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On food and fearless advisers

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.

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Reader Comments (43)

Biofuels! Why would he mention them? He owes his position to the pay-masters who mandated the use of bio-fuels.
In his world the boss is always right even when he's a homicidal despot!
'Crime against Humanity'
Give us a break.
Humanity is a crime, in his world, for as long as his bosses keep pushing the public teat into his ever-ready mouth.
He sold his soul to UEA. Why should we believe that he is capable of honesty now?

Jan 3, 2013 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMR

It's poignant somehow to come here to commend the host for the balance and humanity of his post on food prices and biofuels and to be beaten to it by

[Doug Cotton and an advert for yet-more anti-greenhouse guff <--- please snip]

one other poster with an off-topic agenda, apparently untouched by the massive humanitarian issues addressed. But I guess we can all become blinkered.

I particularly appreciated your finding Bish (albeit from a short google) that Beddington hasn't been too bad on biofuels. The pendulum has swung on this, both at the NGO and intelligentsia levels. But how can that translate into policy changes? It won't until people like Beddington join the dots for policy makers as they should. The problem, as you imply, is cowardice. We are arguing that the lives of the poorest should take precedence.

Jan 3, 2013 at 11:45 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Forget about the impact of biofuels on food supply. Ranking far ahead of it is corruption and lack of suitable infrastructure to get food crops from field to market before spoiling.

It is estimated that 50% of world grain production is lost to spoilage annually. Anybody who talks about over population and the inability to feed people who isn't discussing this first and foremost is either moronic or has some other agenda.

After that, corrupt governments and officials are the next biggest problem.

Jan 3, 2013 at 11:47 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

timg56: We can't wipe out corruption and it plays its part in biofuels subsidies making money for giant agribusinesses who no doubt plough some that back to ensure politicians continue the subsidies.

I'm not an expert on food spoilage but I fall back on a naive trust in the self-interest of farmers who won't be wasting needlessly. Nature is bounteous beyond our ability to store and always has been. Ask the Creator why that is, if that's a valid move within your worldview. I'm open to learn more of the details in that area.

But on biofuels causing price increases I thought Jayati Ghosh's The truth about the global demand for food in The Guardian in August 2011 put any arguments on that to bed for good. From that point we've had no excuse. It is fair to call this a crime against humanity. Something must be done.

Jan 4, 2013 at 12:06 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Beddington is an idiot. Biofuels are criminal insanity - they enrich the money men and they starve the poor, all under the umbrella of the great man-made global warming swindle, or CAGW hypothesis.

The CAGW hypothesis rests upon three pillars of infamy:

The fiddled data (eg. the hockey stick)
The flawed physics (eg. back-radiation)
The uselsess models (eg. the Met Office prediction record)

Richard - I think you are too hard on Doug Cotton. He, and many others, are simply pointing out aspects of the nonsensical physics that has been applied to support this scam.

Jan 4, 2013 at 12:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Longstaff

Roger: I'm not being hard on Doug Cotton for being wrong on the physics - although I think he is. I'm being hard on him because the subject of the GHE and its critics is off-topic here. If it is not deemed off-topic then, as Steve McIntyre often observed on Climate Audit, every thread becomes about the same thing.

It's partly because I believe you're right to say of biofuels "they enrich the money men and they starve the poor" that this separation of concerns is vitally important. For one thing we need space for this view (my, your and Andrew's view) to be properly criticised by people like timg56 and thus to learn all we can about the various factors that lead to food poverty.

But there's another, even more basic reason for the separation. Even if the slayers were right on the science (and I tend to take Martin A's gobbledegook to the power of tosh view of their efforts) it would make no practical difference to the policy situation compared to, say, MIT's Professor Richard Lindzen being right on the science. And, for the record, Lindzen thinks the slayers are barking mad (to put it in technical terms).

This can all be legitimately snipped by the host as off-topic but it's very important to understand. In fact, come to think of it, there should be a Discussion thread on this, because it's quite different from any that have come before. What if the slayers are right? I might just do that one.

Jan 4, 2013 at 12:34 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

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.

Well said indeed Mr Andrew Montford.

