TCS Daily

Royal Lowness

By Henry I. Miller - March 10, 2006 12:00 AM

The highly political and often dubious activities of Britain's Prince Charles — made public last week in a confidential memo from his former deputy private secretary — is a reminder of the major disadvantage of a monarchy. Unlike in a republic, the citizenry don't get to choose the head of state. Or more to the point, they don't get to reject a pompous git who, if he weren't a member of the royal family, would probably be selling insurance or maybe working as a maitre d'.

According to the memo by Mark Bolland, made public as part of a lawsuit filed by the Prince of Wales against a British newspaper, Charles regards himself as a "dissident working against the prevailing political consensus". The Prince regularly presses his views on government ministers and politicians, including his "vigorous campaign" against genetically modified foods.

Not-so-bonnie Prince Charles has said 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." (Maybe he has an inside track: His family motto is, after all, "Dieu et Mon Droit.") And if mere mortals persist, he contends, they should segregate and label "genetically modified products."

Prince Charles knows little about the genetic engineering of plants, among many other things of which he knows little. 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 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, 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 and the use of pesticides and increases 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. In contrast, the older genetic techniques transfer a variable number of genes haphazardly. Users of the new techniques can be more certain about the traits they introduce into the plants. Americans have consumed well over a trillion servings of gene-spliced foods, and not a single person has been injured, or an ecosystem disrupted. In contrast, five products engineered with traditional techniques (two squash, two potato and one celery variety) have had unsafe levels of toxins and caused injury or death.

Even though the safety level is exemplary, a few anti-technology advocacy groups — joined by Prince Charles — have pushed for labels disclosing the use of gene-splicing techniques. Such labels would add significantly to the costs of processed foods made from fresh fruits and vegetables. The precise costs will 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 better served by industry spending its resources on research and development to create new, safer products.

At the end of the day, Prince Charles' 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 labeling 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 seem to forget that delays or limitations in the use of gene-spliced products cause the poor to suffer most. Because food purchases require a disproportionately larger 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 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 — 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' own organically-produced vegetables failed this test: so deformed and repulsive to look at, they were not marketable and had to be given to local schools.

Prince Charles should give the new biotechnology a try before he heaves another tomato at it.

Henry Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, 1989-1993. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

1 Comment

Honi soit qui mal y pense
You sure Jonathan Miller didn't write this ?

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