Role of science in sustainable agriculture: has the coronavirus pandemic led to a change of heart for the Prince of Wales?
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
The heir to the throne has long opposed the use of biotechnology in agriculture, having declared more than 20 years ago, at the height of the genetically modified (GM) food debate, that genetic modification took scientists into ‘realms that belonged to God and God alone’ .
As subsequent publication of his infamous ‘black spider’ memos to Prime Minister Tony Blair have shown, the Prince of Wales used his position to influence the debate and helped consign the use of GM technology in the UK into oblivion and, in turn, drove crop genetic research activity and investment out of the UK.
Since then, Prince Charles has continued to champion organic farming and to be highly critical of GM crops, stating for example in 2008 that huge multi-national corporations were involved in developing GM foods and conducting a ‘gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong. Relying on gigantic corporations for food would end in absolute disaster. That would be the absolute destruction of everything... and the classic way of ensuring there is no food in the future,’ he said.
Move forward to 2021 and the world is enveloped in the Covid-19 pandemic. Bio-science researchers in both the public and private sectors combine to deliver coronavirus vaccines in record time.
The first UK-developed vaccine by Oxford University and AstraZeneca uses a harmless virus that has been genetically modified to include coronavirus genes, which when injected into human cells make coronavirus proteins that stimulate the immune system to fight any future coronavirus infections. This followed on from two other vaccines, which also use GM advances, called mRNA vaccines.
Politicians in the UK and across Europe queued up to praise these breakthroughs and to re-assure citizens of the robust, science-based regulatory systems that are in place to ensure their safety as the vaccines were fast-tracked through the approval process. A rapid roll out and successful uptake of these vaccines then occurred, helped in the UK by royal endorsement from none other than the Prince of Wales himself, a grateful recipient of a GM vaccine.
So the long-time anti-GM heir to the throne had not only ‘consumed’ a GM vaccine but was actively endorsing their use by all citizens, and criticising anti-vaccine protesters.
Given these vaccines use the very same techniques of genetic modification that he has unequivocally opposed for the last 25 years, surely if past behaviour is any guide he should have campaigned against the vaccines’ approval, not personally accepted them, nor endorsed their uptake?
Furthermore, in late 2021, his antipathy towards large multi-national corporations and their use of science was transformed to admiration, as illustrated in his remarks at the official opening of AstraZeneca's new global Research and Development Centre, Cambridge : ‘You have developed and delivered a vaccine for the world – in a remarkably short time-scale – which will continue to have a positive impact on communities and society for years to come. You have demonstrated, together with your partners, the power of collaboration, of agility and, ultimately, of science itself.’
Prince Charles is passionately concerned about major global issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and the need for more sustainable agricultural development. The urgent need to address these issues coupled with delivering global food security has been further highlighted by the disruption to global food supplies arising from the recent outbreak of war in Ukraine, involving two of the world’s largest producers and exporters of grains and oilseed crops.
Against this background, it is worth reflecting that there is now a substantial body of evidence that GM crop technology has made important contributions to improving global food security, to reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture and to helping to cut global greenhouse gas emissions (see for example Brookes and Barfoot, 2020 ).
At the same time, there has been no credible evidence of any negative impact on human health since their widespread adoption some 25 years ago. There is broad consensus among scientists and regulators that these products are safe to consume.
Given the Prince of Wales’s new-found admiration for the power of the private sector to deliver science-based solutions to the Covid pandemic, his willingness to use and endorse the products of GM research and development, and the demonstrable track record over more than two decades of safe and positive environmental benefits behind biotech in food and agriculture, would it be too much to suggest that Prince Charles might actually acknowledge the inconsistency of accepting and applauding the use of biotechnology in medicine but demonising their use in food and agriculture?
To go this step further would not be a sign of weakness for the Prince of Wales. In fact, it would demonstrate a willingness to re-visit his original highly precautionary (and negative) approach to the application of biotechnology in agriculture in the light of 25 years’ consistent evidence of positive contributions towards more sustainable food production systems. This would also demonstrate the integrity, humility and leadership one might expect of a future monarch.
Graham Brookes is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group. An agricultural economist with PG Economics, UK, he has more than 30 years’ experience of analysing the impact of technology use in agriculture and has authored many papers in peer reviewed journals on the impact of GM crop technology. www.pgeconomics.co.uk
Daily Telegraph, June 10, 1998 ‘Seeds of disaster’ article by Prince Charles
Brookes G and Barfoot P (2020) GM crop technology use 1996-2018: farm income and production impacts, GM Crops & Food, 11:4, 242-261, DOI:10.1080/21645698.2020.1779574
Brookes G and Barfoot P (2020) Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996–2018: impacts on pesticide use and carbon emissions, GM Crops & Food, 11:4, 215-241, DOI: DOI:10.1080/21645698.2020.1773198