Obituary: Kenneth Mellanby

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Kenneth Mellanby, ecologist: born 26 March 1908; First Principal, University College, Ibadan, Nigeria 1947-53; Head, Department of Entomology, Rothamsted Experimental Station 1955-61; First Director, Monks Wood Experimental Station, Huntingdon 1961-74; Vice-President and member of council, Royal Entomological Society of London 1953-56; President, Association for Study of Animal Behaviour 1957-60; Chairman, Council for Environmental Science and Engineering 1981-93; married 1933 Helen Neilson Dow (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1948 Jean Copeland (one son); died 23 December 1993.

KENNETH MELLANBY was always an outspoken man, writes Richard Trow-Smith. In the 1970s and early 1980s, much of his frankness was directed at questioning the use of pesticides and fertilisers as farmers adopted high-tech methods of growing ever greater yields of grain and grass. But in the later 1980s, as the critical clamour over the safety of British food reached its crescendo, the scientist and pragmatist in Mellanby was goaded after hearing a highly opinionated radio discussion to leap to the defence of intensive farming.

In the personal viewpoint he wrote in Farmers Weekly in 1989, which was reprinted in the industry's newsletter, true to form he did not mince his words. 'I have seldom heard so much unmitigated nonsense,' he wrote. 'We were told that our farmers are producing cheap, inferior and unhealthy food.' He then stated that he knew of no evidence to suggest that all was not wholesome and nutritious.

Pesticides had been successful, he went on, and chemists could show traces in food but that was because they had developed such sensitive analytical techniques. It was the scientist which then argued: 'If some foodstuff contains one part in a million million, this should be reassuring rather than a worry, for one would need to consume thousands of tonnes to ingest a significant dose.'

The vocal food activists were taken aback with his next blunt statement: 'There is a lot of propaganda suggesting that organically grown food is better for the consumer. Again there is no evidence for this.' Quoting his many years with the Soil Association, he said: 'We were unable, at that time, to show any significant superiority in organically grown crops.'

He had not deserted his cause but had typically rethought it. 'I still believe that organic farming has a part to play in British agriculture, but I am sure that we will have to rely mainly on farmers who make proper use of the chemicals now available, as a result of agricultural research, to produce the bulk of our food.'