The Dangers of Biotechnology

Earth Island Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Dangers of Biotechnology


by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales

On December 1998, The Prince of Wales posted an essay questioning the satiety of genetically engineered (GE) foods on his website [www.princeofwales.gov.uk]. Soon thereafter, the Sunday Express reports, Prime Minister Tony Blair (an ardent backer of Britain's biotech industries) took "the unusual step ... of phoning Buckingham Palace to advise the Prince to withdraw the website comments [and] ... to refrain from any public comments." Prince Charles (an ardent backer and practitioner of organic farming) not only refused to back down, he responded with an even longer essay in the June 1, 1999 issue of the Daily Mail. Both essays are excerpted below.

December 1998 -- I believe that genetic modification is much more than just an extension of selective breeding techniques. Mixing genetic material from species that cannot breed naturally takes us into areas that should be left to God. I am not convinced we know enough about the long-term consequences for human health and the environment of releasing plants (or, heaven forbid, animals) bred in this way.

I suspect that planting herbicide-resistant crops will lead to more chemicals being used on our fields, not less. Such sterile fields will offer little or no food or shelter to wildlife, and there is already evidence that the genes for herbicide resistance can spread to wild relatives of crop plants, leaving us with weeds resistant to weedkiller.... And because the pesticide will be everywhere in the crop, it is predicted that the pests will rapidly acquire resistance to it. What do we do then?

Genetic material does not stay where it is put. Pollen is spread by the winds and by insects. GM crops can contaminate conventional and organic crops growing nearby.... If something does go badly wrong with GM crops, we will be faced with a form of pollution that is self-perpetuating. I don't think anyone knows. how to clean up after that sort of incident, or who would have to pay for it. (And I expect someone thought it was a good idea, at the time, to introduce the rabbit and the cane toad to Australia!)

I wonder about the claims that some GM crops are essential to feed the world's growing populations. Is the problem sometimes a lack of money rather than lack of food? And how will the companies who own this technology make a sufficient profit from selling their products to the world's poorest people? Wouldn't it be better to concentrate instead on the sustainable techniques that can double or treble the yields from traditional farming systems?

The public discussion so far has concentrated on the risks and capabilities of the technology and the effectiveness of the regulations. These things are important -- as are effective and comprehensive labeling schemes to ensure that those consumers like me who do not want to eat GM foods can avoid them -- but there is an important public debate needed also on whether we need GM crops at all. …

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