By Mark Wagoner: Touchet, Washington
Farmers have a new favorite member of the British royal family: Princess Anne.
Queen Elizabeth, of course, is regal and steady—a model leader of a constitutional monarchy who floats above the political turbulence of Parliament and provides institutional stability. Her grandson Prince William has the appearance of a promising leader, and William’s bride Kate Middleton has turned into the Jackie Kennedy of the United Kingdom: a poised and stylish wife and mother.
Then there’s Prince Charles. Unlike his wise mother, he dabbles like a dilettante in fashionable causes such as global warming, urban planning, and organic farming.
He also despises genetically modified crops—the kind that I grow on my farm in Washington State, and one of the tools that our world needs if it hopes to feed a swelling global population as well as to practice environmentally sustainable and economically responsible agriculture.
Then there’s Princess Anne, my new royal hero. She recently made the news for her scientifically sensible views: “Gene technology has got real benefits to offer,” she told a BBC radio program last month. “Surely, if we’re going to be better at producing food of the right value, then we have to accept that genetic technology … is going to be a part of that.”
She recognized that not everybody shares her views: “GM is one of those things that divides people.” Yet she also wants to have a conversation that encourages crop-technology skeptics to reconsider the “precautionary principle,” a risk-management theory that has hobbled innovation in Europe: “To say we mustn’t go there ‘just in case’ is probably not a practical argument.”
Perhaps, like her brother Charles, she’s guilty of speaking out on a topic that calls for royal silence. Here’s the key difference: She actually knows what she’s talking about.
The 66-year-old Princess Anne is a longtime champion of sound science. She has served as president of the British Science Association, a post previously held by two sons of Charles Darwin as well as Nobel Prize-winning physicists. She is also a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences—the only member of the royal family to hold this position.
What’s more, she raises crops and livestock on a working farm in the western part of England. “Princess Anne exudes no-nonsense practicality,” according to a profile in Country Life magazine. “The back of her Range Rover is unglamorously full of hedge-cutting equipment.”
So she understands both science and agriculture. When the BBC asked her if she would like to grow genetically modified crops on her farm, she replied simply: “Yes.”
Unfortunately, farmers in the United Kingdom face severe restrictions on what they can plant and how they protect the crops. They don’t enjoy anything like the same access to technology as farmers in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.
This may be part of the reason many farmers voted for Brexit last year: They wanted to escape from the stifling regulations imposed on them by Brussels. Minister of Agriculture George Eustice recently said that when the UK departs the EU, it may re-examine GM crops—which is to say that Princess Anne just might get her wish.
Prince Charles, of course, won’t like that. He once warned that the use of GM crops “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”
What balderdash. If we care about the environment, we need the biotechnology tool because it lets us grow more food on less land, while also fighting both soil erosion and greenhouse gases. That’s why I choose to grow GM crops on my farm—and that’s probably why Princess Anne would like to grow them on hers.
It’s corny, but I’m going to say it: Princess Anne may be 12th in line for the British crown, but she’s first in the hearts of global farmers.
Mark Wagoner is a third-generation farmer in Walla Walla County, Washington where they raise alfalfa seed. Mark volunteers as a Board member for the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).