Oh dear; there he goes again – off on another hobby horse, attacking windmills with sharpened consonants and strangulated vowels. And, surprise, surprise – the  experts have become frustrated and annoyed.    

 

A decade ago, Prince Charles accused GM scientists of meddling in ‘realms that belong to God and God alone’.  This week, in an interview to The Daily Telegraph, he asserts that ‘Gigantic corporations’  are conducting a ‘gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity, which has gone seriously wrong. Why else’, he adds, warming to his cause, ‘do you think we are facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?’ 

 

‘This new technology is driving small farmers off their land into ‘unsustainable , unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unimagineable awfulness’.    

 

‘And if they think that it’s somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another, then count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest environmental disaster of all time.  It will destroy our environment.  It will cause hunger throughout the world.’  

 

 

Wow, sir – that’s telling them!  But, just one little point – is it all true?   Can we really blame genetic modification for all the ills associated with modernity?    

 

 

The fact is that genetic modification has been with us for centuries, ever since men discovered that they could enrich the productivity of food crops by selective breeding and hybridisation. Wheat, legumes, barley, potatoes, maize, beetroot, grasses – they are all products of genetic engineering.   GM just takes it one stage further by making direct modifications to the genes. 

 

Cash crops have also been with us for a long time. They offer employment and a more affluent lifestyle for the local population, but they do expose them to competition and the downturns of a global economy while discouraging the subsistence farming that might provide a buffer against starvation.  But is it really GM that is driving small farmers off their land or just the fact that irrespective of the underlying technology, food supply is big business and large industrial style farms are here to stay?    

 

And what is the evidence that GM technology causes climate change?  Climate change had been occurring for decades before the first GM foods were grown commercially in 1996.   Moreover, it seems that genetic modification could help to withstand climate change by developing new crop varieties that could withstand warmer temperatures and drought.  GM might even produce plants that consume more carbon and yield more food.   And since many GM crops need no tilling, their growth  releases less CO2 into the atmosphere from both the soil and from tractors.   

 

It is of concern that genetic modification might reduce biodiversity, but then surely any food crop discourages biodiversity.  Fields of oil seed rape, maize, wheat or barley are ecological deserts with only the hedgerows and coppices providing  corridors and islands of biodiversity.  But GM, by reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides, might well encourage biodiversity. 

 

Will GM encourage widespread hunger?  The 1970s Green Revolution in India was based on the conventional propagation of hybrid dwarf crops, allowing more energy to be diverted into the seed heads.  This brought spectacular gains in agricultural yields and all but abolished the famines in that country.  Genetic engineering now offers the possibility of further increased yields for a rapidly expanding population through the development of crops that can that resist viruses and pests, and tolerate hot, saline, or otherwise inhospitable conditions. 

 

So the evidence suggests that GM technology might well benefit human societies.   GM foods have been grown commercially for 12 years now and there is little evidence to suggest that it is responsible for global hunger, climate change or any kind of environmental disaster – yet.  

 

But Prince Charles, as self appointed social conscience for the nation, gives voice to our fears of innovation.  In 1830, the ‘Captain Swing’ rioters in Dorset expressed their fears by direct action and began smashing the new agricultural machinery.  They were transported for it.  Charles can express similar reactionary views but people respect his unique, albeit somewhat isolated perspective.  HRH is a champion of the nostalgic, the vernacular, the romantic view of English heritage.  It relates to a time when the King was in his palace and all was well with the world.  His perspective is one of privilege.   The ghost town of Poundisbury on the outskirts of Dorchester,  and the range of Duchy originals suit a particular life style,  affluent, country, sophisticated – certainly not the inhabitants of ‘the degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unimagineable awfulness’.  We could therefore be forgiven for thinking that he is perhaps just a bit out of touch.  

 

But aren’t we all a little in thrall with his world?  Don’t we enjoy visiting stately homes and country houses?  Isn’t the National Trust one of our richest charities?  Don’t we all feel some sense of ownership with a view of country living that is forever England?   Isn’t it part of our collective identity, like William Shakespeare,  John Betjman and Bath buns.  In his passion to conserve his family’s heritage, doesn’t The Prince speak for all of us?   So when he condemns the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery as a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well loved friend, don’t we all secretly applaud?  And when he describes modern medical practice as like the Tower of Pisa, leaning too much in one direction, don’t we nod wisely?    

 

I once met Prince Charles.  It was at a reception given for his Foundation for Integrated Medicine at Highgrove – not the house, but the barn at the rear – a new build in the style of baronial hall with kitchens and a minstrels gallery and, if I remember correctly, tapestries on the wall.  I was impressed by HRH’s ability to engage with each of his 70 guests and then disengage, leaving them feeling heard and special.  His speech was amusing – charmingly self effacing with a touch of goonery about it. 

 

‘Oh, I know the experts get annoyed with me,’ he told us, ‘But it’s very strange that when I talk to medics they all agree with my views on architecture and when I talk to the architects, they all applaud my views on medicine. So perhaps I should talk to you about organic farming.  

 

It’s as if Charles doesn’t expect to be taken seriously.  It’s all a bit of a surprise.  That may be the problem, because as a prominent public figure and our future King, he has a responsibility to check his sources and present a reflective and balanced argument. 

 

Don’t misunderstand me.  I think Prince Charles does a tremendous job.  He works tirelessly for the good of the nation.  His various trusts are a major force for good.  I applaud his work.  I also support his right to say what he believes.  But he should choose his advisers more carefully.  As moral philosopher for the nation by Royal appointment, he would be better advised to present a more responsible view. An ill considered rant on GM foods brings the institution of the monarchy into disrepute because it doesn’t recognise either how GM might help to alleviate poverty and suffering throughout the world or the dedication of the scientists who are working on it.  It doesn’t exhibit Kingship. 

 

Charles has an opportunity to be both a social conscience and a moral leader, but he needs to demonstrate a scrupulous disinterest.  If he can rein in his passion and take himself seriously as a voice of reason, he will ensure the monarchy’s continued relevance as a moral lynchpin for a changing and unstable society.    

 

 

If I don’t post any more blogs for some time, you will know that I am banged up in The Tower.         

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