Where does our food come from?

Last month I travelled across the county to Peterborough to help run the John Innes Centre stand at the East of England Agricultural Society’s Food and Farming day.

Food and Farming day provides an opportunity for school children to understand agriculture and food production. Organisations were there from all parts of the agricultural industry, right from us scientists at the research level, to farmers, to companies that make produce for supermarket shelves. This event serves a number of purposes, primarily to help young people understand where their food comes from, and encourage them to pursue careers in the agricultural industry.

The more I work at events such as this one, the more I realise how important it is to open up the conversation about food production. We now live in a culture of fast food and supermarkets, which means we don’t ever really have to think about how the food we eat actually gets there. Growing crops and rearing animals becomes a sort of abstract concept. We know it happens, but really it doesn’t seem to affect us. This disconnection between the farmer’s field and the supermarket shelf means that many children (and adults!) don’t know that rice is a plant, that sausages come from animal meat, or that bread is made from wheat.  However, as we become increasingly detached from our food, it is only becoming ever more important to really understand the food production system.

Food security is a bit of a buzz word with the scientists and politicians at the moment, and for good reason. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and all those extra people need to be fed! However, the problem we have is that we already use around 40% of the earth’s land mass for agriculture, and the earth isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, we may have even less space for food production than we do now in 50 years’ time, because of course all those extra people will need somewhere to live, and schools to go to, and hospitals to be treated at.

An additional issue is that this extra food needs to be produced and distributed sustainably. Current agricultural practices are actually pretty bad for the environment. Pollution, pesticides, fertilizers and animal waste can often end up in our water supply, damaging delicate environments, or contributing to greenhouse gases. Animals over-grazing can ruin grasslands. Vast swathes of rainforest and other endangered habitats are being cut down every year to make room for agriculture. Food is transported thousands of miles producing yet more greenhouse gases and pollution.

Ultimately, we need to produce more food, from less land, whilst reducing our impact on the environment. Seems like a bit of an impossible equation!

There are many ideas about how we can increase our food production in a sustainable way. Just some of these ideas include: developing GM crops that contain additional nutrients or don’t need to be sprayed with pesticides, producing food locally to reduce carbon produced in transportation, improving infrastructure and food distribution systems, cutting down on food waste, and selecting for crop varieties that give higher yields per hectare or are able grow on more marginal land, reducing meat consumption.

To decide which of these solutions could be the most helpful, and then implement these changes, scientists, politicians, policy makers and the public need to work together. However, we can’t have a fully open discussion, or expect people to back agricultural and environmental policies, if they don’t understand where the food comes from in the first place. By holding more events such as the Food and Farming Day, and educating children about agriculture, the next generation can grow up to be part of the discussion, and maybe even become the scientists and policy makers of the future to help feed our growing population.

 All photos from @johninnescentre

By Amelia Frizell-Armitage, a second year PhD student in the lab of Christobal Uauy

The Big Bang Fair 2014

Last week, a group of PhD students including myself joined scientists from the British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) to run a stand at the Big Bang Fair, a science and engineering event at the NEC in Birmingham. The event ran from Thursday to Sunday, but it was only on Saturday that myself and two other PhD students, Mabon and Claire, made our way to Norwich station (in varying states of disarray after an incident involving the misreading of bus timetables and a lot of brisk walking) to travel up for our two days on the stand.

The Big Bang Fair is a yearly event, and every year the JIC presents a different facet of its research to school-aged children, hoping to inspire them to pursue careers in science. This year the stand focused on plant disease. The BSPP has identified a significant shortage of students taking plant pathology beyond undergraduate level – with many undergraduate courses in biological sciences spending only a few hours of lectures over the whole degree on the subject of infection and disease. We hoped that our stand might encourage more young people to follow careers in plant pathology.

