King Charles III has repeatedly demonstrated some of the pitfalls of the inbreeding that has plagued the royal families of Europe for centuries: noblesse oblige combined with a kind of feebleminded incomprehension about science.
As Prince of Wales, Charles trumpeted his commitment to use "his unique position to champion action for a sustainable future."
For one thing, he adopted his own version of an eco-friendly lifestyle that included running his Aston Martin sports car on "surplus English white wine and whey from the cheese process." ("I hope he drives caerphilly," one wag quipped.)
He also said he forgoes eating meat or fish two days of the week and consumes dairy products one day a week. And when he was in charge of Highgrove farm in southwest England, all production employed organic farming.
Charles' devotion to organic farming is the best-known and deeply disturbing example of his most profoundly misunderstood subjects — the role of innovation in agriculture, in particular the use of new plant varieties made with the molecular techniques of genetic engineering.
In outspoken and completely misguided comments in an interview in 2008, the Dunce of Wales said that multinational agribusiness companies were engaged in 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.
The not-so-bonnie then-prince said that he rejected the idea that modern genetic modification simply extends or refines "traditional methods of plant breeding." He was (and still is, pending a public repudiation of his ill-informed opinions) convinced that such practices "belong to God, and to God alone." Shades of "The Madness of George III."
It's clear that King Charles knows little about the genetic engineering of plants. For one thing, genetic modification is not new. Plants and microorganisms have long been genetically tweaked by mutation and selection guided by humans for millennia, and used to make biotechnology-improved products as varied as yogurt, beer, cereal crops, antibiotics, vaccines and enzymes (including for laundry detergents and food processing). In fact, there are depictions on papyrus from around 3000 B.C. of alcohol brewing in Egypt using selected grains and yeast. (For the record, that was about four thousand years before the kingdom of "England" was formed.)
Genetic modification of food over the ages
This one graphic illustrates the power of selection and breeding to transform a frail, weedlike plant with vestigial kernels (top) into modern corn:
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 found just in laboratories or test plots, but are the very same fruits, vegetables and grains found at the local supermarket, greengrocer, or farm stand.
Molecular techniques of genetic modification, such as recombinant DNA technology ("gene splicing") and genome editing (such as by CRISPR) 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, those techniques lower even further the already minimal risk associated with introducing new plant varieties into the food supply — and reduce soil erosion, CO2 emissions and the use of chemical pesticides, while increasing yields in the bargain.
The use of these sophisticated techniques makes the final product even safer than modification with older methods 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. Scientists and farmers who implement these new techniques can be more certain about the traits they introduce into the plants.
Americans have consumed trillions of servings of foods derived from plants created with modern genetic engineering techniques, and not a single person has been injured or an ecosystem disrupted. In contrast, at least five products engineered with less precise 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 of genetically engineered foods is exemplary, a few anti-technology advocacy groups, joined by Prince Charles, have pushed for labels that disclose the use of molecular genetic engineering techniques. Such labels add to the costs of processed foods made from fresh fruits and vegetables. The precise costs vary according to the product, but, for example, a company using a genetically engineered, higher-solids, less-watery tomato (which is more favorable for processing) would bear the additional costs of segregating the product at all levels of planting, harvesting, shipping, processing and distribution.
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 expending resources on research and development to create new, innovative products.
How did the new King become so misguided?
King Charles's reservations about genetic engineering 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). Does he exhibit royal disdain, we wonder, for the genetic hybrid we call a tangelo, a cross between a tangerine and grapefruit? Or the mutant peaches we call nectarines?
Genetic engineering's antagonists should be aware that delays or limitations in the use of genetically engineering 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 genetic engineering is not a mere intellectual exercise but, especially in times of food-price inflation, constitutes 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, 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. That's as it should be.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a research associate at the NIH and a consulting professor at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies. Find Henry on Twitter @HenryIMiller