Roberta and her family

GMOs, food sustainability & the Italian food nerd

Meet the food nerd with a passion for GMOs and food sustainability.

Roberta Fabrizi is a self-described ‘food nerd’ from Italy, who researches Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), social media and sustainability.

Her interest in food – where food comes from, what people think about it, the justices and injustices surrounding it – can be traced back to her childhood. Brought up on the family farm outside a small town in Italy, Roberta was raised around food production.

At school she studied social sciences, drama and science communication. Roberta finally took her ‘foodie’ turn during her undergraduate degree and Masters, when she studied food science and technology.

These varied studies and experiences made Roberta the perfect candidate to join the Grantham Centre on a research project that blends social science and food science. Roberta’s current project is highly controversial to many – as it looks at Genetically Modification (GM), social media and Brexit. In the interview below she is candid about the frustrations involved in studying such controversial topics.

We interviewed Roberta just as she was about to go to Italy for a food festival in her home town. You can see in the picture above that Roberta really gets stuck in during the festival! She is pictured in the centre with her sister Valentina and aunt Mariella, volunteering in the festival kitchen. Mariella is holding a plate of “maccheroncini della trebbiatura” – a traditional pasta dish made during wheat harvesting.

Interview: GMOs, food sustainability and jam-jars

Roberta sitting outside the Grantham Centre where she studies GMOs and food sustainability
Roberta is studying for her PhD at the Grantham Centre

Your PhD centres on on some controversial topics, what’s that like? 

People always ask about GM – even though my work also covers Brexit – still it’s GM they want to know about. This shows you how contentious GM is!

There is so much misinformation about GM technology. Looking at the GM controversy in the media can be incredibly frustrating, but that frustration motivates me to do more outreach about GM.

In the first place, people don’t know how much we already use GM. Unless you’re wearing organic cotton your cotton clothes are probably made using GM. 90% of cotton worldwide is GM. Secondly, GM can mean we don’t need to use animal matter. For example, insulin is made with GM yeast – it used to be from the pancreas of animals. Most veggie cheese is produced with GM rennet, in fact GM is often used to make vegan and veggie foods. People don’t tend to know these things.

Thirdly, study after study shows that current GM crops are safe to eat. So I make it a point to say I am 100% sure that GM is safe. Because that is what scientific consensus means. It’s as if I had a thousand scientists standing behind me, backing me up. That’s why it bothers me when scientists won’t openly defend GM. Sometimes as scientists we can be concerned with reputations or our work. As a result we don’t think of how to get information “out there”, it’s not seen as a priority.

Of course mistrust of GM is not just a matter of poor science communication. There is more to the GM controversy than facts. It’s also about societal values, ethics and corporate power – people don’t trust big corporations, and – sadly – that mistrust can be justified.

If you could have the general public know one thing about GMOs and food sustainability what would it be?

yes, we have some bananas
Banana growers in Uganda should be able to use GM in their fight against banana extinction

As soon as I mention my work on GMOs people immediately ask “so what is your position on GM? Are you pro or anti?”. My answer is always, “It’s complicated!”

It is not yes or no.

There is not one environmental problem, nor one solution. And this is also true for GM. Different problems around food sustainability in different countries need to be handled in varied ways. GM should be available where it can help.

For example, Europe doesn’t need GMO pest resistant aubergines, because they are not a staple crop and conventional aubergines do just fine. However, in India farmers have protested because they want to be able to grow pest resistant GM aubergines. This is because neighbouring countries that plant them have shown higher yields and less reliance on pesticides.

Likewise, in Uganda Ugandan scientists are using GM and working with banana growers to respond to the fact that bananas may go extinct soon (extinction exacerbated by Western countries forcing places to only grow one type of banana!). It’s a good thing that Uganda can make its own solution. Clearly they should have the option to use GM if it works for them. It’s true that big companies can be patronising about developing countries, but when the need comes from inside the country, GM can be a good thing.

Why do you think people react so strongly to GM food?

Firstly, I often think the GM controversy is similar to the one around vaccines. It’s a topic where people fail to put risks into perspective. What the media might describe as a ‘tangible risk’ might have incredibly low chances of happening – and that’s why we need good science communication on this subject.

Secondly, GM stands for a lot of things. For example, for many people it is associated with corporate power. Big companies can afford to make big mistakes. It would be good if they could own up to their mistakes and build trust. But instead, when some companies break the rules, it doesn’t really affect them. Because even if they are fined, it doesn’t matter, they can afford it. That type of behaviour makes trust very hard.

Another key point is that people react emotionally to GM. A study carried out recently indicates that emotional negative language can have a greater impact than facts on public perception of GM. Rational reasoning is strongly intertwined with societal values and personal experiences – which have emotive connotations. Rational reasoning is intertwined with our feelings, this is part of being human, and it plays a role in the perception of new technology like GM. Rather than judge people for being ‘irrational’ we need to understand them better – and communicate as clearly as possible.

