Professor Sir Charles Godfray: The Future of Food Giving Us Food for Thought

Insects are the subject of fear for many – but not for Professor Sir Charles Godfray. Dr. Godfray developed an interest in entomology at the age of 8 that has only grown over the decades. As the Hope Professor of Zoology at Jesus College in Oxford, Dr. Godfray has partaken in both pure and applied research. He is currently interested in food and food security and how they relate with economics and anthropology. While Dr. Godfray is able to “just do his thing” at his entomology lab, he also participates in other projects spanning different fields. One of his favorite work perks is “having the excuse to knock on the door of a social scientist or economist and engage with his or her way of thinking about things.”1

Ten years ago, Dr. Godfray was asked to lead a project: the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. This project raises questions about the science and policy issues that global governments must grapple with as population and food sources evolve. Dr. Godfray is proud of this well-resourced project and is excited about its interdisciplinary nature. Dr. Godfray is also involved with another large interdisciplinary funding group called the Wellcome Trust. The rising consumption of meat and dairy is the fastest changing component in the world’s food system and is especially stark in China. Producing meat requires more resources, such as water, land, and waste management. How will these environmental footprints change? What are some of the health implications of eating red meat? Dr. Godfray and his team will explore these outcomes in a socioeconomic context.

The work of Dr. Godfray and other food systems researchers will be paramount in directing how society handles transforming populations and economies. To be successful, it will be crucial to obtain scientific information while avoiding biases from lobbyists. Since people care so much about food, there will be groups that lobby very strongly for one particular view.

“One of the hardest things is that it’s such a complicated world with people quoting different evidence and there are relatively few systematic reviews or meta-analyses.” – Dr. Godfray

For example, groups in both the US and the UK are making enormous claims about what raising cattle can do to carbon sequestration (the storage of carbon dioxide) in soil, falsely stating that meat production is beneficial for the environment (read the counter-evidence here). Now, it has almost become a social movement, rather than an evidence-based field.

Though facts are not absolutely clear in many other cases, policy must be implemented by integrating information with personal value judgments and weighing the benefits that different stakeholders will get. Dr. Godfray has outlined a few important questions to deliberate on if we ultimately do decide that it makes sense to shift diets in one direction:

  • What is the best way to implement policy to shift diets (e.g., taxing certain foods)?
  • How should we educate the public and get society on board?
  • How can we manage other factors that influence how people make dietary decisions (e.g., the social aspects of food)?

It will certainly be interesting to see if/how these shifts come to fruition and how society will respond.

In addition to conducting beneficial research, outreach is an important part of Dr. Godfray’s agenda. He believes we should prioritize improving information access, especially in the area of food systems, since it is both complex and highly contested. Dr. Godfray emphasizes the need for more trusted sources of information. In his opinion, universities should be improving on institutionally providing information. Here, one may consider a consortium of universities getting together, looking at the evidence, being honest about the data, and presenting it to the public in an effective and efficient manner.

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So, what’s next? Dr. Godfray believes that the development of a global source of protein – artificial meat made from plants or cultured in lab – is up-and-coming. This is a hyped, developing area, where many people are trying to make profits with startups. Read this TIME article for more information about the details of artificial meat. Dr. Godfray expects that we will likely see exciting, genuinely disruptive food products in the next decade.

This technology raises its own questions about health and environmental implications, as well as interesting social science questions. How will this play out in the public sphere if people are given a burger purely out of plant material? Is this cool or is this “fake food” – or maybe somewhere in between?

Another popular food trend you may have heard about is sourcing protein from bugs. There are parts of the world, especially in Africa, where people eat bugs as part of their diet. In the future, Dr. Godfray predicts that insects will be increasingly used as proteins for animal feeds. Technology seems to be maturing in that area – check out Insects as Feed in West Africa’s site to learn more.

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In his free time, Dr. Godfray is a self-proclaimed fanatical natural historian and also enjoys music and opera. He enjoys spending time with his art-loving wife and states that it is refreshing to be married to someone that isn’t a scientist. Very recently, Dr. Godfray received the great honor of being knighted. When asked about how the experience was when he found out, he described it as “bizarre – very nice, but [he] always feel embarrassed talking to Americans about it… very, very funny feeling.”

