearer in Scotland, in terms of the numbers of organisations through which, for example, DEFRA has to work to implement policy and through which my organisation has to partner. It is clear that there is a much less efficient and much less organised way in which we can translate scientific findings into practice, particularly when those scientific findings are to do with changing practice, adoption of best practice and things of that nature. That is the challenge that we have.
Q292 Chair: Peter Melchett, you wanted to come in there, did you?
Peter Melchett: Yes.
Chair: I am happy to bring you in.
Peter Melchett: Thank you. Three quick points: the research agenda, which is important to the future of farming and food production, is the one that Helen talked about, of agroecology and the emerging scientific consensus globally that that is the way forward for farming, and in that context dealing with the resource constraints that farmers are going to face of peak phosphate and increasingly expensive and scarce manufactured nitrogen.
Now, to answer your question, in that context I would say the UK is still dominated-as Helen said-by a biotechnology GM agenda in its agricultural research, and is doing very little, if anything, on this new and important future forward-looking agenda. As Helen said, that used to be the case in the European Union but it is shifting quite rapidly. Certainly, in the research for organic farmers, and the agroecological approach they are interested in, the EU are making very significant strides. I would say the best research being done in this country is funded by the EU in that context.
In my experience, China is taking a much longer-term view than the western democracies and is recognising these resource constraint challenges in a much more far-sighted way than America or Europe. As always, the USA is a complicated and diverse picture with some of the best and some of the worst in this context.
The third point I wanted to make was that, if you look at it, it seems to me that England is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world. The pasture-based livestock, which Helen mentioned, is a major factor in the thinking of the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It is a huge natural advantage that farmers in the United Kingdom have. It is recognised in Scotland and Wales but in my experience not in England. GM was rejected completely in Scotland and Wales as not being relevant, but is still being clung on to, particularly by the last Government, and not shaken off by the new Government here, the present Government in England. In accepting that agroecology is going to be the way forward, England is still being the country out of step scientifically and politically. That is my view of it.
Q293 Mr Spencer: Does the Common Agricultural Policy have a positive or a negative impact on the way that this research is conducted?
Peter Melchett: Sorry, does what have-
Mr Spencer: The Common Agricultural Policy, does it have a positive or a negative impact?
Peter Melchett: The reaction to the proposed changes in the Common Agricultural Policy almost underline my point. There was a much more hostile reaction in England than you have seen in Scotland and Wales, although they have particular problems around historic payments, and acceptance in Europe that, if we are going to pay farmers money and continue with pillar one, the approach needs to be green, which was rejected by Ministers and farming organisations in England. The proposed changes in the Common Agricultural Policy in my view do not go nearly far enough but they do begin to reflect the changing European science agenda in this area.
Emma Hockridge: It was very welcome that there was a specific element of innovation within the proposals that have just come out in October. That does seem to follow on some of the interesting research that has been done at a European level; for example, the SCAR Foresight report, which was put together earlier this year, had a large focus on agroecology in terms of innovation and scientific development and agriculture.
Q294 Mark Lazarowicz: You mentioned the perspective of the Chinese on this issue. Can you explain very briefly what the key distinctions are?
Peter Melchett: At a scientific conference a couple of years ago, I saw two Chinese professors present a paper on a 10-year experiment they had been doing to see whether they could replace a manufactured nitrogen fertiliser with animal manure. They use very high levels of manufactured fertiliser, even compared to the UK and we are one of the highest users in the world. They had succeeded in replicating the yields you can get with manufactured nitrogen with animal manures at very high levels. It seemed a strange trial, coming from an agroecological organic background myself, but the professors explained that they were thinking that fossil fuel scarcity and increased price would make manufactured fertiliser difficult to get. They were well aware of the mineral phosphate reserves running down. China is refusing to export phosphates, as is America and now Russia. They are all buying from Morocco, as we do. This experiment was being done in 10 trial sites all over China. It was a state-funded research. It struck me very forcefully that they were taking a significantly longer term and maybe more open-minded view of what the future might hold. They weren’t under these commercial pressures of, "We have a technology, namely GM, and we have to put money into researching that because that is where profits and business lie." Their attitude to GM has been much more what you would think ours should be. Do people want it or not? On the whole, again as Helen said, they recognise there isn’t much of a market and they are significantly cutting down on GM in China as a result.
Q295 Mr Spencer: I want to go back to Peter’s dream of pasture-produced beef, because it is one that I would subscribe to and I do think that could happen. I wonder from a sustainability point of view, though, is that enough to feed the nation as we sit here today, and if we are going to end up importing from a much more intensive system somewhere else how sustainable that is globally?
Peter Melchett: It is a good question and you just began to touch on it. I was hoping we could get to this because it is clear to me-and anyone who looks at this in a neutral way-that we can’t possibly feed everyone on the planet by 2050 if meat consumption, in particular white meat fed with protein and grain, continues to increase. In fact, if we are going to cut greenhouse gas emissions from farming by 80% by 2050, and we are going to live in a world where there are major constraints on the availability of manufactured fertiliser and mineral phosphates, we clearly need to change demand as well as supply. We could produce in this country-Reading University’s Centre for Agricultural Strategies did some work for us-significantly more grass-fed beef and lamb than we do now. But if England and Wales was farmed organically, we would produce about a quarter of the chicken and pork. That needs to be reflected in changes in demand.
