Scientists in live public discussion today about what ‘natural’ really means

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s on labels in supermarkets or in adverts on our TVs, the word ‘natural’ is often used to sell products.

Foods may be ‘naturally’ farmed or contain only ‘natural’ colours and flavours. Or you may have used a ‘natural’ remedy to help you recover from an illness.

But why do products sold in this way appeal to us as consumers? Why are we so keen for our food to be grown ‘naturally’ while we strive for technological advances in other aspects of our lives? And does ‘natural’ in this context really mean what we think it does – if anything at all?

As part of their plant science panel, the charity Sense About Science is hosting a live online discussion with scientists today. Their panel of five experts will be answering questions sent to them by the public.

And two of these scientists are from the John Innes Centre.

Mike Ambrose, head of JIC’s seedbank facility – the Germplasm Resources Unit – has a wealth of experience in crop conservation. He will be answering questions about the crops we eat and the long process of domestication by humans that has led to the successful and high-yielding varieties we use today.

Sarah O’Connor, a scientist in the department of biological chemistry at JIC and a long-term member of the plant science panel, will also be lending her expertise to the discussion. She will help answer people’s questions on the natural products we get from plants – from medicines to food additives – and how they compare to their artificial counterparts.

They will be joined on the panel by three other scientists, each with a different research background to cover different aspects of the debate.

Ottoline Leyser is the head of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and a respected voice in the social debates around genetically modified crops. Robbie Waugh is a barley geneticist at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, Scotland, which is currently setting up a Barley Innovation Centre. And Helen Roy is a research ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; she will be bringing her expertise in insect ecology to the panel.

The debate will kick off at 1pm. So send in your questions on Twitter (use the hashtag #plantsci), on Facebook or by emailing And follow the debate on Twitter or on the discussion’s webpage for the answers in full.

Featured image background photo: Alex Indigo/Flickr.

EU’s rules on genetically improved crops a ‘threat’ to developments in agriculture, say MPs

A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies

It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.

In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs.

The report has been published following a consultation with several organisations and individuals, including scientists and campaigners. In his evidence to the committee, the John Innes Centre’s Professor Mike Bevan said that plant science in the UK is a strong and well-organised field of research.

“Plant science in the UK punches above its weight,” he said. “However, the current regulatory system means that the fruits of this research are not able to be applied in a straightforward manner.”

The environmental activist and former anti-GM campaigner Mark Lynas, who reversed his position on GM crops in 2013, said the “non-functional” model used in Europe has led to even stricter regulations in African countries.

Lynas said in his written evidence that African governments are concerned about the impacts of GM crops because of EU opposition. “Surely, they ask, such an advanced and enlightened continent could not possibly have a regulatory regime based on politics rather than science?”

Another of the committee’s recommendations is that we stop using the term ‘genetically modified’, or ‘GM’. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said that the term makes people think of such techniques “as though it was a generic technology, which we should not do.”

The committee also said the term also encourages people to use the same arguments as when the first GM plant products, such as Flavr Savr tomatoes, were developed in the 1990s – despite huge developments in the techniques used since then.

But delivering food security needs a diverse range of approaches, the report says. There isn’t one “cure-all” for the global challenges facing agriculture, and the approach we take should use social, economic and political methods in tandem with technological means.

The Science and Technology Committee, like all House of Commons select committees, is independent of the government. Its role is to scrutinise the Government Office for Science and make sure its policies and decisions are based on scientific evidence.

You can read the full report on the committee’s web pages.

This post first appeared on, a blog by PhD students at the John Innes Centre.

Featured image: Bjärehalvön by Skånska Matupplevelser/Flickr.