Examination of Witness (Questions 260
WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2002
260. On that point, in terms of what you talked
about and what you wrote about, which is this idea of crops that
can deal partly with pollution, what time scale are we talking
about? That is crucial to people's perceptions of other applications
(Professor Bainbridge) What time scale are we talking
about for the novel applications?
261. The non-food aspects?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think possibly quicker, because
if we use GM in contained environments the regulatory process
would be a whole lot easier. I think we could see some of these
pilot bio-reactors of the type I have been describing, within
two years. Until they become an accepted part of the technology
and the products are fed into the food chain we are talking maybe
262. As a Regulator how easy is it going to
be to differentiate between those GM products that are food contents?
(Professor Bainbridge) The Novel Food Regulation came
into being in May 1998 and so in May this year it will be looked
at whether it should be updated. As a Regulator we are constantly
faced with, is this food really novel? What is the definition
of novel? It is easy in the context of GM, but in the context
of the cholesterol lowering spreads there are some major issues,
where one of them got round the novel food regulation because
it was on the market in Finland and another one had not been marketed
prior to the regulation, so it could not be. There will be lots
of regulatory issues. There are a different set of issues for
those products that will go directly into the food chain compared
to those products that will be used as intermediaries for other
manufacturing processes or, perhaps, those GM microbes that will
be used for waste treatment by remediation, et cetera. There are
some different issues round each.
263. You give a picture of GM being much bigger
in the rest of the world, a fivefold increase, and European farmers
are losing out. You talked about new benefits to the consumer.
I think of Zeneca's modest little tomato sauce which was cheaper,
better and tastier than conventional tomato sauce but it just
vanished because of consumer pressure on the supermarkets?
(Professor Bainbridge) You say it was consumer pressure
on the supermarkets but the data shows that the GM tomato puree
outsold the conventional by two to one. There is pressure against
GMs per se and supermarkets looking at their profitability.
The consumer does not want GM, they do not want non-GM, they want
choice. I think the problem was when the first GM products hit
the shelves, (a) the regulatory process was not open, and (b)
neither did the consumer understand the science, so there was
this view of things going on that "we are not in touch with".
There was no clarity about labelling. People were suddenly amazed
at all of the media discussions about GM soya because people simply
did not understand, they do not make the connection between the
farm and the products to, usually, a very compound process product
on the supermarket shelves. They were amazed to find that so many
processed products contained soya. They said, "We do not
drink soya milk, why should they (the processed products) contain
soya, we thought they contained flour", thinking flour, wheat,
et cetera. I think we have started to move. There is much more
information-flow now. The consumer is very interested. You only
have to look at the whole plethora of cookery programmes and science
programmes with food issues in the media now to see that the public
is starting to learn more. I actually think that the barriers
are starting to come down, the regulatory process has not helped
that. The many debates we are having has not helped that. The
issue is, I think, is the consumer understanding a risk? Neither
I nor anybody else would say that GM is all good or anything else.
264. There has been panic whipped up by interested
parties which has worked on gullible consumers like Mr Jack. The
finicky things you were saying about what food is going to increase
your longevity indicates a propensity to be gullible. Is there
is a future for European agriculture, not as you portrayed it,
in swinging over to GM to increase returns but in providing non-GM
products for that sector of the market?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think so. I do not think
there is any one scenario. I think organic is a viable scenario,
I think GM is a viable scenario, I think the scenario of non-GM
products in the market is another scenario. I do not think there
will be one solution. I actually think those three scenarios can
co-exist. There seems to be a feeling that you have to have this
or you have to have that. I think there can be fairly close co-existence
but it does imply major changes in supply and distribution, validation
and labelling and I think still more necessity for greater consumer
education across the food chain. I think consumers know a bit
about farming; they know a bit, although not very much, very,
very little, in fact, about food information; they know a little
bit about food processing but they do not make the connections.
I think that is why a National Food Technology Centre or a Food
Chain Centre, or whatever, was very much the focus and where the
consumer could go for questions. One of problems is that as a
consumer you cannot walk round most food production factories,
for hygiene reasons. What actually goes on when they make a cornflake,
for instance, completely baffles most people. If people go and
see the process they are very much amazed at it. If we can overcome
some of that it will have a knock-back effect.
