Thursday, 23 January 2014

GMO: Don’t Judge Before You Know

I believe we should harness the latest technology to solve food dilemmas.  This is why I posted a photo of me and the  excellent Minister for Agriculture, Owen Paterson with“GMO:  Don’t Judge Before You Know” T-Shirts. 

I don’t believe that every genetic alteration should be given a blanket approval - just like you won't give every possible genetic treatment in human medicine a blanket approval - but here are just some that I think we actively encourage.

Golden Rice.  Everyone knows the saying that Carrots help you see in the dark.  It contains β-carotene (vitamin A) which also plays a central part in the immune system.   10 million children under 5 die every year, about 40 percent of children in developing countries are deficient in vitamin A making them more vulnerable to disease and infection.  Normal Rice plants produce β-carotene in the leaves but not the grain.  In "Golden Rice" two naturally occurring genes have been inserted into genome so that the vital vitamin also occurs in the grain.  This simple crop could save millions of lives.  It is supported by Greenpeace founder Dr Patrick Moore.

Blight free potato.   Remember the Irish potato famine, in the UK our farmers have to spray potato crops with fungicide about 15 times each season.  Back in 2010 in Norwich I saw how a wild South American blight resistant mini potato had been crossed into a common supermarket "Desire".   Potatoes are grown from tubers not seeds so they cant pollinate others.   A crop like this could really reduce reliance on agricultural-chemicals and help the environment.

The Aphid resisting wheat - which I saw at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire in 2012.  Here the type of gene which occurs naturally in peppermint was inserted into wheat. As a result the wheat gives off a pheromone “smell” which repels aphids (greenflies, blackflies etc) and attracts aphid preditors (like ladybirds).   This was not a commercial trial, but in the long term this type of research could lead to far lower levels of pesticide use.   The trail plant was a spring wheat crop which meant that there could be no cross contamination with the more usually grown autumn wheats.

Purple Tomatoes -  I have seen these growing in a research greenhouse in Cambridgeshire.  The purple comes from a snap-dragon plant gene.  The aim of these trial is to provide more foods which are high in anti-oxidants.   It is thought that including these tomatoes in ones diet may help reduce risk of coronary heart disease and cancer.  

Gluten free wheat - Scientist presented their work on this at the conference on GMOs in Brussels this week.  This could be a really great break through for millions of sufferers of Coeliac Disease.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Worth a vote

As you may know it is not unusual for MEPs to table hundreds, sometimes thousands, of amendments to European legislation.   This one from a Dutch MEP is particularly beautifully drafted....
Amendment  36

Draft opinion
2. Agrees that Parliament would be more effective and cost-efficient if it were located in a single place; resolves, therefore, to propose Treaty changes under Article 48 of the TEU.
2. Agrees that Parliament would be most effective and cost-efficient if it were notlocated in any place at all but immediately abolished;

...  sadly this amendment unlikely to garner a majority but if we get the original language through then we are another step towards ending the hugely wasteful Strasbourg Circus.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Sharing ideas at the forefront of science

Today I have visited three very impressive organisations.   The Hauser Forum on the West Cambridge site.  Over early morning coffee a group of experts from construction to finance discussed how to mobilise local energy investment - I particularly liked the head teacher who described the work he is doing to completely change energy use at his school.  

Then TWI - one of my favourite places for meeting real manufacturing problem-busters. If you want to work out how to stick the lid on a container of nuclear waste so it stays sealed for 5,000 years then you go to TWI.    We had a long discussion about the work they are doing leading international collaboration in advanced manufacturing - and Yes we do still make things in the UK. 

The Sanger Centre is home to "human genome project" and the European bio informatics centre which is basically a huge, huge, huge data centre for storing the results every time a bit of a genome is sequenced.

For example, today they showed me a project where tissue samples from people with rare cancers from across the globe are genome sequenced and then compared to the genetics of  skin stem cells  samples given by "normal" donors.   The aim of these projects is to try to find out which bit of the gene might carry the part which triggers the proteins which produce the cancer and then use that information to target a "drug" straight into that part of the gene to switch it off... (I'm not the medic in the family so I hope got the explanation sort of right).  The data from this type of study is then shared with other research organisations which want to look at details of specific bits of a genome.  Furthermore once data is analysed the stem cell lines grown from the tissue samples are the made available to other re medical researchers across the globe.

We had a long chat about proposed EU rules on data sharing.  The Sanger centre has worked with 90 other research organisations across the globe to produce a standard protocol (the "Alliance") for data sharing - with the support of patient groups.   

Sanger team members described another project looking at different bacteria - for example MRSA and TB.  Sanger explained how they had used studies of the genetics in a MRSA outbreak in a special care baby unit to work out exactly how the infection was being spread and then were able to stop the bug.   They believe it will soon become quite normal for a UK hospital to do a genetic sequencing of a TB bacteria in order to see exactly what strain and mutation it is and thus to work out where the patient got it from - this will then make it much easier to stop the spread of the disease.  Given increases in drug resistance, to combat diseases in the future it will be vital that hospitals share this sort of data.   FYI to give you an idea of how fast this technology has moved on 10 years ago it would have cost £250,000 to sequence one bacterium and taken 18 months.  Now it costs £50 and can be done overnight.  