But then we have to change demand anyhow, whatever farming system we have. We have to change demand if we are going to stop the rising crisis of obesity and diet-related ill health costing the health service. It already costs £6 billion a year and the economy about £25 billion through diet-related ill health, and that is rising rapidly. The idea that we have a fixed demand and we need farming to respond to that is nonsense. It can’t be right, but a lot of the debate in England is based on that assumption and, if you think about it, it is an absurd assumption. Why should demand stay fixed? It has changed radically during my lifetime, which is the interesting thing about demand.
Q296 Chair: Professor Crute wanted to come in on that point.
Professor Crute: I would like to, you might say, put it in a slightly different scenario and particularly in the context of sustainability. Of course, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use in agriculture is a trivial component. In the total primary production globally, it is only 4% of our use of fossil fuels. That does mean that about 60% of the food that is being produced in peasant economies are essentially burning biomass for energy, or using draught animals or whatever, but nevertheless the actual fossil fuel use and the direct carbon dioxide emissions from primary production is trivial. Of that 4%, only 2% -50% of that 4%-is nitrogen fertiliser synthesis. If the price was right, there is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t substitute the totality of that with renewable sources of energy.
The bigger issue-and this comes back to the point about pastoral systems-in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is methane and nitrous oxide. It is very important that we have ruminant animals in agricultural systems. Ruminant animals are there because they can eat cellulose that we can’t eat. Also, it is extremely important that we have omnivorous animals, such as pigs and poultry, because they can also eat things that we can’t eat, including particularly animal protein and they are extremely good waste disposal units. Agricultural systems did not come about by chance. What we have done is break them up and we have created waste rather than integration.
Coming back to the issue of pastoral systems, if they are unimproved grasslands they are not terribly sustainable in greenhouse gas terms. We might want them for other reasons, such as looking after the landscape, looking after biodiversity, but the amount of meat you get per unit of carbon dioxide equivalence in methane, would mean that you would not do it. Similarly, if you were feeding cattle for milk production, you might want improved grassland systems, which are essentially high-sugar grasses or refined diets. You might rather better want maize systems that are very refined because when you feed these to ruminant animals they produce much less methane.
Going back to the point about genetics, and genetics is a very important sustainable technology, whether you talk about GM or whether you talk about conventional approaches, we know now that selection in ruminant animals for reduced methanogenic bacteria in the rumen is also possible. So it is important here that we recognise that data is important. It is not a question of bandying words about and things that are seemingly plausible scenarios. Data is important and at the moment DEFRA is spending somewhere in the region of £12 million trying to get better data for the inventory, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from soil and from production systems. In conclusion, all I would say is that if you look at FAO’s data on the sustainability of our production systems in terms of livestock, either beef production or dairy production, by comparison with global figures we are well towards the top end of the sustainability in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Q297 Mr Spencer: To a certain extent the crux of the debate is whether, from a global or sustainable point of view, you are better to focus intensively in certain areas of the world agricultural production or whether, from a global sense, to go to a much more extensive agricultural production everywhere.
Professor Crute: As somebody who was incorrectly attributed with creating this phrase "sustainable intensification", the last speaker was wrong; it did not come from the way she thought. It comes from international development in Asia, where land is at a premium and land is the key issue. Whichever way you look at sustainability the land footprint is key. I can amplify that in more detail in my hypothesis, and as a scientist I seek the evidence to disprove my hypothesis rather than being an advocate where I am selective with the data that proves my prejudices. My hypothesis is that to farm productively, on the smallest footprint of land that delivers what the market wants, and that is a market-driven outcome or, if you are a subsistence farmer, what your family needs, is actually the greenest and usually the most profitable way to farm. Why is that? It is very obvious, because we need land for all sorts of other purposes, not least as carbon sinks. In this country-England, Wales and Scotland-we have a pitiful 12% of land cover with forests, whereas comparable countries in Europe have 36%. We should be thinking about the balancing of our food production systems, which requires more data. But if we are looking at 70 million people we want to feed as many of those people as we can with indigenous food. Because of these natural processes of denitrification releasing nitrous oxide and methane emissions from animals, there will be an irreducible minimum of greenhouse gas from efficiently produced agricultural systems. The question is whether we can balance that with carbon capture through grassland and forestry, and, if not, should we look at one or the other? Should we be importing from parts of the world that are as efficient as we are, so that we can keep more grassland or plant more trees, or should we be in a situation where we effectively pay for the planting of trees elsewhere? It is important that we think about this as an ecosystem.
Peter has referred to agroecology. I am an agroecologist. I started my life as a microbial ecologist. I am a plant geneticist and plant pathologist-one of the rare breed that Helen referred to. But I am interested in systems, in agricultural systems like a computer scientist would think about a computer system, and what you need is data. You need to understand the optimisation and you also need to understand that there are no win-wins. It is all trade-offs.
Q298 Chair: Peter wants to come in, but before I bring you in, Peter, what you have set out in terms of that vision, where is the drive for that vision coming from would you say?
