The mad ranting of our next king

With his over-emotional, fact-lite insistence that GM is ‘destroying everything!’, Charles echoes his unfortunate ancestor George III.

No one ever accused Prince Charles of having a good grasp of science or a keen analytical mind. But, even by his standards, his complaints about GM crops last week were quite bizarre.

In an interview with the UK Daily Telegraph (1), the prince blamed scientists and multi-national companies for ‘an experiment with nature which had gone seriously wrong’, for ‘damage being wreaked on the earth’s soil’ and for ‘huge salination problems in Western Australia’.

‘Why else are we facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?’ he whined. To which the obvious answer is – not because of GM crops, which have only been planted since 1996 and, if anything, global warming has slowed in the last decade. Nor have GM crops ever been planted in Western Australia; the state government has a moratorium on them – to the increasing fury of farmers who hope GM will be part of the solution to their agricultural problems.

Most of Charles’ misinformation seems to come from the Soil Association (2), which campaigns for and certifies organic farming. Though even the Soil Association’s chief propagandist, Patrick Holden, was unable to defend Charles’ position on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. In April 2008, the Soil Association issued a press release (disingenuously called a report) on the ‘latest available research on GM crops’. This ‘report’ contains misquotations, distortions, dishonesty and deceit on a truly heroic scale.

Of 24 references, only nine are actually peer-reviewed studies or reports from scientific bodies. Every peer-reviewed study is misrepresented in the ‘report’ – along the lines of a theatre hoarding that boasts ‘spectacular’ when the reviewer really said ‘this play is spectacularly awful’. The remaining ‘references’ are to newspaper articles, websites or propaganda from other anti-GM pressure groups.

For example, a 2003 study in Science reported that, ‘Field trials carried out with Bacillus thuringiensis [GM] cotton in different states of India show that the technology substantially reduces pest damage and increases yields. The yield gains are much higher than what has been reported for other countries [emphasis added] where genetically modified crops were used mostly to replace and enhance chemical pest control.’ (3) The Soil Association twists that positive conclusion and states that yields have been disappointing in developed countries – because the increases have been much greater in developing countries! It says: ‘A 2003 report published in Science stated that “in the United States and Argentina, average yield effects [of GM crops] are negligible and in some cases even slightly negative” (Qaim and Zilberman, 2003). This was despite the authors being strong supporters of GM crops.’ (4)

Anti-GM vested interests ignore two genuine scientific reviews of the first decade of GM crops – one from the United States Department of Agriculture (5), the other a very detailed international study from a UK economics consultancy (6).

Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Socio-Economic and Environmental Effects, 1996-2006 was published just months ago and exposes every deliberate lie of the opponents of GM. 

GM crops are benefiting farmers in developing countries (7) – over half the decade’s cumulative total of £33.8billion additional value has been created on Third World farms by small farmers. GM crops have reduced pesticide use by 286million kg; there has been a 15.4 per cent reduction in environmental impacts and GM crops have reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 14.76billion kg CO2 equivalents in 2006 – equal to taking every car in Britain off the road for a year.

In contrast, new studies of organic farming show just how destructive that out-of-date system can be. Researchers at Boston College grew soybeans by three methods: no-till conservation (no ploughing, drilling of seeds into ground prepared with weed-killer); conventional tillage, and organic farming (8). No-till conservation produced both the highest crop yield (15 per cent more than conventional and 110 per cent more than organic farming) and held the most carbon in the soil (41 per cent more than conventional tillage and 48 per cent more than organic). Sequestration of carbon prevents release of CO2 or methane into the atmosphere – thus limiting global warming. Higher yield and lower environmental impacts are essential for developing countries. These results confirm a Defra Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) report of 2006 (9), which concluded that organic farming caused more GHG emissions, generated more acid rain and released more nitrogen pollution into the environment than conventional farming.

