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Congress Wants to Copy Some of the EU’s Worst Food Rules. That’s a Bad Idea

There is simply no argument in favor of copying EU food regulations.

Legislation looming in the US Congress could emulate European food standards by copying European agricultural regulation. PACTA (Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act), legislation sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders would outlaw any pesticide that is illegal in either European Union member states, the European Union itself, or Canada.

To many Americans, Europe represents the epitome of culinary civilization, and it’s true that Italian standards for pasta, French standard for bread, and Spanish standards for seafood often far outrank what the average restaurant will serve in the United States. But with that said, we shouldn’t confuse the presence of prime cooking schools in France with a better food market. Europe’s increasing hostility towards crop protection in the form of pesticides is not going to do itself any favors.

A cornerstone of the EU’s continuous ambitions to revamp its food regulation is the “Farm to Fork Strategy,” known as F2F. This strategy, which is part of the “European Green Deal,” is a roadmap for a set of package bills set to hit the EU’s legislature in the coming years. Two of its cornerstone proposals are a reduction of pesticides by 50 percent by 2030, and increasing organic food production to 25 percent by 2030 (it is currently at about 8 percent).

The European Commission has yet to release an impact assessment on what the Farm to Fork strategy would mean for farmers and consumers. Despite repeated calls from EU parliamentarians, it has been unable to provide hard numbers backing up the political argument that these environmental reforms would also be good economically. Thankfully, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) did its own study. In fact, when the USDA made an impact assessment, it found that, if implemented, F2F would result in a 12 percent reduction in agricultural production in Europe and increase the prices of consumer goods by 17 percent in the EU, by 5 percent in the US, and by 9 percent worldwide.

In addition, the USDA also found that in the adoption scenario, trade flows would be reduced, and that Europe’s GDP would decline significantly as result of the increase in food commodity prices (Europe’s GDP decline would represent 76 percent of the overall global GDP decline as a result of F2F).

Developing nations would also be hard hit. Because as a result of these stringent food rules, the EU would implement protectionist measures.

“By 2030, the number of food-insecure people in the case of EU-only adoption would increase by an additional 22 million more than projected without the EC’s proposed Strategies,” USDA concluded.

You could ask why it all matters, since Europeans do pay less for food that apparently is also cooked better. It is true that grocery shopping in Germany can be quite eye-opening to Americans—a pound of wild-caught smoked salmon costs anywhere between $10 and $20 in America (or more), while in Germany those prices vary between $2 and $10. Most of that is because the United States does not shower its farmers and fishers with the same lavish farm subsidies that Europe does. While the US also subsidies farmers, research shows that Europe “out-subsidises” the States by a long shot. So while supermarket prices are lower for consumers, it’s the tax returns of Europeans that tell the real story. In countries such as Belgium, effective income tax rates (with social security) are upwards of 50 percent. In fact, single Belgian workers are the highest taxed in the entire OECD, and they are closely followed by those in Germany and France, both nearing the 50 percent mark. And this doesn’t even go into detail of how the European Union uses its farm subsidies to undercut producers in developing markets and, as the New York Times put it, how oligarchs milk these millions of farm subsidies for their own benefit.

Reducing pesticides by political decree rather than through innovative technology is a non-scientific approach. If the argument of the European Union were that with modern farm equipment, such as smart-sprays, the amount of pesticides could be reduced because farmers are able to make their use more efficient, then that would be a forward-thinking approach. Instead, the 50 percent reduction target looks good on a poster, but has little to do with evidence-based policy making. After all: if the existing 100 percent are bad for human health, why only restrict 50 percent, and not the entirety of all these substances?

Incidentally that is what the EU did on a large scale with neonicotinoids, by banning certain ones for farming use. Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are insecticides that are essential for farmers not to lose a significant amount of their crops each season. In December last year, the French parliament voted for a three year suspension of the ban on neonics, because sugar beet farmers were risking going completely out of business over crop losses. The bans exist in Europe because neonics have been accused of harming pollinators.

The “Bee-pocalypse” in the early 2000s was blamed first on GMOs, then subsequently on neonics when the GMO argument was quickly found to be false. But neonics also aren’t at fault. Bee colony reductions and disappearances occur naturally and periodically throughout history. In fact, there were sporadic bee colony declines all throughout (recorded) history, namely the 19th and 20th century, before neonics were first introduced in 1985. In fact, not only are bees not affected by neonics, they aren’t even declining.

As the Washington Post reported in two separate articles in 2015—”Call Off the Bee-pocalypse: U.S. Honeybee Colonies Hit a 20-Year High” and “Believe It of Not, the Bees Are Doing Just Fine,” the hysteria of global bee declines are simply inaccurate. You can even do this for yourself: visit the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) website, select “beehives” in the visualised data section, and click on any country or region you like. Most countries and regions have a steady upwards trend in the prevalence of bees. In the United States, the bee population is actually set to double in the coming years compared to the 1960s level.

