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Regulation, Research, Response


The Secretary of State Hilary Benn launches Fera 15th June 2009

• Keeping bees healthy • Understanding uncertainty • Spatial impacts of land use change


Welcome to the first edition of The Food and Environment Research Agency’s new partner and customer newsletter Solutions.

In this issue we look back to our official launch on 15th June when over 200 customers came to our Sand Hutton site to hear the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn and Professor Bob Watson, Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser, outline the national and global context that will shape Fera’s strategic agenda in the coming years. In subsequent pages, through ‘Fera in Focus’ we look in a little more detail at some of the many strands of work Fera is involved with. A common thread in all these features is our work to provide evidence to inform policy and how we work in partnership to achieve this objective. We round off this issue with a look at some of the stories that have made the news during our first few months. In establishing in full The Food and Environment Research Agency, we have set our sights on building a more flexible organisation that is capable of responding rapidly to anticipate and meet the needs of our customers. As always, I would welcome your feedback on how we can better support you in achieving your objectives. Please use the contact us facility on our website to provide any feedback you may have.

Adrian Belton Chief Executive Cover photo: This stunning picture of a Marbled White Butterfly was a winning entry in Fera’s launch day staff photographic competition. It was entered in the wildlife section by Helen Grundy, whose day job is as a protein biochemist in our Contaminants and Authenticity Programme.

setting the scene Hilary Benn planting a tree at Fera’s formal launch

Hilary Benn launches Fera 15th June 2009 In addition to paying a visit to the bird management unit’s radar, planting a tree near the lake, and opening the onsite Combined Heat and Power (CHP) generator, Hilary Benn made an inspiring speech at the launch of The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera). He highlighted some of the challenges we face as a nation and showed how the creation of Fera is an important step forward in the way Defra is responding. Mr Benn spoke of issues around changes in climate, degradation of the environment, scarcity of resources, and the need for the world to feed 9 billion human beings by 2050. He went on to say that dealing with any of these issues will require all our ingenuity, knowledge and understanding, and science will be at the centre of how we do this.

The Minister acknowledged that science has never had a higher profile in UK government, which invests about £5.5 billion per year in scientific research, funding world-class institutions, of which Fera is one. Supporting the 15,000 scientists and engineers in the civil service the government now has Chief Scientific advisors in all the science led departments, working very closely with each other across government in the research councils. Summing up his speech Mr Benn said “The creation of Fera is a landmark as it brings together the excellence and best research from organisations which previously existed separately, helping us to find answers to those questions about our ecosystems, our climate, and supplies of water and food. The 700 scientists at Fera, including many leaders in their field, and the state of the art facilities have the capacity to run thousands of samples in a matter of days, and a truly global reach with 40,000 customers in 102 countries. It’s a story that deserves and needs to be told as widely as possible.”

the importance of evidence in addressing the challenges facing Defra

livelihoods of the poorest people in the world. Their effects can also extend into human health, personal, national and regional security. Professor Watson said “It’s crucial that the very best science we have is utilised in addressing these problems, and it is in this way that Fera plays a role in supporting the work of Defra.”

Prof. Bob Watson Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor’s talk outlined the context in which Fera’s work will support Defra’s priorities and the global challenges we all face.

Some of the biggest challenges facing Defra and the world today are how we, as a global community, promote environmentally and socially sustainable economic growth, while ensuring food, water and energy security. And all this at a time when countries are facing environmental degradation on a local, regional and global scale. The effects are evident in climate change, loss of biodiversity, local and regional air pollution, and degradation of land and water. These issues are of paramount importance as they can underpin economic growth, poverty alleviation and improvement in the

Scientific evidence in Defra is about a fully integrated system of research, monitoring and surveillance, modelling and social science. Defra spends approx £124 million a year on R&D, and about £130 million on other evidence including surveillance, monitoring, field trials and knowledge transfer. A complete revision of the Evidence Investment Strategy is currently underway to look at how we approach the big global challenges. The review will acknowledge the linkages between climate change and other environmental issues – such as air quality, desertification, water, forestry, biodiversity and stratospheric ozone depletion. Defra has a new purpose following the creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the changing economy

