The Right Hon. Margaret Beckett

Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Nobel House

17 Smith Square

London SW1P 3JR

2nd September 2003

 

Dear Secretary of State

Re: Reviewing and redirecting publicly funded science in the food and farming sector

I am writing to you as a working farmer and Board Member of farm, which represents the interests of both farmers and the wider public, to ask that the Government review how scientific research within the field of food and farming is funded and prioritised.

In order for the common interests of farmers and the public as taxpayers to be best served, it is our view that there is a need for a new, demonstrably independent, overarching science body to replace the existing Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Our suggestion is that this should be called the Sustainable Food & Farming Scientific Research Council (SFFSRC). This title would communicate the Council’s focus on and prioritising of scientific research that underpins a long-term vision for food and farming. It would also reflect the Government’s commitment to sustainable development.

The SFFSRC’s role would be:

  • To retain a practical focus to the work that it commissions, but to remain independent of potentially conflicting commercial interests.

  • To ensure that those responsible for the allocation of funding represent the diverse range of social, economic, medical and environmental issues involved in the production, processing, consumption and use of food and non-food crops.

  • To ensure an efficient integration with the existing Governmental Departments of Health, Industry and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs towards developing policy to support progress achieved through greater scientific understanding.

  • To support a diverse range of scientific research establishments which includes those dealing with relatively "low-tech" solutions but which can still have a high intrinsic value. An example would be Elm Farm Research Centre, the leading organic farming research station.

  • To promote transparent working practices to ensure that public money is used to promote systems of agriculture that are consistent with public aspirations.

  • To provide a forum for those scientists who hold divergent views to be able to express them freely without fear of retribution.

The current debate about the possible commercial growing of Genetically Modified (GM) crops within UK agriculture has exposed fundamental flaws in the way that investment towards development of our farming methods is encouraged through scientific research. We currently find ourselves in an extraordinary position where vast resources have been directed towards developing a range of agricultural crops that are highly controversial and are not wanted or needed by the majority of the public and farmers.

In its Eighteenth Report, "Reaping the Rewards of Agriculture", the Select Committee on Public Accounts states that,

"Over the last ten years, annual expenditure by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the Department), and its predecessor the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, on agriculture related research and development has been around £100 million a year."

The proportion of public money awarded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in 2001/2002 towards projects involving GM accounted for over 40% of their total Agri-biotech investment (1). Nearly £23 million spent in that year alone in supporting a branch of technology that was already subject to serious questions regarding its compatibility with sustainable agricultural systems.

The problem is not, therefore, one of overall under-funding, but rather that the priorities identified by those charged with overseeing the allocation of funding have failed to reflect the objectives that those footing the bill (i.e. the general public as taxpayers) would wish. Polls consistently show a majority of the public do not want and will not buy GM foodstuffs. A market rejection reflected in the decision by 90% of the British Retailers Consortium – including all the major supermarkets - not to stock GM foods. An independent survey for farm of nearly 600 farmers in 2002, included the question:

‘Do you think the development of GM crops will overall benefit farmers?’

51% thought not; 31% thought they would; 19% were undecided.

What is of greatest concern in the case of GM crops is that the process of developing the technology appears to have been to promote the development of the "solution" first and then, only at the point of commercial introduction, to test how appropriate its use within UK agricultural systems would be. Taking the case of herbicide-tolerant crops, if the basic parameters are a requirement to reduce pesticide use and to increase biodiversity, it seems bizarre to spend such vast resources on a solution that is based on the use of a broad-spectrum herbicide as opposed to a targeted control strategy.

In this and many other notable cases, it appears that technology that is being developed for agriculture is "science for the sake of science" as opposed to science being driven by an identifiable need and resulting in technology that has an immediate practical value to farmers and the wider public.

Given the close ties between those appointed to bodies such as the BBSRC and the research institutions that receive the principal share of funding, it is perhaps not surprising that the lack of independence has led to the current situation where science appears to be increasingly treated as a detached entity rather than an integral part of modern farming practice.

There are a number of significant concerns about the apparent situation that we now find ourselves:

Firstly, the apparent priority given to those commercial technologies that can be "owned" through Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) over and above other areas of research that would benefit the greater public good but have a value that is not so easily expressed in purely economic terms.

Large sums of public money have been allocated to developing technologies whose ownership is subsequently transferred to private corporations and research bodies. This is actively encouraged using a system of IPRs by the Government through funding councils such as the BBSRC. The report, "Reaping the Rewards of Agriculture" also records that,

"The Department's [DEFRA’s] income from commercialisation is less than 1% of its expenditure on research, suggesting that the Department lacks the leadership and enthusiasm to promote commercialisation".

It goes on to suggest in its recommendations that this apparent lack of return on investment should be met with an effort to,

"build up expertise in identifying intellectual property and in negotiating deals to maximise commercialisation opportunities".

However, we believe that in many cases, as illustrated by the apparent rush for commercialisation of GM crops in the UK, a fundamental conflict of interests has arisen between maximising commercial return and serving the longer-term interests of sustainable farming practice.

It is difficult to see under the recommendations of the Eighteenth Report, how a number of important factors could be included in such a narrow interpretation of what constitutes good return on investment. These include:

  • The role of food as a key part of the Nation’s Primary Health Care.
  • The environmental benefits resulting from encouraging systems of agriculture that adopt "low impact" strategies.
  • The social and community-based role that farming can play.
  • The efficiencies in energy and water consumption that can be made.
  • A more efficient use of minerals and nutrients through accurate budgeting.

