McGuinness: The balance between science and public opinion is ‘difficult’

Mairead McGuinness: "It is becoming more and more difficult to have informed and open public debates on science in policymaking." [European Parliament]

Scientists should be more open about their findings, and lawmakers need to take the time to read and reflect on them. But today, with the rise of social media, it is difficult to strike the right balance between science and public opinion, MEP Mairead McGuinness told 

Mairead McGuinness is Fine Gael Party MEP (EPP-affiliated).

McGuinness spoke with Sarantis Michalopoulos.

What should the EU do in order to make its agriculture sustainable and in conformity with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals? 

European farmers are aware of the sustainability challenge facing society and as food producers and managers of the natural landscape, they have considerable responsibility and challenges in meeting these goals. They also understand that being sustainable is the only way to secure their future. However, the difficulty is in the transition between today and the more sustainable future of tomorrow.

Considerable progress is being made on the environmental challenges, but more is needed.
For example, the Circular Economy Package is not alien to farming, as a lot of the issues in shaping the circular economy are inherent to agriculture.

The question of economic sustainability cannot be divorced from the overall challenge of meeting the UN Sustainable Development goals. Farmers need to earn decent incomes from their activities in order to invest in their farms, and moving towards a more sustainable future requires investment in order to get a return in the future.

Agriculture holds key to UN Sustainable Development Goals

Agriculture will play a crucial role in addressing the planet’s future needs – whether on food production, health or the preservation of the environment. But transforming the dominant agricultural model could be the greatest challenge of all.

If we impose rigid compliance rules on farmers, we may diminish the much-needed impact of our move towards sustainability.

Today, the CAP is oriented towards a greater environment, climate and biodiversity delivery. This will intensify but we are not clear what mechanisms will be used. Clearly, the CAP budget itself will be mobilised to deliver more on sustainability. But that requires, in my view, a move away from the rigid audit-based approach to controlling CAP payments, while also ensuring that the taxpayer’s money is correctly spent.

With the CAP budget unlikely to increase and indeed facing threats from other policy areas, we need to look at the food supply chain and how it rewards (or not) farmers for their work, produce and public goods delivery. I expect to see a greater debate and focus on this issue in the coming year.

In Parliament, I have spearheaded the debate on EU-wide framework legislation to tackle unfair trading practices. Stakeholders, including major retailer, have responded negatively to this but they have also taken action to address some of the worst aspects of unfair relationships between producers and retailers and this is to be welcomed.

Do you believe that there is enough room for innovation in EU farming? What should the next post-2020 CAP look like?

Innovation requires a sector to be forward looking and to see a bright future ahead. The last year has been very difficult for commodity prices and farm incomes have experienced huge volatility. What we need is public investment in the future, in innovation. We also need investment in knowledge transfer.

Public/Private partnerships also have a role to play in this area. In Ireland, we have developed very successful discussion groups where farmers come together in a neighbouring farm with an advisor and discuss technical, financial and environmental issues.

These groups allow for an exchange of ideas and information and allow new ideas to be tried and tested. They also provide an important social network of support which can be very important as more and more farmers, farm on their own and with limited great social interaction.

The future CAP will be more environmentally-focused as we meet our sustainability goals, it will be more budgetary challenged and therefore a better functioning food supply chain will be necessary.

In the EU, there is a debate regarding science-based versus public opinion-based policymaking in farming. What is the perfect balance?

Science has to play an important role in policy formation. But public opinion also plays a part. It is important for politicians to be open to looking at available scientific data on controversial developments. If we look at the recent glyphosate debate, this is a good example of how science and public opinion were at odds. Indeed, this issue showed how scientific opinion was also at odds with itself!

There is a need for scientists to talk more openly about their findings and for policymakers to take the time to read and reflect on those findings. However, in today’s world where social media is instant and there are demands for comment on controversial issues, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between scientific findings and public opinion formed by a one-sided view of new developments.

It is becoming more and more difficult to have informed and open public debates on science in policymaking. But we need to continue to try to have that debate.

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For example, there is a move towards the use of less (chemical) inputs in agriculture. Is this valid? What will be the consequences? These are questions which we need to answer. And we have to ask why the public do not trust scientific advice in policymaking.

When the glyphosate debate took place, members of parliament had a concern that if this substance was to be banned, what alternatives are available and what might be the unintended consequences. We also voted to keep an eye on new findings.

The perfect balance will only be achieved when we have a perfect debate about the pros and cons of new developments and existing techniques.

Unfortunately, there is rarely that open debate as many come into the room with our minds firmly made up, regardless of the debate!

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