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Building public support for UK agri-science

Posted by on May 29, 2014

Anna Tiley Anna Tiley, policy and communications intern at the Society of Biology, summarises highlights from the most recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture. This post can also be found on the UK PlantSci blog.

On Tuesday 13th May the UKPSF Executive Officer, Dr Mimi Tanimoto, and I attended a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture (APPGSTA) at the House of Commons.

This was my first visit to the Palace of Westminster as an official guest, and it gave me an excellent insight into some of the current science topics being discussed in parliament.

The subject of the meeting was, “Building public support for UK agri-science”. This was part of a series of meetings aimed at exploring ways in which to improve public views on technology and innovation in farming and food production.

The meeting was expertly chaired by the Earl of Lindsay and included three guest speakers on the panel: Mark Lynas (author, environmentalist and former anti-GM campaigner), Ian Blatchford (Director of the Science Museum) and Guy Smith (Essex farmer and NFU Vice President). The audience included representatives from industry, the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), the Science Media Centre, The Oxford Farming Conference and Sense About Science. Such a mix of high-profile guests made for a fascinating discussion with some excellent points raised throughout.

Following a brief introduction from each of the panellists, the floor was opened for discussion. A common theme was genetic modification (GM) and the likelihood of the Green Revolution being superseded by a “Gene Revolution” in the UK.

The panel was first asked what they thought was the biggest influence on public sector attitudes to GM technologies. Mark Lynas described the “naturalistic fallacy”, an idealistic and often unrealistic representation of farming which is frequently promoted by the advertising industry. This naturalistic fallacy and the idea that “nature will provide” also feeds the notion that science and agriculture are mutually exclusive. This is certainly not the case; science and farming have gone hand in hand for thousands of years.

Guy Smith stressed that farming needs to be promoted as a progressive and forward-thinking industry, rather than the Hovis-style advert we regularly associate it with. Modern farming, he argued, uses hi-tech robotics, telemetry and tractors complete with GPS – it’s certainly not about one man, straw-in-mouth, hand-milking cows. There was mutual consensus that in order for the myths to be dispelled, better communication between farmers and consumers is needed. One example brought up was the planned renovation of the woefully outdated farming exhibit at London’s Science Museum.

Finally, the panel were asked whether they thought that attitudes to GM had changed. There was general agreement that, yes; certainly attitudes to GM were more positive than ever before. Although we probably won’t see GM crops grown commercially in the UK within the next decade, I find it encouraging to hear that the media and public alike are becoming more open to this form of technology.

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