– to secure a healthy environment in which we and future generations prosper. Within this central purpose are three main priorities; • to secure a healthy natural environment for all of us and deal with environmental risks • to promote a sustainable, low carbon and resource efficient economy • to ensure a thriving farming sector and sustainable, healthy and secure food supply. Prof. Watson emphasised the actions of today will affect future generations, with developing countries and the poorest people in the world being the most vulnerable. He used one example of the extent of current challenges faced; the need for 50% more production on less land, with less water, using less energy, fertiliser and pesticide, by 2030, while avoiding an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. In summing up Prof. Watson said “Fera’s role in providing the scientific evidence underpinning the decisions and actions taken in the face of this challenge, and many others, is significant and vital.”


spatial impacts of land use change Land is a finite resource and understanding land use change is vitally important. In the UK land is increasingly affected by conicting pressures such as housing and business use, food security, recreation, biodiversity, and ecosystem services such as clean water, food management and carbon storage.

This is an area where Fera has significant expertise acquired through a wide range of environmental and agricultural data sets, a well developed knowledge management capability, and excellent modelling and GIS expertise to handle the data in the right way. Fera is also adept at developing collaborations in areas such as socio-economic science to supplement in-house expertise. Typical of our approach is establishing a baseline using real agricultural and land use data, then developing forward land use scenarios by modelling and/or expert elicitation. The original baseline data can then be changed to reect projected scenarios, and the outcomes visually mapped using a Geographic Information System.

An example of this is work done at Fera looking at the effect of grazing pressure in the Peak district uplands. In these areas severe overgrazing can create erosion which impacts on water quality and affects the water holding capacity of the land. This has implications for ood management, and in severe cases, peat can be turned into a carbon source instead of a carbon sink, meaning it will give out carbon into the atmosphere instead of absorbing it. There are also habitat implications for birds such as the Golden Plover. The baseline data for this project was taken in 2004, and a forward scenario was created for 2013, showing a reduction in grazing pressure.

This data was then combined with data identifying types of vegetation which would be particularly susceptible to overgrazing, and bird distribution data looking at how bird species distribution was affected. Looking to the future Fera is responding to the need for data to inform climate change policy decisions. We are developing a multiscale modelling framework to enable us to develop projections of future agricultural land use under different economic, climate and policy scenarios. This will be used to predict future distributions of organisms, be they pests or disease agents, non-native invasive species, species of economic value (e.g. wild bees), or native species of conservation concern. For further information please contact: Nigel Boatman

understanding uncertainty Risk is uncertainty of outcome. For example, uncertainty about the outcome of a new policy, or the effects of a new product. If we understand the uncertainty we can better understand and manage risk.

Often decision-makers ask experts for little more than their “best estimate” of an outcome. But basing a decision on a best estimate is like going to a bookmaker who will only take bets on the favourite and won’t tell you its odds of winning. On the other hand, if you understand uncertainty it allows you to choose policies that have a higher probability of success, and when elements of uncertainty are large, it allows you to identify where more information is needed before making a decision. Fera has made this a key area for investment in expertise, research, and in developing new approaches across the agency’s work. Fera’s strength is in taking state of the art statistical methods, applying them to real world risk problems and creating custom built tools and solutions.

Fera recently carried out a review for the European Commission on 100 EU scientific committee opinions. All of them dealt with risk in some form but almost none expressed uncertainty quantitatively or in terms of probability. To help provide risk managers with a better basis for decision-making, Fera uses four types of approach aimed at encouraging scientists and experts to make explicit the areas of uncertainty underlying their advice and the evidence on which it is based. Uncertainty tables. We developed a simple approach for experts to list out those factors where uncertainty could influence the outcome, and in what way. An expert judgement can then be formed as to what the overall uncertainty of the outcome will be. Our method has been taken up by the European

Food Safety Authority, and by the REACH chemicals programme in Europe. Elicitation of probabilities. We use formal methods for getting experts to express their uncertainty about estimates and predictions in terms of probabilities – the key measure of risk. Statistical modelling. Modelling allows us to look at all the various uncertainties affecting different parts of an assessment and quantify their combined effect on the overall outcome. We have developed web-enabled software applying these methods to environmental risks of pesticides and to food risk-benefit assessment.