Scientific advisors - how about HMG employing - a few self employed [aged 55+] wind weathered (not Oxbridge) qualified draftsmen, design qualified engineers, able problem solvers with plenty of experience in the mechanics of running a business and making decisions, from the sharp end.

There must be some around still.

Jan 4, 2013 at 12:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Even if the slayers were right on the science (and I tend to take Martin A's gobbledegook to the power of tosh view of their efforts) it would make no practical difference to the policy situation compared (...)
Jan 4, 2013 at 12:34 AM Richard Drake

Haha. Thanks for the quote Richard.

I applied that comment just to Claes Johnson's stuff. The other Dragon Slayers are wrong but at least you can point out where they are wrong. Claes Johnson has an altogether higher form of wrongness.

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:03 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Martin: I knew as I wrote that you had intended this as a special category for Johnson but I figured the slayers included him in their book and that endorsement was enough for me to spread the fun around. Hilary will probably take a dim view of this lack of rectitude and rightly so.

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:30 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard, I don't know if you're aware but your castigation of Doug Cotton has resulted in around 50% of the posts on this thread being about his post. I know you're a man of strong, not to say obsessive, opinions (e.g. on pseudonyms, if you want my email address by the way write to the Bish and I'll gladly give it to you, but, for my own reasons, I don't want to post under my own name), and I agree with Martin A. that a photon cannot know the temperature of the body it's approaching, but that isn't the topic on hand here. The topic on hand is the use of arable land to produce biofuels instead of food, and the rent seekers like Boddington, who simultaneously approve of the use of land for the production of fuel and tell us the prices of food are rising because of global warming.

I have no doubt that this madness will pass and that we in the Western world will be inconvenienced by higher food prices while the madness exists, but for others, not so lucky, Boddington, and his ilk, are cheerfully condemning children, and adults, in the third world to death for want of food. It is a crime against humanity along with their lobbying to stop the use of DDT, but in his own words I believe Boddington thinks it a, "blinder played".

In the meantime Richard I can understand you disagreeing with Doug Cotton, who I suspect could be another manifestation of "my songs got one note", I urge to understand that the GHE is his obsession and he needs to write about it whenever he gets the chance. What we need to do is let him get it off his chest and ignore, we don't have to engage with him, or indeed you on the topic of anonymity.

Jan 4, 2013 at 3:10 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

No more on GHE

Jan 4, 2013 at 7:42 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Of course food prices will get higher and higher - because of the massive taxes on the fuel used in the farm tractors, the trucks to transport it and on the energy for refrigeration, lighting and heat in shops etc ad nauseum.

Jan 4, 2013 at 8:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterNeal Asher

"... a powerful argument against the existence of permanent scientific advisers"
Pielke Jr had a powerful argument against chief science advisers too:

Chief Scientists are no Superheroes

Jan 4, 2013 at 8:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrady

man made global warming morphes into climate change and then into extreme weather. When extreme weather is mentioned alongside booming population, I start to wonder if the next 'big scare' is being rolled out, mass starvation, the answer to which will of course be GM foods (with gravy, lots and lots of gravy for a very small number of people).

Jan 4, 2013 at 9:54 AM | Unregistered Commenterbill

Geronimo: I was aware of what you say. What's more interesting is that our host only snipped Doug Cotton's original. I was genuinely surprised by that. On an earlier discussion I talked about a category good-w, meaning posts subject to host warnings but net positive in their effect. It would be assuming too much (not to say immodest) to put any of mine (or yours) in that category here but I think it's a worthwhile thing to consider. And I think we have a brilliant host, by the way, the more so this good morning.

Jan 4, 2013 at 10:22 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

talking of GM crops, have you seen this:

Jan 4, 2013 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterCaroline K

AGW extremism seems to lead to corruption more and more frequently. Now any scam or failed policy is blamed on 'climate change'. Next we will get to witch trials?