As an MEP I be looking at the  international legislation and agreements on data sharing when the file comes to the full parliament in the autumn.   I am really glad that among the Conservative MEPs we have some experts in this area of the law.   Thank you to  The Sanger Centre and Wellcome Trust for teaching me today!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

I´m looking forward to next week!

A few months ago I started sending a "week ahead" briefing to local press.  This helps be to think ahead and be transparent.  Here is the one for next week which I am really looking forward to!

Week Ahead for Monday 8th July

This will be the last meeting of European Parliament Committees prior to a summer break.  The Parliament will reconvene week commencing 26 August

Monday 8th July
As part of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, Vicky will be attending a meeting with Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank.

Tuesday 9th July
Vicky will take part in a debate on long term investment.  Vicky has frequently argued that EU legislation on financial services is restricting long term investors such as pension funds and insurance companies and thus constraining private sector investments in infrastucture.s

Vicky will vote on the Industry, Research and Energy Committee.
Vicky will meet with the Countryside Alliance to discuss the rural economy, the impact of EU legislation on shooting in the UK, with particular reference to lead shot ammunition, and invasive alien species.    Vicky has been supporting the CLA campaign to prevent a further ban on lead shot in the UK, arguing that other countries should instead follow the UK in banning use of lead shot in wetlands.
Vicky will attend the Annual General Assembly of New Direction, a Conservative think tank supporting the reform of the UK's relationship with the EU.

Wednesday 10th July
Vicky will take part in final negotiations on the  Recovery and Resolution Directive as part of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. This Directive relates to how cross-border bank failures are prevented and  managed. Vicky has successfully led an opposition to proposals which involve the UK having to pay into bailout funds and has succeeded in getting amendments passed which permit the UK to use its bank levy system as an alternative. This issue has become more highly charged in the UK given the Co-operative's bank's financial situation, bringing to light the need to strike a balance between authorities having the flexibility to deal with each crisis differently and legal certainty for investors.

Vicky will be holding a "constituency surgery" for MPs in Westminster.   Vicky is the first MEP to hold such surgeries.   She finds this allows individual MPs to discuss directly EU issues which affect their own constituents.  This time she will be meeting 7 MPs from Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire.

Thursday 11th July
Vicky will attend a seminar on Cambridge City Council to discuss the Mobilising Local Energy Investment project. This local project aims to drive economic growth in the area and provide sustainable energy security.  This has been partly funded through EU grants.

Vicky is visiting the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to discuss the EU proposals on Data Protection and their potential impact on medical and scientific research.   

Vicky is visiting The Welding Institute in Cambridge to discuss the £65 billion EU programme for science and research (Horizon 2020) and how this might help develop high value manufacturing for the UK.

Friday 12th July
Vicky will be joining volunteers on the River Waveney to look at work they have done to control floating pennywort, a highly invasive species.  
Saturday 13 July
Vicky will be opening Beeston village fete in Norfolk.  Vicky visited Beeston primary school in 2010 to see their pioneering project bringing broadband to a very rural area.

Vicky Ford MEP - Say "no" to the FTT

Monday, 24 June 2013

Getting money out of Brussels

No wonder people find EU budgets confusing and frustrating.   On one hand we saw a huge media frenzy when the Prime Minister had his all night negotiation in February and secured the first time ever EU budget cut, now months later the details on the seven year Medium Term Financial Framework are still not yet finalised.

Last Monday night my own negotiations ran on until 2.30 am.  This was on "Horizon 2020" the €70 billion program for funding science and research.   It is one of the few areas where the UK gets back roughly what we put into the EU budget, and a very important sources of funds for scientists and entrepreneurs across the East of England.   However these EU research programs have a terrible reputation for bureaucracy and red tape.   I have been gathering evidence and suggestions for reforms for the past 3 years and the negotiations on the detailed changes have been going on for months.   We are edging towards a deal which will (I hope) result in some simplifications for participants, less red tape and more directed assistance for small businesses.  One of my priorities has been to make sure that funds will go to the best bids, based on excellence.  Recent studies have shown that scientific research which is the result of international collaboration tends to have a greater impact.  I believe that we should only fund internationally projects where international collaboration really does add value.

Getting money out of Brussels for local projects can be  really hard work.  On Friday Bernard Jenkin MP and I visited the Essex Wildlife trust who have recently had their funding bid rejected in Europe.   The aim is to try to buy a piece of riverside land next to their site at Fingringhoe Wick and replace salt marsh habitat.   As I write Bernard's office are trying to unlock a crucial part of the bid paperwork and to work out if we in the UK are gold plating the application form - all before a bid deadline of tomorrow!

