Skip to content

Jeremy's Blog 19th March 2021: Environmental Principles

This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 18th March 2021.

Looking from the outside, current European attitudes to the Astra Zeneca vaccine can appear to live down to the UK’s expectations of the EU’s approach to the precautionary principle, especially in the context of innovation.

While that principle states that scientific uncertainty should not postpone cost-effective measures to prevent a threat of serious or irreversible harm, the EU’s interpretation has been seen as so strong that salt might not gain regulatory approval were it a new substance. Never minding that the EU might have as complex and varied an approach as any other jurisdiction (the USA included), the European Court’s decision that gene editing (working within a species’ genes as with conventional breeding) was the same as genetic modification (transferring genes between species) has had the practical effect of blocking this technology’s use in agriculture and elsewhere.

With the policy re-making following Brexit, DEFRA’s draft statement of environmental principles lays out the broad international principles as a pragmatic package, emphasising proportionality and a rounded view to aid policy makers – and doubtless to be pleaded in later judicial reviews.

Policy is to be based on five key principles applied on a judgment of the circumstances of each case:

  • the integration principle – environmental protection policies should be integrated into other policy areas
  • the prevention principle – policies should aim to prevent, reduce or mitigate harm
  • the rectification principle – where damage cannot be prevented, it should be tackled at its origin
  • the polluter pays principle – those who cause damage should be responsible for its mitigation or compensation with the statement looking at how answers might vary with the situations
  • the precautionary principle – DEFRA says this should not be applied speculatively but proportionately, not hindering innovation which should be held to the same standards as existing techniques, indeed encouraged where it would reduce risk and uncertainty.

Pragmatism need not mean avoiding problems as is now being tested for water and air quality, where we may be passing a tipping point towards stronger actions for farming, already taken in Wales and under review in England and Scotland, moving further to prevention and tackling at source.

Equally pragmatism can employ innovation’s power to answer problems and have a role in the green recovery. DEFRA has consulted on how to regulate gene editing which, alongside the work on vaccines, can build a basis for the UK as a global centre for bioscience as well using science to support an improved farming at home.

Return to news