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

Examination of Witness (Questions 240 - 259)



Mr Todd

  240. Of the various strands of biotechnology that this country could be focussing on, when you relate them to the agricultural sector, which do you think have the greatest promise?
  (Professor Bainbridge) Well, I think it is important, first of all, to be clear what we are talking about in terms of using the word "biotechnology". I personally do not use the word "biotechnology" as synonymous with molecular genetics and GM technologies. Biotechnology started in pre-biblical times when they were making wine, cheese and bread, et cetera, so in that broadest sense I think biotechnology used for sustainability will be very, very significant. I think that will be an accepted use of biotechnology and that, I think, is one of the key things. That is not new. As a very new academic, I worked with a student on a project in the Highlands of Scotland installing a very small anaerobic reactor to treat distillery waste because of the problems of disposal of the spent mash from the distillation process into the local water supply which clearly was not desirable. That technology never took off two decades ago, but I believe the whole economic, the whole environmental and the whole consumer scene has moved on so much that technologies which have been in existence will actually become cost-effective. Quite clearly new technologies will constantly be developed. I think they will be all around the decreasing scale, the diversification and almost for the case-by-case example I think it will be far too trite and too general to say, "This technology will solve all this group of problems". I think it is very much we are talking about small-scale solutions to small-scale problems using modifications of single generic biotechnologies.

  241. Taking you back to your first answer to David's question, there would appear to be two strands of technology that I could identify that appeared likely to be applicable on some scale in UK agriculture. One was biomass, simply the process of converting waste into energy or some other form of product which can be used. Do you feel that that offers a strong potential of converting what is, after all, a relatively well-established technology?
  (Professor Bainbridge) It could be the production of crops for burning to generate energy or it could be dealing with waste problems.

  242. What are the issues that we are confronting in moving from a well-known technology or a set of well-known technologies into something that can be applied on a scale which is of value commercially?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think the issues are all around the platform technologies and who is going to do it and who is going to decide. When you are talking about a very large-scale technology and large-scale sewage treatment or water-processing plant, et cetera, with the scale you have got the available expertise there to deal with problems, to deal with issues, what if it goes wrong, et cetera. Once you move to the small scale, once you have established what the appropriate technology is, having the appropriate reactor designed to solve the local problem, then you have got to ensure that the day-to-day running of that technology is adequate so that there is no issue, as you know, related to generation of unwanted hydrogen and explosive hazards, smells and all these other issues, so you sort of magnify some of the potential small-scale problems as you scale down.

  243. In a way, it is a way of finding ways of dealing with known risks, but in a small, local environment rather than in the substantial large-scale environment where those things are currently tackled, and devising technologies that can control those risks?
  (Professor Bainbridge) That is right, yes. It is using a mix of technology. It requires control engineering, it requires engineering design, it requires a lot of biological sciences, a lot of analytical work, so it is a mixture of technologies. Traditionally in the UK we have a very good history of scaling up technologies, and we see this throughout the chemical industry, to fewer, larger plants. There is not the academic background of academic knowledge related to scale-down. I am working with a team at Newcastle University doing some reactor design on scaling down, but it is a different problem. It is not the sort of problem that we are used to dealing with, but I think it could be the answer.

  244. Could it not be argued that one of the skills that we have latterly demonstrated on some scale is the ability to convert known technologies for application in a Third World environment, for example, where access to the level of capital may not be available and some of those skills of converting technologies into safe products which can be handled within a relatively low education environment without access to power, some of those skills could be applied in this sort of context? Is that right?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think so because the basic premise of case-by-case examples, training individuals in terms of operating the technology, applications to suit particular needs small-scale, all of those things are in common.

