I got up as Gill was taking our youngest to school, and got ready to cycle out to Sand Hutton, North East of York, where there is a big complex of buildings which used to be called the Central Science Laboratory, and is now 'FERA', the Food and Environment Research Agency, part of DEFRA, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I got a phone call just before I was going to leave, from a company called The Power Collective, who are developing a product called Ridgeblade, which is a horizontal wind turbine mounted on the ridge of the roof... it's very discrete and you cannot see any moving parts, and the company are working closely with the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. I had contacted them offering my roof as a friendly place! They are about to go into 'pre production', as all of the models so far have been hand-made, proving they work, and they are about to do a load of trials. So the production models are a bit of a way away, but I'm on their list of interested parties.
Anyway, I got going at 9.40 and cycled up through Osbaldwick to Murton and then onto the A166 for a short while before turning off to Holtby and through to Warthill. I knew I was looking for a road off to the right soon after Warthill, but I didn't see one and arrived at the Snowball Plantation and I knew I'd overshot. I cycled back... and found it wasn't a road but a muddy track. I decided to do it anyway! It led to a farmyard and then to the road near to FERA and I arrived a bit mud-splashed but on time, before the 10.30 start.
The chair, Steve Willis, introduced the organisation and the event, called 'Wellies and White Coats: Science driving excellence in UK farming. FERA is dealing with some of the biggest issues we're facing... increasing population and moving populations, food security, water security, climate change, and is a major dealer in 'knowledge transfer'.
Next was the chief scientist, Professor Nicola Spence, who continued with an overview of what the four FERA centres do. Their roles can be split roughly into three areas:
Regulation , Policy and Risk - with regard to plant health, honeybee health, plant varieties and seeds;
Research and Assurance - scientific research plus analysis and evidence for our government, other governments and commercial customers;
Response and Recovery to emergencies.
The next speaker was Melvyn Askew, inspirational and good to listen to. He described the future as full of challenges and opportunities, and quoted Martin Bell MP 'Politics is far too important to be left to politicians'. He despaired at the lack of co-ordination that the free market has resulted in... he knows carrot producers who every year clamp (store) their crop in straw, but since Drax power station has recently been buying up all the straw to put in it's furnaces, the carrot producers cannot keep their crop.
Melvyn is very interested in biofuels, and talked about a newish crop, Miscanthus. This sells for £20 to £40 a tonne for fuel, but for horse bedding can fetch £45 to £70 a tonne. However, to 'add value' if it's sold as bagged-up horse bedding, it can go for £160 to £200 a tonne! Many other plants can be grown for their fibre... straw and hemp are used in composites (such as
this car), hemp to make hemcrete, nettles are being researched at FERA, and bracken, which grows naturally in many areas of Britain can be harvested and used as fuel (see this pdf). Even beech trees yield 'lyocell' which makes very soft luxurious fibres similar to silk, apparently! Another industrial use of agricultural products is the use of starch in car tyres, which may reduce the vehicle's fuel consumption.
He then brandished a bottle of what I thought was whiskey, but was actually locally grown 'cold pressed' rape seed oil. This is very similar to extra virgin olive oil, the extra virgin bit meaning the first oil which is cold pressed out. More oil can be made to come out of the crushed seeds if it's heated or mixed with hot water, but the first pressing is the highest quality. This is the best oil for health, and to my surprise, when I mentioned it to Gill, she said she'd been using it for a while. The taste is slightly fruity, so it's good for making pastry with for puddings, or in cakes.
But how can we tell it's rapeseed oil, or extra virgin oil? Well that's where the next speaker came in, Paul Brereton, who's an expert in food fraud. Fraud in food is done deliberately, and deceives the customer but also damages the producers, as people lose confidence in the product. When a country discovers food fraud, it is unlikely to shout about it... as this would damage its international reputation, so FERA does a lot of detective work in identifying whether food and drink is genuine or not. He told us about traceability using Terra Creta Olive Oil which has a lot number on each bottle which allows you to see where the olives were harvested, the temperature the oil was pressed at and all through it's processing and packaging through to the point of sale. I learned why the Melamine in Chinese milk fraud happened (and the 'justice', Chinese-style, which has been delivered), and about the Spar Vodka fraud, and others. FERA has developed a system called TRACE, with many European partners. This uses isotope mapping and DNA analysis and many other ways of ensuring 'Food Assurance'.
