UK Science Advisory Council Meeting October 08

Yesterday, the BES policy team attended the Science Advisory Council Meeting at Westminster, London. The day provided an opportunity to meet with members of Defra, the media, other NGOs, listen to talks from senior scientists and learn about Defra’s present and future plans.

The keynote speech was presented by the Chief Scientific Advisor, Prof. John Beddington. The scope of the speech was global, emphasising the need for a systems approach to tackling all of the biggest challenges mankind faces: an expected surge in demand for water, food, energy and an increasingly erratic climate.

Professor Beddington spoke of the need to be mindful of an increasing world population, coupled with a rise in economic prosperity in India and China in the context of meat demand and climate change, and a rise in demand for fundamental resources.

Climate change featured very highly on the agenda, with particular attention brought to ocean acidification and coastal vulnerability. Professor Beddington noted the startling prediction concerning the world’s major ports; of the 135 major ports around the world, there is a 75% chance that at least one of these will be inundated by the sea over the next five years.

Continuing on the water theme, concerns were raised over the implications of water shortages, brought about by a combination of increased demand, and reduced supply because of climate change. For example, the political tension between India and Pakistan could be exacerbated as these vital resources become more scarce.

Professor Beddington cited South East Asia’s achievement in increasing productivity since 1961 without a concurrent increase in land use, (although he failed to mention any implications for biodiversity). Given SE Asia’s successes, he called for greater ingenuity in feeding a growing world population – a key challenge for the future. Selective plant genomics, (i.e. preferential propagation of plants with favourable traits), will enhance agricultural practices around the world, so long as we can improve our understanding of the plant genome.

Other news:

Tom Meagher gave a brief update on bluetongue disease, which affects ruminants such as cattle, but also affects deer, camels and goats. Its thought to have been spreading North from North Africa by wind-borne Cullicoides flies since the late 90s. There are 25 known serotypes, and in spring this year a vaccine rollout programme began. Currently vaccinations are optional, but not against all serotypes, however this is under review.

Based on the best available scientific evidence and after stakeholder engagement, Hilary Benn has no plans to cull badgers to prevent TB outbreaks in cattle. Plans to vaccinate badgers against TB have been put forward, but the practical and economic implications make this an unfeasible proposal.


Overall, Defra will seek to forge greater cross-sectoral links within government and urges research councils to facilitate multidisciplinary research. This will enable better evaluation of ecosystem services, and the broader implications of climate change. Greater links with the social sciences must also be sought to better evaluate the non-economic aspects of ecosystem services, for example historically significant sites and their place within the broader landscape.

The broad issues of food security, water, energy and climate change are all interlinked, and therefore should be considered holistically. Efforts to share information and expertise between government departments and research groups in order to face the challenges ahead is essential.

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