The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, which sets a target to reduce pesticide use by 50 per cent, would negatively affect the world’s most food-insecure populations. The UK should not follow suit, says Adam Speed, director of public affairs at the Crop Protection Association.
I’m quite keen on innovation. I think it started in 1992 when I first got my hands on a Game Boy.
Whether it’s the latest gizmos to control my house, the latest in agricultural technology, or innovative vaccines which mean we might get back to something approaching normality, I’ve always felt innovation is generally a good thing, something to welcome and an area which Government policy should support and enable.
Conversely, I’ve always been wary of efforts to stifle innovation, or impose restrictions, especially in areas where progress is being made.
Which brings me to the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy.
On paper, the aims of the strategy are noble enough – achieving sustainable food production, sustainable food processing and distribution, sustainable food consumption and food loss and waste prevention.
The strategy identifies reduction targets for plant protection products (PPPs) as means of achieving some of these aims, with the European Commission setting a target of a 50 per cent reduction in the overall use and risk of chemical pesticides.
Readers may recall the French government setting a similar target in 2008. By 2018, pesticide use had risen by 12 per cent.
I’m not saying that reductions in PPP use are unachievable.
Indeed, through an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach, farmers are using products only when necessary, resulting in reductions in the volume of product used.
But setting arbitrary reduction targets could do little to benefit the environment or protect human health, and at the same time could limit our ability to grow healthy safe affordable food.
I’m not alone in thinking the Farm to Fork strategy leaves a little to be desired.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published an analysis of the economic and food security impacts of the strategy and found that if adopted in the EU, it would likely lead to a decline in agricultural production of 12 per cent, price increases of 17 per cent and reduced trade.
These impacts will not only affect the EU.
The analysis found that if trade was restricted as a result of the proposed measures in the strategy, the negative impacts would be concentrated in regions with the world’s most food-insecure populations.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a little uncomfortable about the policy choices of well-fed Europeans inflicting greater food insecurity on those already at risk.
Sonny Perdue, the U.S Secretary of Agriculture, described the strategy as being ‘based more on political science than demonstrated agricultural science’ and ‘a recipe for high cost and low output agricultural production.’
Aside from the well-documented need to increase productivity to meet the needs of a growing global population, policies which cause production to decline and prices to rise should be avoided at the best of times, but to pursue them when many are struggling as a result of the pandemic seems misguided.
If we are to respond to the challenge of climate change while growing food, reducing our impact on the environment and even restoring habitats and biodiversity, farmers need to be able to utilise the technologies and innovations available to them.
We shouldn’t place unnecessary barriers in the way of the technologies, or the farmers that wish to use them, restricting their ability to respond to the ever-changing pressures they face on farm.
Naturally, questions are being asked in Parliament about the implications of the strategy for the UK and whether we will follow suit.
Government has so far held steady, focusing on IPM and potentially including new technologies in the mix, as seen with the soon-to-be-published consultation on the regulation of gene editing.
Whatever your views about the pros and cons of Brexit, at least we are spared the consequences of this particular strategy.
Innovation has a role to play in meeting many of the challenges we are currently facing, whether it’s responding to the economic catastrophe Covid has inflicted, attempting to reverse biodiversity loss, or mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Adopting agricultural policy which stifles innovation, reduces productivity, increases prices and reduces trade is best avoided.
Instead we should follow the science and let the innovators get to work.
Adam can be found tweeting at @AdamMSpeed