Select Committee on Agriculture Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (R 4)

  Thank you for your letter of 24 November soliciting oral evidence for the House of Commons Agriculture Committee. This reply is provided on behalf of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER). IGER carries out an extensive programme of basic, strategic and applied research into many aspects of grassland and extensive agriculture. This includes programmes of work on ruminant nutrition, forage breeding and forage conservation, and we have an established record of research excellence in forage-based animal production systems. The majority of the strategic research at IGER is funded by MAFF, with underpinning research funded by BBSRC. We also carry out research for industrial sponsors including animal feed companies.

  In general, we feel that the MAFF-funded research effort on TSE research has helped to establish a scientifically rigorous basis for the control procedures that were introduced. Continued funding will help to: (a) understand the syndrome(s) in more detail; (b) eradicate scrapie from the UK sheep herd and (c) develop diagnostic and prognostic methods that will facilitate monitoring. One of our MAFF-funded research projects is concerned with TSE and the utility of using low molecular weight blood-based metabolites (non-prion) as a diagnostic or prognostic tool. This is an area of research where MAFF has funded relatively few projects and we would suggest that useful additional knowledge could be gained from a systematic investigation of temporal changes in non-prion based metabolites in blood, urine and cerebral fluids in TSEs. MAFF now have access to appropriately collected samples, from BSE challenge experiments, to facilitate such studies. It should be noted that neurodegenerative symptoms have been observed in cattle for many years and linked to diet (eg ryegrass staggers). We feel that it will become increasingly important, as disease numbers fall, to be able to distinguish TSEs rapidly and accurately in order to avoid false positives. We particularly support, therefore, MAFF's research involvement in diagnostics.

  On the broader issue of the consequences to human and animal health of intensive farming methods, we believe that experimental evidence indicates that intensity of production is not linked a priori to deleterious consequences. Indeed, intensive animal production permits a greater control of animal husbandry and diet (and thus potentially of animal health) because of the greater financial return per animal. It should also be borne in mind that systems such as organic production, identified in the public mind as not being intensive, can generate very high levels of production per animal, and thus require equally careful control over nutrition and health. By contrast, extensive systems such as hill and upland sheep production can harbour TSEs, as in the case of scrapie where the issue is a genetic predisposition rather than the intensity or otherwise of the farming system.

  Within these complex parameters, MAFF funds a range of research concerned with livestock production. A significant proportion of this emphasises the use of forage-based systems and is increasingly linked to the environmental benefits that can accrue from such systems. There has been a significant change in MAFF livestock research policy over recent years towards more sustainable, environmentally benign production methods. We welcome this change and encourage continued links between the research funded from within different policy groups. MAFF have also funded work, in partnership with the levy boards, which emphasises the quality elements of livestock production systems. A number of studies have indicated the advantages for farmers of introducing added value into the food chain, and we again would endorse the relevance of such research.

  In conclusion, we believe that MAFF retains an important role in the funding of strategic agricultural research to promote economically viable methods of livestock production in a time of reduced production subsidies. The increased focus of this research on sustainability and quality issues within UK production systems will be of generic value to all sectors of agriculture, including intensive, alternative and extensive systems. Whilst we do not feel qualified to comment in detail upon the full range of TSE research funded by MAFF, we do feel that its overall objectives are appropriate and that they are consistent with the aims of the relevant systems-based research funded by other priority groups. We encourage the committee to take a pragmatic view of the benefits and limitations of different agricultural systems and to acknowledge that a significant proportion of the MAFF research portfolio will generate information of general value to livestock farmers, whatever system they are operating.

29 January 2001

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