Sensitivity analysis. This is used to identify the key drivers of uncertainty and risk. It enables us to simplify complex models and to identify those parts of the process that most need monitoring and managing, and those areas of ignorance that will most benefit from more information. By encouraging an explicit, systematic and quantitative approach to risk and uncertainty, the Fera philosophy helps decisionmakers to look beyond the “best estimate” and take account of the range of possible outcomes, their likelihoods and the factors that influence them. For further information please contact: Andy Hart


food safety, nanotechnology and science in support of food and environment policy Fera has the capability to tackle green field issues, define problems, and begin the process of gathering evidence and presenting it to inform policy matters. One such example is nanotechnology. This is a relatively new technology, and little is known about the behaviour, and therefore safety, of these tiny manufactured particles. Nanoparticles exhibit unique qualities, and are being used in all types of manufactured products from paint to cosmetics.

A number of programmes at Fera deal with chemicals and chemical safety – pesticides, veterinary drugs, food additives, packaging migration and natural toxicants, to name but a few. Nanomaterials are of particular interest as they cut across nearly all these chemical safety programmes, and raise some unique questions. Full safety evaluations of nanomaterials bring two scientific challenges. The first is the detection of any unanticipated toxicity to

humans and the environment that is not seen with their conventional sized counterparts. The second is a measurement and characterisation problem – testing for chemicals present in nanoscale form in food and the environment is difficult because at present the analytical tools to do this still need to be developed. Fera has built a very coherent, substantial and sustained programme of work in this area, originally beginning with ‘desk studies’ – looking at market potentials and regulatory gaps, this has developed into laboratory based scientific studies, and is now moving into a very exciting stage of experimental research projects looking at all aspects of toxicity, chemical measurement,

and environmental fate for a variety of customers. With the skills of our scientists, and the excellent facilities available to us and our partners, we’re able to deliver new understanding from the science, forward the debate, review and advise. Working with our various partners and collaborators – including Defra, the Food Standards Agency, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the House of Lords, and the European Food Safety Authority – it’s just one example of how Fera meets policy and industry needs for our customers.

woodchester park: a national response for wildlife diseases Over the last decade at least 50% of human emerging pathogens originated in wildlife – so the practical skills Fera applies in intervening with TB are likely to be much more important in the future.

Because Fera has been studying wildlife for many years, particularly wild badgers, the agency has amassed a unique body of expertise. Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire, is where ecology is being developed as a tool for disease control in wild animals. Disease issues are identified, basic field techniques developed, the natural history of host populations explored, with the outcome focussed on making the best evidence available for policy makers.

The badger TB study based at Woodchester has been running for 30 years. Its longevity and practical focus make it one of the top 20 strategically important agricultural science resources in the UK. The long term study includes trapping and taking clinical samples from the badgers at regular intervals, that give a unique picture of the progression of disease in individual animals and in an undisturbed wild population. The work has found in an

undisturbed population the disease will ordinarily maintain a consistent and conservative geographical pattern. The work has also revealed how important social stability is for disease dynamics. In contrast, the perturbation of badger territories caused by culling leads to badgers roaming further afield, leading to increases in disease in badgers and cattle. Fera is now working closely with the VLA towards the registration of a badger vaccine to be deployed in summer 2010.


keeping bees healthy

Fera brings together the skills of policy, science and surveillance. Home to the National Bee Unit (NBU), with an international reputation for excellence, the laboratory works closely with the beekeeping community.

Honey bees are essential to the ecosystem, and growing concerns over their health resulted in Defra undertaking an extensive consultation. This led to the lunch of a ten year ‘Healthy Bees’ plan in March 2009. The strategy is all about working in partnership with beekeeping associations to sustain honeybee populations by helping beekeepers to use effective husbandry and biosecurity methods, thereby minimising risks from pests and disease. In addition to the £1.3 million Defra already invests in the healthy bee programme, the first stage of the plan will see a further £2.3 million spent over the next two years (2009/10 and 2010/11).