Jan 4, 2013 at 11:58 AM | Unregistered Commenterlurker, passing through laughing

Richard, my obsession is the indifference the environmentalists have to human suffering, and as it happens I was able to take a shot at it legally on this thread because here we have a man who congratulated Lord Oxburgh on his whitewash of the CRU's science - not that I'm saying all of it is bad, indeed this was proven by the fact that the inquiry could find no wrongdoing in the papers picked by the CRU for examination, but there he was gloating that his hireling had exonerated these people. Now we have him telling us that the price of food will go up because of global warming when 40% of the US output of corn is used for biofuels because we're trying to cut our CO2 on the advice of men like Boddington.

They, environmentalists and rent-seekers alike, have no empathy with human beings and are quite happy to see millions of people die to save the planet from unproven catastrophic projections from models put together by scientists who believe there will be catastrophes in the future. What do they expect the models to say? The opposite of that which they've been programmed to say?

Jan 4, 2013 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

geronimo = kemosabe

Jan 4, 2013 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterDolphinhead

There's a famous quote by someone political (but I can't remember who): 'Never initiate a public enquiry unless you can be sure of the outcome'..
Just about sums up the government's attitude to renewables; biofuels and all the other daft initiatives designed to 'reduce our carbon footprint'...
In other words, keep on keeping on until the arguments against are so vociferous that something has to be done. Sooner or later someone (obviously not the government's Permanenet Scientific Adviser because he will have gone native long since) will explain in words of one syllable so that even a politician can understand - will explain how biofuels remove food-producing land from production - seeing as how more and more farmland is going under 'affordable housing' anyway...

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid

geronimo: "indeed this was proven by the fact that the inquiry could find no wrongdoing in the papers picked by the CRU for examination"

Have you not read Hiding the Decline? The selection of papers from CRU was part of the whitewash..

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger


Richard, my obsession is the indifference the environmentalists have to human suffering ... They, environmentalists and rent-seekers alike, have no empathy with human beings and are quite happy to see millions of people die to save the planet from unproven catastrophic projections ...

They're mostly (apart for the new eugenicists aka fanatical population doomsters) not happy to see millions die - in fact it's likely they never see it at all. They don't see it because, as Paul Collier scathingly pointed out in The Bottom Billion, most NGOs don't go near the really difficult cases, like the Central African Republic, where Collier was greeted as a celebrity on national TV the night he arrived, because nobody else ever bothered to turn up. And they surely don't see that the unnecessary deaths are caused, at least partly, by their own obsession with unproven future catastrophe, as you rightly say.

Obsessions aren't always wrong, as you latest post implies. It's seldom wrong to obsess about the quality of an argument or of a blog. What's harder is to live in balance - to obsess about the right things, to the right degree, in all areas. But the obsession you attribute to yourself is for me a necessary balance to one of the most egregious imbalances and obsessions of our age and I fervently hope I share it.

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:36 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

[Snip - venting]

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:39 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

[Snip - response to snip]

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:45 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

[Snip - ditto]

Jan 4, 2013 at 1:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterbill

caroline K - Thanks for that link. Very interesting.

Mark Lynas is a thinking man and it does him much credit that he is prepared to announce that he was wrong since his original position was not based on science but a belief system. Now he has applied himself to the science he sees maybe he is wrong.

How long before he applies himself similarly to climate science?

From his website "about" section

"In November 2009 he was appointed advisor on climate change to the President of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, and was involved in the Maldives’ effort to be the first carbon neutral country on Earth by 2020, and its role in the international climate change process, until Nasheed was deposed in a military coup on 7 February 2012."

A 180 on this issue might be a bit longer coming.

Jan 4, 2013 at 3:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterRetired Dave

Would this be the same John Beddington that caused enormous alarm over New Variant CjD in the 1990's forecasting tens of thousands of UK deaths from the disease in the future?
His prophesy did not work out too well since tissue samples gathered in huge numbers in recent years have revealed - no cases in the population!
Was he not also responsible for the Avian flu debacle - lol!
Both of these cost the tax payer hundreds of millions and yet he remains in his position and is foolhardy enough to add more hostages to fortune.

Jan 4, 2013 at 3:39 PM | Unregistered Commenterroger

A fearless adviser? Dead right - he'll happily lie to any politician that wants to hear a lie!