Roberta having fun on a hay bale
You can take the girl out of the farm, but you cant take the farm out of the girl

You’re passionate about science communication. What are the most pressing concerns for science communicators?

How can we stay informed in this time of fake news? Greenwashing is a real thing! It should be easier to find out how to do the right thing. We need people to advocate for sound science and we need more endorsement in academia for scientists who do science communication.

Scientists who become famous are often criticised for showboating. But people like Robert Winston or Brian Cox get the scientific message out there.

Then again, there are scientists who spend a lot of time telling people off about the things they are doing wrong, and that can be very demoralising.

Do you think scientists should be doing more?

Jeremy Grantham asks for scientists to go out and get arrested, to stand up for what they believe in. They should, we all should. But, as Grantham says, it should especially be senior scientists. Because they are more established and less likely to damage their careers.

Without expert advice, activism and advocacy we can end up with dangerous misinformation. For example, there are bloggers and influencers who advocate ‘zero waste’ or ‘plastic free’ lifestyles. But I learned from our “plastic people” that those lifestyles might actually be less sustainable.

Because it might be that in attempt to buy things without packaging, people drive about around from shop to shop. This can end up making a bigger environmental impact than getting everything in one shop, even with packaging.

Or maybe we don’t reuse our tote bag or metal straw enough times to counteract the added environmental cost of making them. And the worst of it is that the information to refute these blogs or influencers may exist, but it is hidden away in journals that are often costly to access. And even if people do have access, they may not be able to understand it.

You study how UK media and social media portray GM. You also come from Italy, a country associated with a strong culture around food. Has all this given you insight into UK food?

In Italy I do not have to think hard to make the ‘sustainable’ choice, such as eating seasonally or reducing my food miles. My parents grow a reasonable amount of food and produce grains on 13 hectares of land. It doesn’t get more sustainable than picking tomatoes from the vine a hundred feet away from the dinner table!

But living on a farm and producing your own food is a privilege. In the UK I have to plan to eat sustainably. For example, to get ethically and locally sourced meat -when I do eat it- I should maybe go to the butchers but the supermarket is more convenient. PhD life can get hectic and sometimes it’s hard to be motivated to make the sustainable choice. It requires effort, whereas back home it was 100% effortless. This puts things into perspective when I hear about people making “questionable” food choices, such as only eating junk food.

It is important to realise that there are many factors that can deter people from eating the ‘right’ foods. For example, if you live in a food desert where the nearest cheapest available food is unhealthy, it’s hard to make the ‘good’ choice.

Further, healthy food requires preparation time and you may not have that time. You may have ten other things you have to juggle alongside getting food. Or you may not be physically able to do preparation.

Food culture is incredibly complex. Because of this I am passionate about the idea that rules and regulations, government interventions and corporate policy should make it easier to make the right choice.

Roberta winning a prize for her poster on GMOs and food sustainability
Roberta winning a prize for her research presentation

What does your family think about your food expertise?

One aspect of coming from a farm and also having a food science degree – or what I like to call “being a food nerd” – is that I get to rediscover practices that have always occurred in my ancestors’ kitchens. For instance, my mother doesn’t know why she tips the jam jars upside down after filling them with hot jam. I have learnt that this sterilises the top of the jar.

Of course, my mother doesn’t always appreciate me telling her off when I think she’s doing something wrong! She says ‘what do you know, we’ve been doing it this way for generations’. Although I have a degree, it can still be hard to get myself heard! And honestly, often she’s the one teaching me.

Our playful bickering has helped me understand the value of listening. It has made me better at talking to farmers and communicating my science to the public. I’m used to interacting with people who, although they respect me and my knowledge, have a different point of view and more ‘hands on’ experience.

Does working at the Grantham Centre make it harder or easier to deal with the environmental crisis?

In some ways it’s harder. Because I work in this bubble where most people are very concerned about the environment. And I try to make ethical choices.

So I don’t drive, though I do fly a lot – to get home to Italy – but I’ve never done a long distance flight. I try to do my bit for food sustainability, so eat seasonal food that is locally sourced (within reason) – no Peruvian asparagus for me.

But making the right choices can be exhausting. I worry about things far more than the average person might because of the Grantham bubble. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it adds stress to my daily life!

Working at the Grantham Centre also makes me more aware of how people can get things wrong, even when they try to do the right thing. For instance, the Italian government swapped all plastic bags in the fresh produce isles to biodegradable ones. But I found out from Tony Ryan (Grantham Director) that biodegradable products can be far worse for the environment because of the amount of resources required for production and disposal.

And if I know this – why doesn’t the Italian government?


Keep up to date with GMOs and food sustainability by following Roberta on Twitter here.

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Written by Claire Moran