Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Saturday 18 June 2016

It's CRUNCH time!

When it comes to the BIG issues in food, it can be difficult to know where to start. Food miles, organic, animal welfare, GM, FairTrade, carbon footprints : it's such a complicated issue that the average shopper is often too overwhelmed to engage with it at all.

But these are conversations we need to be having! With the global population rising and rising, and the planet's resources becoming increasingly stretched, we can't afford to bury our heads in the sand. It's up to every one of us to start taking responsibility.

Enter - the Crunch Project! This initiative, created by the Wellcome Trust, is a year-long programme of events designed to get people talking about and interacting with their food, where it comes from and what impact it has on the environment. Last month each school in the country received a free kit packed with the tools to start dynamic class discussions. Everything from experiment guides, seeds, chemicals, test tubes, watering cans, world maps, compost, plant pots and more! Yet in the busy chaos of a school environment, these fantastic gift boxes are in danger of being left to languish at the back of the cupboard - unless someone can step in to explain how to use them. Hence, the Crunch Project has been recruiting ambassadors from all across the country; people with a passion about food sustainability who are willing to step up and make a difference. And, as if I didn't have enough on my plate already, I couldn't resist signing up too! Today I travelled to Manchester for my Ambassador Network Event.

Getting to grips with the issues (and headgear) when it comes to chicken

We started off with some networking bingo and a series of activities to introduce ourselves to each other. It was wonderful to meet so many other enthusiastic people with a passion for equipping people with the knowledge to make informed decisions about their diet. We journeyed back into the past through the Food Milestones timeline, before fast forwarding to the future and trying to envisage what would be available in the supermarket of 2050. Apparently, if current trends continue, chickens will be weighing 16 kg by then! One thing which struck me was how the proportion of our income that is spent on food has plummeted from 30 % in the 1950s to less than 15% today. Perhaps this has something to do with how little we seem to value food now, being instead all too ready to throw it away.

Talking about food certainly gives you an appetite though....but when lunch was announced there was a surprise twist. Our caterers for today were the Real Junk Food Project, an organisation which collects left over "waste" food from local businesses and turns them into nutritious meals. Some might find this a bit dubious but I have never seen such a colourful and healthy spread at a workshop. Vegetable dips, sumptuous salads, soup, curry - a far cry from the usual sad pile of sandwiches! And it tasted all the better for being saved from landfill. There was even pudding to follow: summer fruits, jellies and an assortment of cakes (apparently bread and cakes are among the most wasted foodstuffs). An absolute treat - hats off to the Real Junk Fooders!
Getting to grips with the project boxes

Suitably refuelled, it was now time to delve into the project boxes and discuss ways that we could use them to help schools bring food issues to life. The team from the Eden Project in Cornwall shared the principles which make their educational exhibits so successful and inspiring: activities should be simple, evoke emotion, tell a story, reveal a secret, be interactive and preferably give the audience something to take home with them. As an example, we investigated whether cans of fizzy drinks float at different levels depending on the amount of sugar they have in (try it! You may be surprised at the difference!) We were also able to handle objects that could come to play a big role in the food of the future - packets of dried, whole ready-to-eat insects being one of them. My favourite item though had to be the 'Lucky Iron Fish'. In many developing countries, iron deficiency is a real problem, and this isn't helped by the fact that most people use terracotta cooking utensils. The solution? Place your "Lucky Fish" - made out of iron - into the cooking pot and trace amounts of iron will leach off into the food. It sounds simple but it has already been an enormous success - each fish can provide a family with 90% of their iron needs for up to 5 years. Best of all, you know when the fish is worn out because the smile fades off!
For all your iron needs - take a lucky fish!
It certainly was a day for firing my enthusiasm...it's up to me now to carry this forward and see what I can do back in Sheffield to start some meaningful conversations, whether that is in schools, the University or with the wider public. I will let you know how I get on - stay tuned!

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