Platter of cheese and crackers

This article originally appeared in The Conversation and describes work featured in a paper entitled “Not just about “the science”: science education and attitudes to genetically modified foods among women in Australia” that was recently published online by New Genetics and Society We also prepared a short You Tube video summary.

Perceptions of genetically modified food are informed by more than just science

Heather Bray, University of Adelaide and Rachel A. Ankeny, University of Adelaide

When people don’t seem to use science to make decisions, it is tempting to assume that it’s because they don’t understand the underlying science. In response, scientists and science communicators often just try harder to explain the science in the hope that eventually the facts will persuade people to change their behaviours or beliefs. This is known as “the deficit model” of science communication.

While there have been many attempts in science communication to move away from the deficit model, it continues to persist, partly because we still don’t really understand the different ways in which people interact with science in their everyday lives.

Even the idea that there is a single body of knowledge known as “science” is problematic: various sciences have different ways of weighing up evidence or looking at things such as risk.

Another issue is that people have multiple roles that affect the ways they make decisions: citizen, consumer, scientist, and carer, to name a few. And finally, the role of science in our “post-truth” world is more contentious than ever.

Perceptions of harm versus safety

Our recent qualitative research on women’s attitudes to genetically modified (GM) food attempts to unpack a few of these issues. We wondered how women involved in the production of GM crops made their food choices, whether they used “science” when they chose food for themselves and their families, and whether their decision-making was different from that of women with less science education.

We looked specifically at women because previous research had shown them to be generally more negative about GM foods because they tend to have less education in science, and because they often have caring roles that tend to make them more concerned with food risks. Women are also more involved, generally speaking, with food provisioning.

Among our participants was a group of women with health science backgrounds, as well as plant scientists and women with lower levels of science education.

It was interesting that for all of the women in our study, they preferred food that was “natural” (as in unprocessed), locally produced, healthy and nutritious, and free from additives.

Many people value ‘natural’ foods, although what qualifies as ‘natural’ varies from person to person.
Ruth Hartnup/Flickr, CC BY

A key difference between them was that the plant scientists did not see food made using GM techniques to be in conflict with any of these categories, and were not worried about eating GM food.

But almost all of the other women in the study – even the highly science-literate women who worked in health science – saw GM food as being in conflict with these core food values.

All of the women with science backgrounds used evidence to support their stance. The plant scientists said that lack of evidence of harm meant that GM food was safe for them to eat. However, the women in health sciences said that a lack of evidence of safety made them cautious.

Note that these are two very different perceptions of risk, which we think may be a result of the women’s different disciplinary backgrounds. For women without science backgrounds, GM food presented unknown risks, and as such was to be avoided.

It is important to remember that all of the women in our study had multiple roles that also influenced their food choices. Most were carers of others who were factored into their food choices: children, elderly parents, and partners. Price, familiarity of brands, and allergies and other dietary needs were all important.

Canola is one of the crops that can involve genetic modification.
Paul/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Multiple dimensions

As researchers keen to foster engagement around the role of science and technology in food production, we feel that this research holds several lessons for science communication.

First, it is important to remember that everyday decisions that involve science don’t occur in a vacuum, and that the multiple roles each of us plays also influence our choices.

Second, there is not one singular body of knowledge called “science” with which people engage. Helping people to navigate different disciplinary approaches to risk is particularly important.

Third, one of the consequences of the deficit model has been to limit conversations about GM foods to how they are made, and how risk is assessed by regulators, rather than discussion of broader issues.

This simplistic framing was particularly frustrating for the women in our study with science backgrounds. They wanted a much more sophisticated conversation about GM food than is currently happening in the public domain.

But most importantly, our work points to shared food values between those who eat, and those who do not eat, GM foods. Shared values are an important foundation for engagement, and we believe that our work can contribute to the development of better engagement strategies across different sciences and sectors of the public.

