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So really, what does ‘natural’ actually mean?

What does it really mean to be 'natural'? (c) James Hutton Institute
"Our countryside and the food we eat are the results of centuries of agriculture – so what is the true meaning of being ‘natural’?

We all think we have some idea of what ‘natural’ is, whether it’s the green meadows we pass by on the train or the fresh and colourful vegetables we pick out in the market. However, our countryside and the food we eat are the results of centuries of agriculture – so what do we really mean by ‘natural’? These and other related questions were addressed by a Q&A session with Sense About Science’s Plant Science Panel, featuring Professor Robbie Waugh of the James Hutton Institute’s Cell and Molecular Sciences group.

With the support of BBSRC, Nature Plants, leading research institutes including the James Hutton Institute and learned societies, the Plant Science Panel has already tackled topics from genome editing to neonicotinoid pesticides. As debates over ways to improve our crops wrangle on, Sense About Science brought together Mike Ambrose (John Innes Centre), Professor Ottoline Leyser (Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge), Dr Sarah O’Connor (John Innes Centre) and Dr Helen Roy (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) in addition to Professor Waugh, to shed some light into what ‘natural’ actually means.

The full list of questions and answers can be accessed from the Sense About Science Q&A page. Professor Waugh fielded questions such as "in a society where sustainability and food security is becoming increasingly acknowledged as the driving factor, how does the panel feel about 'organic' produce, and how it is still commonly perceived by consumers as being better for both people and the environment?" and "are less intensively-bred crops, like ancient grains and heritage varieties, better or worse at resisting diseases?"

The Plant Science Panel has answered these and over 350 more questions over the last two years. From its modest beginning of two scientists answering questions on genetic modification, it has grown to more than 60 scientists from leading institutes, universities and learned societies across the UK including the James Hutton Institute. Panellists are often asked to clarify issues covered in the news, which helps the plant science community respond when news coverage is inaccurate.

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Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo, Media Manager, Tel: +44 (0)1224 395089 (direct line), +44 (0)344 928 5428 (switchboard) or +44 (0)7791 193918 (mobile).


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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.