This is to be used in four ways: 1. To strengthen surveillance of pests and diseases and the continued provision of free advice through increasing the numbers of bee inspectors from 46 to 70. 2. Inspectors will work with statisticians, diagnosticians and scientists at Fera, and the beekeeping community, to carry out a random survey of up to 5000 apiaries over the next two seasons. This will provide robust data and a good evidence base for risk assessment, helping inform and target future inspection, surveillance and training activities.

3. The NBU’s newly recruited education and extension officers will work with beekeeping associations to develop an advanced training and education programme for best husbandry practice. Having data and sharing information is vital to addressing the issues at the heart of the honey bee health programme. 4. The NBU’s online database tool Beebase will see further investment to enhance the information available such as disease incidents, pests, and best practice, and to improve its accessibility to beekeepers online.

food and environment: complex molecular mixtures The work of Fera’s chemical and biochemical profiling team focuses on the analysis of complex molecular mixtures. In the areas of metabolomics and proteomics this covers project work including disease diagnostics, the effects of climate change, environmental pollution, genetic improvement/ resistance, nanotechnology, authenticity and traceability.

The focus of the team is primarily on the development and application of non-targeted detection or profiling techniques. The team utilise perhaps the most sophisticated analytical systems at the Sand Hutton site. Specifically these are advanced mass spectrometers and the two high-resolution Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometers. These instruments are used to determine the chemical structure of a range of compounds in the most challenging of matrices. The need for advanced technology includes the detection of chemicals in emergency scenarios, and necessary improvement in our understanding of what happens to the composition of food when plants and animals are affected by things like disease or climate change. Biomarkers The identification of biomarkers of disease can lead to earlier diagnosis or a greater understanding of disease progression, potentially leading to novel intervention strategies. Studying climate change scenarios, and how they may impact on crop composition and performance is helping Fera to assist with the development of new varieties of crop which cope better in the longer term and give a more sustainable food supply chain. This complements Fera’s work on producing sustainable food products, by helping customers find natural alternatives to food chemicals.

Similar approaches are used at Fera to study environmental pollution, looking at the impact on organisms and detecting chemicals in the environment, using non-targeted approaches. For example, Fera is currently developing a methodology that will help to determine the impact on humans and animals of exposure to environmental nanoparticles. New Technologies Fera’s contaminant detection work feeds into routine monitoring and regulation, and the laboratory is developing new technologies all of the time. It is hoped that some of the main techniques used, such as NMR and mass spectrometry, will provide novel imaging solutions. An active collaboration with York University is currently investigating NMR polarisation techniques, which will lead to improved detection sensitivity. Polarisation techniques work by allowing more of the molecules that are present in a mixture to be seen when placed inside a normal NMR spectrometer. This is achieved by preparing the samples differently and so the capability of the current NMR instruments will be improved. In one example, the detection sensitivity has been improved by up to 30,000 times, potentially allowing the identification of compounds that have never been seen before. This improvement in sensitivity will also allow current

processes to be streamlined, with experiments that previously took hours to perform being conducted in fractions of a second and making high resolution molecular imaging a real possibility. Collaboration As with so many other areas of Fera’s work, collaborations with the likes of the universities of York, Cambridge and Oxford resulted in visiting staff providing significant contributions to some projects run by the team. Fera also collaborates with industrial partners and a recent example of this is the placement of two seed instruments at the laboratory by Thermo Fisher Scientific. These will allow Fera scientists to utilise state of the art mass spectrometry equipment to develop initiatives that are of mutual benefit. Fera frequently works with industry in product development support, particularly in relation to the food and beverage sectors.


