When I was Secretary of State at Defra, I identified the department’s top priorities as being to grow the rural economy, improve the environment and protect the country from animal and plant diseases.
Technology and innovation hold the key to delivering these objectives, so I am delighted to be able to use this column to make the positive case for how they can increase food production and improve the environment.
UK farming has been held back by the hostility of the EU to new technology, which is causing European research to stagnate and agricultural yields to suffer.
Nowhere is this hostility more apparent than in the EU’s attitude to genetic technologies.
Last 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 prohibitive regulatory hurdles as those created by genetic modification.
This represents a major setback for the many scientists who hoped that the court would recognise the difference between gene editing and genetic modification techniques: gene-editing involves changes to an organism’s DNA, but does not involve the insertion of foreign genes.
Indeed, viewed from any kind of rational standpoint, current progress in genetic technology is merely the natural development of the husbandry which mankind has practised for millennia.
We have bred and cross-bred plants since the Stone Age to modify their genetic makeup, produce higher yields and promote resistance to pests and disease.
The EU decision will have a profoundly damaging effect on research. In 2017, for instance, scientists at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, announced they had used CRISPR to make pigs immune from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus.
This will be impossible to commercialise under the enormous regulatory burden; and no company will risk trying.
As well as boosting productivity, existing genetic technologies are doing environmental good.
A 2014 survey by Wilhelm Klumper and Matin Qaim from the University of Gottingen found genetic technologies had reduced pesticide use by 36.9 per cent on average around the world, while increasing yields by 21.6 per cent.
Its authors found ‘robust evidence’ for the benefits of these crops and hoped to ‘increase public trust in this technology’.
Delivered properly, Brexit should, therefore, represent a wonderful opportunity for the countryside outside the failing EU model, balancing the precautionary principle, currently interpreted in the most severely prescriptive manner by the EU, with a requirement to uphold the innovation principle.
We need to grasp the opportunities which 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. Allowed to embrace the latest technologies and pioneering innovations, British farmers can play an enormous role in meeting that demand, providing a huge boost to the rural economy and continuing the tradition of sustainable and effective management of the environment, in which the UK has been a global leader for so long.