The plastic cups standThe “Plant Doctors” stand, which was split between JIC and BSPP, had activities aimed at a range of ages and abilities. On the BSPP side, a craft area for children to make models of plant pathogens attracted a lot of attention (not including that from the stallholders themselves); and the opportunity for visitors to briefly become “plant doctors” themselves, where they learnt about the differences between bacterial, fungal and viral infections in plants and how they correlate to human diseases. The JIC focussed mainly on its research into ash dieback disease, offering visitors the chance to play Fraxinus. An activity for younger children attempted to simulate the action of spores being spread by the wind – by knocking down plastic cups. Visitors were also asked to read about three options for controlling pests and increasing crop yield – pesticides, biocontrol or GM – and to vote for their favourite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people chose biocontrol as they were wary of the concept of GM, though I certainly overheard several extended discussions with parents over the merits and risks of GM. In fact, our stand at the Big Bang Fair in London last year was entirely focused on genetic modification. Read more here https://johninnessvc.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/science-festivals-why-bother/

We returned on Sunday evening, completely shattered and with very sore throats after constantly having to shout over the noise of thousands of people, and the occasional unidentified loud bang from the Big Bang Stage just behind us. The bangs were mainly due to an explosive show from Greg Foot, a science communicator who came to visit us at JIC a few months ago. I think I speak for everyone who went when I say that I had a great time talking to the next generation of young scientists! I would really recommend volunteering for the Big Bang fair to anyone who hasn’t yet tried it.

Capturing the interest of the visitors to the stand came with its own challenges. It was easy when the children arrived at the stand and were immediately prepared to listen and engage. We were, however, next to the stand for our Norwich neighbours, the Institute for Food Research (IFR). IFR brought a giant inflatable colon with them – which was great fun, though trying to regain their attention after they spotted that next to us was also an enjoyable, if tough, challenge.

As ever, when dealing with children, some brilliant quotes were produced, but I think my favourite actually came from a parent. When Mabon was explaining the concept of a fungal infection in humans causing athlete’s foot, one mum looked down at her children and told them, with a complete poker face, “and that’s why we don’t eat mushrooms!”

By Rachel Prior, a first year PhD student in the group of Prof Mike Bevan.

Featured Scientist (IV): Greg Foot, Daredevil Science Presenter


_DSC6091This week’s featured scientist is the Daredevil Science Presenter, Greg Foot. Greg has been working in science communication for the past 10 years on TV, Radio and in live shows. You may have seen him on the BBC3 series Secrets of Everything, Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, BBC Worldwide, Youtube’s Head Squeeze channel or in his live Daredevil Science Shows, but he also does a lot of work behind the scenes, researching, writing and developing shows.

Greg came to talk to us about Science Communication Careers and here are the answers to some of the questions we asked him:

What persuaded you to go into Science Communication?

A friend suggested at university that I become a Blue Peter presenter and it started out as a bit of a joke – but then I realised that it was something that I would enjoy doing so I started to get involved in things like radio, YouTube videos and science communication events at uni. By the time I finished my undergrad I was completely caught by science communication and went to Imperial College London to do a Masters in Science Communication. Funnily enough, it is only now after 10 years of working in science communication that I finally get to appear on Blue Peter!

Did you have a big break in your career, or did you simply work your way up the ladder?

I spent a lot of time exploring the opportunities available and contacting as many people as I could. Every so often one of the feelers I put out was successful. Looking back each of these successes can be seen as a lucky break, which all add up to where I am now. But the TV world especially is a ladder which it takes time and dedication to climb.

How do you talk about science and your work without making it boring to a non-scientific audience?

You need to catch the attention of your audience and peak their interest. Make the science mean something to them and relate it to their daily life. The key is to “find your hook” for your research to draw them in. Take a few steps back and look at how your work applies in the broader scheme of things. You also need to be aware that you are the expert, and they don’t know as much as you about the subject. Start slowly and build up your story step by step – the listener needs to be able to “see” the last step to not feel lost.

As a Freelance Science Communicator how do you manage your time and what do you spend your time doing?

If you don’t have many projects running, you spend your time finding the work, by researching and contacting people. Once you have several projects on the go, you have to be able to juggle them all and manage your time in a similar way to a PhD student does. I need to look at what the final product will be, such as a live show, and then plan backwards from there, writing, discussions over email, and researching and finding props and experiments to show. I also try to have time to catch up with friends in there somewhere!

How do you decide what subjects to present in your live shows?

The best thing to do is talk about something you are passionate about, and then think about how you can interest the audience and enthuse them. For example, I am keen on extreme sports, so I started with a surfboard- I thought that it would be fun to get a volunteer to get up on stage and try out surfing. From that I used surfing to introduce a lot of scientific concepts, like how far the wave will have travelled until it gets to you and the physics behind balancing. Since then I have hosted outdoor live shows about extreme sports with DJs, BMX riders and free running. I also try to make sure that I have something that explodes too!