Professor Crute: As we say in our written evidence, I do a number of things. I was part of the Foresight team that was referred to, and I was recently part of the expert team that did the National Ecosystem Assessment. I would certainly suggest to the Committee that you look at the National Ecosystem Assessment chapters on both grassland and the enclosed farmland. The enclosed farmland is the largest ecosystem in the UK because it consists of such a large area.
The question about: where is the drive coming from? Another job that I do is I am very active with the voluntary industry action plan for greenhouse gas emissions reduction. What we think in this area is that the Committee on Climate Change has it slightly wrong. Not being over-critical, but what they are doing is they are looking at the agricultural and food sector in the same way as they look at, for example, the manufacturing industry, car manufacture and the energy sector, and they are thinking of it exclusively in terms of reduction of fossil fuel use. We have accepted targets, between now and 2020, for a 3-million tonne-reduction of carbon dioxide equivalence from agricultural production systems, but it is looking at it the wrong way. Where is the drive coming from? The industry needs and indeed will develop the sort of arguments that I have been putting forward, which comes back to a land use issue and it comes back to a balancing issue.
Peter Melchett: A quick response to what Ian said and to pick up on the question. Yes, this has to be looked at in a global context. One of the things that that should tell you is we do not need to produce more food in Western Europe and North America. We probably need to produce less, because our main food problem is people eating too much, getting ill and costing the public and private sectors millions upon millions of pounds or billions of pounds a year. Where we do need to produce more food is in Africa and South East Asia, and so on, and we know that producing more food here, heavily subsidised by Common Agricultural Policy or in North America by their taxpayers, and then exporting it on the world market does not help farmers in poorer countries. It is the opposite; it tends to depress their chances of selling their goods. That is one global thing.
I would say the other global thing is it is useful to look at what science says globally. We have had 400 or 500 international scientists look at exactly the question you raise, and they produced the IAASTD report, which said that agroecology is the way forward. At a European level, the Scientific Committee on Agricultural Research looked at sustainable intensification versus agroecology, the precise dilemma you pose, and the scientists there said agroecology is the way forward.
The final point, on data and grass-fed meat, because I am an organic farmer in Norfolk and we have grass-fed beef. I agree with Ian. We should look at the data. The industry roadmap did that and produced some data that showed that extensive beef had a lower carbon footprint but then in the text said that they had reached the opposite conclusion, which was bemusing. Extensive beef and lamb has a better carbon footprint even if you do not take account-as we don’t currently in these calculations-of the soil carbon sequestered in permanent and semi-permanent grasslands. Once you take that into account, you have a significantly better carbon footprint. We deliver all sorts of other public goods. All our national parks in England are extensively grazed one way or another.
Q299 Mr Spencer: Is that per hectare or per kilo?
Peter Melchett: Per kilo as well as per hectare in terms of the carbon footprint. All the carbon footprinting is looking at the kilo product. As I say, if you take into account the soil carbon, which is not currently included but where the science is quite clear, we have huge benefits. But you have all these other wildlife and landscape, social benefits, keeping farmers on the uplands and the hills; the list of good, positive benefits is almost endless.
Q300 Caroline Lucas: The debate has moved on slightly, but picking up from what Peter was most recently saying about these wider environmental costs and benefits from the different models of agriculture. Peter has just outlined some of the benefits along the extensive agriculture. I just wondered if Professor Crute would acknowledge that, yes, data is important but surely that data has to be seen within the overall model of the food system that you are using. If on the environmental cost side you have a model that is linked to a conventional industrialised model, with huge amounts of international transportation from one end of the world to the other, when you have packaging, when you have the fertilisers, when you have all of the fossil fuel use that is involved in that, would you not then acknowledge that the figure you said of 4% would be significantly higher? While I still have the floor, you said a moment ago as well, before it whisks off somewhere else, we need to provide what the market wants. I just wanted to make the point that what the market wants is actually not a neutral thing. The market is shaped massively by the supermarkets and all kinds of other players; for example, with the supermarkets deciding that people do not want knobbly apples or whatever it might be. The market is not some kind of neutral thing, is it? It is hugely influenced by all those other forces.
Professor Crute: Yes, I would not want you to over-interpret what I meant by "market". What I was meaning there was that it is not sensible to produce, from even your most fertile land, food that has no market. That was the point I was making.
Going back to the other point you were making, of course you are right, and of course Peter is right, that there are all sorts of benefits from different sorts of farming systems. But it is important that we ask ourselves, "What is it we want?" So let’s talk about the uplands. I enjoy the uplands like everybody else. I come from the north of England and it is my home. But-let’s be realistic-if you were interested in greenhouse gas emissions off a particular area of land, you wouldn’t be keeping animals on the uplands. You would allow it to go to natural vegetation, scrub; even bracken would capture you more carbon, or would sequester you more carbon into the soil. So we keep the uplands because they are a completely artificial, man-managed system. We like the look of them, and it is good that people are prepared to live there and manage them in the way we like them.
