Will the EU’s precautionary principle disrupt precision farming?

Phil Hogan, EC Commissioner for Agriculture, talks about how the EU Space Strategy policy can help agriculture in the EU.

Phil Hogan, EC Commissioner for Agriculture, talks about how the EU Space Strategy policy can help agriculture in the EU.

On 26 October 2016 the European Commission announced, with much fanfare, its new space policy. It hopes it will keep the European space industry competitive for decades. The goal is to encourage private companies to use the data generated from EU-funded satellites in low-Earth orbit. This EU Space Strategy will impact every aspect of Europeans’ lives, from creating new jobs for start-ups and improving response times to natural disasters to coordinating self-driving cars. Thirty satellites are expected to be launched in the next 10 to 20 years.

Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, was quoted as saying that this space technology will also be essential for the uptake of precision agriculture techniques so we can produce more food using less resources in Europe.

But if you look past the excitement and observe the behaviour of the European Commission (EC) towards innovative technologies in recent years it’s clear that Europe’s “precautionary principle” may hamper its ambitious goals for the use of data in farming.

To be clear, a precautionary principle approach is sensible for a new untested, wide-reaching technology or service. However, the right balance needs to be found so the precautionary principle doesn’t paralyse innovation and increase uncertainty — especially when the overwhelming evidence shows that this very same technology or service is safe for people and the environment.

On the same day that the EC launched its #EUSpaceStrategy policy hashtag on Twitter, the U.K.-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) published another report. Called ‘‘Ploughing the Wrong Furrow. The costs of agricultural exceptionalism and the precautionary principle’, it warns that based on current policy evidence there are negative effects of over-regulation on EU agriculture and farming. A zealous application of the precautionary principle is often driven by opinion, vested interests and even commercial gain — rather than by compelling evidence.

The IEA report’s author, Sean Rickard, says in a blog post based on the report, “Well resourced, non-farming interest groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have not only influenced policy but also they have been the driving force that has caused the authorities to place greater reliance on the precautionary principle when it comes to farming regulation rather than transparent, evidenced-based risk assessment.”

Non-farming lobby groups have created a bias towards opinion-based policies. Over-regulation has slowed productivity growth on farms (report page 26). The long term consequences are higher prices for consumers and decreasing social welfare. From a farmer’s perspective, over-regulation has added to his costs too and ability to be successful in the long term.

Rickard continues, “not only do the authorities rarely attempt to quantify the benefits of regulation – and when they do they are both superficial and opaque – but also their evaluations amount to serious underestimates of the longer term costs to society. Studies show that excessive regulation adversely influences farm-level experimentation and innovation.”

Infographic showing how farmers can grow more with less using precision farming techniques.

Infographic showing how farmers can grow more with less using precision farming techniques.

From a farmer’s perspective, the added costs of over-regulation have added to his woes and ability to be successful in the long term.

“Over time the growth of precautionary-based regulation under the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] is likely to result in farm level productivity being lower that [sic] it otherwise would be; the direct effect of which will be to make food less affordable,” says Rickard.

The result is that science has been usurped while unnecessary costs have added to the farmer’s problems, according to Rickard.

While the EU’s new space strategy appears promising in keeping European agriculture competitive, others in industry are concerned that the EC’s actions show the opposite approach.

For example, the EC is currently proposing a policy that will squash firms’ efforts to use this data from space. In September 2016 the Brussels-based news source agency Euractiv reported that the EU’s copyright bill could restrict how companies analyse data.

As the European Commission says in its own press release, “Space data helps to manage borders and save lives at sea. It improves our response to earthquakes, forest fires and floods. It allows farmers to plan ahead. It helps to protect the environment and monitor climate change.”

Let’s hope that the EU takes a more innovative path to ensure that satellite data benefits consumers, farmers and the environment on the ground.

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