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The history of the Food Ethics Council

Professor Ben Mepham, Founder Director of the Food Ethics Council, explains how the organisation came into being.

The Council’s existence owes much to the late Joanne Bower, Chair of the now-disbanded Farm and Food Society (FAFS). In 1995 a Ministry of Agriculture ethics committee recommended establishment of a standing government committee to explore ethical implications of farm animal biotechnologies. Government’s failure to act on this led Joanne, then in her 80’s, to suggest the setting up of an independent council for the same purpose.

As an invited FAFS patron, I was asked to chair a group considering the prospective council’s constitution, aims, strategies and sources of funding. Prof John Webster of Bristol Vet School, retired pharmaceutical chemist John Verrall, environmentalist Vernon Jennings and I took the lead, and with FAFS support I was appointed Executive Director in 1998.

I had just retired from my full-time academic post at Nottingham University, where I had lectured and researched in the biosciences since 1968; but under a part-time contract I continued to direct the Centre for Applied Bioethics there, which I had established in 1993 (http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/bioethics/pdfs/Professor-Ben-Mepham.pdf).

In 1996, I edited Food Ethics (Mepham B. 1996 Ed Routledge), apparently the first use of this term.

A crucial step was securing a 3-year grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which paid my and a secretary’s salaries (but only for 10 hours per week!), office rent in my home town of Southwell (overlooking the 13th century cathedral), financing of meetings and publication of reports. I wrote the first four of these (on drug use in animal agriculture, GM crops, animal production systems and sustainable agriculture) with valuable contributions from expert working parties. All were launched at the House of Commons and, gratifyingly, were well–received. Lord Whitty, then Minister for Food and Farming, commented ‘Your report is wide ranging and relevant to a number of colleagues in DEFRA, other departments and agencies such as the Food Standards Agency. I am arranging for copies to be made to key officials here.’

Important contributions to FEC’s early work were also made by Ruth Chadwick, Paul Ekins, Peter Lund and our Chair, Helen Browning – now FEC’s longest-serving member.
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