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Tuesday, June 1, 1999 Published at 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK


UK Politics

Prince warned of GM minefield

Malcolm Savidge: "Experimental research is the best way forward"

Prince Charles article has provoked a new storm over genetically-modified food by writing a long article in which he suggests the arguments used in favour of the new technology are "emotional blackmail".

Responding to the prince's intervention for BBC News Online Malcolm Savidge - MP for Aberdeen North and a member of the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee - argues the future monarch should steer clear of a highly-charged debate.


[ image:  ]
Prince Charles starts his article on genetically-modified foods by asking, do we need this? That question can be asked about any new development - do we need better computers or colour television?

As to whether there are benefits or dangers, as Prince Charles says, the best thing to do is careful experimental research.

We have claims both that this technology could produce day dreams of plentiful improved food for all - or nightmares of "Frankenstein foods".

The best way is to check both food safety and environmental consequences through rigorous and controlled tests, being careful to minimise the spread of crops to an extent which could significantly contaminate other crops.

Food under the microscope
The effects on the Monarch butterfly show that there can be environmental consequences, but we should be aware that wipe-spread environmental effects can occur using natural farming methods.

The massive reduction in varieties of bird species in Britain has occurred through changes in agricultural practice which did not involve genetic modification.


[ image: The Prince of Wales is backing protesters who oppose GM foods]
The Prince of Wales is backing protesters who oppose GM foods
While we must be extremely careful about the possible consequences of genetic modification, it usually involves a single targeted gene whereas more "natural" methods often involve larger modifications and can be less predictable.

The government is totally correct to ensure that this technology should be strictly regulated and only done on a commercial basis if we are certain that both safety and environmental considerations have been properly protected.

It is also correct that the government has ensured that there will now be rigorous labelling, because it is right that the public should have choice as to whether or not they purchase genetically-modified products.

While the questions that the Prince of Wales has raised are valid and interesting ones, constitutionally it could be wise for him to avoid becoming a campaigner within a controversial political area.

I am concerned at whether arranging a highly-publicised meeting with Dr Pusztai is wise given the findings of the Rowett Research Institute, the Independent Audit Committee and the Royal Society's inquiry.


[ image: Prince Charles eating beef-on-the-bone at a recent Welsh reception]
Prince Charles eating beef-on-the-bone at a recent Welsh reception
These seem to indicate that Dr Pusztai lacked solid experimental basis for the assertions he was making and indicated that either his experimental results did not support his conclusions or that in certain cases the experiments did not appear to have been undertaken.

Further progress in relation to this whole highly-controversial area must be based on scientific research, but it must be sound science.

The grave public concern that there has been about GM foods is perhaps natural in the aftermath of certain public health disaster we have experienced in recent years. The worse of these has obviously been the "mad cow" disaster of BSE and new variant CJD.

It is, however, worth stressing that at present there has been no clear and undisputed evidence of anyone suffering health damage as a result of GM foods.

It is perhaps ironic that at a time when many sections of the media are campaigning vigorously against a ban on beef-on-the-bone, where a very small risk does appear to be certain, they should at the same time be appearing to raise hysterical fears about genetically-modified foods, where so far no risk at all has actually been proved.

However, I believe that in all these things a precautionary principle should be observed: some dangers can take several years to emerge.

Whether our best hopes or worst fears are fulfilled will be primarily a matter of scientific possibilities. However, it is the responsibility of politicians nationally and internationally to ensure that biodiversity and the environment are preserved, that health and safety is protected and that exploitation of the vulnerable is prevented.



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