265. How soon are commercial crops capable of
accumulating metal ions from contaminated soil likely to be available?
It sounds to me like the kind of thing we should have grown out
of Greenwich instead of a dome! How near to commercial viability
are these crops?
(Professor Bainbridge) In my note I was not citing
anything that I thought was a particular technology that should
be followed, I was just simply saying biotechnology has an almost
limitless potential and it can be used in novel ways.
266. Is it near?
(Professor Bainbridge) Microbial mining is not a new
technology. Microbial mining has been used in Africa for a long,
long time. Again, I am not saying that United Kingdom soils are
not a rich source of valuable metal ions, but they are mined microbially
in South America and South Africa. We should think laterally,
and locally in some cases, at the possible benefits of using biotechnology
that have not yet been exploited.
Mr Mitchell: Thank you.
267. You talk about consumers, and you said
earlier that you thought in 10 years' time we will have got over
the hump of acceptance in biotechnology. You are fairly optimistic
about that. The government seems to spend its life calling for
a public debate about GM. I never believe politicians when they
say they want a wide public debate, in my experience the narrower
the better, it is easier to take discussion. Is that going to
actually deliver something? What is the process by which we get
from now, where there appears to be a wide sense of suspicion
and a number of organisations with their particular activities
to pursue. The Soil Association, for example, is implicitly hostile
to GM even if it not quite explicitly hostile to GM. How do we
get to the point where people can look at this as just another
technology? How long is this debate? When do we declare it finished?
(Professor Bainbridge) I think public debate is not
necessarily the answer. The person that wins the debate is the
one that calls on the most emotions or speaks most vociferously
or strikes the cord. Unfortunately the debates are almost always
the NGOs versus the scientists or versus the industry. Then there
are perceived conflicts of interest on the industry side. The
scientists are not best skilled at public communication in most
cases where as some of the NGOs are businesses that run on subscription
and have very, very professional marketing and PR expertise. One
example is the work of the debates task force from the Food Chain
Crops for Industry Foresight panel, the sort of work we have been
doing, where we have shown in a very small-scale pilot study full
mechanisms of interacting with the public. We have said, "Do
not worry about the technology to get to the product, here is
some hypothetical products, can we engage with you and can we
debate, can you raise some of the issues?" It was very interesting
that the issues that the public raised about these hypothetical
products were not the same issues that the scientists thought
they would raise, which is very interesting anyway. To summarise
and put in a nutshell what was, as I said, a very interesting
study, we have shown that the consumer will engage at a very,
very early stage. Where we have gone wrong very often in the past
is we would say, "Here is a technology, take it or leave
it" and then there has been objections to it. In a sense,
in some cases technologies have virtually been lost and there
has been a waste of public money in the R&D that went into
developing those particular products. If we can engage the consumer
early on so, for instance, if we are looking at a scenario where
there is a change in use of parts of the countryside and we are
looking at a sort of scenario where perhaps bio-reactors may become
involved then what we need to do is to discuss it and engage the
public first, rather than say, "Let us see if we can do this
science, let us try it out and then let us tell the public we
have this wonderful new technology and it is going to happen".
Let us engage them early on. I think that is a very timely and
a very pertinent lesson.
268. The impression I have is that over the
last few years you have ministers of agriculture in general who
are anxious to push biotechnology along a bit, there is a feeling
the United Kingdom have a big investment and we want to send out
the right signals where there are other sections of government
that tend to be reticent and concerned about it. When I hear a
call for great debate I just wonder whether the government is
not saying, "Can we find a nice piece of long grass and deposit
this because it is all getting too difficult?" You are speaking
for yourself, not for any representative organisation, am I just
being cynical about this? Has biotechnology become a difficult
issue and, with a bit of luck, we will have to wait for somebody
else to deal with it.
(Professor Bainbridge) Your last question was, when
will the debate end? I do not think it will ever end. I think
the public, scientists and government all understand or need to
understand that there is no such thing as a technology that is
per se good or bad. Every action has an equal and opposite
reaction. There are always going to be some disadvantages. It
is balancing out needs, costs, effectiveness and other influences.