In the meantime I am about to jump back on a Eurostar and go back into those negotiations on Science funding.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Who is winning Energy battles - UK vs EU

I enjoyed speaking to the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies in May. It gave me a chance to reflect on what I have seen in the past 4 years and how UK policy affects EU thinking on energy issues and vice versa.  I have written an article for their magazine - which I thought I should also put here.

There are three legs to energy policy; energy security, the cost of energy and how costs affect competitiveness, and how energy and climate policy work together.  All three issues are inter-related and conflict; and often when trying to address one issue it can often make another worse.
A one-size-fits-all policy on Energy is unworkable. The public perception of acceptable energy varies from country to country. Just when the UK is investing in new nuclear, Germany is abandoning it.  What's more, we are at a time when private sector investment is under huge pressure.

Longer standing MEPs tell me that 20 years ago the priority was competitiveness, it then swung towards decarbonisation and climate change, but in this 4 year period security has also been a priority. 
In the UK energy security is important, but it is one of many concerns. However many of my  Eastern European colleagues would list it as their biggest however priority.  They remember how  Gazprom switched off the lights in the depths of winter in early 2009. This has driven a strategy to improve energy security infrastructure especially interconnectors and storage.

It is important to stress that this public money is not meant to fund everything, but is intended to plug infrastructure holes where there no private sector or national funding.
Interconnectors will also help the UK to diversify energy for example linking offshore North Sea wind to Norway's hydro storage capacity. Gas interconnectors are important because the UK has less gas storage than others. I have visited the two-way pipeline running out of remote Bacton in Norfolk, but most people didn’t realise how important it was until it temporarily shut down in March. 

As the House of Lords' committee pointed out in May[1], the required investment in European energy infrastructure is in the order of one trillion euros by 2020.  Whilst the proposed investment from the EU budget will increase to €5bn between 2014 and 2020, it is vital to unlock private sector investment.   Investors are challenged by uncertainty since politicians are increasingly concerned about affordability and are less willing to commit to long-term price contracts.  Furthermore, many EU financial sector laws impact negatively on investment; Solvency II will constrain insurance companies investing in long-dated BBB bonds, new Basel III rules for banks will impact on longer-dated lending, any financial transaction tax will reduce investment returns.
MEPs prioritised competitiveness in the recent vote on proposals to "backload" allowances in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).  Businesses supporting backloading said it would help them invest in newer generation technologies.  Others said it would raise energy prices, forcing energy users to re-locate overseas.  Everyone agreed that the proposals were a short-term sticking plaster and did not help long-term certainty.

Some argued that it would help the UK if backloading pushed up the continental price of carbon towards the UK's carbon floor price.  But colleagues especially in Germany and Eastern Europe were concerned about the impact on competitiveness. Backloading was eventually rejected by just 19 votes, showing how finely balanced the issue was.
UK MEPs can influence EU energy policy. A year ago, we were concerned about pending EU rules on derivatives trading and their impact on energy hedges and about the proposed EU Regulation on offshore oil and gas.

Through Parliament amendments we have exempted hedges for business risks from the derivatives trading rules, thus neutralising the impact on costs. We have also completely rewritten the offshore oil and gas legislation. In fact I tabled over 300 amendments to the draft legislation to alter the text line by line.  Instead of a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all Regulation we have a Directive.  The high quality North Sea safety standards will not be dumbed down but will be followed in the rest of Europe.  An estimated £146m of implementation costs have been saved. This required huge assistance from UK DECC and HSE experts, cross-party co-ordination by British MEPs and close work with members from other countries, in particular with the Belgian rapporteur.
Another major problem is that EU laws are often insufficiently impact assessed and thousands of amendments are tabled through the Parliament without detailed analysis.

For example on the Energy Efficiency Directive the Parliament was split between those who thought energy savings policies should enable households and businesses to save on their energy bills and those who pursued a target-driven, headline-grabbing approach. My own view is that EU targets are easily set but rarely met. But even the best impact assessments are not a crystal ball. I was extremely concerned to read recently that the UK's Energy Company Obligation programme may add up to £100 to household bills, especially as the UK was often cited by other European countries as a standard-setter in this area. 
Public concern about energy bills is growing.. If we want public support for decarbonisation policies we must be highly attentive to the impact of policies on prices. MEPs are now more wary of taking first-mover actions on climate policy in Europe if it impacts our global competitiveness and want to push back on EU legislation if it places extra costs on consumers and businesses. Climate policy has to be flexible and there are many technologies which will help us meet our goals. It was therefore alarming to see momentum (from certain corners) behind an outright EU ban on shale gas fracking.  Under the European Treaty countries are entitled to the economic benefits from their resources and we need to uphold this principal.

To conclude, the UK can play a key part in reforming EU policy, but there are vast differences in Member States' energy mixes and domestic energy policies so we cannot accept a top-down, rigid approach from Brussels. Energy security, energy prices and decarbonisation all pull against each other, reconciling them is not easy, but it is important to try to keep them balanced.