Independent and family farmers in the UK call for a new body to oversee publicly-funded science in place of the current funding council, to set priority for sustainable farming for Britain. Lim Li Ching reports.
FARM (www.farm.org.uk), a group set up in 2002 in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic to represent independent and family farmers, lays the blame for many of the UK's farming crises and the potential for similar problems in future on the failure of science to respond appropriately to the needs of agriculture, and to outline future research that meets the aspirations of farmers and consumers.
FARM points to the current debate on genetically modified (GM) crops, which is marred by an alarming lack of independent scientific understanding of the implications on human health, animals and the environment.
"Instead of objective, rigorous testing, we are presented with assumptions, projections and mathematical models, many of which have been produced directly or indirectly by the very companies seeking to introduce these crops." FARM says.
FARM is critical of the fact that Government-appointed bodies responsible for allocating research funding for food and farming are made up largely of scientists from the very same research establishments that receive much of the funding.
FARM's Board Member and Chair of its Science Review Committee John Turner wrote a letter to Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in September 2003, urging the Government to review its funding policy for scientific research in food and farming.
FARM goes as far as to call for a new, demonstrably independent, overarching science body to replace the existing Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
This new body would be called the Sustainable Food & Farming Scientific Research Council (SFFSRC), to reflect a focus and prioritising of scientific research towards a sustainable, long-term vision for food and farming.
The SFFSRC should, above all, remain independent of potentially conflicting commercial interests, FARM says. It wants to ensure that those responsible for allocating research funds 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.
A diversity of scientific research establishments should be supported, including those dealing with relatively 'low-tech' solutions but with high intrinsic value (e.g. organic farming research stations).
Another key role for the SFFSRC is as a forum where scientists who hold divergent views are able to express them freely without fear of retribution.
The GM debate has exposed fundamental flaws in the way investment in farming methods is encouraged through scientific research, FARM argues. Vast resources have been directed towards developing GM crops, which are highly controversial, and are not wanted or needed by the majority of the public and farmers.
According to a paper from the 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, 30 January 2003), the proportion of public money awarded by the BBSRC in 2001/2002 towards projects involving GM accounted for more than 40% (nearly £23 million) of the total agri-biotech investment. This fails to reflect the general public's wishes. Polls consistently show a majority do not want and will not buy GM foods.
Just recently, the government's national debate on GM, which collected responses from about 37,000 people, found that 86 per cent were unhappy with the idea of eating GM food and 91 per cent thought GM had potential negative effects on the environment. Only 8 per cent said they would be happy to eat 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 yes; 19% were undecided.
In the case of GM crops, it seems that the 'solution' was developed first and then, only at the point of commercial introduction are tests carried out to determine how appropriate they are to UK's agricultural systems. Technology being developed for agriculture is at best "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 public. FARM is not surprised that, given the close ties between those appointed to bodies like the BBSRC and the research institutions that receive the principal share of funding, the lack of independence has led to science becoming detached from modern farming practice.
FARM is critical of the apparent priority given to 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 through funding councils such as the BBSRC, with the result that in many cases, as in the rush for commercialisation of GM crops, a fundamental conflict of interest has arisen between maximising commercial return and sustainable farming practice.
FARM adds that such a narrow interpretation of what constitutes good return on investment fails to include factors such as the role of food in health care; environmental benefits resulting from agricultural systems that adopt 'low impact' strategies; the social and community-based role that farming can play; energy and water consumption efficiencies; and more efficient use of minerals and nutrients through accurate budgeting.
FARM is concerned that independent scientists whose views challenge vested interests find themselves intimidated by threats to funding or risk being vilified by their peers, particularly so where significant commercial interests at stake. The GM debate exposes a significant failing of science where complex issues with significant areas of uncertainty are presented as 'black and white'. FARM cites the cases of unprofessional treatment of scientists such as Dr Arpad Pusztai, Dr Andrew Stirling and Professor Carlo Leifert, when they voiced concerns that could jeopardize the rapid commercialisation of GM crops.
Rather than being recognized as playing an important role in testing accepted scientific understanding, contrary views appear to be taken as a threat, to be discredited and dismissed without due consideration. This suppression of independent scientists could delay research and investigation into potentially damaging health and environmental effects of products or methods used in farming.
It welcomes the reported review of the future role of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and calls for it to include the role of scientific research and development in determining the direction that farming takes. While recognising that public representation on public and industry bodies is a good first step, FARM urges for more to be done to ensure that publicly funded science supports public, not private, interests. It refers to the recent controversy over the Food Standards Agency ignoring the views of its own appointed public and consumer representative body on GM crops.
Food and farming issues currently fall under the remit of the Departments of Health and Trade and Industry (DTI), and suffer through lack of effective coordination between the departments and their divergent interests. The BBSRC falls under the remit of the DTI and thus it is the interests of trade and industry that appear to be pre-eminent in its funding decisions on science and technology. In contrast, the proposed SFFSRC, primarily concerned with food and health, might have a different set of priorities.
FARM urges that publicly-funded science within the food and farming sector focuses on developing sustainable farming systems and 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.
Techniques such as Integrated Pest Management, biological control and organic husbandry offer farmers knowledge-based systems for tackling many agronomic challenges in ways which dovetail with consumer interests and environmental concerns. Sadly, these have received disproportionately less research funding than product-based solutions, such as GM crops. FARM warns that "putting all our eggs in the biotech basket" may mean that we end up with an insufficient range of proven alternatives to cope with future challenges.
To contribute your experiences or suggestions, e-mail Science.firstname.lastname@example.org
FARM are particularly interested in examples of research that could help sustainable farming systems, and also of alternative models for research funding that are used elsewhere in the world that deliver a system of open & honest science.
Article first published 09/10/03
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