Visitors to this year's Cheltenham Science Festival were given the opportunity to share their hopes and concerns about using science technology, including GM, to increase food production and make farming more sustainable.
On Friday 7 June, about 40 members of the public joined the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, Director of Innovation at the Soil Association Tom MacMillan, and BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Douglas Kell for an in depth discussion centred around the Government's forth coming Agri-tech strategy - one of 11 industrial strategies announced last year in areas where there are opportunities for significant UK economic growth. The team drafting the strategy also joined the panel.
Concerns included the power of the supermarkets and other big players in the system as well as the need to consider environmental impacts. Hopes were expressed that better technologies, including GM, can help feed a growing population and an awareness was raised that producing more food isn't necessarily the answer.
Attendees advocated the on-going involvement of farmers and the public as the strategy is developed and implemented.
Recognising BBSRC's expertise in public engagement, Sciencewise invited BBSRC to develop and deliver the event. The outcomes of the discussion will provide the Agri-Tech Leadership Council with some 'starter' intelligence on the aspirations and concerns of the public around the Agri-Tech strategy, and may feed into a future, more wide-ranging public dialogue.
BBSRC Head of Engagement Dr Patrick Middleton said: "This exploratory discussion was a great opportunity to hear the hopes and concerns of the festival audience for the future of the UK agricultural sector."
A summary report will be published on the Sciencewise website.
More BBSRC science on show at the Festival
In 'virus attacks from the sky' scientists from the Pirbright Institute invited participants to look at the ever-growing threat posed by diseases that are spread by midges and mosquitoes. Professor Peter Mertens discussed the impact that these viral diseases have, Dr Simon Carpenter examined which insect pests are bringing them to our shores, and Dr Mark Fife explained how genomics can help control the damage now and in the future.
In 'flexible inheritance: epigenetic-effects on health' researchers Dr Nessa Carey, Scientific Director of Cell Centric, Dr Anne Ferguson-Smith from the University of Cambridge and Professor Wolf Reik from the Babraham Institute discussed how the effects of events such childhood trauma and famine can be passed down through generations to have a hidden influence on our genome and our health.
Visitors to the Festival also had the opportunity to interact with exciting cutting edge research and technology:
- 'Hands on with GM'
An exhibition from the John Innes Centre to encourage a deeper understanding of genetic modification technology and its applications in the development of crop plants. There was a chance for visitors to discuss GM with researchers directly, as well as take part in a 'spot the GM plant' quiz.
- 'Insects and ticks spread diseases'
Visitors examined midges, mosquitoes and soft ticks under the microscope and had the opportunity to discuss their role in the spread of some of the world's most important viral diseases with experts from the Pirbright Institute.
- 'DNA is not your only destiny - epigenetics behind the scenes'
Scientists from the Babraham Institute reveal how epigenetics is revolutionising our understanding of how genes 'behave' and are influenced by the environment and nutrition.