Concerns raised ahead of imminent FERA sale

Concerns grow as responsibility for research into safeguarding food supply is passed on to private-sector organisations

FERA:  headquarters in York
FERA: headquarters in York

The Government is to announce to whom it is selling off the Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) early next week, in a move that horticulture academic Professor Geoff Dixon said will "abrogate" responsibility for research into safeguarding food supply.

The Government hopes to protect itself against further crises such as the recent ash dieback and horsemeat scandals by holding on to 20 per cent of the York-based agency as a fallback.

It has split already off plant health inspection to the new Animal & Plant Health Agency, based in the same building as FERA in York.

A commercial partner for the rest of FERA has to be announced before the "purdah" ahead of the general election. FERA staff said the chosen bodies from the 33-organisation applicant list, which may include multinational biochemical firms, supermarkets and universities, has already been delayed since early January and is now due in mid February. But mooted purchasers Bayer and Syngenta have already told HW they have counted themselves out of buying FERA, which has 550 staff.

Experts fear Defra may default to a precautionary principle rather than do expensive risk analysis when it loses in-house expertise.

FERA staff will be transferred by Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment over to the joint-venture partner.

Professor Geoff Dixon said selling off FERA is "not a good idea" and "there are some things Government cannot sensibly abrogate its responsibility for".

FERA is currently an arm's-length research agency vested in 2009 and with an annual budget of £64m. It is responsible through Defra as a public body.

Dixon said: "This is a perfectly sensible arrangement given current thinking on the way research and development for food, the environment and land-based industries are structured in the UK. It is only five years old and has yet to really establish itself with an international reputation although it does have some very eminent and capable staff.

"Selling off the enterprise to a private sector company means that its work will be governed by considerations dominated by the bottom line of that company. Any less profitable or non-profitable sectors will be eroded out of existence.

"Given the dire need to safeguard our environment, cope with the effects of climate change and massive demographic changes it seems to me that this move is ill-timed and not likely to be of benefit to public good or the public purse.

"The problems besetting forensic science services should be a warning to governments that tinkering with public services that are Government responsibilities should be avoided."

Dixon pointed to another controversial sell-off - the Cambridge Plant Breeding Institute, which went to Unilever in 1987. "While John Innes and the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich do a magnificent job, a lot of intellectual capital belonging to the nation was lost," he added.

Former Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg said: "This poses immense problems because you're asking private organisations to still be responsible for action against invasive alien species and the difficulty is they're going to be commercial. It's something you'd expect Government to operate."

Of the 20 per cent Defra plans to retain, he said: "How long will that last?" Bragg added that FERA is made "harder to sell" because of the 20 per cent plan. "Standards to employ to Government work are higher than you'd expect from private ones."

He said the model for the sell-off was the Government's Forensic Science Services, which closed in 2012, with its work now contracted out to the private sector.

Nursery consultant John Adlam said: "FERA will become a competitor for funds that existing horticulture research establishments fight hard to gain. The risk is a non-indigenous pest or disease comes in and commercial forces are at play in handling it. Rather than cost being a minor issue, it could become a major one."

Defra begins hunt for joint-venture partner for FERA

"Defra is currently seeking a joint-venture partner for FERA that will free the organisation from public sector constraints and boost commercial expertise, allowing FERA to access new markets and grow both its Government and non-Government businesses. Defra will retain the necessary level of control to ensure that FERA continues to be able to respond to emergency situations such as a major plant health or food incident."

FERA representative

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