The Green Revolution was a phrase coined to describe the science driven changes in agriculture from the 1950s to the 1970s. This was not a perfect process, and mistakes were made which had consequences for the environment and animal welfare. But over those decades agriculture changed and the seeds of the productive, global, industry we have today were planted. Around the world, science continues to drive agriculture, but in the EU it often seems there is a drive to back away from science in favour of green policies. This is essentially an attempt to ‘uninvent’ or ignore the technology equipping agriculture to meet the challenge of producing more food for a growing population.
That was underlined when one of the first things the European Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, did was to scrap the post of Chief Scientific Adviser. If Mr Juncker thought he’d solved his problem, this has not been the case. Recently the person who held that post, Professor Anne Glover, made the fair point that any scientist, be that an individual or a committee, could only give the advice she had, that decisions needed to be based on science. She accused green groups of being dishonest when they claimed there was a need for more research to justify decisions. This added to a sense that Mr Juncker is influenced by green pressure groups unhappy when science doesn’t fit their arguments.
If politicians and others fail to recognise the validity of what Prof Glover is saying, they will simply witness the Green Revolution in reverse, where Europe increasingly pulls away from the science that makes agriculture more productive.
This month the Commission claimed there was evidence that neonicotinoid insecticides could cause harm to birds, mammals and fish. A number of these products were temporarily banned in 2013 because of concerns they could harm bees. Agrochemical companies disputed this, but the Commission had the green lobby and the court of public opinion firmly on its side. Now, based on a review of 150 studies, it says there is a case for a more detailed look at the science that justifies the continued use of these products. This is a fair point, but it’s important to remember these products have gone through global regulatory approval procedures, and those need to be given equal weight with the studies now being highlighted.
The Commission might or might not be right this time, but it has a track record of twisting science for political reasons. This is why it’s in such a mess over everything to do with genetically modified (GM) crops. It’s why when it says something like this about neonicotinoids the automatic reaction is to question the reasoning. A ban on neonicotinoids beyond the temporary two-year moratorium imposed in 2013 to protect bees might be something the industry could live with, even if the science is weak. But plans to question the safety of 22 other chemicals used in pesticides pose a much more serious threat to European agriculture.
Mention the possibility of a ban and it’s hard to pull back. Activist lobby groups will use the concept of the precautionary principle to say that if there’s a remote threat, and there would have to be to even talk about a ban, the EU should ban first and debate the science later. This is a reasonable argument if the EU lived in a bubble, remote from the rest of the world. However, while Brussels debates these products the rest of the world is going on making its agricultural industries as low cost and competitive as possible. That can only deliver two outcomes: – that European consumers pay more and the EU forgets about exports; or the EU food market is dominated by imports from countries with lower production costs from science driven farming indu