news School’s out – looking for plant diseases Gatsby Plants Summer School welcomed a team from Fera when the scientists ran their own specially developed practical plant pathology workshop. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation funds plant science research in the UK, and Gatsby Plants has been established as a national teaching facility for plant sciences. The annual summer school brings together high-achieving first year UK university undergraduates with leaders in the field of plant science research. The Fera practical was led by scientists Dr. Charles Lane and Dr. Paul Beales, with technical tutor Kat Webb and practical tutors Drs. Kelvin Hughes (Fera), Tim O’Neill (ADAS) and Matthew Dickinson (University of Nottingham). As well as dealing with the general health implications of invasive plant pathogens, the workshop drew on Fera’s extensive work with Phytophthora ramorum (sudden oak death). “It was the first time many of the students had done any practical plant pathology, and we gave them a mixture of lab and field-based work, inspection and diagnosis,” said Charles.

Can’t believe it’s not chicken? Using cutting edge technology, found at the very edge of medical and academic research, Fera has been working in conjunction with York University to develop a new technique to investigate the authenticity of chicken. On behalf of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) the laboratory has carried out studies on the amino acid sequences of the proteins in the meat. The method can identify the species of any protein added to the meat, important because where protein from other animal species is added, this species must be clearly marked on the label. These proteins are often added in ‘injection’ or ‘tumbling’ mixtures used to help retain water in chicken breast products. Analysis of both commercial injection powders and catering packs of chicken fillets has indicated that proteins from beef or pork gelatine were also present in some of the samples. Use of these proteins does not make chicken products unsafe, but it is important that people are given accurate information about their food.

Feral pigs are a potential problem in Montserrat

State of the art mass spectrometry Fera’s metabolomics programme strengthened its capabilities in the area of climate research initiatives through the installation of a Thermo Fisher Scientific ExactiveTM mass spectrometer, at the Sand Hutton site. In addition to strengthening this area of Fera’s work, the ‘seed’ instrument will benefit both Fera and Thermo Fisher Scientific in the development of novel techniques for non-targeted identification of contaminants in food matrices.

Fera is working in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Montserrat Department of Environment (DOE) and the Department of Agriculture (DOA), to implement a project that will establish a sustainable, locally managed programme to minimise the destructive impacts of feral livestock in the Centre Hills area of Montserrat. After recent volcanic eruptions the local number of loose goats and pigs has risen following the escape of domestic stock from abandoned agricultural areas. Feral livestock may have devastating impacts which include predation on globally threatened species, destruction of native plants and dispersal of non-native invasive plant species. There is also the potential for attacks on people, damage to crops and infrastructures, pollution of watercourses, prevention of forest regeneration, and soil erosion.

The new protein sequencing techniques will form a support service to food industry quality control teams. For further information contact: Paul Reece Tel: 01904 462 615

Thermo Fisher Scientific ExactiveTM in use at Fera

Latest NMR techniques

Students at Gatsby Summer School check for signs of plant disese.

Reducing the impact of feral livestock in and around the Centre Hills, Montserrat

Fera has recently completed the renovation of its Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) suite at Sand Hutton. The work included the installation of a new 500 MHz NMR instrument to complement its existing cryoprobe NMR facilities. The move will allow the very latest NMR techniques to be utilised in its ongoing programme of public and private sector research.

Working closely with DOE and DOA and with local groups such as hunters, livestock farmers and the national Geographic Information System unit, the project will evaluate options to mitigate human-livestock conflicts in the area, to enhance local expertise and to develop new skills. The project will review and strengthen existing livestock policy, and work with the media to raise awareness on Montserrat and in the Caribbean about the impacts of feral livestock on biodiversity and livelihoods. Fera contact: Giovanna Massei RSPB contact: Sarah Sanders

Lateral Flow Devices give an early insight into seed health Scientists Adrian Fox and Kelvin Hughes from Fera’s Disease Identification programme encountered a problem while delivering their bespoke seed health course to quarantine plant health inspectors in Fujian province, China. The inspectors, who work for the Chinese Academy of Inspection & Quarantine (CAIQ) equivalent to Fera’s Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate, asked Fera for assistance to diagnose what was killing watermelon seedlings grown from imported seed.