So if we are prepared to acknowledge that, as part of a system, we count the cost, we work out the cost of the methane production from those systems, we discount the carbon capture that might be there, we value what we value and we recognise we have to pay for that somewhere else in the system if that is what we want. Ultimately, the most important thing in this debate, for any individual business, or anywhere where decisions are taken, is to have a very clear view about what you are trying to produce from land and why.
Coming back to Peter’s point about we need more food in Africa, of course we need more food in Africa. One of the things that Foresight said very clearly was, "There is an awful lot that can be done by reducing waste and closing this yield gap," but it is a fact that, if you look at a picture of the planet, there are some parts of the world where it is easier to fix carbon from photosynthesis, where, in other words, food will grow more easily. That happens to be the Amazon, but it is also the Mid-West of the United States and Northern Europe is an extremely good place to do agriculture.
If you look at the density of population in South Asia and the Far East then my logic tells me, if you are looking into the future, either food has to move or people will move. We will be producing food in parts of the world where it is easier to produce food or people will move. There is a Foresight report that has just been written on migration, and basically we have to recognise that with climate change it is going to become extremely hard to produce food in some parts of the world.
Q301 Zac Goldsmith: Very briefly, because some of the issues have also been addressed. Professor Crute, you put a lot of emphasis on data. I would like to ask you to respond to the data that Peter Melchett provided in relation to the low-carbon footprint of extensive agriculture because, if what Peter Melchett has said is correct, then your calculations earlier about the value of maintaining these landscapes is wrong. So it would be interesting to hear you-
Professor Crute: I want to see the data.
Zac Goldsmith: You don’t believe the data?
Professor Crute: I don’t believe the data because I think it has probably not taken into account the land issue. If you use more land, simply from emissions from soil you are bound to have more-
Zac Goldsmith: Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the calculation is that grass-fed cattle in these kinds of environments produce less methane than grain-fed cattle.
Professor Crute: No, they don’t. When grass-fed cattle are compared with maize-fed or silage-fed, the Reading University figures are very clear: grass-fed, particularly on unimproved grassland, per litre of milk or kilo of meat, will produce more methane.
Peter Melchett: On the difference in methane production, the data is still uncertain. For example, there has been very little investigation about the big affect of breeds. So if you take a breed that is well-adapted to unimproved grassland, like our old and native breeds, you will probably get different results. In any event, the alteration in the level of methane isn’t terribly significant. In our view, the way to reduce methane is to have less cattle and sheep and the fiddling around at the edges is not going to make huge differences-certainly not an 80% difference.
Professor Crute: If you have fewer cattle and sheep, I would agree with that. That is where the data is. If you look at the grasslands, you are getting less cattle and sheep.
Peter Melchett: Just to finish my point, we have published data on this-it is in the published conference proceedings. The EBLEX roadmap-the industry roadmap-shows that extensive cattle and sheep, if you take into account the soil carbon sequestered on permanent or semi-permanent grassland, will be lower than intensive. There are all sorts of ways of changing this data. You can assume that none of the intensively reared cattle are fed on imported soya, and that will reduce the footprint very significantly, but the reality is that imported soya is the cheapest feed and most intensively-reared cattle, beef, dairy, pigs and poultry are reared on that, and the carbon footprint of that is very high. Grass finished cattle are rare still, where the cattle only eats grass and silage, and they tend to be native breeds, because the modern, high-performance breeds are not suited to that sort of diet. But I think it is clear-and I agree with Ian-in that case, you are going to produce overall less meat. But that takes us back to, why do you assume that demand is unalterable? There is plenty of good evidence that not only do we have to change demand and eat more healthy diets, but that it is relatively easy to do it.
Q302 Zac Goldsmith: Can I follow on that? I suppose on the broader point, my concern is, Professor Crute, when you look at the calculations you are using, you are not taking into account some of the less direct carbon costs, for example. When you were speaking earlier, your previous point about the comparative advantage of where food ought to be grown, where it ought not be grown, and so on, and whether food or people move, it seems to me that you are not taking into account there the issues of national food security, for example, dependence and vulnerability that comes with necessarily being dependent on other countries for your most basic survival. You are not taking into account the fact there are very large numbers of people employed in agriculture, and that that in itself is a good, and have not taken into account some of the wider considerations that Caroline Lucas mentioned earlier. So I would be very concerned if agricultural food policy was based on the kind of crude market analysis, which you have put forward, because if that were to happen we would lose a great deal.
Professor Crute: Again it is my fault, probably, but you have over-interpreted what I was saying. I completely agree with the points you are making about the need for food production systems, which are within national boundaries, and so on. But one of the things that Foresight made quite clear was that trade is an important component of food security. I am not an economist, so to some extent, like you, have read the report and I interpret it in this way, and that is-let’s call it-we need more bread baskets because when you get failures, as we did have in Australia a few years ago and obviously Russia last year, the shocks to the market are significant. So you do need to distribute your capability.
The Northern Hemisphere is just hugely important in this particular context, but also you certainly need to enable people living in less advantaged parts of the world to be able to produce the food that they need. One of the problems that we have is that globally we are becoming very urbanised, and poor people living in urban populations in poor parts of the world now buy food rather than make food. So people who are living in rural areas can usually feed themselves through bad times. Poor people living in cities in disadvantaged parts of the world can’t. They buy food. Food price is really important.
