London (05.04.17) – It has never been a great secret that the heir to the British throne is less than sympathetic to the use of biotechnology in agriculture. For years he has railed against the use of GM-crops in all their forms while enthusiastically supporting so-called “organic” procedures.

And also, over the years, there have been rumours and mutterings to suggest that not all members of his family necessarily agree with him but, by and large, such conclusions have inclined to be muted and tentative.

No longer. A couple of weeks ago the heir’s sister Anne, the Princess Royal, said that she would like to grow GM-produce on her Gloucestershire farm. She told the BBC that “If we are going to be better at producing food of the right value then we have to accept that genetic technology, whether you call it modification or anything, is going to be part of that”. She thought there could be downsides, but “not very many”. Both the newspapers and the BBC reported the princess’s comments (1-3).

As would be expected, there was objection from the usual sources when the director of GM Freeze, which campaigns against genetically modified food, said it was “naive and misleading to equate genetic modification with conventional breeding”. She said the term GM referred to a set of highly invasive techniques far removed from selective breeding and so on and so on (3). But there was also sense and a welcome: a spokesman for the National Farmers' Union observed that: "British farmers should have the choice to access the best technologies, such as advanced plant breeding, to ensure they can remain competitive and produce quality food while protecting the environment" (4).

Nothing to do with royalty, but, while we are in Britain, readers might be interested in a briefing paper on genome editing prepared for UK legislators (5). As non-specialists in the field, if and when the question of regulation comes up, either post-Brexit for the UK itself or for the EU at large while the UK remains a Member State, parliamentarians are likely to be reliant on such sources of information. This paper may therefore be an important influence on any decisions they reach.

And while on “royal”, but to do with “royalties” rather than “royals”, Reuters reports that in Argentina almost all the soy cultivated is GM but most of the seeds are bought on the black market or GM-beans are used as seeds without paying royalties. That does not bring joy to the biotech companies which developed the strains and which charge a technology fee for their use. The dispute has been long-running but, according to Reuters (6), both sides may be close to a breakthrough in negotiations after a months-long deadlock that prompted Monsanto to stop selling new GM-technology in the country.

Sources:

1. Princess Anne on food and farming post-Brexit. BBC Radio Farming Today (23.03.17) (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08j99jg). Note that this recording will be available at this URL only until 21.04.17.

2. Jerome Starkey ((22.03.17). Royal rivalry over GM farming. The Times (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/royal-rivalry-over-gm-farming-c26pnb7hw?CMP=TNLEmail_118918_1520054)

3 . Genetically-modified crops have benefits - Princess Anne. BBC News (22.03.17) (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ukhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39329933)

4 . Princess Anne: GM already causes more than "occasional downsides". GM Freeze (22.03.17) (http://www.gmfreeze.org/news-releases/281/)

5 . Josh Robbins (22.03.17). Princess Anne has backed GM crops that Prince Charles called 'the biggest disaster of all time'. Business Insider UK (http://uk.businessinsider.com/princess-anne-backed-gm-crops-that-prince-charles-slated-2017-3)

6 . Genome editing. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology No. 541 (Nov. 2016) (http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/POST-PN-0541/POST-PN-0541.pdf)

7 . Maximiliano Rizzi (20.12.16). Argentina soy farmers, seed sellers see progress in royalty talks. Reuters (http://www.reuters.com/article/argentina-soybeans-monsanto-idUSL1N1E81SM)

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  Of royals and royalties – and other things British