Michael McCarthy: A scientist with the credentials to take on Defra

Dr Watson is not quite a household name, but he could be Britain's most widely distinguished scientist
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The Independent Online

You've probably never heard of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. The name wins no prizes for memorability. Even the abbreviation (IAASTD) hardly trips off the tongue, which is probably the reason why the exercise has never caught the public imagination.

But this colossal three-year study of the global food production system, involving nearly all the UN agencies and published in 2008, is the most comprehensive assessment of the future of agriculture ever undertaken, and the person who oversaw it all as its chairman was Bob Watson, the chief scientist at Defra, Britain's environment department – the man now asking his own questions about neonicotinoid pesticides.

Dr Watson is, bizarrely, not quite a household name in the UK, but in terms of the appointments he has held, he is easily Britain's most widely distinguished scientist.

For five years from 1997 to 2002 he was the world's leading climate change figure, as chairman of the IPCC, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (before being succeeded by Dr Raj Pachauri, whose tenure has proved so controversial). He has been head of environment at the World Bank, associate director for environment in the Clinton White House and director of the science division of Nasa.

Now he sits in Westminster looking at the future of agriculture in Britain, and the fact that this is the man who has a wider vision of agriculture's future than anyone else in the world, adds considerable resonance to the fact that neonicotinoids and their problems have caught his attention, when the rest of Defra is busy assuring people that such problems do not exist.

Neonicotinoid use, promoted by the German agribusiness Bayer, is surging: well over 2.5 million acres of crops are now treated with the chemicals in the UK – all with the public hardly realising it. The parallels with GM crops and Monsanto a decade ago are obvious, and this is an issue which is not going away – it is only just beginning.