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Government Advisor Explores Role of Science in Farming

25 March 2014

ANALYSIS - Modern farming needs modern scientific techniques, engineering, technology and social science.

Human, animal, plant health, the natural environment, climate, weather, all involve science, engineering and technology, according to the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport (pictured above).

And he said the UK is unique in its depth of scientific advice in government, with only America coming close to the depth and extent of scientific advice across government, according to the professor.

Prof Walport has called on the farming sector to work with the scientists to meet head on the challenges the sector is facing globally.

“Diseases do not care about national boundaries,” he said.

“They may be impeded by geographical boundaries but they are not interested in anything else.”

He added: “We really have to move to looking at health issues in a much more integrated way and we do need to work together between industry, farming and research in general.”

In the UK in recent weeks and months, the need for scientific advice to meet, challenge and rectify series of problems and crises within the agricultural sector has become more and more apparent.

Among the major challenges that Professor Walport sees UK farming at present are not only the recent damage to crop and livestock farms caused by flooding, but issues such as bovine tuberculosis, crop protection, the withdrawal of pesticides the question of food provenance and contamination.

“There isn’t a single magic bullet that will deal with the issue of flooding, and nor is there a single magic bullet that will deal with the issue of bovine tuberculosis,” according to Professor Walport.

“Complicated problems have complicated solutions.”

And he added that the scientific community also needs to use all the tools at its disposal to examine the provenance of food to identify where it comes from and to detect contaminants.

With regard to bovine TB, speaking at the recent National Farmers’ Union conference in Birmingham, Professor Walport said: “It is a difficult organism. It is difficult to diagnose in humans and we don’t have perfect vaccines for humans.

“The same applies in animal populations as well.

“But the challenge is that there is not a single policy measure that is going to sort out bovine tuberculosis.

“The principles, I think, are very straight forward. We need to reduce its transmission.

“We need to reduce its transmission from one cow to another. We need to reduce its transmission from one species to another, so from cows to badgers or from badgers to cows.

“We need to reduce its transmission within badgers, but we don’t have all the tools to do that.”

Professor Walport believes that a range of measure will be needed to control the disease and turn around the continued spread within the UK.

And he has warned that because there is no perfect vaccine for humans, the scientific community is a long way off developing a perfect vaccine for animals.

The concept that is being worked on at present is for an oral vaccine for badgers and also variants of human vaccines that can be administered to cattle.

“Complex problems do demand complex solutions and they also demand ongoing research and we are going to have to adapt our control measures as we learn more,” Professor Walport said.

Turning to pesticides, Professor Walport said that the challenge was whether there is a greater risk in killing species that are not targeted by the pesticides that in the damage done by the targeted pests.

“So the question with the neonicotinoid pesticides is not whether they are hazardous to insects other than the insect pests that you want to control, because of course they are as they are designed as insecticides,” he said.

“The question is whether, under the field conditions in which you use them, according to the manufacturer’s instructions and the regulated environment, the exposure of the insects that you don’t want to harm is excessive and therefore causes injury to them.

“The truth is that we don’t know the answers fully, but the evidence, as it were, in 2013 for neonicotinoids, introduced in 1993, in the view of the UK government was not sufficient in order to justify the moratorium that has been introduced.

“So I think it is very important that we distinguish between risk and hazard.”

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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