  245. The other strand you mentioned was genetically-modified crops. Do you feel that there are particular crop varieties which are suitable for exploitation within this country on which our efforts should be concentrated?
  (Professor Bainbridge) Undoubtedly the science, some of the molecular genetics is easier in some species than others. That is one fact and there are issues around some species that are not prevalent in others. For instance, the farm-scale evaluations that are being carried out at the moment with maize, beet and oilseed rape, maize has category C consent because there are not the issues of very light, very friable pollen that is transmitted. That does not apply to maize, so that makes maize an ideal candidate for the researcher and for the evaluation. Undoubtedly there will be some crops which, by nature of its genome and the way the genome is unstable, et cetera, will not be suitable.

  246. Presumably, by implication, some root crops might be a reasonable candidate?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think there will be some crops which are easier to manipulate. I think the next sort of generation of the science will probably not necessarily be looking at the whole crop. It will be taking the biotechnology that stage further and looking at cultivating the plant cells in containment. A parallel here is the way Quorn is a myco-protein from mushrooms. Now, that is not, I hasten to add, genetically modified, but that is grown in a chemical plant in a very, very large-scale reactor. It is taken away into the middle of the Yorkshire countryside and it is processed to make a food product. Some of the answers to the problems which may theoretically exist related to gene-stacking and the other issues around the environment to which we still do not have all the answers, although we are gradually accumulating a sort of databank of answers to many of those questions, but a lot of those questions will disappear if we move from the whole plant to the bioreactor to cultivate the cells. Now, I am not for one minute saying that I would like to live in a countryside where there was no greenery, no plants and rows and rows of bioreactors, but it is one possible solution which might be applicable in certain cases.

  247. Logically, if we removed subsidies, and we are not going to remove subsidies in anything like the short term, but if we significantly reduced subsidies, certainly in other sectors that is normally a prompt for greater innovation to achieve gain. Would that be your expectation in agriculture, that a reduction in subsidies would produce greater pressure to adopt new technologies?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think so, but I am not sure about the reduction in subsidies. A reduction in subsidies certainly would be a driving force, but it per se would not make it happen because I think there is a very large gulf, if you like, between the researcher and the potential applications and the farm. As I said earlier, in any technology what we are not good at in the UK is those sort of platform technologies and going from the research laboratory through the various stages of application to the final end use and I think there would need to be quite considerable investment and drive actually to make the research innovation happen in practice.

  248. Which raises a further issue which is that the Curry Commission criticised some aspects of the management and research and technology in agriculture and particularly the fragmentation of that research and its distance from the marketplace. What is your impression as someone who obviously is closer to some of those issues?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I actually sit on the Council of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, much to my amazement because I thought if I was anywhere, I would be on a biological science one, but I am there specifically to look at inter-disciplinary areas. I think one of the issues is the way we fund research in the UK. It tends to be funded on discipline bases and the issues that we are talking about and the issues that will be the answer for a sustainable agricultural system, a sustainable environment and countryside actually cross such a broad range of disciplines that they are not well served by the current set-up. Now, that is not to say that things are not moving, though the recent basic technology programme, which was a cross-council programme, helped, but obviously there needs to be I think much, much closer collaboration. I am not sure in my own mind that setting up yet another body is the right answer. One of the comments that I have on reading the Curry Report is that they raised some absolutely, in my view, correct and pertinent issues, but very often the solution is, "Well, we will set up a body to do this, we will set up a new research group to do this", and so on and if we are not careful—

  249. That is the usual way and that is what we always do, so they are suggesting doing it again?
  (Professor Bainbridge) Well, we must make sure that the money that is removed from subsidies, if that is what happens, and put into new developments, we must make sure that it is actually channelled into actions which make things happen.

  250. You gave a very good, concrete example when we were talking about biomass and the production of energy which would require skills from a wide range of scientific abilities to produce a solution.
  (Professor Bainbridge) Absolutely.

  251. Perhaps our way of applying a solution through technology in agriculture is less likely to produce that type of co-operation from your description of the situation.
  (Professor Bainbridge) No. I think we could do better, but I think it is sort of cloud cuckoo land to say that this way of doing it will be right. For every solution to major problems there will always be issues raised. Wind farms might be a wonderful sustainable way to generate energy, but actually if you happen to live overlooking a wonderful view of the sea and your view is suddenly obscured by wind farms, it is not the best answer for you, so there never will be a perfect answer for everyone and there never will be a perfect answer for every type of farm in every environment and every type of management structure.

