Royal but essentially right
Royal but essentially right
The Guardian, August 14 2008
Prince Charles's passionate tirade against GM crops has brought a predictable response from those with an interest in the technology. Biotech scientists have queued up to denounce his criticisms as "ill-informed".
They point out that GM crops are already being grown safely by 12 million farmers around the world. It would be morally indefensible, they claim, to ignore a technology that might provide solutions to the challenges of climate change and farmland degradation.
The Prince is also accused of a indulging in a scatter-gun "rant" against urbanisation and globalisation as if everything was the result of GM technology, which clearly it isn't.
Still, he must have expected this sort of reaction from the research industry. Over the years, they've been bankrolled to the tune of many billions of pounds from both the taxpayer and agribusiness corporations. Few areas of research have provided so many jobs for scientists.
Such is our reverence for cutting-edge science that it's not difficult for the research establishment to mobilise powerful support when it comes under attack. A Times leader the day after the Prince's outburst dismissed his utterances on GM crops as "obscurantism, reaction and superstition".
Despite the clamour, however, he is, as John Vidal observes, essentially right. The widespread adoption of GM crops may well threaten the world's food supply. It will probably throw millions of small farmers off the land, and it will almost certainly produce shanty cities of the sort he calls "unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unimaginable awfulness". While GM technology may not be the direct cause of such horrors, it will perpetuate the system of industrial agriculture that makes them inevitable.
It's a threat acknowledged in a 2008 report from the World Bank and UN agencies. Based on the work of more than 400 scientists, it concludes that the present system of food production and the way food is traded have led to an unequal distribution of benefits and to serious ecological damage. It was also contributing, the report found, to climate change.
The report's authors reject the idea that GM crops have a significant part to play in ending world hunger. What they want to see is more research targeted at protecting soils, water and forests. "We urgently need sustainable ways to produce food," says Professor Robert Watson, director of multi-disciplinary group which produced the report. At its launch, a group of eight international environmental and consumer organisations commented:
"This is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers using ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the food crisis and meet the needs of communities."
The World Bank report merely confirms what shrewd farmers have always known that small, mixed family farms produce more food per hectare than large farms. This applies equally to northern, industrial countries as to the south.
In Britain, George Henderson wrote a best-selling book called The Farming Ladder setting out how simple it would be to feed the population of these islands by switching to small-scale mixed farming. He proved it on the small farm he and his brother ran in the Cotswolds. During the second world war, it was producing so much food that the government brought farmers from all over Britain to look at it in the hope that they'd go home and do it themselves.
Tragically, governments around the world now use public subsidies to swap mixed farming for large-scale, intensive cropping. This system of food production is inherently unstable. It relies on huge inputs of fossil energy in the form of pesticides, nitrate fertilisers, diesel and machinery. And it steadily degrades the soil, making farmland less and less productive.
Large agribusiness companies together with their supporters in public science are now promoting GM crops as the solution to problems they themselves have created. It's a sticking plaster solution to a wound that urgently needs to be cleaned up. If we really want a safe and sustainable supply of food, we must acknowledge that large-scale grain production has failed and needs to be replaced by small mixed farms. Whether or not GM crops have a role in sustaining this sort of farming is a legitimate question for research.
Unfortunately, the Prince's own dedication to organic farming makes him a less effective advocate of reform than he deserves to be. Dominated as it is by the producer interest, the organic movement has allowed itself to be turned into a lucrative brand. Its contribution to the debate on sustainable agriculture has been blunted by supermarkets, which are happy to see it relegated to niche market status.
Nevertheless, Prince Charles is to be applauded for raising these issues: he deserves a pat on the back for speaking up.