Prince Charles warns of the risk of GM crops

The Prince of Wales warned this week that the development of genetically modified crops risked creating “the biggest disaster environmentally of all time”. The Prince accused firms of conducting a gigantic experiment, commenting “Why else are we facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?”

The recent comments by The Prince of Wales have resulted in widespread media coverage in the UK.

Times of London

Daily Mail

The Telegraph

3 News

In New Zealand a number of crown research institutes have applications underway for controlled trials of GM for animals and plants.

The British Science Media Centre has responded by asking a number of UK experts for their reaction to Prince Charles’ statements about GM. Here is a summary of their comments.

Ian Denholm, Head of Plant and Invertebrate Ecology at Rothamsted Research Institute, said:

“The Prince of Wales’ statements reported in the Daily Telegraph this morning defy objective analysis. At a time when food prices are increasing and the supply of some staple crops is becoming limiting, it is impossible to divorce the need for food security from the need for food production, and the “environmental disasters” he alludes to have nothing to do with GM crops specifically. 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.”

Dr Alan M. Dewar, independent entomologist, said:

“For a man who received a top education in one of the foremost public schools in Scotland, Prince Charles has a disarming habit of expounding the most alarming claptrap. The media of course have helped to exaggerate what he said yesterday from a molehill into a mountain.

“Prince Charles’ opinions about so-called industrial agriculture are well known, so his criticisms, described in the Telegraph on August 13 2008, should be of no surprise to anyone. His comments are nothing more than another plug for his chosen method of food production, organic agriculture. It is well known that organic farming is not capable of feeding the planet – not even close, as my former boss was wont to say. At best organic food growing can only occupy a niche market for the well off in developed countries. At worst, organic farming in the poorest countries is the last resort for growers who cannot afford the alternatives – they would use them if they could. The vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants are dependent on modern agricultural methods, and in many countries of the world, including some far-sighted third world countries, GM crops are becoming one of the technologies of choice for several sound economic AND environmental reasons, again all well documented in the scientific literature if the media would only take the trouble to find out about them.

“Leaving aside his tirade against large scale ‘industrial farming’, it is his complete rejection of GM crops that causes me the most offence.  I have been to India, to the Punjab even, and did not see any disastrous crops. Instead I saw a well developed agricultural industry that is doing what it says on the tin – feeding the people. And let’s get the facts right. The only GM crop being grown commercially in India at the moment is cotton, and GM varieties resistant to some of the insects that threaten its very survival, have revolutionised the cotton industry. Yields are up, income is up, and therefore investment is up. Pesticide poisoning (associated with conventional methods) is down, by some margin, and the whole community that relies on this cash crop benefits. Must the poor of the world suffer for ever because of the pronouncements of a very privileged gentleman, who has never seen the real countryside in any country he has visited without being accompanied by a coterie of sycophants, all trying to feed him their own narrow-minded opinions in the hope that he will support them when he is exposed to the media. It certainly works for them! Does he not know he is being used?

“Where is the evidence of failure in GM crop production? Where is the evidence that multi-nationals are taking over food production in large swathes of the world? This is just scaremongering of the highest order. Such pronouncements by a man with such a high media profile should be challenged vehemently. The public have a right to hear the truth!”

Dr. Giles Oldroyd, Research Group Leader at the John Innes Centre, said:

“The Prince is really confusing the issues.  He is using GM as an all inclusive term for industrialised agricultural practices.  The two main issues he states are irrigation issues: in India and in Australia.  Irrigation is not a modern practice, nor is it a practice limited to large scale agriculture. The lowering of the water table and increased salinity of the soils is a problem inherent to irrigation, either by large scale or small scale farmers.  It has nothing to do with genetic modification. Indeed genetic modification has the potential to provide crop plants that can grow on these depleted soils, something that conventional agriculture will struggle to do.

“Genetic modification is and will continue to provide valuable solutions to improve the sustainability of our agricultural systems, but maintain the yields that are essential for global food production. Genetic modification is not a threat to small scale farmers.  We function in a free market and small scale farmers, just as large scale farmers, can choose to plant GM seed or not. The Prince’s ill informed and confusing statements are counterproductive to a rational debate on our food production systems.”

