Farmers Want Review of Publicly-Funded Science
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 UKs
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.
FARMs 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
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
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 publics
wishes. Polls consistently show a majority do not want and will not buy GM
Just recently, the governments 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 UKs
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
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
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
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 doesnt 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
ISIS fully supports FARMs position. It is in line with the
suggestions contained in the ISIS-TWN-INES-Tebtebba discussion paper, Towards a Convention
on Knowledge (www.i-sis.org.uk).
To contribute your experiences or suggestions, e-mail
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.