Europe’s precautionary principle is being challenged in the name of innovation. What might at first seem like a battle of words could, however, have profound impacts on the future of food and farming in the UK, across Europe and beyond.

In December 2018, the European Parliament voted on issues connected to its Horizon Europe funding programme and in doing so, passed, for the first time, a ruling that included text referring to the so-called ‘innovation principle’.

The innovation principle was developed in 2013 by the European Risk Forum (ERF), which is funded by Bayer, Dow Chemical, EuropaBio, Syngenta and BASF, amongst others. It is a direct challenge to the precautionary principle and, according to ERF, aims to, “stimulate confidence, investment and innovation,” based on the assertion that, “innovation is the single most important driver of growth in a mature economy.”

Leaving aside the argument about whether or not growth in a mature economy is actually desirable, the inclusion of the words ‘innovation principle’ in a formal document of the European Union (EU) is a good reason to stop and consider exactly what innovation means.

The ERF funders list includes a ‘Who’s Who?’ of biotechnology companies operating in Europe, so we can be confident that their intention is to remove barriers to the introduction of GM crops and other biotech products. However, innovation does not intrinsically equate to technology. Indeed, entertainment industry executive Tom Freston is quoted as saying that, “Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way” – a more broadly applicable statement.

Freston’s definition wasn’t introduced at a packed session of the tenth Oxford Real Farming Conference in January 2019, entitled Reclaiming research for real food and farming: Resetting the agenda for the public good, but it chimes with much of what was discussed. The session concluded that the focus of publicly-funded UK research on food and agriculture must shift away from high-tech approaches that largely benefit global agri-food corporations, to place farmers and growers at the centre of research.

Innovative Farmers is a not-for-profit membership network that practices ‘hands-on’ innovation – “trying a new variety or breed, using a bit of kit in a different way, or responding quickly to unpredictable weather.” Funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund and backed by LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), Innovation for Agriculture, the Organic Research Centre and the Soil Association, the network focuses on field labs – practical on-farm trials linking groups of farmers and growers with researchers from some of the UK’s leading agricultural research institutions.

So, if innovation can be a force for as much good as we choose to direct it towards, why not embrace the innovation principle? The short answer is because of the intention behind it. Nina Holland from Corporate Europe Observatory says that, “The ‘innovation principle’ is a trap, a disguised lobby tool invented by the chemical, tobacco and fossil fuel industries to attack those EU safety rules meant to protect people and planet from harmful products.”

The foundation for the safety rules that industry lobbyists have in their sights, is the precautionary principle. Enshrined in EU law to help prevent environmental harm, this powerful safeguard places the burden of proof onto those who want to act (rather than those who oppose a particular action). Where innovation is proposed and scientifically plausible hazards are identified, but the risk of them occurring cannot be quantified, the precautionary principle protects us by requiring that those proposing the innovation must prove that no harm will be done.

The precautionary principle is a key point of difference between EU regulations on food and farming and those of the US, so its status in a post-Brexit UK could have a significant impact on any future UK/US trade deal. US Ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, wrote in the Daily Telegraph in March 2019 that, “It is not sustainable for the whole world to follow the EU’s ‘Museum of Agriculture’ approach. We have to look to the future of farming, not just the past.”

One key target of this kind of talk from the US is the EU’s tight regulation of genetically modified (GM) food and crops. EU Directive 2001/18/EC controls the cultivation, import and sale of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the EU. It explicitly recognises the precautionary principle and the fact that, because living organisms reproduce, the impact of their release into the environment may be irreversible. It respects the importance of ethical concerns about GMOs, requires a case-by-case environmental risk assessment prior to release and imposes measures to ensure the traceability of all GMOs released. In contrast, the US follows the principle of ‘substantial equivalence’ which can be roughly translated as ‘if it looks like a duck and you say it quacks like a duck, we won’t ask any awkward questions’.

The development of newer GM techniques over recent years has raised the stakes even further. In July 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that a range of new genetic engineering techniques, including genome editing, are covered by EU Directive 2001/18/EC and must be treated as GM. The ruling was greeted with surprise and some consternation by the likes of Dr Sarah Schmidt of the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf who rather dramatically described the ruling as “the deathblow for plant biotech in Europe”.

Plans for four separate GM field trials in the UK this year alone, would suggest that Dr Schmidt’s alarm was somewhat premature. The UK has long been a pro-biotech voice in Europe and Environment Secretary Michael Gove has made his support for GM crops clear, so there is ample evidence that the UK’s departure from the EU will make the introduction of GM crops to our own fields significantly more likely. Meanwhile, our European colleagues are deeply concerned about industry moves to breakdown key safeguards and open the EU’s door to newer forms of GM. The UK public has roundly rejected GM in the food chain but arguments about biotech in our food and on our farms are notoriously entrenched. With the precautionary principle under threat and risky developments being justified in the name of innovation, perhaps the truly innovative thing would be to stop focusing on technology altogether and instead ask, ‘How did we get into this mess and what will most effectively and sustainably get us out of it?’

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