EU states can’t decide way forward

Michael Gove
Michael Gove

If the outcome were not so potentially serious the EU debate about glyphosate (Roundup) would be laughable. We have member states unable to decide about a product scientists say is safe; we have a European parliament passing a motion calling for a ban, despite having no role in the decision.

Looking at events this week, even those who are against Brexit will be wondering whether the decision to go might after all be wise. However for that to be the case we would need to have some assurance that things will be different. In theory the UK could strike out on its own with a policy driven by a wish to have a technically efficient, globally competitive farming industry. But there is a real danger we will end up with the worst of both worlds, by accepting EU regulations on product approvals, while not being part of the debate.

It would be good if some of the staunch Brexit advocates put their heads above the parapet over this issue. That could be led by the DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, who is a Brexit enthusiast. He could make clear that Brexit will include an end to EU regulation and its anti-science stance. This is rooted in its enthusiasm for the precautionary principle over risk. This is despite all of life being a balance between risk and reward. Over glyphosate we know from science it is safe. That should be enough to relicense a product essential for productive agriculture. However we have seen the proposed relicensing period reduced from 15 to ten years. Now there is pressure to reduce that again. This is simple gesture politics, and it should have no role in an industry that wants to be profitable and productive.

When Brexit happens the UK will be out of the European parliament. This week we saw it at its worst, passing a motion against glyphosate, despite having no part to play in the debate. This is more akin to a debating society than an institution that should have better things to do with its time, although that is open to question. Brexit advocates, surprisingly, have made little of the advantages of escaping the clutches of the parliament – perhaps because some of their politicians do well financially from it. However outside the EU we will no longer have to heed the opinions of a body largely deaf to science in agriculture. The UK will have a golden opportunity to link its farming to the techniques used by the rest of the world beyond the EU 27. All we need are politicians with the vision to say that, and there is no excuse for Gove not doing so.

The history of agricultural products getting tied up with politics goes back a long way in Europe. It began in the 1980s, with hormone growth promoters in beef production; this led on to the opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops. Now we see an attempt to ban or restrict the world’s most widely used herbicide. This has little to do with the safety and quality of food. Member states and MEPs opposing glyphosate are pursuing an agenda they believe will prove popular with voters. This is about political groupings in the European parliament pursuing their own agenda. Some MEPs from the UK have used the parliament well and effectively. But all too often their efforts have been frustrated by the ‘group think’ mentality.

In the real world, away from the antics of the European parliament, the glyphosate issue has been kicked into touch by the member states responsible for the decision. The product must be relicensed by December 15, or it will have to be withdrawn in Europe. This would be a disaster for farming and would further expose the Commission’s abysmal record for sound science-based decisions. This week member states failed to deliver a qualified majority (QM) in favour of the proposal to relicense glyphosate for ten years. In the debate the UK and Ireland voted in favour, France against and Germany abstained. In total there were two abstentions while ten voted against – a long way short of a QM. France is pressing for the relicensing period to be reduced to four years. This is a meaningless political gesture, which if agreed would deny Brussels any pretence that science guides its deliberations. The next round in this battle is due in November, with the only certainty now the mid-December deadline for a decision.