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Andrew Montford: On Food And Lame Science Advisers

Andrew Montford, Bishop Hill

Sir John Beddington was back in the news a couple of weeks ago, warning that food prices are going to get higher and higher:

During a radio discussion about food prices, he said much of world’s agriculture was dependent on stable weather patterns, which have undergone “major changes” in recent years.

This, he warned, meant that food supplies were “extremely fragile” and that reserves were subjected to extremes in conditions caused by climate change.

Ah, it’s climate change. No mention of the insane policies on biofuels. If you haven’t read it already, take a look at Matt Ridley’s article about peak farmland, in which he reports new findings that suggest that the world’s demand will soon be falling and, even more remarkably:

…the authors find that this retreat from the land would have already begun but for one factor so lunatic that they cannot imagine it will not be reversed soon: biofuels.

A quick Googling suggests that Beddington has actually been relatively sound on biofuels, unlike his predecessor, Sir David King, who was chief scientific adviser at the time of the introduction of the biofuels mandate, and whose enthusiasm even managed to survive their being labelled a crime against humanity by the UN.

How then to explain Beddington’s silence on the issue? Perhaps this is a case of the great man feeling unable to criticise government policy. This would presumably be a case of biting the hand that feeds, and therefore a step that the self-respecting bureaucrat would not take lightly, if ever.

If so then it’s a powerful argument against the existence of permanent scientific advisers. Surely it would be far better to have someone who actually knows about about the science and economics of any particular issue rather than (potentially) a time-server the height of whose ambition is to make it to retirement with a title of nobility and a weighty pension pot.

Bishop Hill, 3 January 2013