So why lie about it? Why is it such a prevalent narrative that GMOs (or any given pesticide of the day) kill the bees? The argument is politically convenient, but not scientifically sound. In Europe, the enemies of modern agriculture have a view of the world that does not match the society of comfort and availability. The EU’s Green Deal Commissioner Frans Timmermans bemoaned in May last year (mind you this is at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown) that “we’ve gotten used to food being too cheap.”

He didn’t mean that agriculture subsidies were out of proportion, but rather that being able to buy meat or fish on any given day and for low prices were problematic in nature. For a man paid $30,000 a month for his Commission job, while Romanian consumers paid upwards of 20 percent of their income on food, that’s the definition of tone-deaf.

In the United States, availability and competition are key. Also, while Europe’s dreams of a world where nature politely sends no insects to eat our crops, no mold to befall food stocks, and where no other natural conditions could endanger food security, the United States has always enabled scientific innovation. Case in point, the US is far ahead on developing genetic engineering, while Europe lags behind.

There is simply no argument in favor of copying EU food regulations.

Originally published here

Viewpoint: Conservatives say UK could break from ‘outdated’ EU GMO, CRISPR regulations if they sweep ’Brexit election’

On the 12th of December, the United Kingdom will hold a general election. With the UK’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) remaining unresolved, tensions are as high as ever. Once out of the EU, though, the UK could regain full control over its laws and regulations.

Though the election debate has centered around immigration, security and healthcare, the question of what direction the UK should take in terms of science policy persists. Will the UK manage to unleash the potential of its biotechnological sector and become a global advocate for innovation and consumer choice, or will it retain the EU’s antiquated approach?

In a manifesto released in November, the Conservatives pledged to take the path of “science-led, evidence-based policy” to improve the quality of food, agriculture and land management. Previously, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to liberate the UK’s biotech sector from the EU’s anti-genetic modification rules.

The laws that concern genetically modified organisms in the UK are primarily based on European Union regulations. For years, the EU has backpedaled on agricultural innovation, preventing European consumers from accessing biologically enhanced food. This can be seen in the very limited number of genetically modified crops authorized for cultivation in the EU, and a very cumbersome and expensive process of importing genetically modified crops from other countries. In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided that gene-edited plants should be regulated the same way that genetically modified organisms are regulated, rendering them practically illegal and hindering innovation even further.

If the UK chooses to move away from these EU-based regulations as a consequence of Brexit, it could become a forward-looking global biotech powerhouse.

The first step would be to replace fear-based skepticism of genetic modification with an evidence-based, pro-innovation approach. Despite popular rhetoric, there is no substantial scientific evidence behind the alleged health and environmental risks ascribed to GM products. Abandoning these baseless assertions and creating and sustaining the conditions under which UK farmers could innovate, lower their production costs, and use fewer chemicals would be an enterprising move on the part of the UK government.

Approving GM pest-resistant crops, for instance, could save about £60 million ($79 million) a year in pesticide use in the UK. Moreover, £60 million in savings would mean more leeway for competitive food pricing in a country where prices at the grocery store are rising 2 percent annually.

Once restrictive genetic modification laws are relaxed, it would be necessary to enable easy market access for GM foods. Under current EU legislation, products containing GMOs need to be labeled as such, and the requirements also apply to non-prepacked foods. It is legally established that such products (soy, for example) not only require written documentation but also should have an easily readable notice about their origin. No such rule exists with regards to foods that are 100% GMO-free, meaning there is explicit discrimination in place giving GMO-free food an unfair advantage on the market.

The EU’s strict regulations on the use of GM technology have been, first and foremost, harmful to consumers, depriving them access to innovative options such as Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger, which so closely mimics meat thanks to an ingredient produced with the help of genetically engineered yeast. Vastly popular in the US and now expanding to Asia, vegan burgers using plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy products, are absent from the European market due to backwards-looking anti-GM rules.

The United Kingdom should strive for the smartest regulation in the field of approval and market access to GMOs. Relaxed regulations on gene-editing methods like CRISPR-Cas9 could also attract massive investment and lead to wide-reaching biotech innovation in the UK.

Enabling gene-editing is an essential part of unleashing scientific innovation in the United Kingdom after Brexit. Skepticism of gene-editing centers around the potential but largely exaggerated adverse effects of the technology and ignores the astonishing benefits that could accrue to both farmers and consumers.

If the UK manages to replace the EU’s overly cautious biotech rules with a pro-innovation and prosperity-fostering regulatory scheme, it could become a true global biotech powerhouse. This is an ambitious, exciting, and above all, achievable future.

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