Opinion: EU’s risk-adverse approach disadvantaged farming

While  the government’s overall handling of the Covid-19 pandemic could, with the benefit of hindsight, be described as something of a “curate’s egg”, its performance with regard to the rollout of the vaccination programme is markedly improved.

The UK has surged ahead of pretty much all of Europe on the back of  a pragmatic, risk-based and highly effective strategy.

See also: Pro-science, pro-glyphosate backer a ‘true farming hero’

About the author

David Alvis
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer

David Alvis is managing director of the Beef Improvement Group based in East Yorkshire. He is a Nuffield Scholar and director of the Commercial Farmers Group.

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The key point here is “risk-based”, given that such widespread deployment of new and relatively untried vaccines was never guaranteed to succeed.

The potential for adverse side effects and failure to deliver the desired level of protection at a herd level could not be ruled out before the event, given a truncated trials period that would have been unthinkable in more normal circumstances.

Typically, clinical trials of new drugs take years, with much of that time required to identify and eliminate the nth degree of risk of any undesirable outcomes – a luxury we simply don’t have in the current situation.

So there was always an element of residual risk, but it appears to have paid off.

Contrast that with the pantomime unfolding across the Channel, where politicians of all hues are now desperately scrambling to unearth any evidence of adverse effects to justify their vacillation with regard to rolling out a Europe-wide vaccination programme.

One cannot help but feel there is an element of sour grapes wrapped up in all of this, given the failure of any major EU member state to produce an effective vaccine.

To mitigate the risk of accusations of schadenfreude, I will not dwell on this particular point, but instead focus on a more systemic problem that has compounded the situation, paralysing governments across Europe and potentially placing its population in great peril… and that is the EU’s slavish adherence to the precautionary principle.

To put it more simply, it is justifying the status quo by merely assessing “hazard” (the consequences of something undesirable happening) without due regard to “risk” (the likelihood of said unpleasantness occurring), while ignoring the potentially far greater unintended consequences of inaction.

This agonisingly conservative and risk-averse mindset has for years characterised the EU’s approach to both licensing new agricultural technologies, notably GMOs, and the relicensing (or not) of old ones, particularly pesticides (such as neonicotinoids).

Such decisions, or lack thereof, have disadvantaged EU agriculture, with little or no net benefit to the wider environment.

One could argue they have in fact incurred significant costs, in terms of lower productivity growth and reduced environmental impact foregone in the case of the former, and increased use of less-effective, but for now, still-approved pesticides in the latter.

This has the led to embarrassing and divisive policy U-turns once the true scale of unintended consequences came to light.

The UK’s vaccination strategy, on the other hand, is perhaps the first significant and demonstrable Brexit dividend; where an independent Britain can and has made a bold, unilateral, risk-based decision in its national interest without having to defer to Brussels.

I can only hope that this approach is more liberally applied across all areas of government policy going forward.

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