269. Do you think that over the last week or
so, since Professor Grant issued his report, and then we had the
government introducing the next stage of field trials, there was
a sentence in there which said, "This is not enough to enable
us to make our decision". Do you get the sense that the government
have introduced a new hurdle along the way here and has changed
the perspective of GM becoming acceptable?
(Professor Bainbridge) I do not think that GM will
ever go away entirely as a problem. I think it would be naive
to assume that it will. It is interesting to see that some of
the frontier pushing developments of biotechnology when they are
related to medicine are accepted but they are not accepted when
they are related to food or agriculture. I think that there is
something about past food scares, be they 0157, salmonella, foot
and mouth, which is not a food issue, but a rural issue, and BSE,
etc and people saying, "It went wrong before, is it not going
to go wrong again", compared to, "If I do not have access
to this new beta interferon it may not be very effective or it
may have some very cytotoxic effects, but actually it is the last
hope so we will try it". There is a whole issue there for
government to tackle and it is a different issue if we are talking
about biotechnology in the context of DOH and if you are talking
within the context of DEFRA.
270. There are pressures from all sides, partly
to do with choice and partly financial, and one senses in the
Report that if we fail to jump on this particular bandwagon or
if Europe as a whole fails it will simply roll on somewhere else
and opportunities will be missed. On the other side is the natural
resistance to change, a fear of the unknown and the sort of green
argument, we have always genetically modified things but within
certain boundaries, we did not have bits of fish in the tomatoes
because we did not know how to do it. There are genuine scientific
objections. What is the answer, is it to do with education? We
are a long way from acceptance when there are still headlines
like "Frankenstein Food" in the public psyche. The key
to all of this is trust. If you see a giant chemical industry
at what point does the consumer trust the people who are in it,
possibly for the money? How do we do that? Where does that happen?
Do you not know?
(Professor Bainbridge) What we are trying to do about
that is to open up the whole regulatory process and articulate
very clearly where we have problems and issues and where we do
not know. I have said several times, there are potential environmental
issues where we hope the Farm Scale Evaluations will give us some
answers. I have not said they will be good or bad answers in terms
of GM, we just have to be open to those answers and we constantly
have to be using the advances in the technology to help us to
see whether there is any other potential issues. Having introduced
GM products very, very slowly, we have to reassure the public
we are constantly monitoring and if there are small-scale GM commercial
crops growing eventually we have to start small-scale rather than
saywham bam90 per cent of the crop will be GM. We
have to introduce them slowly and monitor and then gradually market
forces will start to come to bear. I think the other thing we
have to educate the public about, I have said this many, many
times, are so-called "natural, very safe foods" which
are quite nasty sometimes, coffee with its caffeine, potatoes
with the green pigmentation, which can be very toxic. I am not
saying we should accept toxic substances in our food, we have
to teach the public that the GM food that has been through the
regulatory system we know much, much more about and inherently
it could be much safer than some of the natural products that
we know have constraints, but we live with them. That is all about
consumer understanding and giving them choice.
271. Is it a sense that we should not have started
from here and if we had got the framework in place sooner then
that reassurance could have begun perhaps earlier? This blip that
(Professor Bainbridge) The problem that we faced in
the United Kingdom was very, very much of the basic science, the
genetics coming out of the United Kingdom. A lot of the exploitation
was in the States and then GM products. Soya, in particular, from
the States found their way back into our food chain before, in
a sense, the public were ready to accept them. In retrospect it
all went wrong. If there had been more engagement at the basic
science stage, the scientists with the public, about the developments
in the genetics and the potential that those developments had
for applicability in food then I think we would be looking at
a very, very different scenario.
272. Eventually they will accept them in Ambridge?
(Professor Bainbridge) There is always going to be
the so-called interfering with nature, the moral objection and
the religious objection, etc, I do not think that is an issue
as long as you have very clear labelling and very clear understanding
and you let people take their choice. What proportion you choose
to avoid GM at all costs I would not like to say and I guess that
proportion will change anyway.
273. I understand that you are working with
the RDA in the North-East on a project to work on the agri-food
strategy, I wonder if you would like to tell us a little bit more
about that work and about the objectives and really about the
impact on the food chain?