Given the Soil Association’s ‘loose handling’ of scientific evidence it is surprising that Defra quotes its figures as official government statistics on organic food sales in the UK – even when the numbers are clearly invented on the back of an envelope. For 1996, the Soil Association claimed £260million in sales of organic food; for 2006, it claimed sales of £1,937million (10) – both numbers included as fact in Defra publications and press reports.

What an eagle-eyed civil servant or hack would have noticed is that 260 compounded at 25 per cent annual interest for nine years is exactly 1,937! Which is more likely: the organic food-buying public has been as regular as clockwork for nine years, or the Soil Association publishes dodgy dossiers that are swallowed unquestioned by a gullible government and media?

Those interested can listen to the interview with the prince on the Telegraph’s website (11). As his voice cracks with emotion at ‘they simply will not understand!’ the impression is of impotent rage, self-pity and persecution. Described on BBC radio as ‘verging on the extreme’, the interview reminded me of psychiatric patients who have their delusions challenged – they become confused, aggressive and make wilder and wilder claims to reinforce their delusion (for example, the janitor who believes he is Napoleon will present his in-growing toenail as an injury from Waterloo).

Is it possible that Charles’ state of mind – seemingly irrational, confused, entrenched – has echoes of the beginning of his ancestor King George III’s long illness? George did not manifest psychiatric symptoms until after he turned 50 – Charles is 59. George is thought to have had an unusual form of porphyria (a blood disorder that causes metabolic disturbances) brought on by arsenic prescribed by his doctors. If Charles had a similar genetic predisposition to the disease, it may have been masked for years by a high intake of the anti-oxidant beta-carotene and certain fish oils.

But if his intensive vitamin and supplement regimen were to change suddenly, or if he were to take St John’s Wort (a herbal remedy for anxiety or depression) or alter his drinking habits, his metabolism might, if he is predisposed to this illness, be tipped over into a type of porphyria. Swings in mood and delusions will eventually be followed by a blotchy red face and skin, discoloured urine and a painful abdomen. Sadly, if any of these symptoms were to arise, Charles would probably call a homeopath, meaning the disease would progress to more overt signs of confusion and disturbed behaviour.

If anyone knows a real doctor connected to Buckingham Palace, maybe it’s time to give them a nod in Charles’ direction. Just to be on the safe side

Rob Johnston is a freelance writer on the environment, health and science, and blogs at Bad Ecology.

Previously on spiked

In 2001, Graham Lee observed that society had taken on board the kind of mysticism and suspicion of science that made Charles a laughing stock in the 1980s. Rob Lyons spoke to a leading British expert on biotech who said that though GM food is very beneficial, it won’t solve the food price crisis. Alex Avery did not buy Greenpeace’s toxic tales. Tony Gilland urged us not to put fear before facts when it comes to GM. Conrad Lichstenstein said GM technology is beneficial both for people and the planet. Or read more at spiked issue GM Food.

(1) Prince Charles warns GM crops risk causing the biggest-ever environmental disaster, Telegraph, 12 August 2008

(2) New Soil Association report shows GM crops do not yield more – sometimes Less, 14 April 2008

(3) Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries, Science; p299 and p900-902, 7 February 2003

(4) New Soil Association report shows GM crops do not yield more - sometimes less, Soil Association, 14 April 2008

(5) Economic Research Service/USDA: The First Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States/EIB-11 (pdf)
   
(6) Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Socio-Economic and Environmental Effects, Brookes and Barfoot, 1996-2006

(7)  See concluding comments on p29 in Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Socio-Economic and Environmental Effects, Brookes and Barfoot, 1996-2006

(8) Improved Crop Production And Fewer Greenhouse Gases ScienceDaily, 30 March 2004

(9) Environmental impacts of food production and consumption, Defra 2006 (pdf)

(10)  Soil Association helping organic farmers meet demand, 25 January 2008

(11) Jeff Randall interview with Prince Charles, Telegraph, 12 August 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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