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Global model for post-Brexit food and farming regulation would help UK meet climate challenges

  • Government urged to liberate innovation from EU and support science-based regulation to help UK food and farming sectors thrive
  • Flexible, consultative system rather than alignment with Brussels could transform UK agriculture to meet food security needs and UN Sustainability Goals

24th February 2020 – The UK should build on the science-based models of countries around the world to develop a post-Brexit regulatory system for agricultural biotechnology that encourages innovation and ensures a safe, sustainable and affordable food supply while protecting human health and the environment, a new report has found.

‘Fostering innovation in agriculture through enabling regulatory policy’ by Estel Consult, examines the regulatory frameworks of Australia and New Zealand, Canada and Argentina when it comes to innovations including gene edited crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), contrasting their flexibility, robustness and efficiency with the EU’s restrictive and political approach.

According to the research, a fit-for-purpose regulatory system modelled on those of countries leading the world on food safety could not only return the UK to its status as a centre for research and development in agri-science, but could also help deliver on the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), address food security challenges, and reduce reliance on imports for food and feed supplies.

In contrast, retaining regulatory alignment with the EU leaves the UK attached to a system under which the last product approved for cultivation was in 1998. The UK has a strong reputation for scientific excellence, and was the first European country to introduce a GM product in the 1990s. Since regulatory responsibility was transferred to the EU, such innovation has been hindered[i], while globally, other countries have made strides in research and commercialisation[ii]. The EU’s approvals system has consistently failed to operate as the legislation intended, with scientific opinion from the body specifically established to provide advice to policy makers frequently ignored.

With the UK now outside the EU, the Government has the opportunity to re-join the rest of the world and introduce a science-based regulatory framework that enables the development of innovative products like blight-resistant potatoes and allows farmers to access to them, offering potentially enormous benefits to food security and helping farmers to deliver on the UN’s SDG[iii] to produce higher-yield crops with lower environmental impacts.

The report, commissioned by the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), recommends the UK adopts a functional regulatory system for agricultural biotechnology that is broadly in line with the EU legislation, but, crucially, incorporates elements from countries that practice science ahead of politics and legal doctrine in their decision making, and that have experienced over two decades of progress with modern plant breeding.

While it identifies differences between the models, the analysis finds that the Canadian, Australian and Argentinian systems all share certain features, including flexible frameworks, consultation during product development allowing for early discussion on the regulatory pathway, and the expertise of those undertaking the risk assessments. As a result, safe innovations are regularly approved and used by farmers, leading to reduced carbon footprints, improved yields, reductions in pesticide spraying and greater income for farmers.

In contrast, EU risk assessments offer little option for case-by-case assessments, and reviews are not necessarily conducted by professional risk assessors. The report urges the UK to adopt a risk assessment framework that is science-based, conducted by those with in depth knowledge, fit-for-purpose and proportional. It recommends that, in establishing a post-Brexit regulatory system, politicians and officials aim to:

  • Set clear policy goals for food security and sustainable agriculture coupled with transparent protection goals representing a level playing field for different technologies.
  • Adopt a science and risk-based approach to safety assessments
  • Foster technical excellence of UK risk assessors
  • Avoid overly prescriptive safety assessment guidelines
  • Enable consultative procedures that allow for discussions with technology providers prior to and during the safety assessment of any given product.
  • Cooperate with other countries, to ease the burden of duplication of efforts in assessing the same products for food and feed safety.

As the report sets out, diverging from the EU in this area would enable Britain to rejoin much of the rest of the world in taking a science-based approach and utilising innovation to support sustainable agriculture, at a time when the need for action on both food security and climate change is high.

Agriculture is a contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and better plant breeding is one of the key ways this footprint can be reduced. Already, crop genetic improvement has resulted in the production of more food per acre – which is key given estimates[iv] suggest farmers will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to serve the world’s growing population.

Mark Buckingham, Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council said: ‘With the global population growing, concern about carbon emissions and food security high, and farmers challenged to do more with less impact on the environment, it has never been more important that we embrace technology and innovation to support sustainable agriculture. Leaving the EU offers the British Government the chance to set its own regulatory policy when it comes to agricultural biotechnology, and in doing so rejoin the rest of the world. This analysis makes clear that other countries operate safe, effective and science-based systems of regulation and that we should be looking to countries like Canada, Australia and Argentina for guidance and best practice. To incur the costs of leaving the EU without grasping the opportunities would be a historic mistake. The potential benefits of the UK setting its own path on techniques such as editing individual genes in crops are significant, and could help to address the serious challenges of keeping our farmers competitive, maintaining a safe, affordable food supply, while better protecting consumers and our natural environment.’

Dr Monica Garcia-Alonso from Estel Consult, author of the paper said ‘Agricultural biotechnology has been and continues to be a key tool for sustainable food production around the globe. However, despite the UK’s recognised scientific excellence in this area, UK farmers have not yet been able to benefit from any of the products of this research, due to the cumbersome and politicised regulatory system set up by the EU. Our research demonstrates that there are many safe and science-based approaches to regulation currently in operation around the world, components of which could work well if adopted by the UK Government. This report makes clear that ministers would be well served by studying systems in place abroad in order to design the right framework for agricultural biotechnology regulation in Britain.’