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Green Genes

Having saluted Prince Charles in the past for his championing of unfairly threatened vegetable varieties, we feel it only fair to question his attack against agricultural genetics.

First, a little background on the prince's campaign, which he last week renewed with an article in The Daily Mail, a London newspaper.

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European Union officials a few years ago tried to bring order to the vegetable and fruit realm by creating something called the Common Catalog. Its aim was commendable: to cull out confusing, duplicative names and establish uniform identification of cultivars. But its result was botanically dangerous. Heirloom strains and specialized varieties suited to certain regional conditions were condemned to disappear because they were not on the approved list. Brussels Eurocrats were, in essence, legislating Brussels sprouts, dictating which strains could be sold, which not. The Prince of Wales stepped in to support a research foundation saving the vital genetic diversity of strains that didn't make the EU social register. Good.

But then the prince zagged in the opposite direction. He unleashed polemics attacking gene experimenting in agriculture as dangerous to nature's work. He was right two years ago about saving plants whose genetic makeup served special purposes. It's ironic that he now excoriates researchers seeking to use agro-genetics for similarly beneficial goals.

Yes, extra-cautious safeguards should apply before gene-altered plants are used commercially. That's just common sense, parallel to longstanding cautions against introducing nonnative species of plants and animals that may upset ecological systems. Such caution has been used with early lab products such as frost-resistant strawberries.

When experimental plants impinge on other species, extensive, carefully contained trials are a must. That's particularly true of plants into which insecticidal or herbicidal traits are inserted - lest they upset food chains in the animal world or ecological balances in the plant world.

But had agro-Luddites prevailed in previous generations, the hybridization work of Gregor Mendel and Luther Burbank would have been banned as being an unnatural intervention of humans in nature's workshop. So might all the work of anonymous breeders of better plants, pollinators lost in the mists of prehistory. Our farm stands, groceries, and dinner tables would have been the worse for such banning. Few fruits and vegetables that grace dinner tables today could pass a strict test of no hybridization nor genetic developing at the hands of humans. Even the best produce from organic farms is more often than not a product of someone's agro-genetic hybridizing.

If there is a motto on this subject, it might be: Curb kudzu, but don't ban Ambrosia melons. Remember, nature's workshop is itself a long chain of both genetic mutation and hybridization. An amber light makes sense, not a red light.

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