Jan 4, 2013 at 3:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterIan E

"Jan 4, 2013 at 12:42 PM | Dolphinhead"

geronimo = kemosabe

Ashagoteh ash.

Jan 4, 2013 at 4:35 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo


I am not criticizing anyone. I am simply pointing out that when discussing world food supply, arguments against biofuels should rank no higher than 3rd on the list.

I don't want to throw out a general criticism of biofuels, as there are aspects that may very likely make sense. I do believe that converting grain crops into ethanol is idiotic, unless you are a farmer or big ag. That opinion is based primarily on running the energy conversion numbers, but the impact such policies have shown to have on food prices should not be ignored either.

To show the idiocy of the US ethanol policy, one need only look to Brazil. As far as I've been able to determine, the only way converting crops (or other bio-products) to ethanol pencils out is if they have a high sugar content. Brazil utilizes beets. I believe cane works as well. Yet in the US the sugar lobby continues to be successful in blocking imports of sugar and their source plants, Combine that with the ag lobby and we have an ethanol program that relies on corn. (FYI - I recently read somewhere that 65% of the subsidies and tax breaks that the oil industry receives are to encourge their blending of ethanol with their gasoline.)

Jan 4, 2013 at 4:59 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

Beddington:- “The second complicating factor, of course, is climate change. We are going to see the extremes in rainfall, either floods or droughts. These are the sort of things that we have got to expect with increasing frequency. Put together that with our system of agriculture, you have got a real problem. We have got major changes in weather patterns, so supply is going to be extremely fragile, reserves are way down … and we are going to have these shocks.” He said while governments were attempting to tackle the crisis, people had to think harder about the “massive problems” on food distribution and waste. He said a different way of thinking on agriculture systems were needed, which was “climate smart” and didn’t rely on “unsustainable practices”. His comments were supported by campaigners.

As Richard Lindzen shrewdly observes, alarm bells ring when a scientist talks like that. Crossing the line. Contrast Beddington with the wisdom and sincerity of this

Jan 4, 2013 at 5:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos


I am not criticizing anyone. I am simply pointing out that when discussing world food supply, arguments against biofuels should rank no higher than 3rd on the list.

And I used "properly criticised" in an entirely positive sense. I welcome it. But thanks for clarifying, in various ways. I don't myself put biofuels at no 3 - but that may be more about where I come from. I've already indicated that I need to understand more. Thanks for the free advice :)

Jan 4, 2013 at 7:07 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Brazil's big on bioethanol from cane sugar, because cane sugar production in labour intensive, it's really a type of workfare!

Jan 4, 2013 at 9:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

I don't know what GHE stands for, so apologize in advance to the Bishop if he has to go to the trouble of snipping this.

Regarding biofuels, surely the point is that, even if you accept CAGW as a sure thing, biofuels do nothing to abate its future horrors. They just starve poor people to death. Hundreds of thousands a year. Now.

It's nicely explained in the Bishop's post on the EU's Entrepreneur:

Jan 4, 2013 at 9:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterThomas Gibbon


I'm with you on the needing to learn more. So often I get snippets of information, which are not the best blocks to found a viewpoint on. Converting algae to fuel sounds interesting and I don't see it having impacts to food production. Burning waste material is another biofuel proposition that might work, assuming source and consumption point are close. (Another caveat is how it might impact soil depletion.)


Thanks for the clarification. My info was long enough ago that I wasn't sure about it being beet or cane. For some reason I remember seeing that beets have a better conversion number, but that could easily be wrong.

Jan 4, 2013 at 10:23 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

Thomas - purely for assistance and not for discussion, GHE = Green House Effect.

Jan 5, 2013 at 12:43 AM | Unregistered Commenterwoodentop

timg56: It is estimated that 50% of world grain production is lost to spoilage annually

This is a remarkable assertion. Do you have anything to cite to back this up? Doing a quick google search, I saw an article estimating that US $1B is lost to spoilage annually, world-wide. (big number, but it needs to be put it context). Article here:

The 2012 global grain production is expected to be a record 2.4 billion tons - based on this -

Wheat costs around $330 per metric ton. $1B in losses equates to about 3 million tons, or 0.1%

So.... I'm not sure if you're saying that without spoilage, production would have been 4.8 billion tons, or that losses aren't $1B but rather $200B ??? Either way, I need more than just "it is estimated that" to believe such an amazing figure as 50%. THanks..