The Conversation

Heather Bray, Senior Research Associate, University of Adelaide and Rachel A. Ankeny, Professor of History, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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For the November Food Values Research Group Seminar, we are pleased to present:

Agricultural Trade, Policy Reforms, and Global Food Security

Professor Kym Anderson, University of Adelaide and Australian National University

Photograph of Professor Kym Anderson, University of AdelaideIf global food production is to keep up with the growth in food demand, the productivity of resources employed in agriculture needs to increase. That can happen by investing more in agricultural research, but that is expensive and involves decades to yield results. There is a far more-immediate and lower-cost way to enhance global food security sustainably, namely, by reforming policies that are distorting food prices and trade. Open markets maximize the benefit that international trade can offer to boost global food security and ensure the world’s agricultural resources are used sustainably. Declining costs of trading internationally reinforce that message. So does climate change: if global warming and extreme weather events are to become more damaging to food production, then all the more reason to be open to international food markets and allow trade to buffer seasonal fluctuations in domestic production. The more countries that do so, the less volatile will be international food prices. True, there is always a risk that some groups may lose from trade opening if uncompensated, but there are ever-more ways to fairly compensate such groups, and that can be an integral part of the policy reform package.

Professor Kym Anderson is the George Gollin Professor of Economics at the University of Adelaide in Australia, where he has been affiliated since 1984. Previously he was a Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (1977-83), and in 2012 he rejoined ANU part-time as a Professor of Economics in its Crawford School of Public Policy. He was on extended leave at the Economic Research division of the GATT (now WTO) Secretariat in Geneva during 1990-92 and at the World Bank’s Research Group in Washington DC as Lead Economist (Trade Policy) during 2004-07. He is a Fellow of the AAEA, AARES, AAWE, ASSA, APPS and CEPR. He is also Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Washington DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute. He has published around 400 articles and 40 books, including The Political Economy of Agricultural Protection (with Yujiro Hayami, 1986), Disarray in World Food Markets (with Rod Tyers, 1992), The World’s Wine Markets: Globalization at Work (2004), Agricultural Trade Reform and the Doha Development Agenda (with Will Martin, 2006) and, during 2008-10, a set of 4 regional and 3 global books on Distortions to Agricultural Incentives. His publications have received a number of awards from professional associations, including the Australian, European and American Agricultural and Applied Economics associations. His latest book, due out in January, is Agricultural Trade, Policy Reforms, and Global Food Security (January 2017). In 2014 he was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Economics degree by the University of Adelaide and in 2015 he became a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).

When: Wednesday, 9th of November, 1-2 PM

Where: Ira Raymond Room, Barr Smith Library, North Terrace Campus, University of Adelaide (click here for campus map)

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Ahead of a new documentary series on SBS about meat, Rachel and I were invited to write a piece for The Conversation, which is reproduced here (without the embedded videos).


It’s complicated: Australia’s relationship with eating meat

Heather Bray, University of Adelaide and Rachel A. Ankeny, University of Adelaide

Australia has a long-standing history as a country that loves its meat. Meat production and processing in Australia occupies over half of the land mass, makes an important contribution to the Australian economy and employs over 53,000 people.

Meat also has deep cultural and social significance, as seen through Meat and Livestock Australia’s most recent campaigns.

Debates around eating meat are not new. But a new SBS documentary starting tonight, For the Love of Meat, examining where Australia’s beef, chicken and pork comes from, will spark more questions about if and how we should eat meat.

Ethical, or just a label?

In most cultures, including Australia, omnivory (eating a combination of meat and other foods) is the norm. Although it’s clear our preferences for different types of meat have changed over time, we are still one of the biggest meat-consuming countries in the world. But some recent statistics suggest Australians are choosing to eat less meat, particularly red meat.

One factor linked to this decline is increased concern about farm animal welfare. Our research group is interested in how consumers and producers think about farm animal welfare and how it relates to broader ideas of ethical food production.

Research tells us that people care about farm animal welfare, and a number of consumers are willing to pay more for meat that is produced in a “more humane” way. But much of this research assumes that there is a clear and shared understanding of what “good” animal welfare is.

We know a lot about how animal production scientists think about animal welfare: health, pain relief and how production animals are affected by interactions with people and their environment.

We know less about how livestock producers think about animal welfare: they generally care about the welfare of their animals because welfare is closely linked to productivity and their livelihoods, in addition to wanting to treat their animals well.

However for most consumers, price and taste are key drivers for purchases. Our ongoing research suggests consumers think about animal welfare in a much broader way than scientists and producers.