Such important factors cannot be effectively controlled by IPRs, which appears from the report to be the preferred weapon of choice in seeking a return on research investment.

It appears from the evidence submitted to the Select Committee by Mr Bender on behalf of DEFRA, that much of the current approach to the issue of securing returns on research investment has been shaped by the Baker Report (see link below). Indeed, there is little to suggest that there has been any deviation from that path despite a number of instances in recent times (such as BSE and the spread of the Foot & Mouth virus) where inadequate research and lack of understanding have led to unnecessary costs being borne by farmers and taxpayers alike.

The second area of concern is that those independent scientists whose views challenge vested interests, find themselves in a position where they are intimidated by threats to funding streams or risk being vilified by their peers.

This appears to be a particular problem where there are significant commercial interests at stake and again, it is the current debate on the commercialisation of GM crops that has served to illustrate a significant failing of science where complex issues with significant areas of uncertainty are attempted to be presented as "black and white". We have witnessed unprofessional treatment of scientists such as Dr Arpad Puztai, and more recently, Dr Andrew Stirling and Professor Carlo Leifert, when these scientists have chosen to voice concerns that may be seen to threaten the rapid commercialisation of GM crops.

Similar divergent views exist over a number of important farming-related issues such as human health effects connected with Organophosphate chemicals, Bovine Tuberculosis and the spread of the Foot & Mouth virus. Rather than being treated as playing an important role in the testing of accepted scientific understanding, such views appear to be treated as a threat, to be discredited and dismissed rather than given due consideration.

 

 

The lack of freedom for independent scientists to express their concerns in certain fields of commercially-related science can serve to delay the investigation of areas where there are potentially damaging health and environmental effects of products or methods used in farming.

Our third principal area of concern is that the overall direction that scientific development is encouraging farming to develop does not appear to reflect public aspirations or to represent the longer-term interests of farmers.

We welcome the fact that the future role of DEFRA is reported to be under review and we hope that any recommendations for change reflect the integrated role of food and farming proposed in the Curry Report. As part of any such review, we believe that it is essential to include the role played by scientific research and development in supporting the direction that farming is encouraged to take. One of the Policy Commission’s recommendations was,

‘that all public and industry bodies concerned with research, development, regulation and standard setting involve public representation.’ This is a good first step, but given the recent controversy over the Food Standards Agency ignoring the views of its own appointed wider public and consumer representative body over GM crops, more is needed to ensure that public supported science supports public not private interests.

Furthermore, Food and Farming encompasses issues that fall not just within the remit of DEFRA, but also the Department of Health and the DTI and as a consequence, can suffer from a lack of effective coordination between these Government Departments and their diverse range of interests. The fact that the BBSRC falls under the remit of the DTI is reflected in the fact that it is the interests of science and technology that appear to be pre-eminent in funding decisions, whereas a body such as our proposed Sustainable Food & Farming Scientific Research Council, which would be primarily concerned with food and health, might arrive at a different set of priorities.

Publicly funded science within the food and farming sector should be focussed towards developing sustainable farming systems and towards a better understanding of health and the environmental impact of food production systems. In many instances, that doesn’t necessarily require the application of "cutting edge" technologies – rather a refinement of current techniques and more efficient use of existing resources. There is evidence that a number of projects requiring funding for research that could yield significant benefit for farmers have been discounted or under-emphasised because there is not enough "new science" involved. Existing techniques from Integrated Pest Management, to Biological Control, to Organic husbandry offer farmers knowledge-based systems for tackling many agronomic challenges in ways that dovetail with consumer and environmental concerns. Yet these have received disproportionately less research funding than that which has been directed at product-based proposed solutions, such as the GM herbicide-tolerant crops.

A parallel to consider is that of the Energy sector, where the Nuclear Power industry received disproportionate funding over many years compared to the modest sums directed at Renewable Energy. It is now widely accepted that this was due to the fact that the UK Atomic Energy Authority, with its bias to nuclear science, oversaw research funding for both nuclear and renewables. The Government’s admirable recent measures to boost renewable energy provision in the UK has had to overcome this historic handicap of insufficient research directed at the renewable technologies. As with the UKAEA and nuclear, the BBSRC is favouring GM directed research and neglecting other possible techniques and technologies. The consequences of ‘putting all our eggs in the Biotech. basket’ are that, as with our energy provision, we may well find ourselves with an insufficient range of proven alternative techniques to contend with the impacts on agriculture of climate change and other environmental and political challenges.

 

Additionally, the decisions regarding funding allocations and the process of overseeing projects would benefit from a far wider representation of interests than is currently the case. Unless such a review is carried out as a matter of priority, the relatively narrow focus of current funding objectives leaves UK farming at a severe disadvantage to its counterparts in other European countries and leaves what remains of our farming base exposed to the potential for further farming-related crises on the scale that we have seen with BSE and the containment of the Foot & Mouth virus.

 

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this in more detail.

Yours sincerely,

 

 

 

John Turner

Chair, Science Review Committee, farm

Board Member & Dairy Farmer

(1) Strategy Unit: The Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops

Background Working Paper for the Analysis of the Costs and Benefits to Industry and Science; 30th January 2003.

Other sources:

Public Accounts Committee, Reaping the Rewards of Agriculture  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmpubacc/414/41402.htm

The Baker Report

http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/Documents/Enterprise_and_Productivity/Research_and_Enterprise/ent_sme_baker.cfm