(Professor Bainbridge) My day job, as it were, is
I am Chief Executive of a not-for-profit company that has worked
to improve the competitiveness of the process industry. Our background
is very much working with the chemical sector in the North-East
on bench-marking and a whole host of HR issues and things. I obviously
have expertise and experience across the food chain and it seemed
to me that more and more of the SMEs in the North-East were specialist
food manufacturers, very much assembly of ethnic products and
things like that were very much a niche market there. The North-East
as a region which was hit very, very hard by foot and mouth. With
the new RDAs we have an RDA that puts the universities at the
heart of the regional infrastructure. Giving my position in terms
of food chain issues and knowing the expertise that there is in
all of the regional universitiesfor instance there is a
centre for rural economy in Newcastle, there is the business school
and SME support at Durham and at Teeside I run a food technology
transfer centre as well as running the companyit seemed
to me that in the North-East we were in a unique position to put
together a case for an integrated food chain approach, working
with the rural development people and post the foot and mouth
scenario, working with the local food initiatives in Northumbria
through Food from Britain. I have worked personally with many,
many very small businesses that want to make the transition, very
often the farmer-type kitchens that sell in the local markets
but the ladies have passed being able to bake the products in
their Aga and they want to go to something else, but they are
not sure what to do. I help them with the business development
and the scale up, if you like the business incubation. Then we
have worked with the food companies as well, many, many food companies,
some of them large and some of them small, and some of the chemical
producers that are producing the ingredients and the additives.
Putting that together we have done some cluster mapping and we
have developed a sectorial strategy. I had a visionI wrote
the first papers long before the Curry Report was ever public
and I have not consulted with themfor what I called a National
Food Technology Centre. My vision was that it would be very much
a focus for the public, so it would give an opportunity for the
Food Standards Agency and its communication unit to have some
displays, it would be an opportunity for the NFU and the farming
community to talk about what it was doing, it would be a one-stop-shop
in terms of business support, platform technologies, business
incubation as well as doing what the current Food Technology Centre
does, which is responding day-to-day on technical enquiries. A
phone call may come in from a small sausage manufacturer that
machine number three has gone wrong and they ask, "Are we
allowed to add extra preservative and put sausage meat into its
casing tomorrow morning", or "What temperature?"
Very simple enquiries, this is a low level to support the manufacturing
industry. It seems to me that given the demise of the heavy industry,
given the unemployment and the known ability of people in the
region to retrain we could also do something very exciting round
the regional universities about retraining. I think that includes
consumer education, it involves training the rural communities,
including farmers, to the options, certainly training young people
to go into the food industry, which is a major battle. Anyone
who has tried to recruit to a food technology course knows it
is not an attractive end employment to young people. If we can
integrate that and be supported by the region it would be nice
to back it up with something like a six framework integrated bid
as well, because it would obviously will include R&D. The
problem is many of the people that have problems are actually
quite afraid to approach the universities because they think,
I do not even know how to articulate my question. I suppose in
a nutshell it is about communication across the food chain. That,
to me, is very close, not quite the same as the Food Chain Centre.
It is a bit like one of the Curry proposals in terms of the research
possible arrangements, the Applied Research Forum, I think it
was, and their food chain centre amalgamated together.
274. Professor Bainbridge, the short note you
provided for us I found personally very, very helpful as a non-scientist.
There is one phrase I thought was near tautological, where you
say, "Non-sustainable agriculture should not be supported".
If that had read "Could not be supported" it would have
been plausible. What do you define as non-sustainability? I now
go on to talk about the benchmarks, who would create this benchmark?
What is sustainability in that context?
(Professor Bainbridge) I am speaking as a layman,
as I said before, not as an agriculturist, I know there are some
very prominent agriculturists in the room. My view that we cannot
go on, I think, has been articulated by many, many enquiries and
many, many media reports, with a system that cannot sustain itself.
Agriculture has to be viewed just like any other business as a
business. I believe as a taxpayer that we are a small island and
we cannot go on and on and on pouring money into agriculture that
is not benefiting, if you like, the United Kingdom. I think in
this forum, or maybe privately, in the public forum I have my
views but they are not born of detailed knowledge. In terms of
the sort of procedures and processes that I think are not sustainable
I think, perhaps, to say that I believe our current system as
it is not to be sustainable in the future. That has been echoed
by the many enquiries. We have to take any approach we can, there
will not be a single approach.