Mr Jack

  252. Just following on this theme of the technology and your observations about the biofactories looking at individual cells and new products which come out of them, this has been talked about a lot for certainly the last five or six years, but we have not seen a lot of development in this area. Have you made any effort to quantify in economic terms what we are talking about because I have a picture in my mind of highly specialised, highly prized crops being grown by a very select group of farmers on behalf of chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies, highly specialist work guarded around, because it contains a unique technology, but not being in the same sphere of British agriculture. Just help me to put it into perspective.
  (Professor Bainbridge) I do not think that scenario will be the same sphere of British agriculture and I do not think any one scenario would be or could be. I think it could generally be part of the solution and I think the way you have described the technology is in the use of what you might call high value-added products, maybe very, very specialist niche foods or pharmaceutical intermediaries or additives or nutritional supplements. In addition to that, I think we need to start to see, and this is very much "we need to start to see" as opposed to "I think we should do", whether we can use some of those technologies to produce perhaps part of our commodity crops, perhaps starches, perhaps specialised oils and fats maybe with a functional role in a food or whatever, but I do not think that that technology will ever replace the whole of British agriculture. If you were to ask me to quantify it, in my wildest dreams I do not believe that technology together, the high value-added and the potential development for commodities, would ever be more than around 10 per cent, so you can see I am not saying it is a salvation, but it could be very significant for some production units in some regions and that technology could be subsidised so that it actually happened on the farms in the countryside as opposed to the sort of scenario you painted where suddenly the farms would become empty and that technology would be concentrated in the regions where we have exploitation of chemical technologies and large manufacturing industry.

  253. You mentioned the word "subsidy" in the context of the development and the application of these technologies. Can you develop that thought a little more because there have been discussions about redirecting the current subsidies to alternative uses, particularly environmental goods, but you open up a new opportunity?
  (Professor Bainbridge) There is the issue of what the science will allow us to do and how much it will cost and then the overall cost-benefit analysis, so there is very little to my knowledge, although I am not an agriculturalist, I hasten to add, but I have not seen much evidence of real cost-benefit analysis applied to parts of agricultural issues. You could not do a cost-benefit analysis of agriculture, that is clearly stupid, but of specific problems, and it may well be that we have the research, it could be applied, it could be trialed out in various regions and it may work, but in terms of the final product, especially at first, there are always economies of scale and knowledge and everything else, it may not be cost-effective, but if all the indications are, and, as I say, the preliminary work needs to be done, if there are potential benefits, then we need to install some of that technology and we need to run it so that we can answer some of these economic cost-benefit questions.

  254. In your paper you mentioned the arrival on supermarket shelves now of cholesterol-lowering spreads. How much to produce those is down to the primary producer and how much to the food processor? In other words, do the farmers who produce these products today have to do anything that they did not yesterday, whatever, to the raw material?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think in the case of the two products that are currently approved and on the shelves, they are very much developments that happened with the processor.

  255. So the impact of these novel foods is effectively zero on farming?
  (Professor Bainbridge) It is, except that one of the raw ingredients is actually based from lignin and lignin is a plant material, so further back, yes, but those two current novel ingredients do not impinge on—the farmer is not part of that food chain.

  256. Just help me to understand, moving along, apart from the high value-added that we discussed a moment ago, what are the kinds of development in novel food production which would have a significant impact on what I call bulk British agriculture?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think as a result of GM and as a result of other crop breeding technologies, new types of crops, higher-yielding crops, a reduction in costs in terms of pesticides, herbicides, developments to allow extension to the growing season, I think in the future potential developments relating to the soil, not quite bio-remediation, but improvement to the fertility of the soil by biological means, maybe crops which can be ploughed in, maybe the development of crops to have particular features to add particular nutrients to the soil. I think there is quite a wide range of those.

