Professor Derek Burke, CBE, who chaired the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes from 1988-97, was the first member of the scientific community to respond in detail to HRH The Prince of Wales's questions about GM food crops.
Professor Burke, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 14 June, 1999, responded to "My 10 fears for GM food" - ten questions attributed to the Prince that had previously been posed to readers of the Daily Mail.
1. Do we need GM food in this country?
Not now you may say; we have enough. But food has become cheaper, and better throughout my life -- I grew up in a family where chicken was an annual treat -- because farmers have used every new technology to our benefit. We can do the same with GM and use the higher yields to stop using marginal land and to restore the hills and coastal strips to their natural state. And when have we British turned our backs on a new technology? New technologies are not all good or all bad: they change things and they pose new questions. So why should we run away from GM?
2. Is GM food safe for us to eat?
Just what is the basis for treating GM foods as so intrinsically dangerous that they should be regarded as the Devil's concoction? Why so black and white? Of course it would be possible to make GM "food" that was dangerous, but I contend that the three GM foods approved for sale in the UK -- cheese, tomato paste and soya [NCBE note: and maize] -- are as safe to eat as any other, and I have no hesitation in doing so. Why not treat food on its merits?
3. Why are the rules for approving GM foods so much less stringent than those for new medicines produced using the same technology ?
This is a 'when did you stop beating your wife' question. The answer has already been given in the question. The answer is clear: the rules not are less stringent, they are different and the same as used elsewhere in the world. Drugs are tested on animals at hundreds of times their clinical doses; that is not possible with food, so different ways have been devised. But if you really want to start trials in humans, 300 million Americans have been eating GM soya for several years now without any ill effects.
4. How much do we really know about the environmental consequences of GM crops?
A huge area -- one and a half times the size of Britain -- is now sown with GM in North America and, although the environment is not the same, there have been no big problems. The well publicised experiments with the Monarch butterfly show that under laboratory conditions caterpillars force-fed corn [maize] pollen are damaged, but it is unlikely that in the wild the caterpillars would eat corn [maize] pollen at all. The effect is small and needs to be guarded against but it is not the catastrophe that some claim.
5. Is it sensible to plant test crops without test regulations in place?
We already have EU regulations which have the force of law. Now we are using a voluntary code of practice that goes beyond EU rules, is voluntary because we don't want to wait for the EU, and which is overseen by an independent body recently appointed by the minister. We need these trials so that real choices can be made about appropriate regulation, and so it is important that vandals do not destroy them and that farmers are not put under pressure by green groups to abandon them.
6. How will consumers be able to exercise genuine choice?
Consumers had choice over the first two products [NCBE note: This is not strictly true, as although chymosin from GM sources is used to make 90% of hard cheese (figure from Unilever in evidence submitted to the House of Lords), only the CoOp chose to label it as such, and even then they only marked certain types of their own-brand vegetarian cheeses], and only when GM soya [NCBE note: and maize too] was introduced was choice lost. Now the emotional campaign against GM foods has removed choice for those of us who want to eat GM soya. So who is being autocratic now? I notice too that the Prince has removed choice from those farmers who farm on his land. Why don't the farmers have choice like US farmers do? There is absolutely no evidence of risk.
7. If something goes wrong with a GM crop who would be held responsible?
Exactly the same bodies as before; for we have been introducing new crops for years - rape and short-stalked wheat, for example - and there have always been mechanisms for dealing with any damage. To pretend otherwise is misleading.
8. Are GM crops really the only way to feed the world's growing population?
No one has ever said it was, but it seems perverse, even criminal, to walk away from an increased source of food when we need it desperately. And it can help; a new rice with increased vitamin A and iron content is almost ready to meet a huge need in South-East Asia.
9. What effect will GM crops have on people of the world's poorest countries?
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics in its recent report points out that, with care, this new technology can help the poorest; a challenge that it is unwise, I suggest even immoral, to walk away from.
10. What sort of world do we want to live in?
I do not want either of the Prince's worlds; neither the Orwellian future nor his organic world, and fortunately for nearly everyone there are many other choices. I want a world where we use technology safely and constructively and we can do that if we keep our heads, which at the moment we are signally failing to do.