For the general public, high animal welfare standards are closely linked to ideas of food quality – taste, nutritional value and food safety. Recent research by others showed that the “humane” label alone was enough for people to rate one sample of meat as “tastier” than another, when in fact the two had been produced in exactly the same way.

For those who wish to purchase and consume meat and other animal products produced in ways that align with their values, current labelling and regulations present a minefield. “Humane” and “ethical” are very broad terms that can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, and are not explicitly regulated; various private certification regimes exist but rely on diverse measures.

Standards were recently adopted for “free-range” eggs, but several groups argue that this does not go far enough and thus does not reflect what the community expects free-range to be.

Other terms in widespread use which potentially confuse consumers include sow stall free (which refers to the housing for pregnant sows before they have piglets, not the housing system for piglets and sows together), grass-fed, grain-fed, green, and sustainable, to name just a few.

Many types of ‘ethical’ meat choices

Sustainability and the impact of meat production on the environment have also become key reasons to reduce meat consumption. We have met people who call themselves “kangatarians”; eating kangaroo meat because they feel that its consumption has less negative impact on the environment. Others only consume wild-caught meat, mainly from feral species such as deer and goat.

We have also had other participants in our research who view hunting for their own meat as “ethical” consumption in order to have direct connection with the source of their meat and to know that it has been killed “humanely”.

Even when an animal has a good life, meat-eaters obviously must accept the idea of animal death in order for them to eat meat. For some, the dissonance this creates leads them to reduce or cease eating meat. Omnivores use a number of strategies to reduce this discomfort. For some, the idea of only consuming meat from an animal that, in their view, had a good life and a good death may also be a way of reducing their own discomfort.

We need more open discussion

We encourage more open conversations about meat production and consumption, and hope that the new documentary can contribute to this.

But it is also important to recognise that most conventional producers argue that they already produce safe, nutritious and affordable meat and other animal products in humane and sustainable ways.

We need more reflection and discussion about our shared values surrounding animal consumption and production practices, and to resist simple, and potentially elitist, solutions that ignore the complexities of this debate.

For the Love of Meat begins Thursday October 20 on SBS.

The Conversation

Heather Bray, Senior Research Associate, University of Adelaide and Rachel A. Ankeny, Professor of History, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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For the October Food Values Research Group Seminar, we are pleased to present: What if Ennis and Jack had fished? Brokeback Mountain revisited for commensality, companionship and conviviality. Professor John Coveney, Flinders University The book and movie, Brokeback Mountain, provides readers and viewers with the development of a love story between two men, Ennis del […]

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The increasing prominence of food politics and visibility of formerly ‘marginal’ food practices provided a focal point for the diversity of issues, from ethical consumption and alternative food networks to food culture in the digital age, addressed by speakers at the ‘Food Politics: From the Margins to the Mainstream’ conference in Hobart on 30 June […]

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For the September Food Values Research Group Seminar, we are pleased to present: Creative City Madness: Food Trucks and Cultures of Entrepreneurialism Dr. Jean Duruz, University of South Australia This presentation reflects on the recent introduction of “boutique” food trucks to Adelaide’s streets as a state-sponsored strategy for creating “a more vibrant public realm”. To […]

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On Tuesday the 30th of August, the ABC’s science program Catalyst ran a piece on gene editing, with a particular focus on one of the newest tools CRISPR-Cas9. Gene editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9, often just referred to as CRISPR, allow scientists to cut the DNA within an organism’s genome in a specific place, using […]

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Speaking to delegates from industry, researchers, and investors at the Ag & Foodtech Symposium in Brisbane, Professor Rachel Ankeny explained that the future of genetic modification must include dialogue and debate with the public. Drawing upon the Food Values Research Group’s extensive research, Rachel explained that people’s concerns about GM are not just (or mainly) about […]

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For the August Food Values Research Group Seminar Series, we are pleased to present: An Avignon Table, 1772-73 Professor Emeritus Barbara Santich The archives Galéan de Gadagne, held in the Vaucluse departmental archives, include a document of great interest to food historians: the accounts of the household of Gaspard II de Fortia de Montréal for […]

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Superfoods are everywhere these days. Once found only in niche health food shops, displays of “exotic” superfoods like açai from the Brazilian Amazon and maca from the Peruvian Andes now appear in supermarket chains, chemists, and convenience stores. One can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without coming across a list of the top superfoods […]

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