10 December 2015

10 December: A genetically modified Christmas roast

Genetic Technology

You may not be clued in, but genetically modified foods might be getting passed around the table this Christmas. Today’s advent calendar researcher is Professor Jesper Lassen, who specializes in the sociology of food and agriculture at SCIENCE’s Department of Food and Resource Economics. For more or less his entire career, he has addressed genetically modified foods and in particular, how people perceive genetic technology. According to Lassen, his research is exciting because the research is significant for society and always deals with current issues.

If asking Jesper Lassen if there is a connection between genetically modified foods and the food that we heartily indulge in at Christmas, there is no doubt:

“Yes, there is, but you can’t see it, and consumers don’t know. In this way, it remains a relatively well-kept secret.”

Continuing with an explanation, he says that if eating a conventionally raised pork roast, as most Danes do at Christmas, it is highly likely that the pig in question was raised with feed containing protein from genetically modified soybeans. This creates a regulatory dilemma:

“If a pig has eaten genetically modified soy, the pig isn’t genetically modified itself, but has consumed a genetically modified organism along the way. So indirectly, it is. This raises a regulatory issue because if one is fundamentally opposed to genetic modification, then they wouldn’t want to have modified organisms in their foods, in any way whatsoever.”

Interest in genetically modified foods

Jesper Lassen’s work typically addresses the junction between society and technology within the field of food and agriculture. His primary areas of interest are the various ways that we produce our foodstuffs, the technologies involved, and how different actors and societal groups perceive them. The question of genetically modified foods is one that Lassen has been following since the very beginning of his career.

“My first project dealt with understanding genetically modified foods, which were relatively new at the time. Since then, I have come with a social science angle to the subject, and increasingly, a sociological perspective, to understand society’s reception of technologies, such as genetically modified foods.”

According to Jesper Lassen, genetically modified foods are often a conflict filled area, as experts and industry measure things quite differently than consumers:  

“A large part of my field deals with understanding conflicts in the area of food and agriculture. To a great degree, it has to do with understanding the resistance of ordinary people to genetically modified foods. Back in the 90’s, there were experts who thought that genetically modified foods were a good idea. Many remain. So, tension remains between some of those with professional insight in the area who want it, and who say that it is not dangerous, and the public, who don’t want it for various reasons. These are the type of things that I research.”

In agreement with the public

With regards to Jesper Lassen’s own views on genetically modified foods, he is well in agreement with Danish consumers:

“I think that I am very much in line with a great many of the people that I have interviewed. I think that genetic modification can make sense if done to serve a good purpose, as in the case of medicine. There aren’t all that many people who are against genetic modification for the production of pharmaceuticals because they serve a sensible and societal purpose. However, in foodstuffs, I have a tough time seeing the advantage of using genetic technology as it is being used today. If it could be used to provide a benefit to society, for nitrogen-fixing plants for example, it would be quite ingenious, but that hasn’t yet been possible. It’s not that I fear genetic technology, I just think that one should have a good argument to do it, because it is a radical technology.”

Researcher by chance

Jesper Lassen has been a researcher at SCIENCE since 2000, at the former Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, and fell into the world of research somewhat coincidentally:

“It wasn’t that, as a graduate in 1989, I said to myself that I was going to become a researcher. It was somewhat by chance. I was asked if I’d like to be a research assistant on a project. During the year that followed, one project lead to the next and then suddenly, there was a PhD dissertation that I could do.  That’s how I ended up in research. And I’ve got to say, I feel great about it.”