Why EU Health and Safety measures pose a huge risk to British agriculture
I daresay most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the difference between “hazard” and “risk” – and if they do, they perhaps conclude that they mean much the same thing. However in the Health and Safety business, they are quite different things. A hazard is a danger associated with a product or substance (or activity), whereas a risk is a hazard modified by the probability of harm occurring.
Perhaps an example will make it clear. Take the petrol that you put into your car. It is a very hazardous substance indeed, as anyone will know who has tried to get a fire going by throwing a little petrol on it. But the safety features and regulations associated with filling stations and petrol tanks are so effective that while the hazard is great, the risk of accident is very low. Fortunately accidents involving petrol in cars are rare.
Or take coffee (and I apologise for spoiling your day). Coffee involves a hazard – it is a well-known carcinogen. But the amount of the carcinogenic component in your morning cup of coffee is so small that the risk associated with drinking coffee is minimal, and deemed to be acceptable.
I always remember the wise words of Caroline Jackson, a former Chairman of the European parliament’s Environment Committee, as she railed against the EU’s “Precautionary Principle” (which says we should avoid anything that is or might be dangerous). She argued that if we were serious about the principle, we should outlaw two-storey houses in Europe, since (she said) a thousand people a year die from falling down stairs. So yes, stairs are hazardous. You can break your neck. But the probability of falling is so low that we deem the risk to be acceptable, and continue to build two-storey houses.
So how does this affect agriculture? I recently attended a lunch-time briefing from the Plant Protection Product industry (PPPs, or pesticides). Currently these are regulated on a risk basis. We recognise that some of these products are potentially hazardous – you wouldn’t want to drink a pint of pesticide – but used correctly in the right concentration, the risk is minimal. But the Commission now proposes to switch to a hazard-based régime. And the effect will be to ban many products that have been widely and safely used for years.
Now I am very aware that many upright citizens have a bit of a downer on “chemicals” (though everything we are and everything we eat is made up of chemicals). Wouldn’t it be better (you may ask) to ban the chemicals anyway, to ensure clean and pristine food products?
The answer, I’m afraid, is No. Let’s think through the consequences. First of all, discontinuing the use of PPPs would have a dramatic impact on crop yields – as much as 80% in some cases. This would hugely increase food prices, and reduce availability. It would force us to import far more food – undermining our food security.
Many crops would simply become non-viable, and we should have no alternative but to import. Besides, the countries we import from would not have applied the same bans, so imports would become much more competitive, in an extra blow for our domestic industry. Areas of previously productive land could be abandoned.
Quality, too, would be hugely affected. I remember as a child it was quite common to bite into an apple and find that a maggot had got there first. It’s decades since I last saw a maggot in an apple – but ban PPPs, and they’ll be back.
And the bitterest irony of all – the primary objective (of protecting consumers from vanishingly small risks) would not be achieved, since the imported products that filled the gap would be produced using the very same PPPs that we’d decided to ban. Perhaps worse – some source countries may have lower standards and be using PPPs that we in Europe no longer use. We would damage our farmers, put up food prices, undermine food security, lay waste the countryside, destroy agricultural jobs – and all for nothing. As with so many EU policies, we drive business, jobs and investment offshore, with no compensating benefit.
With my Energy Spokesman’s hat on, I couldn’t resist pointing out also that fertiliser and PPP production is energy-intensive. The EU’s perverse energy policies are already undermining industry competitiveness, while President Trump’s climate and energy plans will make the USA even more cost-effective and competitive. The EU’s hazard plans are a disaster waiting to happen. And again and again we’ve seen that the Commission loves gesture politics and virtue-signalling, and cares not a jot for the economic damage its policies do.
I fear that these perverse plans will proceed. The only consolation is that with Brexit, a newly independent UK will be free to adopt a more rational policy based on risk not hazard (and a rational energy policy to deliver secure and affordable energy). Let’s just hope we have a House of Commons prepared to seize the opportunities of Brexit – and not to keep dancing to the Brussels beat long after we’re back in control.