Ethical witch doctors challenge the new crop of genetic products

The Prince of Wales, bless him, invariably reveals a narrowness of vision when he attempts to demonstrate a breadth of knowledge. This is particularly evident when he addresses commercial issues, as he did on Monday with an article in The Daily Telegraph condemning genetically-modified crops as an abomination.

It’s too easy to say that a pampered and cosseted heir to the throne knows little or nothing of the commercial imperatives of earning a living – though that must, at least in part, be true – just as it is too easy for his supporters to counter that this is precisely why his voice is so valuable, independent and detached as it is. What is more important to grasp is that HRH makes no allowance for a positive linkage between commercial and progressive commercial issues – something is either commercial or ethical, the former being bad and the latter good. Happily, business life is more complicated than that.

The essence of Prince Charles’ argument is that “genetic modification takes man into the realms that belong to God, and to God alone”. He ascribes agricultural disasters such as BSE to the folly of science, concluding that consumers should boycott anything other than organically-grown produce by means of “effective segregation of genetically-modified products, backed by a comprehensive labelling scheme based on progress through the food chain”.

The theology of his case is the most easily despatched. In terms of the development of the human species, it’s practically the day before yesterday that childhood mortality from the likes of diptheria and whooping cough were ascribed to “the will of God”. Had Prince Charles been a member of an earlier generation, he might have stood against the sort of progress that brought us antibiotics, preferring that these things be left to the Almighty.

As to labelling, the Prince might care to spend a little more time in his local superstore than in his organic vegetable garden. The likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s have discovered just how hard organic produce is to sell. Consumers like their lettuces all the same size and the “right” colour. They already vote on this issue – with their purses. And as for BSE, the Prince is being disingenuous – the human folly here was an industry that fed herbivores its own offal – quite the opposite of the march of science.

American-based bio-technology conglomerate Monsanto has just launched a 1m advertising offensive, aimed at persuading British people that genetically-modified crops will help consumers and the environment. I gather trade secretary Margaret Beckett and her Government colleagues are under pressure from Bill Clinton, as well as British bio-technology companies, to encourage the progress of genetic technology. I look forward to the scrap between pharmaceutical and bio-technology companies and the Luddite tendency, fronted by Prince Charles, because enormously important issues for the new millennium will be aired through it.

I’m not saying the likes of Monsanto must be right, just because the Prince is wrong. But I am saying that a balance between commercial and ethical interests is likely to offer progress. Balance is, after all, what the starry-eyed, self-appointed guardians of the environment are always on about – except they cannot bring themselves to factor in commercial interests, because money is being made.

This is not only grossly unfair on those commercial interests which provide the research and development budgets that give us progress, but positively selfish in the face of the current suffering among those who will benefit from such investment. Those who howl in protest at the birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, may not, I imagine, have spoken to doctors at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, who know this kind of genetic engineering holds the key to unlocking the secrets in the DNA spiral of such conditions as childhood leukaemia.

Similarly, genetically-engineered plants have been developed by those nasty multinational energy companies that will absorb heavy-metal toxins on contaminated industrial land. It’s called phytoremediation and is doubtless the sort of green initiative Prince Charles would applaud. But the idea that agriculturists should manipulate crops genetically – advances that proponents argue could assist in the feeding of the Third World – is somehow beyond the pale because it is a commercial process.

Monsanto claims its weed-killer-resistant crops require less herbicide, and make low-tillage or no-tillage systems of agriculture possible. I have no idea whether such a claim is justified, but I know the kinds of budgets that develop such products would not be available if Prince Charles’ lobby had its way. Remember that British Biotech’s current management crisis and commercial destiny hinge on investment in an anti-cancer drug that may not stand up in clinical trials to its competitor – precisely the same kind of investment issue Monsanto faces daily.

Of course, these organisations have commercial clout – I suspect the fact that 67 per cent of Swiss voters at the weekend rejected a proposal to outlaw genetic modification had not a little to do with the prospect of pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Roche moving production elsewhere. But consumers are powerful too – a Guardian poll last week showed 85 per cent of those interviewed thought genetically-modified foods should be separated from standard crops at source.

Balance between these interests, as in nature, is the key. Likewise, we should beware of the industry’s spindoctors – but we should beware of Prince Charles’ witch doctors too.

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