View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news


Is that Fish in your Tomato? My book has been published!

Is that Fish in your Tomato? Rebecca Nesbit's book on genetically-modified foodsIt’s been an exciting month for me, starting with the release of my first popular science book. Is that Fish in your Tomato? explores the fact and fiction of GM foods, and is available in print or as an ebook. If you’re interested, please do head to Amazon or order it in your local bookshop.

It was fascinating to write, and I learnt a huge amount about our food system as a whole. It also gave me a glimpse into personal stories and motivations. The stories in there range from plant scientists modifying BB guns to fire DNA into onions, to live animals being used in early (failed) attempts at skin grafts.

It was made possible through the support of family and friends, and the many people who I interviewed whilst writing it. That support continues, so thank you to everyone who reads the book. You can see reviews on my website, and if you fancy adding a review to Amazon that would be much appreciated.

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Flavr Savr: that isn’t fish in your tomato

The first GM food to reach the market was the Flavr Savr tomato, the brain child of Calgene, a small company in Davis, California. The tomatoes had been genetically-modified for a longer shelf-life, and their launch was announced in 1994.

The gene for an enzyme that breaks down pectin was flipped in Flavr Savr. The enzyme causes the fruit to soften and rot, so the flipped gene meant Flavr Savr tomatoes lasted longer than their counterparts. Continue reading

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What agricultural regulation can learn from pharma

Medicine has moved from old wives’ tales to a discipline founded on evidence, but agriculture and conservation haven’t completely caught up. A new paper by Defra’s chief scientific advisor and a collaborator argues that insights from pharmaceutical science can inform pesticide regulation and monitoring.

During the early stages of discovery and testing, pharmaceuticals and pesticides are regulated in a similar way. However, this changes in the later stages of testing and after approval, when pesticide monitoring lags far behind. Continue reading

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July news round-up

New book launched (It’s mine…)

Exciting news! My first popular science book ‘Is that Fish in your Tomato?‘ was released on 6 July 2017, exploring the fact and fiction of GM foods. Thank you in advance to all of my readers.

Australia approves GM field trial

The wheat and barley tested has been genetically modified for yield enhancement and tolerance to abiotic stresses.

Reviewing the US GMO regulations

In January 2017 proposals were made for change, and comments since have applauded the move yet raised concerns such as a failure to consult with international markets.

In defence of meat production

An Edinburgh University professor argues that meat production is likely to continue to play an important role in feeding the world. Given that many places are ideal for growing grass rather than crops, and that animals often eat industry byproducts. He suggests animal protein might make up an optimum of about 12% of our diets, though no doubt this varies by region.

New research released on the effect of neonicotinoids on bees

A new paper has presents complex data on the impact of neonic pesticides on three species of bee. The debate, however, doesn’t seem to have moved forward. Reaction from the people who already believed that neonics were bad: ‘this confirms we were right’. Reaction from industry: ‘this proves nothing’.


Farming post-Brexit: the fate of agri-environment schemes

With the plans for a post-EU Britain still unclear, farmers and conservationists are in the dark about how their income will be affected by the loss of EU subsidies. There has been some welcome news from the Chancellor: funding is guaranteed for all agri-environment schemes drawn up until the UK leaves the EU.

For three decades EU agri-environment schemes have been compensating farmers for loss of income associated with measures that aim to benefit the environment or biodiversity. It’s not clear whether spending on these will be maintained by the UK government, or what new schemes would look like if there are any.  Continue reading


Fun facts, and what they remind us

Alcoholic beverages make up a greater proportion of the UK food supply than fruit does.

We talk a lot about cutting down on food waste, but what about things we consume that we don’t really need? Growing sugar cane for fizzy drinks has all the environmental impacts of farming foods of nutritional importance, yet simply makes people less healthy. Maybe it’s time we all considered a flexitarian approach to drinks as well as animal products. I’m not planning to completely give up alcohol, though I will definitely keep it below my fruit consumption and remember it is a luxury. Adding the effect of packaging into the equation makes the impact of many drinks even higher, so I personally have a near total ban on drinks in cans.

Scientists in Taiwan are introducing genes from wild relatives into domestic tomato.

They’re doing this through conventional breeding, which is slower than genetic engineering but more acceptable to consumers. Interesting that using wild relatives in breeding programmes is very palatable to most people, yet using genetic engineering to introduce these genes from another species is often not.

The wild relatives used by the Taiwanese scientists are from the Galapagos – a reminder of what we are set to lose if such unique ecosystems are destroyed. Save the Galapagos!

Genetically modified maize crop USA agriculture

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Can multi-national businesses make farming more sustainable?

To what extent are multi-national businesses trying to increase their sustainability? And how much power do they have to be successful? Based on a recent study, the answer to the first question seems to be ‘more than I thought’ while the second question has the opposite answer.

Opponents of genetically-modified foods often cite corporate control of the food system as a reason for their rejection. They are generally referring to Monsanto, but when researching for my book I discovered a far more complex picture. Continue reading


We’re all biased – now we need to admit it

This week is Cereals – a huge arable farming event. Sadly I’m watching from the sidelines of Twitter, but at least things have quickly got interesting.

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Now we have a name for people like me: flexitarian

Since I wrote about the arguments for being an ethical omnivore, I’ve discovered that someone has made a word for what I was trying to say: flexitarian. Flexitarians commit to reducing their meat consumption without cutting it out completely.

It seems to be popular – 2017 YouGov research found that 44% of people in Britain were willing or already committed to cutting down on or cutting out meat eating. Continue reading