That is not quite answering your question but I do want to say that Peter has, in regard to some of the issues about livestock, made a lot of pretty unsubstantiated statements. Data is important. There is an awful lot of arm-waving in this area; there is a lot of sentiment. We like to see animals on grass but when you do the numbers we need fewer animals; fewer ruminant animals will produce less methane. Yes, you can say that will produce less meat. Pigs and poultry, that is a different issue completely, but ruminant animals, yes. But if you have very efficient production systems, which finish animals quickly, and therefore you get the meat production-again, it comes back to the market point, you can manipulate the market, what the market wants-then you are producing more meat per unit of greenhouse gas emissions. That is more efficient. It is a greener approach. We have to do these numbers and reduction of animal numbers is a good way to go.
Chair: I am going to move on to Dr Whitehead, in terms of specific aspects of research.
Q303 Dr Whitehead: Yes. Our discussion seems to have swirled around some of the issues somewhat. But to try and distil some of those various issues, if you were collectively Tsar and Tsarina of agricultural research and a magic Minister were to come along with large amounts of funding for that, what would it look like? What would your priorities be? In your view, what would the goals of that research be?
Professor Crute: Do you want me to answer? Yes. I have had a 40-year career as an agricultural research scientist in the public sector, so I have seen all shades of use. For me, you have to do basic research. Progress and new insights only come from doing basic research, but personally I think, from the 1980s through to almost the present, the pendulum has swung to the extent that people feel complacent in the case of agri-food, complacent about food supply. So investment in, let’s call it, more upstream research; we have been very good at winning gold medals in the scientific Olympics in the UK. We are top of bioscience, but I would like to see a balance. I would like to see much more of the current funding proportionately spent on things that were of direct relevance to the sort of the questions we have been addressing. How do you produce sustainable systems? What are the genetic traits that we need to get into our crops, which will enable them to be more resource-use efficient in terms of water and nitrogen use? What sort of animal production systems do we need in order to deal with the issues we have just been talking about? So we have to take these key questions, and waste as well, how we deal with the waste issues.
It is not a question of rapid change but it is a question of rebalancing. There is a big issue, and that is that we have had this 20 years of erosion, so even if there was a major shift in the funding-and the funding is significant-the Chief Scientist came up with a figure of around about £400 million in the system, which is badged as public money for agricultural research. So it is not a small amount of money. But the truth is, if you look around our universities and our institutes, there are only three Russell Group universities that give a degree in agriculture now. So we would have to build back the capability and bring a new generation of people forward who are motivated not just to do good science-of course we want excellent science-but motivated to produce end points, outcomes that will address these questions. We have young people knocking on the door that want to get into this area now, in exactly the same way as I did in the 1970s on the back of the Green Revolution. This was an exciting place to be. It is an exciting place to be now. We want to bring enthusiastic, young scientists into it, but that is going to require a 10-year project to build back the capacity to train those people.
Emma Hockridge: I agree. Yes. There is obviously an issue in terms of capacity, though. As Helen mentioned before, we have also seen that there has been an imbalance in terms of what agricultural funding has been used for. So we have seen that the research for agroecology, such as organic systems, has been underfunded in recent years. Helen went into some of the details for that. But looking at the systems approach, how we can tackle these problems in a holistic and sustainable manner is going to be very key, as well as that, obviously, with direct research, ensuring that the research is adequately fed down to farmers themselves so that they can use that research efficiently. We have seen an example with some DEFRA funding recently of a greenhouse gas inventory. Looking at the differences there, and looking at the differences, for example, of organic and non-organic systems but not looking at the key area of legumes in terms of comparison to nitrogen fertiliser, just looking at the issues around fertiliser and forgetting that there is a huge and growing swathe of farmers who are not having to rely on that fertiliser. So I think there is a huge amount that can be done there.
Q304 Dr Whitehead: Bearing that in mind, and those are very clear goals, the evidence that we have heard is that not only is that goal not going forward but the research base in the UK has essentially lost pretty much all of its independence.
Professor Crute: Lost its independence?
Dr Whitehead: In terms of the way it is being funded, the way it is effectively now funded from large organisations with particular purposes in mind. Is that a fair description?
Professor Crute: It wouldn’t square with my experience. As I say, I have had a long career. I have been director of two institutes, a director of HRI at Wellesbourne, and spent 10 years as a director of Rothamsted, and the percentage of income into Rothamsted, which was a £26 million, £27 million operation and the percentage of income coming from the commercial sector would probably be perhaps 1% or 2%. So I can’t square that, not in that context. Of course BBSRC, which was referred to, which is the primary funder, is extremely keen, in fact, it is Government policy to engage in Public-Private Partnerships, where essentially they want to be certain that the research that they are doing is going to have some relevance. In that sense, there are relatively small programmes. For example, there is a crop improvement club, which is a 9:1 ratio, nine units of Government funding to one of industry funding. There is an animal health, which is similar, but these are to make sure that the research the Government is funding is seen to be relevant and would be used by industry. So I can’t see that.