Greg’s Top Tips:

  1. Contacts, contacts, contacts– contact everyone and anyone in the area you are interested, get your name out there, it’s even better if you can meet up with people face-to-face.
  2. Online– use online media- YouTube, Podcast, Blogs, Twitter- get you name out there, let people know what you can do!
  3. Brand– make yourself stand out and recognisable by uniforming your twitter, YouTube, blog, etc.
  4. Skills– Build them up and take advantage of what you have available – make videos (even just on your phone with a friend and post them online), do radio slots, write and give talks at schools. The more skills you can show that you have the better.
  5. Motivate– one of the most rewarding things is encouraging people to have an interest in science, so go into schools to give talks, make science interesting. Did you know that most 10-12 year olds have an interest in science but the number of students interested in science drops massively by the time they are 18? If you can show them what science can do or where it can take you fewer students would lose interest.
  6. Find what you love– try out all the different areas, ask for work placements and then follow the area you enjoy- not everyone who works in TV has to end up on screen!

Find out more about what Greg Foot does here:



By Izzy Webb – a second year PhD student in the lab of Phil Poole, and Annis Richardson – a third year PhD student in the lab of Enrico Coen

All photos courtesy of Andrew Davis (JIC)

JIC Undergraduate Summer School

Every summer since 2010 the John Innes Centre (JIC) and The Sainsbury Lab (TSL) have hosted a group of undergraduates for 8 weeks. The students get to work on their own research project in labs during the week, and then get the opportunity to present their work at a retreat at the end of the two months. It’s a great opportunity to get practical experience, especially before embarking on their final year projects, or beyond (many future PhD students, we hope!). On Friday afternoons they attend training sessions run by the PhD students, which we hope are a fun way to enhance their experience here at JIC and broaden their skill set. I have helped at the summer school every year since I joined JIC and this year I was heading up a team of PhD students in charge of introducing the Undergrads to Science Communication. In my team I had Richard Payne, Annis Richardson and Izzy Web and I felt confident we could deliver an exciting activity that would be a good introduction.

After some discussions between ourselves and with Dr Tristan McLean from BBSRC a plan started to form. The students arrived from all over the world and started to settle in at the start of July, and the science communication task was the first of the Friday sessions – so they had no idea what to expect. They had an introduction to the world of science communication from Tristan and Dr Phil Smith of the Teacher-Scientist Network before being introduced to their task – the Sci-Comms Challenge!

The task was to create a 3 to 5 minute video, on one of a selection of plants/plant groups – all of which are worked on at JIC/TSL- to be suitable for a general public audience. The requirements were that it had to be creative, suitable for the target audience, effectively conveyed a message, engaging, displayed teamwork and was factually accurate. They were then split into 4 teams of 4, after only having known each other for a week. They were provided with a camera, tripod and microphone and given a deadline of the following Friday session. To demonstrate what could be achieved, we showed them a video produced the previous year and a set of videos made by a class of twelve year old children (if twelve year olds can do it, undergraduates should certainly be able to). We also told them that we, the PhD students, would be available to help should they need it. The students were actively encouraged to seek out the experts we have on-site and ask them about the plants that they chose to present on.

The following Friday came around and we were all eagerly awaiting the results.The room was set up for a screening, with a panel of judges sat at a table to the side. The judges were Phil, Tristan and Chris Wilson, a digital channels specialist. We were all extremely pleased with how the groups had done, especially considering their short time in which to do it. Each team had interpreted the challenge differently which made for interesting viewing – varying from stop-motion animation, a courtroom drama, a kids TV show and a ‘day in the life’ documentary. The teams were given scores by the judges based on how well they had met the criteria set and it was a closely fought contest. However, there had to be a winner: “Wheat are the Future” with their ‘Day in the Life’ documentary. You can watch the video below:

Or link http://youtu.be/wi2C08ivgJM

By Kirsty Jackson- a fourth year PhD student in the lab of Dr Jeremy Murray

The deadline for the 2014 Summer School is this Sunday (12/01/14). If you know any enthusiastic undergraduates (not in their first or final year) looking for some invaluable experience, send them to http://opportunities.jic.ac.uk/summerprogramme/