Consumed by an overarching desire for bureaucratic uniformity, the Common Agricultural Policy is consigning the EU to become the Museum of World Farming. Its hostility to new technology, driven by powerful but misguided campaign groups, is causing European research to stagnate and agricultural yields to suffer.
France is missing out on over 4.5 tonnes per hectare in its maize yield compared to the US, amounting to a total loss of over 6 million tonnes. That crop could be worth an extra £600 million, or France could free up half a million hectares for wildlife, recreation, or forestry.
Brexit should, therefore, represent a wonderful opportunity to boost productivity outside this failing model. We should embrace the opportunities of innovation, offering farmers the greatest freedom to grow their businesses and consumers the greatest choice of products, while improving the natural environment. We should balance the precautionary principle – currently interpreted in the most severely prescriptive manner by the EU – with a requirement to uphold the innovation principle.
For decades, the EU has stood squarely against this view. In July this year, the European Court of Justice rejected the advice of its advocate general and ruled that organisms created using the precise gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 should be subject to the same almost prohibitive regulatory hurdles as those created by genetic modification. Scientists from over 70 European research institutes objected to the ban, but the ruling was all too predictable given the EU’s stifling approach to innovation. It will have, as Professor Stefan Jansson from Umeå University puts it, “a chilling effect on research”.
In 2017, for instance, scientists at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh announced that they had used CRISPR to make pigs immune from Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome virus. This will now be impossible to commercialise under the enormous regulatory burden; no company will risk trying.
Likewise, scientists from the University of Minnesota and Calyxt have used another gene-editing method, TALEN, to produce a wheat resistant to powdery mildew and therefore in need of less fungicide spray. This will make the US more competitive against British wheat growers unable to follow suit.
Genetic technologies can do environmental good. A 2014 survey found that genetic technologies had reduced pesticide use by 36.9% on average around the world, while increasing yields by 21.6%. Its authors found “robust evidence” for the benefits of these crops and hoped to “increase public trust in this technology.”
Progress in genetic technology is merely the natural development of the husbandry which mankind has practised for millennia. We have bred and crossbred plants since the Stone Age to modify their genetic makeup, produce higher yields and promote resistance to pests and disease. Genetic technologies simply eliminate the guesswork but, as Dutch plant scientist René Smulders said, the EU’s approach is “like using a typewriter while the computer has already been invented”.
In his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, Michael Gove declared that “science is the future” and advocated “rising investment in agritech, world-leading centres of agricultural science.” This is highly commendable, but the reality is that it will not be possible under the current Withdrawal Agreement and must be set against the background that the world’s largest chemical company, BASF, has already abandoned all further biotechnology research for the European market. Bayer is soon to follow, taking its biotech research elsewhere.
The Withdrawal Agreement would forfeit the UK’s regulatory independence and see it yoked to the EU’s extreme technological risk aversion. We would not be free to stimulate our own research centres. We would not be able to recalibrate our regulations to focus on outcomes over uniform bureaucracy. We would not be able to improve our environmental and animal health standards. We may not even be able to enact the once-promised ban on live-animal exports.
For all the talk of retaking our seat on world bodies – the WTO, the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Codex Alimentarius Commission – what would be the point if we simply sat as supine rule takers from the EU?
Happily, there is an alternative. Spectacular opportunities await after a clean Brexit in which the UK truly regains its independence. Global population, wealth, and demand for top-quality agricultural products are all growing. We can boost productivity by embracing technology, direct public procurement to domestic producers and offer substantial rural support to reward farmers for public goods. We can take up a meaningful seat on global bodies, working with allies as a powerful voice for free trade and continuing our long history of environmental leadership.
This is all possible under WTO rules. We could break free of the EU straitjacket to make our own democratically-accountable, evidence-led policies. But for all Michael Gove’s ambitions, the Withdrawal Agreement would leave UK farming in a potentially dire situation, remaining bound to the EU so that these vital opportunities would be squandered.
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