If you look at the total amount of money, not in the UK but if you look at the total amount of money globally that is spent in agri-food, then of course the large corporations, the big companies, their research budgets would make European country research budgets pale into insignificance. Probably the Chinese research budget in agri-food is vast and that would be competitive with Brazil. So I certainly don’t buy the notion that in Europe at least-and Europe has almost become a no-investment area for large agribusiness because of all of the regulatory restrictions that are now in place-it is not a place where anybody is going to spend money, because they wouldn’t be able to bring a product to market.
Peter Melchett: Ian hit on an interesting point about the British research, which is this desire for a Public Private Partnership and is one of the reasons why the research agenda has been so dominated by biotechnology and GM, as Helen pointed out. So when Ian says the research has to have some relevance, and that is why you have private industry involved, I am afraid the relevance is to Monsanto or BASF or some other GM company. I don’t think it is relevant to farmers. After all, there isn’t a single GM crop being grown by a single British farmer anywhere commercially. We have had millions upon millions of public and private money put into research on those crops and so far that has been of absolutely no practical relevance to farmers.
However, I don’t agree with your question, because of the point I made earlier that EU funding of agricultural research is providing some relief from this relentless drive to biotechnology in this country. We are seeing some projects funded here, which are relevant to agroecological or organic farming approaches, from Europe, but we are miles behind other European countries. If you were an organic apple farmer planting a new apple orchard to supply Sainsbury’s, let’s say with organic apples, you would find yourself-as indeed happened-importing every single apple tree from Italy to plant in Kent because it is in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria where research into varieties of apple trees, wheat and barley, and all the other staple crops of agriculture that are suitable for low-input agroecological systems, has been developed. I grow seed crops on the farm. We tend to grow varieties that were bred in Germany or Sweden rather than all varieties that were produced in England when my dad was alive and running the farm, because we simply haven’t developed suitable varieties for low-input systems. The EU are funding research on both crops and livestock suitable for low-input systems. The BBSRC are not.
Professor Crute: Can I say, with respect to what Peter has just said, get the data. Look at what BBSRC is spending its money on in the plant area. I can tell you that there will be a fraction of that money that will be associated with any of the companies.
Peter Melchett: I asked BBSRC what they were doing to help organic farmers the other day, and they said, "Oh we have work at the John Innes Centre on nitrogen-fixing crops". When we looked into it, it turned out to be the idea that you might genetically engineer nitrogen into crops 20 or 30 years away and there is certainly no interest either agroecological or organic.
Professor Crute: Peter, I think your contention was that it was all being done for the benefit of large corporations and that was it. The reality is it is a very small proportion.
Chair: We have both sides of the point. I am going to go back to Dr Whitehead.
Dr Whitehead: I don’t have anything else. Thank you.
Q305 Caroline Lucas: I wanted to ask about the latest trends, in terms of organic farming in Britain in particular but more widely as well. What is happening and why is it happening? What obstacles are there?
Peter Melchett: Globally, in all the key organic markets-and, somewhat surprisingly -the markets have continued to grow through the recession, the US market is now the biggest organic market in the world. It has grown steadily during the recession, quite rapidly. In Europe the biggest market, Germany, has continued to grow or maybe levelled off a bit, but certainly not dipped. Even in Greece the market for organic food has continued to grow. I don’t have the latest data from the last few months but the last I heard it was growing. The French market has grown rapidly in the last few years and continued through the recession.
We are an exception to that rule. The UK market has gone down. The other trends, in terms of increases in land area devoted to organic, tell a similar story. Increases in all the main organic markets in Europe and elsewhere in the world, including North America, and some slowing down of the increase in organic land area in the United Kingdom-but still a growth-partly because there is quite a time lag as it takes two years to convert.
Why is the UK the exception to the rule? Our analysis of this is that it rests on two factors. One is we are quite unique in the food market in having such a high dominance by a small number of multiple retailers, and one in particular, and Tesco is setting the scene for the others. At the beginning of the recession, Tesco did remove a lot of organic lines from their shelves and replaced them with low-cost items and if it is not there you can’t buy it. The supermarkets dominate the organic market in this country to a far greater extent than any other organic food market anywhere in the world that we know of. There retail sales tend to be much more diverse, with a wider range of retail outlets and other direct-sale systems.
The second reason, which may be of more relevance to your Committee, is that most European Governments, if you compare us to other European countries, seem to do a great deal more to encourage people to buy organic food. First, we as organic farmers in this country, in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, get lower levels of support for being organic than is the case in any other EU member state, of all 27 member states. We used to be around the middle, in terms of farming support, about five years ago, six years ago, when DEFRA looked at it for an organic action plan. We are now the bottom, which is staggering, astonishing and worrying, speaking as a farmer, because we are now operating on about the most unlevel playing field you can possibly imagine for a British organic producer.
