The EU’s anti-innovation approach to policy making has stopped UK farmers benefitting from the latest scientific developments – but now there is an opportunity to change that, says Mark Buckingham, chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council.
When we look back on this period, one of the memorable images will be of empty supermarket shelves and queues to enter food shops.
Although panic buying was thankfully brief, Covid-19 has put the issue of how we feed our nation near the top of the political agenda for the first time in a long time.
We won’t know all the lessons from this tragic crisis for years, but some things are already becoming clear.
We should be enormously grateful to everyone across the food chain – from farmers to retailers – for their hard work and resilience in continuing to ensure safe, high quality, affordable food can reach our tables.
But the pandemic has also shone a light on the challenges facing the sector in the long-term.
Over the next decade we must strive to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development goals, and in the next 30 years we need to meet what is expected to be peak global food demand.
In this context, our policymakers should consider how to support supply chains to help them be as resilient and productive as possible - from farm to fork.
Science is one critical guide, gathering and using evidence in the best ways we know how.
Another is an openness to diverse approaches - not putting all your eggs in one basket – and fostering innovation.
One tool to meet the coming challenges is biotechnology.
Working with nature using genetics and breeding can play a key role in safely improving food security, safely boosting productivity, and reducing farming’s environmental impact.
However, the UK has not been able to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by rapid advances in biotechnology, due to the EU’s approach to the precautionary principle.
This has created stagnation, and offers no solutions to growing food demand, climate change and rapidly evolving pest and disease pressures.
Brussels’ restrictive and unscientific approach to managing agricultural innovations including gene edited crops and genetically modified organisms does not work.
For 20 years, it has stopped farmers from taking advantage of rapidly advancing science, which has benefits for them, the environment, and consumers.
We have seen UK scientific excellence – with products such as blight resistant potato, developed at the John Innes centre in Norfolk – commercialised overseas, with UK farmers left out in the cold.
A different, post-Brexit model for biotechnology regulation could reap the rewards of science and innovation developed in the UK.
That is why abc commissioned Estel Consult to assess safe regulatory models in countries like Australia and New Zealand, Canada and Argentina, and identify what aspects of such systems the UK could draw on once we have left the EU, while continuing to offer the highest levels of protection to the environment and consumers.
The report found that many countries have flexible, efficient regulations that involve significant consultation and risk-assessment throughout – and most importantly are led by science and evidence.
As a result, innovations are regularly approved and used by farmers, bringing multiple benefits, including reduced carbon footprints, improved yields, better targeting of crop protection chemistry application, and greater income for farmers – all things we will need to ensure food security in the future.
Our policymakers must look to these robust approaches for guidance and best practice, to make such technology advances available for UK farmers.
The Government has an opportunity to bring the UK in line with much of the rest of the world, and develop a practical, proportionate regulatory framework for biotechnology, avoiding the cul-de-sac EU policy has built.
This will create a framework to allow farmers to choose innovation to support the sustainable and productive agriculture the UK needs.
In the face of unprecedented challenges to the supply chain, including rising demand and climate change, having this choice is more important than ever.
Food security matters have been in the spotlight recently– but will also matter in whatever ‘new norm’ we find ourselves in.
Science, evidence, innovation and choice can all help towards a more resilient future.
Mark can be found tweeting at @markbuckingham1