Over the past two decades, misguided environmentalists have fallen under the spell of anti-science crusaders at Greenpeace and succeeded in terrifying the public about GM crops. Terms like “frankenfoods” and “mutant crops” are thrown around to recharacterise farm produce as a hostile alien agent, while scientists who cite the facts are demonised as being in the pocket of corporations.
But the dialogue is finally starting to shift, and today, support for GM crops has been voiced by the most unlikely of advocates: Princess Anne. Unlikely, because her brother (and future King) Prince Charles is a fierce opponent of GM crops, at one point arguing that they risk creating the biggest environmental disaster “of all time”.
It is, of course, possible that GM crops could lead to some unforeseen worldwide environmental disaster. It is also possible that the planet could be struck my a meteor. Worrying about it requires some understanding of the risks and, just as importantly, the benefits. That means looking at the environmental impacts of the current system. As I wrote when the Royal Society, a UK organisation dedicated to the promotion of science, published its paper on GM crops last year:
“While the Royal Society report is unlikely to change the minds of die-hard GM warriors, it outlines how GM crops pose no greater risk to the environment than non-GM crops. Issues surrounding the overuse of herbicides and damage to biodiversity are genuine concerns about modern farming, but they are in no way specific to GM crops. In fact, in some circumstances the GM solution to a farming problem is environmentally superior to the non-GM alternative….
It is ironic and sad that the green lobbyists, in their rush to attack GM crops in principle, have hindered progress that can lead to more efficient, less environmentally damaging farming methods, and even mitigate climate change.”
There are other potential benefits – GM crops have been suggested as a solution to famines and child-malnutrition. There are countless individual projects underway, but the idea is to produce more nutritious and resilient plants with higher concentrations of key vitamins, to promote health and food security in developing countries. Repeated studies have shown the products that have already been developed are safer and more effective than existing programmes. But for those of shudder at the idea of GM crops in principle, no amount of science is enough. They would literally rather see children starve and die of preventable nutrition deficits than challenge their own aversion to this technology.
And that’s just now. In the future, GM crops may have an increasingly important role to play. Again, as I wrote last year:
“777 million people in developing countries are undernourished. The UN estimated in 2009 that world food production will have to double by 2050 to cope with population growth. Environmental changes, pest infestations and highly resistant strains of bacteria threaten global food production. GM crops can help address all of these issues. Given the risks we are facing, surely the question should be: is it safe not to eat GM foods?”
The doubters can keep doubting, but Princess Anne is having none of it. On BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said: “To say we mustn’t go there ‘just in case’ is probably not a practical argument.” That’s the Princess understanding the downsides of the “precautionary principle”, the idea that a new technology should be banned until proven 100% safe in all circumstances, which ignores the fact that it could be far preferable to the status quo.
At any rate, Princess Anne has publicly stated she would be happy growing GM crops on her land. Good for her. If other public figures took such a practical approach, maybe we could end the stigma that is holding back progress and costing lives.