In a recent speaking tour in South-East Asia, I was horrified to learn how many emerging market governments in the region are simply planning to mirror their agricultural technology regulations upon European Union laws. The only thing I could say to them was: “Don’t!”
In many of these fast developing countries, farmers, mostly smallholders, make up around 50% of the populations. They need the best technologies to not only develop their farms and agriculture in general, but also their economies and foreign trade. These populations are highly vulnerable and unstable – a few bad harvests could throw communities and the economy into turmoil.
Asian government officials in countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand see the EU as having a regulatory maturity and scientific competence, serving as a benchmark for health, environment and product excellence. Meeting European agricultural standards, they believe, will also open up more export markets.
What they don’t see is how the EU is not at all interested in developing their agricultural sector with better technologies and innovations. The present regulatory culture has built-in processes designed to resist new technologies. Bolstered by deep pockets, Europe can afford to compensate their farmers if they (wilfully) lack the tools to succeed. Many South-East Asian countries cannot. Agritech matters here, but not in the EU.
Here are 10 reasons to help understand why agritech doesn’t matter in the EU and why developing countries need to develop their own, farmer-driven agricultural innovation strategy.
- Europe has a small agriculture-based population (less than 3%). This means politicians won’t win many votes defending farming interests.
- Urbanites across the EU have a rustic view of their rural area: untouched, traditional, to be defended from development and returned to on weekends.
- Europeans consider “nature” as ex-urban, so unlike places like Canada and the US, farming is seen as part of nature, not merely a means of food production. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies are tied more to environmental protection than increasing yields or productivity.
- European culinary culture promotes a nostalgia towards heritage crop varieties. Look how the French retail chain, Carrefour, is now campaigning for a wider diversity of traditional plant varieties and against seed breeding innovations. That’s where the money is.
- Europe’s long tradition of precaution lives on. When American pioneers were pushing west to conquer nature, when oppressed populations were getting on boats for new lands and dreams, Europeans were building walls around their cities to protect themselves from the unknown. This tradition is now regulatory doctrine: in dealing with uncertainties, if you can’t prove a technology is “safe”, it’s not welcome.
- Europe is wealthy. Its farmers can fail and be compensated by the CAP. It is not an issue if they need to import GM feed they choose not to allow farmers to grow themselves. Europe has moved from being a net exporter to becoming a net importer of food, from mountains of butter and lakes of milk to relying on others to feed their livestock.
- Most EU agricultural issues are not managed by farming interests. The glyphosate and neonicotinoid dossiers were managed by DG Santé; the decision to relegate the new breeding techniques was decided by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The interservice approach has been abandoned in the present Commission. DG Agriculture merely manages the CAP (it has become a bank to subsidise farmers).
- Smaller European farmers have been convinced they cannot compete with larger farms in North and South America, thus they aim for a “luxury” food label adding to the perception of a higher quality. The Gucci of the earth.
- The growth of smaller, local organic retail chains is forcing the bigger chains to push hard with organic labels and market differentiation. There is no significant lobby pressure from retailers or food manufacturers against a “Bio-Europa” strategy.
- There is a strong NGO lobby in Brussels and an activist-friendly dialogue process. With the establishment of the precautionary principle and a hazard-based approach to pesticides, the regulatory process is not in the farmers’ or researchers’ favour. The present moves by the EP PEST Committee and a consortium of NGOs to change the EU risk assessment process to a more citizen-led, less expert-driven approach will have dire consequences on the ability to keep substances on the EU market.
While the European Union still spends an enormous amount of its budget on agriculture, it is backward looking, literally paying farmers to not develop better agricultural tools. Emerging economies in Africa and Asia need to look forward, develop their agricultural sectors and innovate for the future. Europe is the last place they should look for leadership.
A version was presented at the Thai Agricultural Innovation Trade Association launch event on 29 November 2018.