They are words that have been used repeatedly by Imperial since the public announcement about the future of Wye College in December last year. Descriptions about the Wye Park project being of ‘national’, ‘international’ and ‘global’ significance keep cropping up in press releases and interviews with Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial, and his deputy, Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.
The importance has been both implicit and explicit: a little local difficulty and the small matter of the precedent of concreting over 400 acres of greenfield land in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, must not be allowed to stand in the way of Imperial College’s plans to save the world with what are called ‘non-food crops’. The media, the people of Wye, the local authorities and the highest echelons of government have all been repeatedly told that Imperial is working in partnership with the United Nations and the World Bank to bring research in this area to the Wye science park. The message has not fundamentally changed since day one. Consider these:
- On December 8 last year, at the time of the signing of the public, second concordat, Sir Richard Sykes was quoted thus: ‘In the vision for Wye, we have a fantastic opportunity to explore some of the most exciting problems in science, engineering and medicine today. One such opportunity is to explore the potential for non-food crops in clean and affordable bio-fuels and bio-based products. We are forming a partnership with Kent County Council to take this forward with a global centre for non-food crops research.’
- On January 9, at the public meeting at Withersdane when a shell-shocked village was treated to a presentation by Imperial which included a section entitled ‘What science might we be doing in in 10 years’? The presentation then had four bullet points: ‘use of non-food crops; it’s a major international and national imperative; but there is a gap in understanding; in a nutshell: the science behind conversion of a crop into a useful project.’
- And last week, in an interview with Felix, the Imperial College student newspaper, Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, was ‘quick to state the national and international importance of the research into biomass and biofuels’. The article goes on: ‘Sir Leszek told Felix: “This is a direction that both the United Nations are other major organisations are advocating, in fact we are in discussion with the United Nations to help support some of its activities”. In the face of the international importance of the project, it seemed unlikely that local opposition could stop the plans’.
But the real story about the United Nations, non-food crops and the possible involvement with Wye is more prosaic and, importantly, pre-dates anything that Imperial has said about its science park. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that a ‘global non-food crops office’ with a staff of between four and six people needed somewhere as a base, it is questionable whether Imperial College would have been involved at all.
Countess Sondes: Lees Court Estate
The story of an international non-food crops centre started in late 2004, shortly after Imperial College had announced the restructuring of its life sciences department and the beginning of a process that would lead to the closure of Wye as a centre for agricultural research. Countess Sondes, the wife of the late 5th Earl of Sondes, farms several hundred acres of the Lees Court Estate near Badlesmere and had been in discussion with the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships in New York about using crops for pharmaceuticals and bio-fuels. At the time, UNFIP — led by its CEO Amir Dossal, a British chartered accountant — had become convinced that it needed to set up a centre to monitor the advances in non-food crops around the world. What was envisaged was an office, sited in a developed country, which would track progress around the world. At first it would be very small, perhaps only employing four people and would eventually grow to employ up to 100 scientists and support staff.
The Countess — herself one of the UK’s leading exponents on alternative uses for crops with her Seeds range of pharmaceuticals — approached the then leader of Kent County Council, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, another farmer with a landholding of several hundred acres, in January 2005. Sir Sandy, now a working peer as well as chairman of the Local Government Association, tells save-wye.org: ‘She said that this was really big and that there was an opportunity for the UK to lead on non-food crops worldwide.’
Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart: travelled to New York
Sir Sandy travelled to New York with the Countess to meet Mr Dossal. At first, he was sceptical but was amazed that, in the search for a site, only Kent was in the frame. ‘This was not a bidding process,’ he says, ‘this was Kent and the UK, we were the only people in the field.’ Through his involvement with the Kent Rural Group, a loose organisation of five bodies, Sir Sandy decided that he would either have to use Horticultural Research International at East Malling or Imperial College at Wye for the office. ‘This would put Kent right at the top in the fields of biosciences and conversion of crops to energy.’ Quickly, Sir Sandy realised that Wye was ideally positioned as the site for what would become known as the ‘Global Non-Food Crops Centre’. Imperial was brought in on the project, but only as a board member because part of its campus in Wye would be used as the base. However, this was to be a strictly KCC project, with administrative backing from the UN at first. As far as Imperial was concerned, this was ‘not a bilateral arrangement’, says Sir Sandy.
Crucially, and despite the impression that has been allowed to grow in the confusion surrounding Imperial’s wider ‘vision’ for Wye, the centre was to be administrative only — no crop-growing, experimentation, synthesis or other research was planned for Wye. All the ‘dirty’ work was to be done in developing countries where farmers are crying out for ways to escape the commodity price structure set by the multi-nationals. Kent, with the Global Non-Food Crops Centre at Wye, would become the ‘world policeman’ on the project, says Sir Sandy.
In April of last year, after his trip to the UN, Sir Sandy was drawn in to Sir Richard Sykes’s and Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz’s vision for the redevelopment of Wye. He signed the first secret concordat as then leader of KCC. He tells save-wye.org that, at that point, he had discussed the non-food crops centre on the phone with Sir Richard. Crucially, and despite Imperial’s research into bio-fuels at its South Kensington campus, non-food crops were not, at this point, a central part of the science park vision.
Sir Sandy believes that Imperial’s presence on the board of the Global Non-Food Crops Centre was important as far as attracting government support went. He discussed his plans with Hillary Benn, the international development secretary, and Tony Blair. ‘I said that we were working on non-food crops and we have got Imperial College there because that carried more weight. I do think that Richard Sykes sees this field as quite a big issue.’ Sir Sandy had a meeting with Prof Sir Leszek about the centre and was given the green light to use Wye College as the base for it. Financing was agreed with KCC, as was the use of the United Nations facilities. No UN money was offered and none was sought. Instead, the centre was to be funded locally with the possibility of some assistance from the Government and, further down the line, the World Bank.
The Global Non-Food Crops Centre is due to open at Wye College in the autumn with a staff of four. KCC, using a consultant — Richard Burge — is currently looking for staff and has advertised at least one post. But Sir Sandy is keen to reiterate that this still has nothing to do with Imperial’s wider plans as is the Countess who tells save-wye.org that the opening of the centre ‘is not dependent upon Imperial’s wider plans’.
Sir Sandy adds that the addition of the crop centre at Wye could only be a good thing as far as the college and its wider ‘vision’ is concerned. ‘I am sure that having a UN badge at Wye would suit Imperial, but I do not think that as far as a public inquiry is concerned, it would figure heavily in the planning decisions.’