Jan 5, 2013 at 1:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryMN

Methinks that the learned Sir John needs to look at World grain production trends over the last 50 or so years.
Otherwise he is heading for another "foot-in-mouth" fiasco of CJD/avian flu magnitude, or larger.
Of course he has long since given up real science, so I suspect he can already taste his toes.

Jan 5, 2013 at 2:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

FWIW, I agree that modern admin structures are too long, too ill-defined, too complex and are there partly to provide Ministers with excuses when the buck has to be pased from them. This is said with the experience of my last years pre-retirement being in Government Business at the interface between resource development and Governments with always a % of people determined to put a stop.
In the early 1990s, was in western China several times, consulting privately. My specialty is major natural resources. A recurring question from levels close to provincial Chinese Governments was "Where can we get plant and people to get food canning under way?" On one visit, I was there to try to assist development of tin mines by Western processes like metallurgy. The advisors said they already had the tin and the steel, they wanted to know where they could get second hand tinplate steels mills to set in action asap to make cans. They had a large concern about food wastage, though even then it was low because people were hungry. All I wanted in return was a concession from the sale of can openers.
Seriously, part of the reason for China's fast economic growth comes from a focus on what is practical and needed, rather than what is some pie-in-the-sky modelling about global catastrophe. There are exceptions - some advisors were hell bent on fashion golf courses under signature names and a few of these have since started.
Here in Australia we have a left Government ban on nuclear power generation. Every few years an expert writes a white paper that has wise words like "Perhaps by 2050 we might be ready." They give lead times of a decade or more for a FOAK. The last new greenfields nuke I saw reported from China took just under 4 years from breaking the turf to power on.
As a group, the non-specialist bureaucrats of my country, Australia, resemble those in the UK, with their main contribution being to slow progress until their peerage, instead of making things happen.
I've offered to vet certain Ministerials to see if there is a better/faster way, but there's no way I'm allowed to see inside the marble bags of the mandarins.
There is no need here to express a like or dislike about a political system, but the real influence of what is left of Communism in China is more related to the military than to every day life. I can name some European countries like Germany that are closer to vintage Communism than the Chinese are now.

Jan 5, 2013 at 3:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

Beddington must be aware of the facts on land use and increasing crop yields that Matt Ridley spoke about unless he has actually already eaten his toes, so why does he come out with this guff? Since it is so obviously at odds with the facts the dreaded C word comes to mind (NO not that one!). Is it a coincidence that Lord Deben bangs on about the same thing?

Jan 5, 2013 at 4:52 AM | Registered CommenterDung

Beddington is not a scientist. His degree was in economics. Because of this, in common with most people without post-grad physics and extensive practical experience in heat transfer prediction and measurement, he doesn't understand the serous problems with climate alchemy.

Jan 5, 2013 at 8:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

Beddington's comments to Oxburgh prove he is merely a foolish warmist whore. (Although that's unkind to the many caring and hardworking ladies of the night).

But the real fools and villains are the Politicos and the Senior Civil Service mandarins who unfailingly select people for a job purporting to assist in evidence-based policy making, who can be relied upon to enthusiastically support policy-based evidence making.

There are very few exceptions. One seems to be David Nutt. I know nothing about drugs but I've always been impressed when I've heard his views on drugs policy.

He didn't last long as a Scientific Advisor.

Jan 5, 2013 at 5:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

Surely the main reason for shortages, and price inflation, in basic foodstuffs is that over the last few years (due to the worldwide recession) aggressive stockpiling of produce is happening as a hedge in the markets. The money men understand that foodstuffs are good commodities for ensuring profit during downturns as demand is maintained as people have to eat. This more than 'climate change' has fueled sudden speculative price swings, and less than transparent trading in these markets have exacerbated this problem.

Jan 8, 2013 at 7:07 AM | Unregistered Commentertckev

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