But it is not just that. If you look at what Governments, like France, have done to encourage ordinary people to buy organic food and making it accessible, it is dramatically different from what successive Governments have done here. If you look at what the Italian Government have done to encourage the public sector to buy locally produced organic food, all school meals in Rome are organic and produced from around the city, for example. In Sweden, the equivalent of our Food Standards Agency encourages everyone in Sweden to spend one day eating to help wildlife, and they recommend people to eat local and organic food, and it is not controversial. There is no argument. Here it would cause a huge rumpus. But then I comfort myself with the thought that recycling rubbish used to be something that only the Danes and the Germans would ever do-"The Brits will never recycle anything." Then after that it was, "Only the Germans and the Danes will ever have wind farms. We will never have wind farms. We are not like them," and I think organic is the same. It is about 20% of the food market and land area in Austria, and we will get there.
Q306 Caroline Lucas: I will do a very quick follow-up because I know we are pressed for time. Imagine that we did have some of those nice support mechanisms in place. Can you say a bit more about what potential you think organic food could reach in the United Kingdom? Because there is always the debate, and we have touched on it earlier this afternoon, about how much could you feed everybody with organic and you have explained that we would need to change diets. What else would need to change and how possible could it be?
Peter Melchett: It will come mainly from economic drivers, the cost of fertiliser in particular. Although Ian said, quite rightly, you can produce and manufacture nitrogen fertiliser with renewable energy, it would be significantly more expensive and you would still need something to get the nitrogen out of the air into soluble form, and you will still have the problem of mineral phosphate, where we can’t conjure up more supplies and where our yields are crucially dependent on the inputs of mineral phosphate, particularly in non-organic systems, but also in organic we need phosphate. Ian is keen on data. There is some research published by Newcastle University that shows that, without the addition of mineral phosphate, winter wheat yields would fall to the levels we achieved around 1900, well below the yields you get from organic systems now.
That will be the main driver, and we will-because of price and health, probably more public health signals than anything else-move to diets that contain less meat, slightly less dairy products, significantly more fruit and vegetables. And agroecological and organic systems can provide that, particularly if we eat more seasonably as well, and, as Helen was saying, more local food. So if you go for seasonality, local, and much lower meat, particularly less white meat, because this feeding of grain and protein to pigs and chickens is an incredibly wasteful process we know, huge numbers of calories in, very little out, and growing those crops has devastating impacts in Latin America. I think then we will produce all food through agroecological methods, much of them organic.
Caroline Lucas: Does Professor Crute agree with that scenario?
Professor Crute: To be honest with you, there is so much stuff there that it is almost hard to know where to start. The last bit about pigs and chickens, pigs and chickens are the most efficient converters. By comparison with a ruminant animal, pigs and chickens are superb converters of what you feed them into meat, so we need more pigs and chickens. That is why the Chinese have pigs and chickens and very few ruminants because they have large numbers of people to feed and they want meat and protein. So that is one point.
Phosphate: there is never any more or any less phosphate in the world. It is not like oil, it just goes around the system. So if you have enough energy you can extract phosphate from seawater. The very first fertiliser that was made, invented at Rothamsted, the foundation of science in agriculture, was the patent that Sir John Lawes placed to produce super-phosphate fertiliser by treating bones with sulphuric acid. So yes, price will determine all sorts of different things but there is going to be no more and no less of any of these things. Like water, water doesn’t go anywhere, it is just you have to move it from place to place. So energy, energy is really important. We will be able to do all sorts of things if we have renewable energy. The bottom line is that nitrogen is the driver. We are sitting here, we are made of protein. That is nitrogen, essentially.
If you are going to feed 9 billion people or even 70 million people in this country, you have to have sources of protein. You can get protein from plants. Even wheat will give you 12% protein. So you need to have systems that will generate the quantity of calories and the quantity of protein. You will not do it with organic production systems unless you do one thing, and that is you close the loop, and that is human waste because we are the major source of loss of phosphate and nitrogen into the system. If you can close the loop, definitely you could do it, because we have 55% more nitrogen in the nitrogen cycle since the Haber-Bosch process was invented in 1908. We have plenty of nitrogen in the system. Of course we are producing more because we are allowing it to go out into the ecosystem, into the sea, and so on. But organic systems are as leaky, if not leakier. It doesn’t matter where the nitrogen comes from. It can come from a legume; it can come from manure. It leaves the system. It leaves the system as nitrous oxide. It leaves the system as soluble nitrogen into water. So ultimately, collect human urine, collect human excreta and re-circulate it. The Chinese did that but of course they have moved away from that, because they were killing their population, but in a modern context-
Chair: Did you want to add to that, Peter?
Peter Melchett: I can agree with Ian about closing the loop with phosphates. Yes, we will have to do that and we have said that publicly before now. Nitrogen being the same, whether it is fixed by legumes biologically or manufactured, I think scientifically that is wrong. Recent published scientific peer-reviewed research in North America and an article in Nature or Science-I can’t remember which now; I think in Nature-both of which show, first of all, that nitrogen fixed by legumes will not suppress carbon in the way that manufactured nitrogen has now been shown to do, and that it is a lot less leaky. You get much more taken up by plants than you do with manufactured nitrogen.
Professor Crute: With respect, Peter, I am a plant scientist. A plant only sees ammonium ions and nitrate ions. A plant can’t discriminate where those nitrate ions and ammonium come from.
Chair: I don’t think we are going to be able to discriminate between the different sets of research.
