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Cambridge Global Food Security

A Strategic Research Initiative of the University of Cambridge

Studying at Cambridge


Thinking around the science

The Cambridge Symposium in Global Food Security was a good time to stimulate interdisciplinary discussion, and this led to some interesting conversations over how science research questions should be framed, and how to apply the research generated to solve real world issues. Inputs from Lara Allen and Steve Wearne in Plenary 3 were particularly integral to this discussion - as they came into the symposium from backgrounds other than science research (The Humanitarian Centre and the Food Standards Agency respectively), they had very different reflections to share. A subsequent discussion with Ksenia Gerasimova from the Centre of Development studies - who was meant to speak at the Symposium but was prevented from attending at the last minute – has also fed into this article.

When you start a research project, what is your aim? Do you want to push the frontiers of knowledge? Or do you want to find ways to tackle a problem - such as food security - more directly? And where does the stimulation to do a project come from: from your own ideas, or from the needs of the public? These are just a few of the more abstract questions surrounding research that it is important to sometimes take a moment to consider, and many of them were discussed in some form at the Symposium.

In terms of the aims of research projects, whether you aim solely to push the frontiers of knowledge, or to tackle real world problems, your research is important. Any knowledge that is gained, no matter how abstract or unpractical it may seem at the time, all adds to the possibilities for real world problem solving. However, how you frame your research should be different if you are trying to do the latter. Allen emphasised the need to approach bodies such as The Humanitarian Centre when setting out on a new project with the intent to implement the outcomes in tackling an issue, so that they can advise on exactly which angle might be most useful to those on the ground, or could feed into someone else’s work. It is also vital, of course, to try and approach the people that you envisage your research helping, and get their thoughts and feedback before you pour much time and energy into anything.

This leads us to the question of what should guide research. Should it be scientists who feel they can see a lot of potential in a certain area, or should it be led by what the public want? Much time and effort has been put into developing GM crops and animals, however there are still huge regulatory, political and social issues that prevent getting these crops on the market – as Steve Wearne pointed out, ‘Opinions are key to making progress, not technology’. This was of particular relevance to Jon Lyall’s work on transgenic chickens which are partially avian influenza resistant, which, although still in the early stages of development, are likely to hit issues with regulatory barriers and public opinion when it comes to getting them on the market. Wearne suggested that perhaps research ought to start from what the customer wants, or at least finds acceptable, rather than what the scientist can see as being a great solution.

If we are to follow what the public finds acceptable, we could see scientific innovation become limited, yet it could be argued that by working with public expectations and pushing them gently with each small innovation, technological innovations could be achieved, albeit rather slowly. As it is, with the regulatory and social barriers that surround GM, some innovations have been achieved (read: golden rice and ‘Aquabounty’ salmon, amongst others), but are so snared in paperwork and protests that they are currently of no help to food security. Where do we go from here? One thing is for sure – that the current gulf between the work of some scientists (especially on genetic engineering), and public understanding and acceptance is just not amenable to implementing such new technologies and products to tackle the issues they were designed to relieve.

It is here that the work of Ksenia Gerasimova would have fitted in to the debate raised at the symposium. She is based in the Centre for Development Studies, and approaches the GM debate from a humanities perspective, hoping to bring some neutrality to the area and analyse the arguments and stalemates in a non-subjective way. She feels that the debate has reached a point where very little useful discussion is had, comparing it even to issues of religion: people have a stance on the issue, but are not willing to enter meaningful discussion. Gerasimova also explores the role of NGOs in the GM debate, many of whom take an anti-GM stance. This stance often originates in the European branches of NGOs, and is then rolled out across their international networks. However, in this roll out, the geopolitical issues that were likely part of the initial decision are lost; for example in Europe slight over-yielding means there is no immediate need for the yield increases that GM crops could bring, issues of scale prevent the ability to efficiently segregate GM and non-GM crops (not such an issue of the vast croplands of the US and Brazil), and multiple levels of government – from the EU Commission down to regional councils – make implementing GM crops on a larger scale hard. Yet all of these are very Europe-specific issues, and so cannot be used to justify an anti-GM stance elsewhere in the world – yet they are. The European anti-GM stance also makes it undesirable for other countries – particularly some African countries which rely on trade to Europe – to start growing GM crops, despite their dire need for yield increases. One example of the power of European influence was seen in the 2002 famine in Zambia. In this great time of need, the Zambian government refused a large shipment of genetically modified wheat from the US government, sighting the precautionary principle, and not wanting to jeopardise future trade with Europe by contaminating their food chain with GM food. Unfortunately there was not enough non-GM food available at the time to substitute this shipment with, and so many people remained hungry, and many died. These are just some of the many issues that have become wrapped up in the GM debate.

Another interesting question that was raised in discussion was that of the ‘knowledge deficit’, by Ivan Scales. He asked if the panel, and indeed the audience, felt there was a knowledge deficit that needed tackling, or whether it was rather an issue of getting people to face up to the knowledge we already have? This was asked in the context of getting businesses to protect natural capital as part of their operations, but is equally applicable in many scenarios. In the case of genetically engineered crops, for example, is there a knowledge deficit between the scientists and the general public – if the public understood exactly what genetic engineering was, would they be happy with it? – or do the public understand, but still not like the idea? Gerasimova also suggests that emotion is a major factor in the GM debate – even if the understanding is there, gut instinct and emotional dislikes of the technology are still a barrier to acceptance. A similar question can be asked of the climate change debate – does there need to be better communication between climate scientists and the general public/businesses, to better convey their expectations of what we are facing, or do the public know, but not want to face up to it? It is hard to tell exactly where the deficits lie, but we can be certain that communicating research, of any sort, is vitally important to the public understanding of the importance and potential of science, and therefore hopefully their acceptance of it.

Whilst these issues may seem very abstract, and distant from day to day research, it is important that they are considered. As Paul Mylrea asked, somewhat controversially – “Does your research even have any relevance until you make a difference on the ground?” Even if you feel Mylrea’s stance is too extreme, it is important to understand the gulfs between the research community and the general public, if research is to make the biggest impact on the wider world – after all, what drives your research, if not to, ultimately, make the world a better, healthier, less hungry place?


Joanna Wolstenholme, Communications Intern