The killing fields

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
467,
Page:
368
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/467368a
Published online

Plan to cull badgers in England shows the new government does not respect scientific advice.

When is a badger cull not a badger cull? The answer, it seems, is when it is one arranged by the new UK government. Faced with growing unease about the coming public-sector cuts, the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government last week sought morale-boosting rural support by floating plans that would allow farmers to slaughter the animals. In doing so, when it comes to setting polices based on science, ministers have managed only to shoot themselves in the foot.

The plans are designed to arrest the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, a long-standing problem that the government says cost £63 million (US$98 million) in England last year alone.

Announcing the proposal, agriculture minister James Paice said there was no doubt that badgers are a significant reservoir for the disease. He said that action to control the disease in the animals was needed to curb the spread. And he claimed that his decision was based on sound science.

He got the first part right. Badgers do carry and transmit the disease, but the benefits of killing them are much less clear. Mindful of the powerful animal-welfare lobby in Britain, successive governments have cited this lack of evidence in their refusal to bow to pressure from the agricultural community, which has demanded that badgers are controlled. Even the ambitious Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) experiment, set up in 1997, failed to resolve the matter. Although culling did seem to reduce bovine TB inside target zones, the rate increased outside. In a paper published in February this year, members of the government's Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG), now disbanded, concluded that “badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain”.

The coalition government consulted a separate group of academics, who serve on the Bovine TB Science Advisory Body of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The group concluded in June that the ISG's statement was “problematic” and should not be applied to all culls.

Paice, a former farmer who promised action on bovine TB while in opposition, prefers this interpretation, even though it falls far short of endorsing a cull. To deal with the conflicting views of the trials so far, Paice has devised a new solution. His cull strategy has not been tested — by anyone. Rather than the RBCT's well-organized teams working to eradicate badgers in a controlled manner, Paice foresees consortia of farmers given licences to blast away as they see fit. Farmers will have to fund the work themselves, and the government's own figures show that the costs to farmers will outweigh the financial gains. This must raise serious doubts about the long-term viability of controlling badgers in this way. Vaccination could be used, but Paice admits that this may not be practical or effective. And, as he reduced planned vaccine studies in June from six sites to one, that situation is unlikely to change soon.

Paice is wrestling with a difficult issue. The former Labour government also stumbled over the science of badger culling. After the ISG's final report came out strongly against a cull, a team including the former chief scientific adviser David King reached the opposite conclusion. The Labour government eventually decided not to force the issue in the way that Paice and his colleagues seem determined to do now.

The fate of badgers may not be the most pressing issue facing UK researchers today. But the handling of the situation offers the first clue about how the government will approach scientific advice. It should leave those who promote evidence-based policy feeling anxious. With weightier topics such as climate change, transgenic crops and research funding on their to-do list, ministers need to wise up, and fast.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #14298

    Anurag Chaurasia said:

    Unfortunately becouse of their short term gain & narrow vision politicians are not giving respect to scientific advices.But in long term it is going to affect the nation progress. Time has come that retired politicians should join the politics and once we have scientifically literate government officials scientific advices will get due respect.
    Anurag chaurasia,ICAR,India,anurag@nbaim.org,anurag_vns1@yahoo.co.in,+919452196686(M)

  2. Report this comment #14299

    Anurag Chaurasia said:

    Unfortunately becouse of their short term gain & narrow vision politicians are not giving respect to scientific advices.But in long term it is going to affect the nation progress. Time has come that retired politicians should join the politics and once we have scientifically literate government officials scientific advices will get due respect.
    Anurag chaurasia,ICAR,India,anurag@nbaim.org,anurag_vns1@yahoo.co.in,+919452196686(M)

  3. Report this comment #14421

    Anurag Chaurasia said:

    Sorry for mistake, i mean retired scientists should join the politics to led the scientifically literate political executives.

  4. Report this comment #14506

    Bret Hardrock said:

    Why not release transgenic anti-biotic producing ground squirrels and voles for the badgers to eat and cure their TB?

  5. Report this comment #15338

    Graham Shepherd said:

    The Killing Fields item is one of the best summaries of the situation I have seen.
    I have been making the same point for ages, that the country is in a sad place if the Government is to abandon logic in this way when considering matters of the economy, warfare, global warming etc.

  6. Report this comment #15698

    David Major said:

    I was more anxious about how the previous administration treated evidence. In fact the final report of the RBCT said the following.

    "...we have concerns, previously expressed, concerning the capacity of Defra policy groups to translate scientific findings into policy. This we consider stems, in part, from Defra’s own organisational structures which we believe enforce a separation of policy development and the scientific evidence on which policy should be based".

    In addition to this a higher scientific officer who was responsible for managing staff during the RBCT said the following in a memorandum submitted to the House of Commons in 2006.

    "How much weight do we give to the latest ISG report, detailing their "robust" findings to the Minister? If it were down to me and my staff, very little."

    Perhaps the current administration is being influenced by how bovine TB has declined in New Zealand and how they have achieved this decline. In 1998 the proportion of herds in New Zealand restricted by bovine TB exceeded that in England. In March this year the number of herds restricted in New Zealand was less than a 100. In England in 2009 the number of herd incidences exceeded 6000. These are figures supplied by ministries.

    More detail can be found here.

  7. Report this comment #53012

    William Anderson said:

    This is of course only one side of the issue. There is a respectable body of opinion to the effect that the problem would diminish as the cattle would have more resistance to TB were the farmers to maintain them in better health. Their nutrition and the circumstances of intensive breeding coupled with high density living accommodation seem worthy of review. Current intensive agricultural practices seemingly are not only abhorrent to the casual observer but also self defeating. Perhaps politicians might ask a few pointed questions of the farming community.

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