One of the biggest attractions of Brexit for many is the potential for the UK to develop a more science-led approach to pesticides and plant technology. But has that argument been damaged by the events of the past week?
George Eustice’s decision to reject the NFU’s application for a derogation from the EU neonicotinoid ban has added further fuel to the Brexit debate.
Remain campaigners have argued the decision undermines a core strand of the pro-Brexit case presented by the Farming Minister and former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson.
They have both argued leaving the EU would enable the UK to establish a more favourable regulatory regime when it comes to pesticides and plant breeding technology.
For example, this could include making neonicotinoid seed treatments, currently banned at EU level, available again in the UK and licensing GM crops and new technologies like gene editing, which scientists fear could be stifled by the EU regulatory process.
Brexit would also remove the EU from the current political impasse over glyphosate, they have argued.
This position came in for further scrutiny in the wake of the decision by Mr Eustice to reject the latest NFU/AHDB application for a derogation from the current EU neonicotinoid ban.
Former Farming Minister Sir Jim Paice, a leading voice in the Farmers For In campaign, said: “This just proves my fundamental point that outside the EU the UK government would not be certain to support our industry.
“Just imagine how much worse it would be with a government that is anti-farming or even just anti-pesticides!
"British farmers gain from the strength of the EU farming lobby and there is no evidence at all to argue that outside the EU our regulations would be less of a problem”.
NFU vice president Guy Smith, who vowed the NFU would continue to seek for farmers to use the banned chemicals this autumn, said:
“The out campaign’s assumption we would regain control of regulatory policy and put science as the main driver overlooks the fact that anti-pesticide NGOs will continue to lobby and politicians will continue to live in fear of that.”
But Eustice insisted his decision had no bearing on what happen in the event of a vote to leave in June.
He said: "I make no apology to the Remain Campaign for taking a decision based on scientific advice to protect bees.
"If we leave the EU we would be free to make decisions based on the evidence and science, not the politics of the EU and we could authorise some products currently banned.”
"However, with the unbridled freedom to decide our own laws comes responsibility. The NFU application on neonicotinoids was assessed by our Expert Committee on Pesticides and they recommended that it be refused. It was therefore the right decision to take in this instance."
Speaking at a Crop Protection Association debate in London last Thursday, Mr Paterson said the EU Commission ignored the Defra chief scientist’s advice, based on ‘real trials with real bees’, not to ban neonicotinoids in 2013.
He insisted, if the UK left the EU, it could ‘embrace the innovation principle as opposed to the ludicrous precautionary principle’ and ‘make it a priority to embrace modern technology to increase our food production and improve our environment’.
The EU was becoming a ‘museum of farming’ because of the ‘hostility to these new products’ in the EU, which was now preventing the big agri-science companies from developing them for EU farmers.
But Mr Paterson was challenged by Mr Smith on why the Government, when Mr Paterson was still in charge at Defra in 2014, had not accepted the NFU’s request then for a derogation.
Mr Paterson blamed the coalition Government, which he said was ‘sensitive’ to these issues. The political environment of the time had made it impossible to get the policy through, give the level of opposition out there, manifested in the tens of thousands of emails Mr Paterson had received on this single.
Mr Paterson insisted the same pressure applied in Brussels.
Sir Jim Paice hit back by describing the ‘regulatory freedom’ promised by Brexit campaigners as ’illusory’.
He pointed out political pressure on a UK Government outside the EU would be just as intense in the UK, with no guarantees a future UK Government would be any more favourable towards science and technology in farming than Brussels is now.
The UK would also have to comply with EU rules, anyway, in order to maintain trade links, he added,
Sir Jim said: “Outside the EU, the UK would be able to make its own decisions on both pesticides and GM technology using our own scientific advice.
“However, even if approved for use the actual usage of such things would have to reflect the markets the products were going to.
“If we obtain access to the EU single market we would still be bound by their strict rules on importing food products grown or treated with things banned in the EU.”
Paterson responded by arguing the UK would be seeking to agree global trade rules on international bodies if it left the EU.
Sir Jim and Mr Smith also questioned whether the big agri-science companies would be willing to develop chemicals and crops for the UK market alone, even if the UK regulatory regime was more sympathetic post-Brexit.
Mr Eustice said: “If we were to leave the EU, we would be able to put in place a credible authorisation procedure for both pesticides and genetic technologies which was rooted in science rather than EU politics.”
The UK would be free to authorise chemicals banned in the EU, such as neonictinoids, but would then have to agree minimum residue limits with the EU in order to continue to trade, he added.
Mr Eustice envisages a model where the UK continued ‘joint working on EU technical and scientific groups’ and have input into the work of the European Food Safety Authority in assessing the safety and environmental impact of crops and chemicals.
Once the scientific assessment was complete, there would be ‘dual legislation process’ with the UK authorities and the Commission adopting separate processes.
“You would get round the problem where the technical group says these things are safe but politics gets in the way.
"It would not be possible for the EU to ban imports of products we have authorised because the food safety conclusions would be indisputable," Mr Eustice said.