275. Who creates the benchmark that you referred
to? "Sharing of a benchmark set of indicators for sustainable
(Professor Bainbridge) There is not any benchmark
for sustainability, a whole host of processes and issues need
to be benchmarked. For instance, one of the problems that we have
on ACRE when we are looking at releases and when we look at the
results of food trials is to say, "What is the baseline?"
If we do not have a baseline it is very difficult to understand
trends and problems. Can we start with all of the very, very sophisticated
survey techniques and mapping technique benchmark changes and
as we change agricultural practices can we look at some of the
wide new implications. Can we start to say, we know what we have
now, therefore we can have some changes. I do not know the answer
to that question.
276. Sustainability certainly has a strong economic
dimension, and an environmental dimension, does it also include
an animal welfare dimension?
(Professor Bainbridge) It must include benchmarks
for every facet of every type of dimension that is part of the
agricultural scene. I use the word benchmark in a very specific
sense, many of the small chemical companies in the region, because
they are clusters and their trade organisations are so strong,
get together and they exchange information and we have a very,
very proactive benchmarking club, it is looking at particular
process production issues. Some of those benchmarking clubs bring
together people with vested interests, groups of hill farmers,
groups of very large tenant farmers, et cetera, and with the people,
the statisticians and the people with the technical expertise
I think it could be something that would be very, very useful.
I do not know of, it may be happening, but I do not know of any
specific DEFRA financed or Research Council financed or other
university based activities that do that sort of thing.
277. Towards the end of your paper you say there
is an urgent need for education of the consumer in all aspects
of agriculture and food product processes, you talked about that
earlier on. Specifically relating to animal welfare, would that
do any good at all? You sat there while Professor David Hughes
was responding on related matters and he described, in a phrase,
a manic Thursday trolley dash for very many people round the local
supermarket. If they had been educated about ways in which, for
instance, intensive poultry production can be extremely cruel
to the chickens concernedwe have a domestic market of 1,000
million birds per year, and increasing numbers coming from Thailand
as the levels of welfare standards slowly inch up in our own countrydoes
not that not suggest whilst people sign petitions outside the
supermarket, in the car park, but when they get in there and they
see apparently similar products with a 10 per cent difference
because of price elasticity there is cost to animal welfare improvements
in that specific area. What good is education in that context?
(Professor Bainbridge) There are some people for whom
the moral aspect makes them become vegetarians or vegans and they
are one hundred per cent committed, there are some people who
would like to be but pure economics prevents that and there are
those people that really do not make the connection and do not
think much about it. I think it is very, very difficult to generalise.
I think there are a whole host of issues round that. I was quite
saddened in one sense, the foresight work that I mentioned, one
of the hypothetical products that we postulated and we discussed
with the public was something called "a chicken in a bottle".
The idea was that you would grow animal cells, much like you can
grow plant cells by hydroponics in a bottle, which remove precisely
the potential cruelty to animals and the unnatural way in which
some of our animals are treated.
278. That does not sound very natural?
(Professor Bainbridge) It has to be removed from the
final report that is going to be launched in February because
the DTI thought it was far too contentious and would create far
too much media hype. To me I cannot understand that because I
think it is a solution to those very problems that you have articulated.
Obviously we had to bow to the press office, or whatever, in the
DTI, so now it is referred to as "artificially produced meat",
David Taylor: As a child in the 1960s a seminal
track for me was "Message in a bottle", we now have
chicken in a bottle.
279. Just returning to the issue of consumer
acceptance of genetically modified foods, we saw some of the major
supermarkets rapidly reconsidering their purchase. Not all of
them did. Has any research been done on what impact that has actually
made and whether essentially Sainsbury's and others responded
to pressure groups as opposed to genuine consumer demand?
(Professor Bainbridge) I do not know of any specific
research that has been done. Anecdotally I hear people, occasionally,
saying that we support free choice. I have said this myself, I
believe there should be labelling and choice. I might choose a
GM product but that choice has been denied me. I do not make a
song and dance about it because there is no food shortage or anything
like that, but that is an issue not brought to the forefront and
if we are purporting free choice