A right royal rant that gives us some modified food for thought

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The Independent Culture
FOR THE final resort of sound judgement on a subject as emotive as genetically modified foods, I should not like to have to choose between Jack Cunningham and Prince Charles. Neither the Cabinet enforcer nor His Royal Highness provides much enlightenment. For HMG, Nuclear Jack, the man who tried to make us love nuclear power, explodes with rage telling us that genetically modified foods are nothing to get worked up about. His account of the effectiveness of present regulation had shoppers hurtling in droves for the "organic" sections in their supermarkets.

Along comes HRH, owner of an extensive organic farm at Highgrove. A product of centuries of genetic modification among the great houses of Europe, he has the time and means to pursue his Rousseau-esque idyll of man in harmony with nature, bolstered by a generous allowance from the Civil List. As much as Mr Cunningham's attempts to calm us produces outbreaks of high nervousness, the Prince's intervention is perturbing in its lopsided logic There is a lack of proportion in his approach, common to zealots who have marshalled every fact, hypothesis and definitely-maybe to their chosen cause. Not for him the weighing of benefits and drawbacks, risks and rewards; this was a right royal rant.

The princely sense of irony deserting him, he rails against the scientists for "emotional blackmail", having just sounded off with portentous vapidity about the "industrialisation of life itself" and an "Orwellian future". The least convincing strand within the Prince's argumentation is his profound and almost mystical suspicion of the future and of scientific advance per se. This is precious little use to people faced with decisions about how they should feed their families, or trying to assess the future benefits and disadvantages of modified crops to the Third World.

Still, the heir to the throne is more right than wrong about the inadequacies of the Government's response to genetic modification. The gap between public opinion and official policy has grown too wide to be bridged by the usual web of gossamer reassurances. In an immoderate outburst, Tony Blair railed against the hysteria of the media. I hope the Prime Minister is not going to make a habit of this. Governments attack the press when they are frustrated at being unable to get their message across. There is usually a reason for this failure, beyond the wickedness of the popular prints.

You do not need to share the Prince's rather histrionic view of the perils of all biotechnology, or to be uncommonly susceptible to media scaremongering, to be deeply concerned about GM foods and the Government's lackadaisical response to them. Labour has come perilously close to repeating the mistakes that the Tories made when they first told us that British beef was "safe" and then had to retreat from the word by insidious degrees, with the accompanying rise in public anxiety. Three months ago, Mr Blair was saying that he was "sure" than GM foods would provide "tastier, healthier and cheaper products". This was a bad error of judgement on his part - he staked his authority on something he could not possibly have known, research into the consequences of the technology being in its infancy.

Downing Street assumed that the Prime Minister's personal credibility would carry the argument. It did not. The public is rightly sceptical about attempts by the Government to allay its fears by mere repetition. We also sense that politicians tend to be less than vigilant when it comes to supporting industries such as biotechnology, in which the UK is a world leader and the industry a large potential source of revenue.

It is not paranoia that leads us to suspect that those who rule us are predisposed towards powerful multinationals; indeed, New Labour made something of a fetish of this mutual attraction. The major food companies have proved far more responsive to the scale of public anxiety than the Government. Leading supermarkets banished GM foods from their shelves - or rather, said they would do so where these could be tracked down. Uncertainty about how many GM products are already being sold undermines claims that the modified products were being stringently monitored and that the labelling introduced by Labour was a great step forward.

A desperately shifty Mr Cunningham then announced a voluntary code on the growing of crops and a couple of new commissions. Commissions, Shmommissions. A far clearer response is called for. So is a change in the way politicians treat scientists and science. Something is wrong when the Science Minister owns a GM patent, and even more so when the Government refuses to see that this is a problem. The talking up of one lot of "independent" experts, whose results happen to fit with the required message, at the expense of others whose conclusions do not, is an insult to our intelligence. There has to be a betterto regulate than this.

As things stand, the debate is being blown in the hot wind of fears fanned by interest groups. That has never been a wise way to make public policy. Direct action against GM seed sites has already led one company to quit. The coalition of opposition now embraces the heir to the throne, conservationists, the Women's Institute and the BMA. GM crops are becoming one of the hottest political potatoes of Mr Blair's first term. A certain poetic justice is manifest: you cannot go round elevating the People's Will when it suits you, only to decide that those same people are ignorant drones when they take a different view to the officially sanctioned one.

Perhaps the GM supporters are right, and British biotechnology will be left languishing while Monsanto's fields of indestructible soya and wheat conquer the earth's food markets and cure poverty in the process. I doubt it. It is a wild Utopian dream that famine can be solved by one scientific masterstroke, rather than by incremental improvements in the standards of government in poor countries, by thoughtful trade and land development that respects the needs of people, not just profits. Come to mention it, since when did multinationals give a damn? Let us root out the real arguments from the manipulation before we go any further.

God knows whether we are right to be worried about genetically modified foods - and She's not telling, at least not for a very long time to come. Let the food companies research and test to their heart's content and try to win us over to their products in time. But they should not be allowed to pass off risks on the rest of us on a wing and a prayer.

In the pressure cooker of the global economy, it takes a certain kind of bravery to err on the side of caution. But perhaps the monarch butterfly caterpillars who did not survive a dusting with GM pollen were trying to tell us something. It would be a shame if we could not hear them amid the din.