Nature favours the strong; science protects the vulnerable. The 2020 COVID-19 coronavirus crisis has reminded humanity just how vulnerable we are and how important research and technology are. Is this the moment public trust in science returns? Will plant biotechnology finally be allowed to fully deliver societal benefits in Europe?
It is not about society once again trusting science, but rather the realisation of the failure of precaution as a risk management tool. Almost overnight in mid-March 2020, the world felt what the European plant biotech industry has endured for most of the last 25 years: denial of benefits as regulatory inaction led to knee-jerk precautionary measures.
Everyone suffering under lockdown can now claim: “Je suis biotech!”
The Failure of Precaution
What did Western risk managers need to do in the 10 weeks prior to the March 2020 precautionary lockdowns when China and Korea were battling COVID-19? Scenario building? Needs assessments? Identifying and protecting the most vulnerable? Applying risk reduction measures? Testing, tracking, and tracing? Coordinating with other countries? Empowering individuals? Instead, they told their publics to wash their hands and when the pandemic hit hard, Western officials banned all activities.
The precautionary mindset promising zero-risk, complete safety, and certainty (regardless of the loss of benefits) essentially applies one strategy: in the face of uncertainty, stop, ban or disallow any activities. This hit a brick wall with the COVID-19 lockdowns. Populations expecting to be kept “safe” saw their economies shut down, social stresses amplified, and most societal benefits denied.
After two decades of European risk management boxed away by the expedient efficiency of the precautionary principle, the COVID-19 crisis provides clear evidence that the system is broken. We need a risk management strategy fit for the 21st century, but instead the precautionary mindset led to a failure to act until lockdowns were the only option.
The failure to regulate on GMOs and new plant breeding techniques illustrates how precaution castrated proper evidence-based policymaking, denying societal benefits and suffocating innovation. Affluence in Europe allowed this failure to be ignored and the consequences of lost agritech advantages were easily absorbed by higher prices for food and feed imports. But the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown policy debacle could not be ignored; that zero-risk precautionary mindset that could pretend away biotech proved impotent in the face of a pandemic.
A Science Renaissance?
Some scientists may be sitting back looking at the Post-COVID-19 arena quite positively: the public is reaching out for scientific facts. Could this be a new era of evidence-based policymaking? Interest in the media to report on advice from scientific advisers, demand for vaccine development, the censoring of unsubstantiated fearmongering on social media … the public seems ripe for rationality. Will trust in science (including biotech) finally come back and unlock some regulatory handcuffs? History, unfortunately, suggests nothing could be further from the truth.
During the UK BSE-mad cow crisis, the scientific advice was put to the fore, with government ministers claiming their decisions followed their scientific advisers. As more information emerged, the “risk managers” were quick to blame the scientists. Like beef consumption in the UK, 25 years later, trust in government scientific advisers never recovered. Likewise, as we are learning more about this coronavirus, any past scientific advice that now seems dated, will be used by cunning survivalist politicians against these same scientists. The science and society second honeymoon might be short-lived.
A Risk Management Strategy Fit for the 21st Century
Two decades of reliance on precaution have damaged the capacity of our authorities to take proper, evidence-based decisions to deliver optimal benefits and societal goods. Governance is not just about banning activities, substances and technologies.
Precaution has made our risk managers lazy and expedient; it has made our public docile and demanding zero-risk solutions. The pandemic reminded us how vulnerable we are. We need a proper risk management strategy that ensures benefits for vulnerable populations.
Precaution needs to be put in its place, not as the first demand in the regulatory process but as the last step, applied if innovators are unable to measure and reduce potential risk exposure levels. Following the destructive effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns, Western societies have become more vulnerable and have turned, once again, to technology (rather than precaution) to solve their problems. There is an opportunity for plant breeders to remind risk managers of the benefits of their technologies to strengthen resilience.
While many activist groups are pushing a Post-COVID-19 Blueprint calling for more precaution, scientists need to argue, urgently, for a risk management strategy fit for the 21st century. This strategy should be evidence-based, concerned with the challenges facing agriculture and dedicated to reducing vulnerabilities like food security and promoting sustainable agriculture.
“Je suis biotech!” means the time for plant biotechnology may have finally arrived.