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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

Ksenia Gerasimova is a Research Associate at the University’s Centre for Development Studies. She compares different modes of agricultural production to understand the complexities involved in each approach.

October 2017: Meet Dr Ksenia Gerasimova  

Ksenia Gerasimova successfully applied for funds from the Cambridge Global Food Security’s Early Career Researcher Travel Fund to travel in connection with her research, particularly to start new conversations around the debate on Genetically Modified Crops. Ksenia has just published her first book on this topic, focused on the discourses of NGOs and social organisations. 


K and farmer

Ksenia with a farmer in China


Q: What’s the point of your research?

A: I’m a social scientist interested in the political economy of agriculture, that is, the relationships between individuals and society and between markets and the state. I compare different modes of agricultural production, such as transgenic and organic, not to make judgements but to understand the complexities involved in each approach. I’m interested in the different policies surrounding these different practices, and also in the perceptions that different social groups have of them, including Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and social organisations. Recently I’ve travelled in Asia, Africa and Europe to interview farmers, businesses, policy-makers and consumers, and this work is presented in my new book.

Q: Do these different groups have any views in common?

A: Everyone is interested in sustainability to secure the future of agriculture, but they’re finding different solutions that are sometimes in opposition to each other. People choose a certain route for a reason, and usually with good intentions. For example some people support genetically modified (GM) food and others are against it, but in the end they’re all aiming for a sustainable system of farming. Scholars, farmers, politicians and consumers argue about what future sustainable agriculture should look like. I think it’s good to have a diversity of opinions because the current challenges are very complex. 

Q: How is this relevant to Global Food Security?

A: My research is about food production, what kind of diets we’ll have in the future, and the interaction of all the different players in the system. Global Food Security is an existential matter; what you put into your body becomes part of your physical being. Eating food isn’t just about physical need, it’s a social activity. And Global Food Security has also become very political - as soon as there’s a food shortage there’s political turmoil. 

Q: Tell us more about your book

A: It summarises the findings of my work, and fills a gap in studies about GM food. I focus on the history of ideas, rather than trying to label people. This book provides an overview of the debate on GM crops, and suggests a new approach to it by examining the role of NGOs, both pro and con, based on detailed discussions with many of their leading members. For the first time, the main ideas articulated by NGOs in the debate are dissected, classified and juxtaposed to corresponding campaigns. The second part of the book analyses how NGOs process the debate, and the persuasive communication tactics they use. This brings understanding of the complexity of negotiation in the debate. It also explains its specific features of the debate such as its global scope and difficulty in finding compromise, based on the long term interests of participants. And I look as well at the resulting changes in perceptions of science and public communication.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your research?

A: I’ve recently started growing vegetables myself, and I love meeting farmers through my work. They’re so passionate about their crops. They explain why they started their farm, how they grow their crops and their reasons for choosing to use certain types of fertiliser and pesticide. They exude a genuine pleasure at engaging with nature in this way. I particularly enjoyed visiting a little farm in the Chongping area of Beijing, China recently where the farmer showed me how he grows sweet potatoes and little bottle pumpkins. The land was originally an abandoned semi-urban industrial site, which was then regenerated for farming. It took a great deal of effort to cultivate it, and now it produces wonderful organic vegetables. Such examples give inspiration that farming can be, and is, part of the sustainable management of the natural environment. 

Q: Have you ever had a Eureka moment?

A: Sometimes I have breakthrough ideas when I’m talking to my students. I teach papers on Food, Agriculture and Development at Cambridge and some great conversations arise through this. I also enjoy bringing ‘hidden areas’ into discussions, for example last year I ran a session on Food and Culture at the Cambridge Global Food Security Symposium. The University is very strong in plant sciences and natural sciences but many researchers hadn’t considered really considered the role of culture in what is grown and eaten. I like to help others have Eureka moments like this, and give a voice to the farmers.

Q: What might other people be surprised to learn about you?

A: Perhaps that I enjoy eating a lot! I may be very slim but I get a lot of pleasure from food and trying new things. When I was in China I went to a pigeon farm where they rear pigeons as an alternative source of protein. At dinner I was given fried pigeon to eat, prepared in the traditional Chinese style. It was delicious. 

Q: What’s your favourite research tool?

A: Fieldwork. I like to get out of the office and interview people in the field. Often I don’t structure the conversations with questionnaires because I want to let people freely express their own concerns and ideas.

Q: What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

A: Dr Giuseppe Ruocco told me to always be an optimist in life, “let the roses have a chance to grow,” as he says. He gave an excellent talk here in Cambridge last month about his work at the Ministry of Health in Italy.

Q: Who or what inspires you?

A: I love being outdoors and I’m inspired by plants and nature. I have also really profited from the interdisciplinary platform created by the Cambridge Global Food Security initiative, and the chance to discuss the issues around food with experts from many different backgrounds. I am a strong advocate of its further development.


Ksenia’s new book, The NGO’s Discourses in the Debates on Genetically Modified Crops, was published by Routledge in 2017.


Written by Jacqueline Garget, Coordinator, Cambridge Global Food Security