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

Examination of Witness (Questions 260 - 279)



  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 of GM.
  (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 five years.

  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.

Mr Mitchell

  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.

Phil Sawford

  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 say—wham bam—90 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 you mentioned.
  (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.

Mr Borrow

  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 universities—for 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 company—it 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 vision—I wrote the first papers long before the Curry Report was ever public and I have not consulted with them—for 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.

David Taylor

  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 agriculture".
  (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 concerned—we 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 country—does 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", I think.

  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.

Mr Todd

  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—

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