In the last two decades, Europe has decided to go its own way in agricultural policies. While both North and South America, and also Japan have moved to even more technology-driven modern agriculture, Europe has gone backwards and keeps banning more and more scientifically proven advances and methods in agriculture. In recent trade talks, top American diplomats have repeatedly mocked the regulatory framework in the EU as anachronistic.
“We must remove constraints to the adoption of innovative new approaches and technologies, including overly burdensome and unnecessary regulatory restrictions, and will to speak truth to our citizens about technology, productivity and safety.”
Those were the words of U.S Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in an op-ed published on Euractiv in February. In a slightly less diplomatic fashion, the U.S ambassador to the United Kingdom, Woody Wilson, coined the EU’s approach “Museum of Agriculture” in an op-ed for The Telegraph just this March.
Both Perdue and Wilson argue that the European Union’s restrictions on modern agricultural technology are not sustainable, and severely limit future trade deals.
To judge whether they are correct or not is not related to how much you love or hate the United States, but how much you love or hate food price stability. We Europeans can be the judge of this ourselves.
Let’s assess the situation as it is. Both conventional and organic agriculture deal with pests they need to get rid of in order not to jeopardise food security and price stability for consumers. Both require chemicals as part of their crop protection tools.
As Africa shows, locust plagues can be devastating for food security, and climate science enables us to detect that certain pests will come from distant places to our shores sooner than later, making insecticides necessary. In order to avoid fungus and deadly mycotoxins, we use fungicides.
Politically, these chemical crop protection tools are not popular, as increasing amounts of environmentalists push politicians to ban them. This has left the political spectrum of left vs. right and is equally distributed on both sides.
Unfortunately, whether or not these chemicals have been shown to be safe by national and international food safety authorities matters – in the context of modern post-truth politics – very little.
What does seem to matter is that modern crop protection tools are labelled as being unsustainable. However, sustainability is insufficiently defined, and has thus served as an excuse to embolden existing misconceptions about agriculture.
If anything, sustainability should be based on modern and innovative agriculture that caters to the need of the environment, food safety, food security, and competitive prices for consumers. Those tools are available to us today.
Through genetic engineering, scientists have found a way to reduce the use of traditional crop protection products, while increasing crop yield. Yet once again, a political suspicion towards agro-tech innovation bars the way forward, in this case through the 2001 GMO directive, which practically bans all genetic engineering for the purpose of crops.
Climate change alters the way we produce food whether we want it or not. Rare and not so rare diseases make it necessary for us to adapt our food supply to consumers who need it. Specific genetic modifications allow us to overcome random mutations of the past, and develop precise changes in the field of food.
The United States, together with Israel, Japan, Argentina, and Brazil, are leading the world with permissive rules for gene-editing. This novel technology can improve life expectancy, food security, and food prices for all consumers. The EU’s rules, by comparison, are 20 years old and not rooted in science, as an increasing amount of scientists are now explaining.
Do the Americans want to compete with European farmers and sell increasing amounts of food on this continent?
This is not only obviously the case, but it is also mutual. If we invested as much time as we do on demonising American products here into promoting European products abroad, then it would be our farmers massively expanding into the American market with superior produce. In the scenario, consumers keep their choices of food, and retailers and producers need to be required to label the origins of food.
Most of all, altering our rules on new breeding technologies (or gene editing) ought to be done in the interest of European consumers more than in those of American exporters. Europe should lead the way on agricultural innovation and give lessons for innovation, not take them from the United States. In the interests of European consumers, we should allow for innovation, and then be a global leader in it.
Fred Roeder is the managing director of the Consumer Choice Center. He tweets at @FredCyrusRoeder