Much has been said about the opportunity to decrease regulation in a post-Brexit UK and Leadsom in her address to the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2017 said that “as we prepare to leave the EU, I will be looking at scrapping the rules that hold us back and focusing instead on what works best for the UK.” The EU’s application of the precautionary principle has been subject to criticism; the precautionary principle places the burden on the inventor or innovator to disprove any risk even, as its critics would say, in circumstances in which there is no scientific consensus around potential harm. To some, this is stifling potential innovation; to others it is a common sense reaction to the unknown effects of new technology. The UK government has confirmed that as part of preparations for Brexit it is reviewing regulations surrounding genetically modified (GM) organisms and it is possible that GM crops could be licenced for commercial growth in the UK post- Brexit. Genetic modification is not the only area in which the UK has opposed EU regulation and disagreements have ranged from restrictions on the use of certain pesticides such as neonicotinoids and glyphosates to animal cloning for food production. George Eustice (the Minister of State for Agriculture), in a written answer to the Houses of Parliament in October 2016, stated that regulation should be “science-based and proportionate” which may imply a move away from the EU’s precautionary principle. However, suggesting that the UK can successfully market controversial technologies such as GM products simply by changing national regulation is to over-simplify the case. For example, the economics of developing GM seeds on a commercial scale which are not currently marketable in Europe (especially if the GM seeds are developed specifically for Western European climates or to be resistant to geographically-specific diseases) are questionable. Although the restricted licencing of GM crops grown in the EU limits the market for GM seeds (only one type of GM crop is currently grown commercially in the EU), the EU does import GM products. But any export of products to the EU will depend on the trade arrangements reached post-Brexit; arrangements which may be more difficult where UK regulations are no longer equivalent. However, the UK is a net importer of agri-food goods and the government’s White Paper on leaving the EU is optimistic that the UK and the EU have a mutual interest in ensuring continued high levels of market access in the agri-food sector in the future.
If there is to be a broad domestic market for GM products, or indeed other food developed and produced using new and unfamiliar technologies, it is not just regulations but also minds that need to be changed. Leadsom has already been accused of environmental irresponsibility by the Green Party following her statement that the “three crop rule” (the EU regulation requiring certain larger farms to grow at least three crops) should be scrapped after Brexit. Suggestions of commercial production of GM crops or deregulation of certain pesticides will undoubtedly cause a strong adverse reaction amongst a vocal minority; it is less clear how the majority of the UK public would react. Following the Brexit decision, it is notable that GM crop developers Monsanto and Syngenta seem to be stepping up a public relations campaign designed to change minds in favour of GM technology. Monsanto is reportedly preparing to work with UK scientists and Vance Crowe, recently appointed “Director of Millennial Engagement” at Monsanto, has been in the UK giving a series of talks promoting GM crops to the UK public. Syngenta has partnered with the Evening Standard for a series of food debates, including on the role of technology in food production. In a recent interview, Syngenta warned that either consumers will have to accept innovation or face higher prices and supply shortages.