  257. What is the timescale and what are the implications for the ordinary farmer? Would they require new growing techniques, new equipment? It always seems to take an awfully long time after the people at the front of the wagon-train of technology have seized on any new idea for it to reach the guy at the back.
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think so. I think many of these examples are not going to be a quick fix. Even in the context of GM, as you know, there is the moratorium at the moment and the farm-scale evaluations which will not actually end until harvest 2003 and then obviously there would be a need for the results to be accumulated and the regulators would need to look at those and that will take some time. In a sense there are the issues of the development of the technology, the testing of the technology and then when the technology is feasible, hopefully in parallel with that the regulatory developments as well, so for these very novel solutions, we are talking about a long timescale. However, I think we are talking about the future sustainability of agriculture, not just this year, next year, but in terms of ten decades and possibly even tens of decades, we are looking to the future.

  258. I was watching a fascinating television programme on Sunday and I have now discovered that my life expectancy is affected by the amount of oxygen damage that I am currently suffering. It talked about free radicals and all the kinds of foods to do with antioxidants to deal with this and I am getting quite interested in this and I am thinking, "Do I rush out and go on a total freak diet because that might have some effect and it might give me another couple of years which would be good news?"—well, good news for me! I think I will stick to the current diet. In terms of responding to health concerns, a lot of which might be dietary associated, do you see the development of products that could be beneficial to agriculture that might, for example, tackle head-on the provision within mainstream food of the types of substances which would minimise this oxygen damage which certainly set me wondering about my life expectancy on Sunday night?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I would think so very, very much. At the moment the emphasis in terms of high value-added food from a health point of view is to produce a food and then to stick additives in or process particular ingredients in a particular way and use them. I think the future, and this is what is often referred to as the second or third generation of GM-type work, for instance, will actually involve the foods being developed that grow containing these materials and then I believe not only will it have obvious added benefits to farming and agriculture, but I think there will be major changes in consumer perception. I have said many times that when they develop non-allergenic peanuts by GM, people will say, "Maybe there is something in this". We are already seeing the, not approved yet obviously, but we are seeing the golden rice, high-protein, vitamin A cultivars of rice which will save hundreds of millions of cases of infantile blindness, so the technology is starting to be there and I actually believe, as I say, that not only will that have the added benefits of changing part of the face of agriculture in the UK and around the world, but it will also have this added value in terms of consumer acceptance.

Mr Drew

  259. If we can go on to look at GM itself, where do you think we are at in terms of this debate, not just in this country? Let me explain what I mean by "this debate". I mean by that the process of government trying to test the waters in terms of public acceptability as well as putting in place a scientific evaluation. Where are we in this country compared to Europe and compared to the rest of the world?
  (Professor Bainbridge) I think where we are is in a different position from where we were two or three years ago. I think the Food Standards Agency has undoubtedly done a wonderful job in terms of opening up the debate to the public. I think that the debate has shifted away from food because the supermarkets took the decision to remove GM from the shelves, so the debate has shifted away from food where we have perhaps more of the answers to environmental issues, where the farm-scale evaluation will come up with some of the answers, but not necessarily all of them because of the issues of "What is the standard baseline and what indicator species should we use?" et cetera, et cetera. I think there are undoubtedly national differences. Certainly, as a regulator, I am very aware of that working to a European Novel Food Regulation. We can see a pattern of where companies submit applications and the type of comments competent authorities make in different countries are very, very different. I think public opinion is shifting and I think that is largely the result of extra communication, but I think it will take that extra bit of impetus where, with high-profile new types of GM products that really have added value to the consumer. The constant complaint, and I have talked to all sorts of consumer organisations, they all say, "What's the point? There is no shortage of food per se. What does this GM do? It might benefit the rich multinationals, it might benefit the farmer, the farming community, but what does it actually do for the public?" and I think once we can say, "Well, this product really does have an increased nutritional value", okay, but the arguments about the reduction of herbicides and pesticides are starting to come through as well as people relate the environmental concerns that they have with the advantages of GM.

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