There are any number of reasons why someone such as His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales should be passionately opposed to genetically modified crops. For a start, his own position – and future one as head of state – is based entirely on genetic purity (formerly known as "royal blood").
One characteristic he might have inherited from his grandfather, King George VI, is a propensity for sudden, almost incoherent, rage. This week, that excellent journalist Jeff Randall gently suggested to the heir to the throne that the future of farming might be with industrial-scale production, rather than the sort of methods he practises. "What?" exploded the Prince. "All run by gigantic corporations? That would be the absolute destruction of everything!" Randall went on to report that "bouncing in his chair", the Prince set out a nightmarish vision in which millions of small farmers "are driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness".
The Prince, predictably, continued his rant by attacking GM technology – although Randall had never raised it – which he said was: "Guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time. Snakes, some of them thousands of miles long, will roam the countryside." Well, I made that last sentence up, but you get the gist: the world as we know it will come to an end if wicked big business is allowed to introduce GM crops on an industrial scale. The main empirical problem for this argument is that GM crops have already been grown for more than a decade across the globe, providing trillions of meals, with no observable malign consequences for humanity or the environment. Quite the reverse, in fact: many types of GM crops have been designed to produce high yield with minimal soil tillage; others require much lower use of pesticide than conventional crops, thus saving vast amounts in agricultural fuel use.
Now that the area covered by GM crops has reached more than 100 million hectares, involving farmers in countries as varied as China, Uruguay, South Africa and Iran, it is possible to assess the truth of the various "Frankenfood" scare stories promulgated by the likes of the Daily Mail (which yesterday was alone in publishing a leading article endorsing every word of the Prince of Wales's outburst).
Such a study has recently been published by the European Commission. This is especially significant because the member countries of the EU have been more nervous about the consequences of GM technology than any other developed nations. The report, ominously titled "Economic Impact of Dominant GM Crops Worldwide", gives the lie to the notion that GM is somehow only designed for large-scale agribusiness. It states that "analyses show that adoption of dominant GM crops and on-farm economic gains have benefited both small and large farmers... Moreover, detailed analyses show that increases in gross margin are comparatively larger for small and lower-income farmers than for larger and higher income farmers." In other words, Prince Charles's notion that such methods will in themselves cause the extinction of small farmers is simply refuted by the experiences of real people in the real world.
One of the most persistent complaints of the anti-GM lobby is that the owners of transgenic technology will make huge profits at the expense of the farmers. On general grounds alone one might question this: farmers are not known for persisting with methods which reduce their own income. The more innovative among them will try out new methods, and if it improves their business, they will continue with it. If not, they will dump it.
The European Commission report shows how in practice the increased profits are divided, based on an analysis of the adoption on Indian farms of Bt cotton, a cotton modified by the insertion of a bacterium resistant to the blight known as bollworm. It observes that "Indian farmers adopting Bt cotton were the main beneficiaries of adoption, capturing 67 per cent of generated welfare, followed by seed companies with 33 per cent". You might argue that 33 per cent is a pretty big royalty for the GM seed salesmen, but the point is that the farmers would still be well ahead of the game: the Commission's report shows that "in a sample of 157 farmers from three Indian states, the average yield gains of Bt cotton were up to 87 per cent over the non-Bt counterpart". So everyone's happy – except for the Prince of Wales .
It is undeniable that the technology which produces these transgenic strains is dominated by a small number of multinational companies. But if you object to that, you might also wonder why it is: after all, there is no theoretical reason why experiments should not be successfully carried out by much smaller companies. The reason lies in the very neurosis of European consumers and governments about the potential dangers of GM. The number of trials required and the regulatory hoops are so many that only very large companies have the stomach – and the wallet – for the fight.
It's not just a matter of regulation – which is obviously necessary. Groups such as Greenpeace take pride in destroying field trials of GM crops; almost all of the 54 crop trials attempted in Britain since 2000 have been vandalised, a record which would completely deter any small-scale investor from even contemplating such a venture.
These vandals share the Prince of Wales's quasi-religious belief that transgenic technology – presumably including that used in insulin for diabetics – runs counter to the divine order of nature: he has argued that they interfere in matters that are "the realm of God and God alone". With such metaphysical self-assurance, these people have no conscience about wrecking trials which are designed precisely to assess the environmental impact of GM technology: even if such experiments produced no observable adverse impact, ever, they would not alter the mindset which puts "blood and soil" mysticism above mere evidence.
Prince Charles would argue that he is motivated by a concern for humanity – and I don't doubt his sincerity or passion. Still, it was shocking to hear this multi-millionaire Gloucestershire organic farmer denouncing India's "Green Revolution" – the plant-breeding precursor to GM pioneered by Norman Borlaug. It was these techniques that saved millions in the sub-continent from the famines which slaughtered so many of their ancestors, and for which Borlaug received a Nobel Prize.
I can do no better than quote Professor Borlaug's remarks about those who denounced his work as destructive of traditional methods: "They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."Reuse content