Interview – Rebecca Nesbit

Rebecca Nesbit studied butterfly migration for her PhD, then worked for a start-up company training honeybees to detect explosives. She now works in science communication and her projects have ranged from a citizen science flying ant survey to visiting universities around the world with Nobel Laureates. Her first novel was published in 2014, and her first popular science book Is that Fish in your Tomato? was published in July 2017.


Why science?


Because truth can be counterintuitive. If we agreed ‘facts’ simply based on what feels right, we would often be mistaken, so we need evidence to help us out. Take weed control. Intuitively, you would think that ploughing is an environmentally friendly way to control weeds because it is ‘natural’, yet it releases greenhouse gasses from the soil. The gap between what we feel and what science tells us is even wider when it comes to being human. I feel as if I have rational control over everything I do, but this is an alluring story my brain tells itself. Our beliefs and actions are manipulated by a multitude of factors which our conscious mind doesn’t even register. Science can tell us when what seems logical is untrue.


Why write about GM?


As an environmentally conscious teenager in the 1990s, I was told about the dangers of GM crops in no uncertain terms. However, these strong views were hard to maintain when I studied for my PhD at an agricultural research institute. Here I met researchers working to develop GM crops with environmental goals in mind, and I quickly realised that the full story was more nuanced than the media usually presents. Whilst some of the criticisms of GM crops are valid, they apply to many aspects of our current food system, and GM crops have often become a scapegoat. Amidst the ongoing scaremongering, there seemed to be room for someone to take a look at all the evidence without pushing their agenda. I decided that person should be me. 


What’s next?

I’ve just finished a novel inspired by a story I read in New Scientist, exploring themes of personal responsibility, criminal justice and family loyalty. Now for the editing…


In terms of non-fiction, my current interest is the Noah’s Ark problem. How do we choose the best way to spend our limited conservation resources? I’m having fun debating the relative merits of honeybees and hairworms. 


What’s exciting you at the moment?


Like so many people, I’m particularly excited by genome editing techniques such as CRISPR. The techniques faster and cheaper than genetic engineering, so could potentially open up possibilities for smaller agricultural companies and publically-funded researchers. Perhaps most fascinating will be to see how crops developed through genome editing are regulated and accepted. Countries such as the USA have declared that genome edited crops aren’t subject to the same extensive regulations as GMOs, whilst the organic industry has deemed them incompatible with organic agriculture. As for the way they will be received by the EU and most consumers, we shall see.


I’m also excited by promoting my book, and very much enjoy speaking at events.

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