Friday, May 02, 2008

Munching Watercress with the new Chief Scientific Minister

Some time ago I had been invited to hear Professor John Beddington, the new Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science, speak and then to join him with some select guests for dinner. Of course to meet the man who has now stepped into the shoes of Sir David King - well, that was an invite I could not refuse. So off I headed last night to hear him, 4 months into the job, give his talk on Climate Change. Prof Beddington comes from Imperial College, where his area of expertise lies with his extensive research into fisheries as well as population biology, crop and human diseases. So no wedges here a la King. Instead, a fascinating trot through the issues of population growth(which currently stands at the jaw dropping 6 million per month), poverty analysis, agriculture and food security.

Some more salient facts: 1.1bn survive on less than 50p per day (10% of China, 41% Bangladeshi's - this is big time malnutrition level), 2.7 billion survive on less than £1 per day (80% in India, 92% in Nigeria). The problem with bringing more out of the poverty gap is that more money is then spent on meat and dairy, which in turn creates rapid growth in raw agricultural commodities. As one of my charming dinner guests pointed out to me, even more grain is then required to feed to the animals that are then fed to us (and they use 10 times as much water too), rather than just using the grain direct. And this at a time when grain prices as well as oil prices are escalating (for instance, bread wheat has has boomeranged from £72 to £193 per tonne in just two years. Add onto that additional delivery costs, and that loaf becomes far more expensive). Having just had an energy-giving heart-pounding cancer-preventing lip-smacking shot of watercress juice (the event was sponsored by the Vitacress Conservation Trust), that seemed to me to be a pretty strong argument to become a fully signed-up wheat-free veggie-loving watercress muncher.

Beddington is an extremely affable man getting to grips with all the recent media coverage, who admitted that 4 months into the job he would no longer use the word 'insane' where 'unwise' may be a more moderate turn of phrase for those who doubt the science of climate change. With his soft west country accent, and honesty in answering questions (two received "I do not know the answer to that", before attempting to address the issues presented as best he could), the enormous extent of the remit of his role was apparent. How does a man in his position get his head around not only all of the above, but also Energy and Infrastructure issues as well as Technology and Peak Oil, never mind the Honeybee crisis (could this be the gaia-canary in the coal mine)? It's a strange position to hold. Whilst it's one of independence, most government departments hold their own two scientific advisers who report to him, and he in turn reports to the PM then the cabinet secretary. I wish him well.

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