Q307 Mr Spencer: I am struggling to understand then why the Soil Association doesn’t support research into trying to create a grain that is nitrogen-fixing.
Peter Melchett: We have scientific and principled objections to the use of GM technology. But we have no objections, for example, to a marker-assisted selection breeding. We would not see it as a priority because organic systems with rotations have plants that fix nitrogen quite satisfactorily. I grow two years of clover and I can grow four years of arable crops after that. It is not a major priority for us. Don’t forget, the rotation delivers not just nitrogen for subsequent crops but disease control and a number of other benefits; weed control and disease control, which means you don’t have to use oil-based pesticides. If people came up with wheat or some other crop, which fixed nitrogen or didn’t require so much nitrogen, and where that trait hasn’t destroyed some other characteristic of the plant, which is what most scientists suggest would happen-not all, I know Ian might not agree, but even many geneticists would say that-then of course we wouldn’t have an objection.
Mr Spencer: Do you acknowledge the only way to get there, though, is through more research?
Peter Melchett: We are very anxious to see more research, particularly more research relevant to farmers and to the future of food production, as identified by international and European scientific, Foresight, and other reports. But that is different from the sustainable intensification agenda in this country. There is a real conflict there, as you say.
Chair: We might go on to what we were going to do on European research. Zac, you wanted to come in, and I want to bring in Martin Caton. I give everybody warning, we are expecting a vote fairly shortly.
Q308 Zac Goldsmith: I will be very quick and I hope the answer is quick. On that point of research, there is a problem obviously that whoever pays the piper calls the tune, on the whole, and most of the money that goes into research into GM comes from the industry. The research that you have just been describing, where do you think the money should come from?
Peter Melchett: Organic farming has a big disadvantage over non-organic, and this would apply to agroecological as well because farmers generate their own fertility, their own disease and weed protection in the soil and in the system. There are relatively fewer inputs, therefore relatively fewer people flogging new stuff on the farm and therefore relatively fewer businesses with a commercial interest in developing the system, which is why in Europe you see public money from the European Union and other European Governments going into this sort of research. That is very helpful to us as well but it would be even more helpful if we had some of that research being done in the UK.
Q309 Martin Caton: The Farming Regulation Taskforce reported this spring and, based on that, Ministers have highlighted a number of areas where they hope to reduce regulatory burdens, but hopefully also maintain high standards in environmental outcomes, health and welfare. Do you welcome this or are there dangers in this sort of deregulation?
Peter Melchett: We warmly welcomed one of the first recommendations from Richard Macdonald’s review, which the Secretary of State accepted, which was that organic farmers should not have to be separately assessed under the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone regulations, because organic farming already delivers sufficient protection from nitrate pollution. So, at the launch of the report and subsequently, we welcomed that. On the whole, in terms of the Macdonald review, we haven’t seen anything in it that has given us cause for concern. The wider review of regulation, and what might happen to regulations to protect wildlife, is still unclear. But the Macdonald review we welcomed and, as I say, we particularly welcomed the one recommendation we made being accepted.
Q310 Martin Caton: Can I turn the question on its head. Is there a role for more regulation to encourage more sustainable production?
Peter Melchett: My feeling would be that the way in which CAP reform is moving, where people are being given public money in large quantities, as farmers are, that being linked to the delivery of some public goods rather than just being paid to be a farmer, as the pillar one payments currently do, is a much more effective way of going. Just introducing good agricultural and environmental conditions, as a condition to get your pillar one payment, removed blockages on rights of way all over this country without any controversy. It had been a matter of intense controversy and debate for decades before that. It is difficult for the Commission to find measures to link pillar one payments, which are relevant throughout the EU with very different farming systems. But given the unwillingness of Governments to move all of pillar one payments to pillar two, which is what we would favour, this seems to be the next best option and there is plenty of scope for delivering public goods without needing to have further regulations, in my view.
Professor Crute: If I can just quickly comment. We all recognise the need for safe food and we need to ensure that we have systems in place that, as far as it is possible to do, deliver safe food. We obviously have certain things that we want to ensure, for example, that the environment is protected. But we also have to recognise that in Britain we have farm assurance schemes, and the farm assurance schemes are extremely robust. They will develop and they will evolve, and so we are rather good at working as an industry to, in a voluntary sense, respond to market requirements and to deliver that through these sorts of things. So regulation should always be the last resort. It doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t use it, but regulation should always be the last resort, and ultimately farm assurance, voluntary schemes and market driven assurance, is a very powerful way of getting industry to align behind good practice.
Chair: Okay. I just wondered if Peter had-
Peter Aldous: We have covered it.
Chair: We have covered most of it. If that is the case, can I thank you very much indeed. I am glad we have got through the business before the vote. Can I just say there have been a couple of references to data, and obviously if any of you wish to provide further data, in view of what has been said in the course of the proceedings this afternoon, we would be very pleased to receive it.
Professor Crute: I will read the transcript. I shall look at some of the things that Peter said. I will look at some of the things that I said and if I think that I can provide data, which either refutes or supports and it is objective, I will try and submit it.
Chair: At least the invitation is there. Okay. Thank you. All three, thank you very much indeed.