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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 10:08 GMT
Science adviser urges GM rethink
Sir David King (BBC)

The UK government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, has called for a rethink on GM crops in his farewell speech before leaving his post.

He made his comments to a group of senior scientists at the Foundation for Science and Technology.

He also considered the role of nuclear power and the need for robust and urgent action on climate change.

Sir David steps down after seven years, having often been in the maelstrom of where science meets politics.

Talking to BBC News, ahead of his speech on Tuesday, he summed up the main topics he would be addressing, including his thoughts on how the government needs to be more scientifically literate.

GM CROPS

Professor King has always been in favour of GM crops, provided they are shown to be safe.

He said: "I would love to see Britain back at the forefront of positive use of GM technology." He added: "The process of GM technology should not be banned. The products of GM technology should be clearly monitored one by one."

He believes there is a moral case for the UK and the rest of Europe to grow GM crops, and thinks Europe's backing would kick-start a technology that could help the world's poorest in Africa.

He says GM crops will be essential to deal with an ever-growing population and diminishing water supplies.

"Have we got the technology to deliver that? Absolutely; it is called GM technology," he said.

Sir David's comments have generated a large reaction from environmental campaigners, agricultural institutes and biotechnology scientists.

Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, responded by saying GM crops are not the solution to feeding an expanding population: "[GM has] failed to deliver the sustainable solutions that are urgently needed."

She added: "The main benefits they have brought are to the handful of multinational companies who have gained an increased control of the food system and have disempowered small farmers all over the world, especially in developing countries."

Others, however, welcomed Sir David's intervention.

The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) hopes Sir David's endorsement will be heeded by the nation.

Professor Wayne Powell, NIAB's chief executive, said: "GM technology is crucial as the way forward to help feed the world."

He also echoed Sir David's thoughts that the UK could be at the forefront of exploiting this technology.

"We have the scientific skills and I have every confidence that our scientists could lead the way in this."

CLIMATE CHANGE

Perhaps Professor King's most controversial moment came in 2004, when he said climate change was a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism.

A comment he says he "does not regret" today.

He is calling for more to be done to deliver a future beyond the Kyoto climate treaty, and says he is "feeling very impatient about this".

To prevent long-term disaster, he suggests a global target for atmospheric carbon has to be set. To keep all nations on board, he calls for a "fiscal policy".

"We have to create carbon dioxide as a negative tradable commodity - so we need to introduce cap and trade."

NUCLEAR POWER

He told BBC News that he was disappointed that the UK government had not pushed forward with more power stations in the 2003 Energy White Paper; the government said that it wanted to see if renewables would fill the gap.

However, Sir David now says that he knew at the time he did not believe renewables on their own would be enough.

He added: "What I have learnt is one can have good scientific advice, and then the decisions are of course made by the politicians; and the politicians have to take a range of factors into account."

BADGERS AND TB

This October, Sir David's opinions gave rise to another controversy. He suggested that a large cull of badgers should be carried out to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB) - a belief he still maintains.

"What you have to do, quite clearly, is cull badgers over a large area. If we don't do this, we are actually leaving a disease to spread through the animals in the UK at increasing cost to the taxpayer and with devastating effect to the farming community."

This appears to contradict the recommendation of a previous 10-year study by the Independent Study Group (ISG), which said culling badgers could be ineffective. The ISG found that targeting one site would only cause badgers to flee to other farms, potentially carrying the disease with them.

Sir David therefore stresses that if a cull was to be carried out "hard boundaries are very important".

A recent government consultation of 47,000 people found that more than 95% were opposed to a cull of badgers.

THE LEGACY

His frustration, over the need to make the right decision based on the best evidence, was repeated throughout the interview: "It is true - that I still feel a sense of frustration about the way government operates where science could contribute to science making."

However, when asked about his greatest achievement, he said: "Just the ability to be able to speak to politicians and to get a hearing; being able to get the ear of the politicians - I feel we are in a very different situation now than we were 10 years ago."

SEE ALSO
Science chief urges badger cull
22 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature
Scientist renews climate attack
31 Mar 04 |  UK Politics
UK 'needs more nuclear stations'
07 Mar 02 |  Science/Nature
Chief scientific adviser knighted
31 Dec 02 |  Science/Nature
Cambridge professor to advise PM
10 Oct 00 |  Science/Nature

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