One of the things that excites me as a scientist is seeing how new scientific developments can lead to applications that bring great benefits to us all. A great example of this is the success of scientists at the Roslin Institute in creating a line of genetically-modified hens capable of producing drugs to fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
What really struck me about the story is the importance and complexity of making sure that we all get the benefits from new technology without any of its potentially harmful consequences. As new technology develops, it brings possibilities of producing foods (as well as drugs) in novel ways, as we have seen with GM foods, recent stories about the cloning of animals, and the use of nanotechnologies in food production and packaging. This can lead to very polarised debates about whether we are ‘for’ or ‘against’ a new type of food, while I would argue that we should be ‘for’ an open and transparent regulatory system that puts consumer interests first, and considers each issue on a case-by-case basis.
Before any novel food is approved for use, our starting point is to ask independent scientists about its safety and to seek assurance that any new food is as safe as its conventional counterpart. But as we have seen in the organics debate, there are important cultural, ethical and emotional issues which influence people’s choices of food, and these factors need to be part of the mix when reaching decisions on the approval of new foods.
We’re currently strengthening our social science capacity in recognition of the important role these disciplines can play in helping us understand what consumers want and need to make informed choices about the foods they eat.