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.

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