Kind and humble, Dr. Godfray is a role model to the scientists of the world. He has provided his two most important pieces of advice for developing scientists:

 1) Never listen to advice given by old farts like me.

2) Do things that are intellectually fun. And be open-minded about what you think is fun!

 

Article researched and written by Hyun Jin, PhD Student in the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering

The “Elvis of E. Coli:” Dr. Carl Winter

Scientists rock. They do amazing things, like explore space, invent new technologies, and find cures for diseases. Dr. Carl Winter is another scientist who rocks, only he literally rocks out on his synthesizer, creating catchy tunes about food safety and science.

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Winter started making music about 20 years ago. He loved music, but couldn’t risk waking his sleeping children, so he purchased a synthesizer to work quietly with headphones on.

Winter always realized that science communication is an integral part of science. At the end of his PhD from UC Davis, he earned himself a AAAS fellowship and became a science writer for the Richmond-Times Dispatch Newspaper. He was warned that leaving academia for media could discredit him, but instead, the novel experience bolstered his skills and helped him to land an academic job. (He also highly recommends TA-ing as a great experience for preparing for academia).

“Academia is a privilege,” Winter states. He loves the freedom that comes with academia and the people that make his work life so enjoyable. He boasts about the UC Davis Food Science Department and is incredibly proud and grateful to be working with and near such creative and brilliant scientists. He has been in Davis since graduate school and has loved it too much to leave.

Academia has allowed Winter to transform himself 4 or 5 times, following the research paths he finds most promising and interesting from food contaminants to mycotoxins to, most recently, pesticides. There is an interesting dichotomy between the allowable levels of pesticides and the regulations in place. It stems from a misinterpretation of how safety standards relate to effective pesticide standards. Winter grows frustrated at misleading headlines that scare consumers about mythical dangers like the “dirty dozen,” and that incite “grocery cart shaming” for those not buying organic. “If you want to be concerned about something, worry about the workers,” says Winter. The workers on the fields are the only people exposed to levels of pesticides at levels high enough for concern. Ordinary consumers should shop comfortably, and make sure to purchase fruits and vegetables regardless of whether or not there is “organic” labeling.

Winters’ work in food safety has often been topical. In the early 1990s, he testified before Congress, explaining facets of the Delaney report. His sharply honed science communication skills allowed him to translate the technicalities of toxicology to Congress, allowing them to vote on a measure in which they were not fully educated.

Although he hasn’t testified before Congress recently, Winter is still an active voice and serves as the Director of the FoodSafe Program at UC Davis and is a board member for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Literacy. He has a level-headed view of how science fits into society, and realizes that values are more important than science. If people believe organic-local-nonGMO food is safer for their family, they will chose safety over science, even if it’s wrong. After a particularly frustrating consumer report, Winter released an original song, Political Hay, as a cathartic exercise. He actively blogs in efforts to debunk food safety myths.

Science communication has never been a separate endeavor from academia for him. When he started making music, it became part of his research. His funny music parodies have ruffled some feathers over the years. “There is always a fear of losing your credibility in academia. There is an expectation of seriousness that forces many to lose their personalities.” Allowing his personality to shine through his musical endeavors has helped to bolster Winter’s career. He even earned a USDA grant to incorporate music into STEM education.

As a professor at UCD, Dr. Winter leads a science communication course and even published a first-person paper on his anecdotal experience with the course. He hopes to expand the course to train new generations of scientists to communicate with the public. He has led many media trainings as well. (His course is in session– UCD grad students, feel free to enroll in the future!)

Dr. Winter has evolved throughout his career and dabbled in many different areas of food safety research and science communication. He knows that exploring interesting paths and getting to know yourself is critical to success and satisfaction in ones’ career. He keeps this in mind as he mentors his own students. For those who aren’t one of Dr. Winter’s trainees, he advises to blog. Develop a portfolio. And get to know yourself.

Dr. Winter is still evolving as a scientist, communicator, teacher, and musician. Check out his research here, his course here, and his music here!