Christopher Fraser is the Independent Chairman of the Crop Protection Association. He is a former Conservative MP for South West Norfolk.
The most important international agreements often go to the wire. With little more than two months remaining until the Brexit transition period ends, we are approaching the endgame of our negotiations with the EU and there is so much which remains unknown.
What we do know however, is that regulatory power over agriculture is about to return to the UK; a seismic change for which the sector is already preparing. Deal or no deal, we will see checks and extra costs for agri-food. Nonetheless, in the long-term, this is an enormous moment of opportunity for our food and farming sector – an opportunity for a genuine post-Brexit dividend and a chance for the Government to remove us from a bureaucratic framework which has turned Europe, over recent decades into a “museum” of agriculture.
As a result of the EU’s approach, the UK has needlessly been left behind when it comes to the scientific and technological advances being enjoyed elsewhere in the world, including around innovation in plant protection products. Whatever happens after 31st December, I look forward to our Government using the powers returned from Brussels to allow the industry to modernise and return to the global mainstream of agri-tech, where it so clearly belongs. It is time for the UK to move away from Europe’s approach to the regulation of plant protection products and move to wider agri-tech innovation which is many years overdue.
In other countries, outside the EU, ones with sensible evidence-based approaches to regulation, like Canada, agri-tech advances are already benefitting food production and the environment. Why would we not want to take that advantage? Our crops face overwhelming pressure from weeds, pests, and diseases, at the same time, human demographics are changing and populations are growing. This means ever greater demands on farmers to produce more food, whilst taking vital steps to protect biodiversity and minimise carbon emissions. If we are to support our farmers in doing what is unarguably an increasingly tough job, while still sparing more land for biodiversity and carbon sequestration, they need access to every tool in the box to provide high-quality, safe and affordable food. Our farmers deserve access to those same tools enjoyed by those they are competing within the global marketplace.
Agricultural innovation already helps to ensure our farming sector is productive, resilient and sustainable. At the moment, the UK is hemmed in by the EU’s “overly politicised” approach, which is at odds with the careful, science-based risk assessment model in operation elsewhere in the world resulting in our sector not reaching its potential. Post-Brexit, we have an opportunity to do things differently and demonstrate progressive and enlightened leadership in promoting modern, productive, sustainable farming.
From the 1st January 2021, there is an exciting opportunity for growth and inward investment in agri-tech research and development, which can help the UK to play a leading role in feeding ourselves and the world. The Government’s commitment to consult this autumn on the future regulation of gene-editing techniques is a welcome signal that it is serious about “liberating the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector,” as pledged by the Prime Minister in Downing Street in July 2019.
We are at a turning point and we need to maintain momentum. For farmers and the rural economy, the benefits are obvious at a time when our economy is experiencing serious upheaval. With the aftermath of the current pandemic likely to permeate for a long time, we welcome support for sectors like ours that have huge potential for growth. This is an exciting journey that we are on and our world-class universities and strong science base provides us with a significant competitive advantage in agri-tech, one that has capacity for future expansion. In a post-Brexit world, there is a genuine opportunity to attract a greater share of global inward investment. Our Crop Protection Association (CPA) membership currently spends a significant portion of their income on R&D in the UK. Adopting a more proportionate and science-based regulatory approach to everything from digital solutions, new breeding techniques and plant protection could position the United Kingdom as a prime location, able to attract a larger proportion of this global funding for new business opportunities.
There is a strong economic case for enabling a UK specific approach. A report by the economist, Séan Rickard, estimates that without the use of plant protection products, the average family grocery bill could rise by more than £786 over the course of a year. Rickard found that not having these technologies would disproportionately impact lower income households, with fresh fruit and vegetables seeing the largest price increases, projected to rise by around 40 per cent. We have a unique opportunity to improve access to these technologies and to lead the way in agricultural science and innovation – and by extension to respond to some of the pressures on household budgets.
The question that keeps getting asked is about safety and standards. The key is that when plant protection products are used safely, rigorously tested and thoroughly scrutinised by independent scientific experts, there is assurance of safety for those applying the product, for the environment and the customer. A domestic regime could go further and build on the strengths of existing regulation, retaining the current high standards of protection for human health and the environment, whilst providing greater opportunities for collaboration, faster decision making, greater variety for farmers and huge benefits for customers in terms of price and quality.
The reality is that we can enjoy the agricultural and economic benefits of agri-tech innovations without reducing standards or compromising safety if we make the right policy decisions. Already, innovative products and technologies help farmers grow healthy crops, by protecting our food supply against the pests, weeds and diseases that would otherwise cause us to lose a considerable amount of our food. With a UK-specific approach, the potential for UK farming to thrive is immense.
The plant science industry recognises the need to improve the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of our food systems. The CPA, under the stewardship of our new CEO, Dave Bench, and with our dynamic team and membership, are keen to play our part, working with the Government to advance policies that protect the environment whilst also supporting productivity and food security. These aims are not mutually exclusive – and with two months to go, they should be at the forefront of all our minds.