The Game of Interests: ‘Innovation Principle’ Favors Industry but Undermines EU Laws Ensuring Healthy and Safe Food

Shortly before the Council of the European Union announces its position on the Horizon Europe research and innovation program, Slow Food Europe urges decision-makers to support an amendment, asking to leave the precautionary principle as the default (and only) principle in the new Horizon program. Slow Food Europe is among the organizations raising concerns over the so-called ‘innovation principle’ which has been included in the new program. This principle, coined by industry lobbyist groups in 2013 at the European Risk Forum, could undermine EU laws on chemicals, novel foods, pesticides, and research concerning genetically modified organisms (GMO) and new breeding technologies (NBTs). The European Commission’s Horizon Europe program for 2021-2028 will replace the current Horizon 2020.

Photo: Rob Lambert

Precautionary Principle Left Out

According to the Commission, the innovation principle ensures “that whenever policy is developed, the impact on innovation is fully assessed.” Simply put, the implementation of the innovation principle risks offsetting the precautionary principle, which allows the application of precautionary measures such as regulatory intervention when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain. The innovation principle contradicts this idea, however, by stating that policy should not hinder innovation. This loose definition puts the need to assess a policy’s impact on innovation, and the need to assess its impacts on health and environment, on the same level.

“The precautionary principle is meant to put animal and human well-being first as well as protect the environment. Meanwhile, the current unspecified definition of the innovation principle plays into the hands of the industry, offering them a way to sidestep the precautionary principle,” says Ursula Hudson, president of Slow Food Deutschland.

Despite warnings from NGOs, the innovation principle has made its way into the European research funding program, which passed the European Parliament’s first vote last December. The Council is currently deliberating its position vis à vis the Horizon Europe regulation and its decision, before entering negotiations with the Parliament.

Slow Food believes there is an urgent need to invest in research to find innovative solutions aiming to improve the sustainability of the food system by supporting and promoting the work of small-scale producers, providing affordable and healthy food to citizens, protecting food biodiversity and preserving the planet. Any and all research must, however, be public, independent, based on rigorous methodologies, and transparent about its specific objectives. It is crucial that innovative solutions remain accessible for all farmers, and not be patented or become the property of the multinationals gaining an ever-increasing concentration of power over our food system.

Safety of Food Innovation Must be Ensured

Of Horizon Europe’s planned 100 billion euros budget, 10 billion are to be allocated to “Food and Natural Resources” research projects. The Commission has suggested some concrete examples for the research such as urban farming and fighting food waste. It goes as far as promoting ideas to develop alternative proteins, “3D printing of food” for elderly patients, or New Breeding Technologies (NBTs), the safety and environmental impact of which have still not been proven. Slow Food is concerned that in these cases, the innovation principle would allow for research and innovation around food and agriculture without requiring the assessment and measurement of the long-term risks to public health or the environment.

Contrary to the Commission’s promoted idea of the need to invest in the next silver bullet solution to revolutionize Europe’s agricultural system, Slow Food Europe is dedicated to researching innovative governance mechanisms and social innovations to shift away from the current agricultural model. One example of this is agroecology which values and relies on the constant improvement of traditional technical skills, the sharing of innovations and technology among farmers’ network in order to adapt to diverse and changing environments.

“Slow Food considers agroecology to be a very important approach, because it offers a sustainable solution to feeding the world’s growing population with good, clean, and fair food without harming the environment, the climate or human and animal well-being. This approach has managed to guarantee food security while at the same crop diversity, and environment. In addition, it is very innovative in the sense that agroecology is fit for counteracting climate change while industrial food systems fail,” says Hudson.

Whose Interests are Protected?

When the Commission introduced the precautionary principle in the 1970s, the aim was to “enable decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain, and the stakes are high.” Today, however, civil society finds itself needing to remind EU decision-makers and stakeholders that the precautionary principle is not a hindrance to innovation; on the contrary, as in the ‘70s, it continues to have the potential to foster a stronger commitment to fair research, intended to bring safer food products to the European market.

It is apparent that the precautionary principle was introduced to protect the interest of consumers and the environment. The question is, with the introduction of the innovation principle, whose interests are EU decision-makers defending today?

Indre Anskaityte, Madeleine Coste
Slow Food Europe

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