Dr. Theo Allnutt gave an overview of how GM crops can coexist with conventional crops, and the role of the GM Inspectorate. There's been a lot of research about how GM crops can get mixed with conventional crops, and it's not just through pollen transfer. The same machinery is used to harvest and process the GM and non-GM crops, so with Bishop Burton College, they've been assessing how much crop is left in the machine which might get transferred to the next harvest. The best way to prevent pollen transfer is to keep the crops separated distance-wise, as the transfer is heaviest if GM and non-GM are grown close to each other. FERA have developed a 'best practice' document and a GM calculator tool for farmers. There was some subsequent discussion about people's feelings about GM... after all, these crops have been growing and being consumed in the US and India (amongst other places) for many years. There are many ways of modifying crops... conventional breeding allows a whole bunch of genes to be transferred, whereas cysgenesis is where one gene from one species can be transferred into the same species. This is a long way from some of the Genetic Modification that many of my friends and associates don't like, which is where genes from one species may be put in another organism of a different species. GM is just one small part of the wider biotechnology which is more and more finding uses in agriculture and food production. A lot of what FERA does has biotech and molecular genetics at it's heart.
After lunch, during which I had some chats with other delegates, we had a presentation from Dr. Nigel Boatman on 'Integrating Environmental Management into Agriculture'; this was about 'ecosystem services' like soil fertility, pollination, biological pest control, pollutant breakdown and clean water. You can read about what this team does here.
This led nicely into Dr. Carmel Ramwell's talk on Resource Protection... water and nitrates, phosphates, pesticides, silt and sediment, and soil structure and organic matter content. She concentrated on water and how 'buffer strips' at the edge of fields and at the edges of watercourses could reduce nitrate run-off. She explained how the pathway from fertiliser application to watercourse could be disrupted, to reduce the likelihood of our waterways being polluted by nitrates, which is a big problem.
Then Dr Robbie McDonald, who researches bovine tuberculosis and badgers. The results of some very interesting work shows that where badgers are culled, the incidence of bovine TB goes down, but the surrounding area gets more badger movements and increased contact between cattle and badgers. He had some good videos of badgers in grain stores and nose-to-nose with cattle in barns, and the results of badger-proof buildings... if used correctly by farmers, which is not always the case! Badgers can now be vaccinated against TB, and there is a project just starting to see if this helps reduce the incidence of bovine TB, in six areas of 100km2 where bovine TB is a problem.
The last speaker was Dr. Tony Harrington, who told us about FERA's role in the national seed variety listing and plant breeders rights. More can be learned about this here, and a
gazette newsletter is available.
There was a question and answer session and then I got a tour of the buildings which was very interesting indeed. I'm really glad I attended as I've learned a lot, about what happens at FERA and about modern agriculture and food science generally. I' m glad too, that I'm going to be able to give something back. One of the stallholders on the foyer had lots of jars of stored foodstuffs with infestations of assorted insects... and I'm very interested in invertebrates so I chatted with the stallholder. I told her about my many compost heaps and my role as a compost 'expert'. She told me that when the culture was 'spent', they just threw away the grain or whatever contents were in the jar, and she wanted to know if it was compostable. So I promised to send her an email with an overview of what she could do with this material. I'm excited by this... my helping a Government Agency become more green! WooHoo!
I cycled home a shorter way, through Stockton on Forest, which was just 6 miles whereas my outward journey was 7.75 miles.
I spent most of the evening trying to record this fascinating day, but didn't get it finished, despite writing til past 2am.