Shakespeare might just as well have said “must risk and hazard all he hath”, since (so far as I know) the two words meant more or less the same in his time — though he would scarcely have been guilty of tautology.
But today, thanks to the Health and Safety Commissars, the words seem to have taken on slightly separate meanings (please bear with me — this is important). A hazard is a substance (or a situation) which is dangerous in itself. But risk is the danger associated with the hazard in a particular situation, where the degree of danger may be mitigated by circumstance.
Take an example. Chlorine gas is dangerous stuff and clearly represents a hazard. Yet we cheerfully add it to the water in our swimming pools. Why? Because although chlorine remains a hazard, the risk it poses in proper solution in our swimming pools is minuscule. The risk from bacterial contamination in untreated water would be much more severe. So by chlorinating, we have replaced a significant risk with a very minor risk.
A key lesson here: the risk of using a “hazardous” substance must be weighed against the risk of not using it. Equally, the risk of using the substance must be weighed against the risk of using alternative products. There was the classic case of phthalates, used in polythene (in baby’s bottles, for example) as a softener. The EU banned the phthalates, which were then replaced with other chemicals whose risk profile was less well known.
So what has this to do with food security? Well the EU institutions are “off on one”, fired up by their “Precautionary Principle”, determined to ban plant protection products which are hazardous, despite the risks of using them in practice being very small indeed (their use is already heavily regulated), and with apparently no consideration of the implications of (A) Not using them; (B) Replacing them with other substances; (C) Promoting the import of crops which have been grown overseas — often using the very plant protection products we were worried about in the first place.
Over the years, the EU has banned a whole series of plant protection products, to the point where British agriculture has very few shots left in the locker — and there are real fears of pathogens developing resistance to the few that remain, as a result of over-use.
The impacts on agriculture are perverse. First, crop yields are reduced — sometimes by large percentages. Secondly, farming becomes less viable. Crops may no longer be grown, farms may close, farmers may leave the industry. The NFU has commissioned a study from Andersons on the effects of the loss of these vital products, and the impact of the new bans in the pipeline. They predict the following impacts:
• Little or no domestic production of key crops like frozen peas, fresh carrots, apples
• The Gross Value Added of UK agriculture cut by £1.6 billion (that’s 20% of the last five years average)
• Total UK farm income drops by £1.73 billion — that’s 36%
• 35 to 40,000 job losses
And after all that, we would merely be promoting the imports of crops grown abroad, using the very substances which we had sought to ban. This would be a major disaster, which would increase food prices, cut UK production, boost imports, worsen our Balance of Payments, and jeopardise our food security.
Sometimes people warn me that while many farmers sympathise with UKIP, they nevertheless want to stay in the EU for the sake of those CAP cheques. But of course UKIP understands that in a world of farm subsidies, British farmers need support payments to survive. We think a scheme designed in Britain for British farmers must be better than a scheme designed in Brussels for French farmers — and when we leave the EU, we’ll be better able to afford it.
But the farmers I meet don’t seem too keen on the EU. They mainly express serious concerns about the impact of EU rules. The banning of crop protection products. The “Three Crop Rule” (don’t ask). The form-filling and box-ticking on which those CAP cheques increasingly depend. It’s very clear to me that British farmers, like the rest of Britain, will be Better Off Out.
But don’t take my word for it. The Right Honourable Liz Truss is Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (no, that doesn’t mean Aga Sagas!). She says that EU rules are damaging British farmers. And for once, she’s absolutely right.