Professor Alison M. Smith OBE, Research Group Leader at the John Innes Centre, said:

“I was shocked and saddened to read what Prince Charles has said about GM crops. Shocked because it was so ill-informed, one-sided and generally negative. Saddened because the Prince is in a position to lead this country in solving some of the massive problems he identifies. He could bring together our world-class scientists, technologists and agricultural experts to catalyse constructive debate and action that would benefit both the UK and the rest of the planet. Instead, he indulges in diatribes in which he appears to blame the problems of the planet on a single technological advance that he has completely misunderstood.

“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. These problems arise from a collective failure of societies – all of us – to live within the resources of our planet.  To blame all of these problems on a single technology is to deny our collective responsibility for the mess we’ve created.

“GM technology is one of the ways in which we may be able to solve some of these problems. It is neither a magic bullet nor a cure-all. But in conjunction with advanced conventional crop breeding and more sustainable agricultural practices it may help us to grow enough food for the planet during this century. We face unprecedented climate change, population growth, and unsustainable farming practices. Our present crops will not be able to deliver the food we need in the face of these challenges. We simply cannot afford to slam the door on technologies that could alleviate these problems. Prince Charles’s views seriously damage the chances of a rational debate and forward progress on these immensely important issues.”

Prof Rosie Hails, ecologist at the Centre For Ecology And Hydrology, said:

“To label GM crops as either good or bad for the environment completely misses the point. Genetic modification is just one of a range of methods used to produce novel crops, and it is how that new crop is managed that will determine its environmental impact. The scientific evidence shows that some GM crops – for example those resistant to insect pests – can actually bring environmental benefits, by reducing the application of synthetic pesticides. We should maintain an open mind and assess all options if we want to develop sustainable agriculture in Europe and worldwide.”

Prof Johnjoe McFadden, molecular geneticist at the University of Surrey, said:

“Prince Charles claims that GM crops will be environmental disaster. But his vision for agriculture would be a much greater disaster for the world’s poor whose primary concern is to find their next meal. And that is becoming increasingly difficult as food prices have rocketed as a result of higher levels of consumption, particularly in China, loss of arable land to biofuel production and inefficient organic farming and stagnating crop yields from conventional farming. Recent studies demonstrate that GM crops can generate crop yield increases, particularly in the developing world where so much food crop ends up in the belly of an insect or destroyed by drought. Meanwhile, while much of the world starves, Prince Charles tells the poor to eat organic cake and spends a fortune converting his Aston Martin to run off ‘surplus’ wine as a display of conspicuous environmentalism. Yet to drive from London to his Highgrove estate in his converted Aston consumes wine produced from about a ton of grapes, food resource that would be far better diverted to feed hungry mouths. Prince Charles showy environmentalism is a luxury that makes the poor poorer.”

Prof Ottoline Leyser FRS, plant geneticist at the University of York, said:

“Almost all the public debate about GM is not about GM. There are several issues that have been muddled together, resulting in serious dangers to the future direction of agriculture. This problem is perfectly exemplified by Prince Charles’s comments. He has confused the dominance of multinational companies and its consequences for food security with the use GM in agriculture. If there were a total world ban on GM tomorrow, it would have no effect at all on the dominance on big multinational companies. By confusing these two issues, the real issue is being ignored, and what is more, the potential benefits of GM are being thrown out with the bathwater. Misguidedly demonising GM results in the real issues being sidelined, creating the very problems that Prince Charles is trying to address.”

Prof Jim Dunwell, biological scientist at the University of Reading, said:

“GM crops are being grown on a large scale in many countries of the world, a total of 114 million hectares in 2007, mainly in North America, Brazil and Argentina. It has been estimated recently that over the last ten years they have provided an economic benefit to the farmers growing these crops of $33.8 billion. Also the reduction of energy needed to cultivate the crops is estimated to be equivalent to taking 6.5 million cars off the roads.

“Future GM crops being tested globally include those with improved use of water and nitrogen. Of course such crops will not provide a universal answer to issues of global food security but they do represent a potentially useful addition to the range of varieties available to the plant breeder.”

To talk to a New Zealand expert about genetic modification, please contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email:

Notes to Editors
The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at