The Prince of Wales was accused of launching an ignorant rant about genetically modified crops last night after claiming that the technology would cause “the biggest environmental disaster of all time” and lead to “no food in the future”.
The Prince’s comments, in which he blamed GM food and modern agriculture for environmental and social problems such as climate change and food shortages, were described by leading scientists as “shockingly ill-informed”.
Plant researchers said that he had completely misunderstood the benefits and risks of GM crops, which the Prince labelled a “gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity that has gone seriously wrong”. They also ridiculed his contention that agricultural biotechnology was contributing to major challenges such as global warming.
Mike Childs, campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, defended the Prince’s comments, however, saying that GM crops had been exaggerated as a potential weapon against world hunger.
Prince Charles, a long-time critic of GM crops who accused scientists a decade ago of meddling in “realms that belong to God and God alone”, made his comments in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
Though the Government, plant scientists and industry are promoting GM crops as part of the solution to global food shortages, the Prince said that biotechnology had already proved itself a dangerous failure. “Why else do you think we are facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?” he said.
The role of “gigantic corporations” in food production was leading humanity towards “absolute disaster”, driving small farmers off their land into “unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unimaginable awfulness”. Today’s agriculture was “the classic way of ensuring that there is no food in the future”, he said.
Food shortages and rising prices should be addressed not by raising production with high-tech crops that boosted yields, but by adopting methods of farming that were more in tune with nature.
“What we should be talking about is food security, not food production – that is what matters and that is what people will not understand. And if they think it’s somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another then again count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest environmental disaster of all time.”
He cited his experiences on visits to Western Australia and the Indian part of Punjab, which he said were suffering increasing problems from salinity and water shortage respectively.
But his views were overwhelmingly rejected by scientists, who said that GM crops were already grown safely by 12 million farmers, 11 million of them in the developing world.
Alison Smith, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Britain’s leading plant science institute, said she was shocked and saddened by the Prince’s “ill-informed, one-sided and generally negative” remarks. “He seems to be ranting about GM crops, urbanisation, globalisation and even hybrid plants. He is inflating fears instead of contributing to reasoned debate.”
The Prince’s claim of a link to climate change was particularly strange, because the problem predated the planting of the first GM crops by decades, experts said.
“GM crops are not to blame for climate change, the industrialisation of agriculture, the spread of dysfunctional conurbations, the salinisation of Australia or indeed any of the other crimes of which the Prince appears to accuse them,” Professor Smith said.
Ian Denholm, of Rothamsted Research Institute, said that GM crops promised solutions to many of the problems for which the Prince blamed them.“No scientist working in the agricultural sector doubts that the intensification of cropping over the last 50 or so years, coupled with climate change in some cases, has led to severe challenges including areas of land becoming unsuitable for the cultivation of conventional crop varieties. It is scientifically and morally indefensible not to explore, without prejudice, GM technology as one possible solution to these problems.”
Mr Childs said, however: “Prince Charles has hit the nail on the head about the damaging false solution that GM crops present. GM crops will not solve the food crisis – and forging ahead with an industrialised farming system will continue to fail people and the environment around the world.”
Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an industry group, linked the Prince’s views to his interest in organic farming. “The Prince is an organic farmer and it’s in his interest that organic farming works,” he said. “There are millions of other farmers whose role is producing high-quality, affordable food, and they need all the tools that are available, of which GM is one.”
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee, said: “While I admire Prince Charles’s commitment to environmental causes, his lack of scientific understanding and his willingness to condemn millions of people to starvation in areas like sub-Saharan Africa is absolutely bewildering.”
THE VIEW FROM INDIA AND AUSTRALIA
India’s green revolution
Rhys Blakely in Bombay
Few in India are suggesting that its “green revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s was a mistake. Advances in agricultual methods and the import of new varieties of rice boosted yields tenfold. The country had been on the brink of famine but the “miracle rice” allowed it to feed itself. It did come at a cost.
A recent study in Punjab, the epicentre of the revolution, found that intensive farming methods have caused a “massive depletion of water reserves and minerals”. Most worryingly, the revolution has now run out of steam: economists say India’s ability to increase harvests is running at less than 1 per cent a year, lagging behind the 1.5 per cent growth rate of its population.
Australia’s controversy of salt
Sophie Tedmanson in Sydney
In Australia yesterday the Prince’s linking of GM crops and modern agriculture with soil salinity problems drew the condemnation of farmers who said that he had been “ill-informed”. According to the Australian Academy of Science, most salt in the Western Australia wheatbelt is believed to come from the ocean, carried inland by prevailing winds. Andy McMillan, the director of policy for the Western Australia Farmers Federation, said that it was not in farmers’ interests to overuse the land. He added: “The ironic thing about Prince Charles’s comments is that one of the mitigating factors in controlling salinity may well be GM crops, which are being developed with the problem in mind.”