Beekeeping manual creates a buzz in Africa The National Bee Unit’s Gay Marris has worked in collaboration with Pam Gregory to produce the Basic Beekeeping Manual. It is designed for use by field-based trainers developing apiculture initiatives in subSaharan Africa and covers all the basic techniques needed to start a beekeeping business. The first edition of this Manual has already been distributed in twenty-five developing countries, including fourteen African nations. Recipients include support workers for well-established apiculture development projects overseas, partners in government initiatives, organisations working with communities to improve organic signature honeys brought to market, programmes alleviating poverty by generating income through beekeeping, and rural beekeeping cooperatives. An award from the Waterloo Foundation enabled a second print of the Manual, and is funding the development, production and distribution of a new illustrated ‘How to’ field manual, covering advanced management techniques and problem solving. The project will provide translation into local languages including French, Swahili and Chichewa.

Kelvin Hughes (R) assists a member of the CAIQ

Extensive root decay of the watermelon seedlings suggested attack by either Phytophthora or Pythium, but this could not be confirmed by microscopic examination or isolation onto standard non-selective media. Using a Phytophthora Pocket Diagnostic test kit, produced by Fera spinout company Forsite Diagnostics, Kelvin was able to detect Phytophthora presence on the decaying roots of 4-5 day old seedlings. Believed to be the first time Pocket Diagnostic tests have been used in the assessment of seed health, this opens the possibility of the tests being used for the detection of other seed-borne pathogens such as Pepino mosaic virus and Ralstonia solanacearum. In addition to this breakthrough Fera is now in discussions with Adgen Biotechnology from China and the CAIQ to provide future training in areas including diagnosis of potato pathogens.

The Manual is provided free of charge (including post and packaging) to beekeeping development projects that will benefit from using it, especially those best able to disseminate its contents to the widest number of recipients. Contact: Gay Marris

Dr. Zhihua Ye of CAAS and Fera Chief Executive Adrian Belton

Potato common scab breakthrough A Defra-sponsored LINK project, carried out by The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Cambridge University Farm (CUF) and the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) could actually help growers save water whilst maintaining levels of control of common scab. Common scab is a skinblemishing potato disease that affects crop value and is a cause of wastage, particularly in the fresh market. Keeping soils wet through irrigation during tuber initiation is key to controlling this disease. But farmers often over irrigate in their desire to ensure a healthy crop. The breakthrough has come through better understanding of how the causal agents for common scab (pathogenic Streptomyces species) interact with other soil microflora. Molecular detection and DNA sequencing methods have shown the ratio of pathogenic species within the total soil microflora is the important factor, and this is higher in dry soils where the disease is most severe. The LINK project indicates some growers may be able to reduce their period of irrigation from the original six to eight weeks to just three to four, provided irrigation is started early. This will typically save 15-25mm of water per irrigated area and minimise costs.

Typical African bush apiary

Defra Arable Link, and Potato Council funded this LINK project. Fera worked with Cambridge University Farm (CUF), the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), Branston Ltd, QV Foods Ltd, Cobrey Farms and Wroot Water Systems.

Fera signs MOU with CAAS Fera’s official vesting day was marked with the signing of an agreement with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS). Dr Zhihua Ye of CAAS signed the agreement with Fera Chief Executive Adrian Belton, strengthening cooperation between Fera and CAAS in a collaborative effort to provide scientific and technological solutions to enhance agricultural and rural development. The organisations recognise the benefit of cooperative planning and execution of research activities, and intend to host an annual scientist summit alternately in the UK and China, to promote face-to-face communication and collaboration between scientists in areas of mutual interest. Fera and CAAS will jointly explore and coordinate research activities, including: sustainable rural and agri-business development, plant protection, crop and food security, land usage, environmental risk, plant varieties and improvement, apiculture, quality standards and testing, veterinary pharmaceuticals and knowledge management. Fera and CAAS are currently engaged in research supporting both the UK and Chinese Governments’ risk assessments, policy development, and response to emergencies affecting agriculture and rural environments.


1 Regulation, Research, Response

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Fera Solutions Magazine  

Fera Solutions Magazine

Fera Solutions Magazine  

Fera Solutions Magazine