Charles III Might Be King, but He’s Still the Dunce of Wales to Me

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King Charles III's longstanding opposition to genetic engineering is misguided and unconstructive. Genetic modification has long made products better, safer, and cheaper.

While he was the Prince of Wales, King Charles repeatedly demonstrated a pitfall of the sort of inbreeding that has plagued the royal families of Europe for centuries: feeblemindedness. In unequivocal and outspoken – and completely misguided – comments in an interview in the Telegraph, the then-Dunce of Wales said that multinational agribusiness companies were a "gigantic experiment I think with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong.” "Why else are we facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?" he asked rhetorically.

Not-so-bonnie King Charles has said that he rejects the idea that genetic modification simply extends or refines "traditional methods of plant breeding.” He is convinced that such practices "belong to God, and to God alone.” And if mere mortals persist in their misguided efforts,  he contends that they should segregate and label "genetically modified products.”

King Charles knows little about the genetic engineering of plants, among many other things. For one thing, genetic modification is not new. Plants and microorganisms have long been genetically improved by mutation and selection and used to make biotechnology products as varied as yogurt, beer, cereal crops, antibiotics, vaccines, and enzymes (for such applications as laundry detergents and food processing).

For decades, using conventional techniques for genetic modification, genes have been transferred widely across "natural breeding boundaries" to yield common food plants including oats, rice, black currants, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, wheat, and corn. These plants, which are "genetically engineered" by any reasonable definition, are not merely found in laboratories or test plots, but are the very same fruits, vegetables and grains that consumers buy at the local supermarket, greengrocer or farm stand.

The techniques of the "new biotechnology" – gene splicing, gene editing, tissue cultures and the rest – essentially speed up and target with greater precision and predictability the kinds of genetic improvement that have long been carried out with other methods. According to a worldwide scientific consensus, the new biotechnology lowers even further the already minimal risk associated with introducing new plant varieties into the food supply – and reduces soil erosion, CO2 emissions and the use of pesticides, while increasing yields in the bargain.

The use of these sophisticated techniques makes the final product even safer, because it is possible to introduce pieces of DNA that contain only one or a few well-characterized genes, or simply to tweak already-present genes. In contrast, the older genetic techniques transfer or mutate a variable number of genes haphazardly. Thus, users of the new techniques can be more certain about the traits they introduce into the plants. Americans have consumed trillions of servings of gene-spliced foods, and not a single person has been injured or an ecosystem disrupted. In contrast, at least five products engineered with traditional techniques (two squash, two potato and one celery variety) have had unsafe levels of toxins and have caused injury or death.

Even though the safety of gene-spliced and gene-edited foods is exemplary, a few anti-technology advocacy groups – joined by then-Prince Charles – have pushed for labels disclosing the use of gene-splicing techniques. Such labels add significantly to the costs of processed foods made from fresh fruits and vegetables. The precise costs would vary according to the product, but, for example, a company using a gene-spliced, higher-solids, less-watery tomato (which is more favorable for processing) would have the additional costs of segregating the product at all levels of planting, harvesting, shipping, processing and distribution. Labels would have to appear on vegetable soup, indicating the presence of gene-spliced tomato, potato or other products.

The added production costs are a particular disadvantage to products in this competitive, low-profit-margin market. Unnecessary and arbitrary regulation constitutes, in effect, a punitive tax on regulated products or activities, which, in turn, creates a disincentive to their development and use. Consumers, whose prices would be raised and choices diminished by this regulatory tax, would be far better served by industry spending its resources on research and development to create new, safer products.

At the end of the day, King Charles's reservations about new biotechnology are puzzling. They appear to arise from a lack of perspective on pedigree (a subject that should be of no small interest to someone whose only claim to distinction is his lineage). Would he boycott or request special labelling for the genetic hybrid we call a tangelo (a cross between a tangerine and grapefruit)? Or the mutant peaches we call nectarines?

Biotech's opponents should also be aware that delays or limitations in the use of gene-spliced products cause the poor to suffer most. Because food purchases require a disproportionately large part of their budgets, those with lower incomes are hardest hit by high consumer prices, which can be reduced by more efficient biotech production processes.

The controversy over biotechnology is not a mere intellectual exercise but a real-life struggle for the availability of products that will prolong and enrich lives and feed the planet’s expanding population, and for the ability of consumers to cast their votes in the marketplace.

Technological innovation -- whether in the form of better tomatoes, faster computers or more effective vaccines -- most often occurs in small, almost imperceptible steps. If a new product's characteristics are attractive and the price is right, it succeeds in the marketplace, stimulating still more innovation. Ironically, some of Prince Charles's own organically produced vegetables failed this test: so deformed and repulsive to look at, they were not marketable and had to be donated to local schools.

His Majesty should give the new biotechnology a try before he heaves another tomato at it.

Note: An earlier version of this article was published by The Guardian in 2008.