Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’, Princess Anne has openly backed genetically modified (GM) farming. This risks a royal rift with her brother, Charles, a strident anti-GM activist. The debate goes beyond the Windsors’ breakfast place however, with Brexit throwing the UK’s GM policy into question. Sam Barnett takes as look at the story and the next steps for the GM industry.
To the surprise of many Princess Anne has expressed support for GM crops and livestock.
The Princess knows this is a polarising view, not just in society as a whole, but closer to home also. Her brother, Prince Charles, a vehement anti GM campaigner, has said that it could cause “the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”
Why is it important?
One of the more overlooked outcomes of Brexit is its impact on the UK’s approach towards GM. The EU is intransigent on the issue, allowing only one GM crop to be grown commercially in the Union, and that was 15 years ago.
The UK Government has bridled at this however; in 2014 the then Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said that Europe could become the “museum of world farming” if it did not change its GM stance.
Now, free from Brussels, the Government is looking at how GM foods could sprout here. George Eustice, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries & Food, has said that regulation is being looked at and policy will be “science-based and proportionate”.
What’s the reaction been?
As a nation that has tamed mad cows, culled fluey birds and swallowed horse meat lasagne, we could be forgiven for scepticism towards agricultural meddling.
Government held a national conversation on the issue in 2003, convening 600 public meetings where people expressed a clear distaste for GM food. The issue united the Daily Mail, who ran a ‘Frankenstein food’ campaign, with armies of hazmat-suited environmentalists.
Yet times might be a-changing. Polling last year showed public support for GM, albeit from a small sample size. Meanwhile most of us eat GM food without complaint, as a lot of supermarket meat is now raised on GM feed.
However anti-GM groups have argued that the public is ignorant, not acceptant. GM Freeze has launched ‘Feed me the Truth’, a campaign dedicated to informing the public that they are eating GM food unawares.
The issue could be a storm in a Royal Warranted teacup.
The UK is unlikely to commercially grow GM food unless EU policy changes. GM companies have said that the UK’s Northern Europe climate would demand the creation of new seeds, which would require significant investment. There will be little appetite for investment of course if, with EU policy remaining the same, the UK is the only nation in Europe that will permit their use.
However, GM companies are excited by a more open UK market. Already, the American agricultural lobby is licking its lips at the prospect of a UK-US trade deal.
This presents huge challenges. A repeat of 2003’s hysteria would make it impossible for the UK to allow GM imports and, in an extreme scenario, could scupper trade deals. The industry must communicate proactively, using scientific evidence to reassure the British public and quell the anti-GM lobby. However, in a media and political environment that is ‘tired of experts’, hearts, rather than minds, may be the priority.
Separately, there are looming challenges for UK-based GM researchers. Huge numbers of UK scientists will be losing their EU funding and will now be competing for replacement money from the UK Government. If GM companies want a share of this, they will have to make their case.
Their case, fortunately, is strong. GM is seen as a potential solution to future global food security – a third of Nobel Laureates have openly expressed their support and condemned the anti-GM dogma of the likes of Greenpeace. Now this argument must be made in Westminster, Whitehall and the media. The industry needs to both excite UK policy-makers and assure the public, or else be left short-changed.