Adrian Bua, Margaret Welsh and Nina Holland – ‘Innovating’ our way into disaster

Big business is using the language of progress to strip away consumer protections

Adrian Bua is Researcher at the New Economics Foundation

Margaret Welsh is Communications Officer at the New Economics Foundation

Nina Holland is a researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory

Cross-posted from the New Economics Foundation

Better safe than sorry’: wise words when it comes to regulating chemicals, foodstuffs, medicines and other products. The ​precautionary principle’ is recognised across the world by national governments, the UN, and the EU. Definitions vary, but it basically states that activities (like the introduction of new technologies or products) should not be undertaken unless their safety is beyond reasonable scientific doubt. This requires public servants to exercise caution when products might cause serious and irreversible harm to people or the environment, even if the science is not 100% established.

This can set quite high standards for products or practices looking for a green light from government. In the EU this has prevented a range of potentially risky products from being released onto the market, including genetically modified foods and animal growth hormones. However, the principle is not applied consistently across the world, which has led to serious human and environmental cost.

One of the reasons for this is that prevention is a thankless task: solving problems is much more visible and profitable for companies selling clean-up solutions than preventing them. Another reason is that the principle is often very loosely applied and interpreted. This creates holes in the safety net that harmful products and technologies can pass through, with businesses often resisting attempts to regulate their products.

At NEF we have advocated for the subtle ​wisdom of prevention’ rather than rescue, and the precautionary principle is an important part of this. However, a small number of critics argue that the EU has been over-cautious in its use of the precautionary principle which has held back ​progress’. In the UK, criticism of the EU has often been fuelled by a perception that EU regulations are excessive (although this may be beginning to change). Internationally, critics advocating lower regulatory standards (such as in the US) complain that it blocks their access to EU markets. In the EU, a coalition of shady players, originally led by British American Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies, advocate for lower standards and are very successful in influencing EU policy.

What these critics have in common is a free-market philosophy, an interest in boosting profits for big business, and access to a network of lobbying organisations to push for a deregulatory agenda in EU institutions. The impacts of their efforts range from halting progress in tackling anti-microbial resistance to setting the conditions that led to the Volkswagen ​Dieselgate’ scandal (see page 103).

Over the past few years the deregulation lobby has turned its attention to undermining the precautionary principle by successfully calling for a so-called ​innovation principle’ to be inserted into EU policy making. The European Risk Forum (a lobby platform for chemical, tobacco and fossil fuel corporations) had by 2017 succeeded in influencing the EU’s Directorate General for Research to set up its own Innovation Principle Task Force which will push for its implementation. 

The innovation principle would give industry a new tool to bring potentially harmful (and previously restricted) products to market by giving equal weight to the impact of regulations on ​innovation’ as it does to public safety. Corporate Europe Observatory reports this is already happening, with the chemical industry invoking the innovation principle to argue for a weakening of the EU chemical legislation (REACH) and pesticide regulation.

But is this really concerning? After all, surely ​innovation’ is a good thing? Do not be fooled. Big business is using a classic technique here: what George Orwell referred to as ​political language’: language ​designed to make lies sound truthful, murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. The innovation principle and its associated Better Regulation agenda have deliberately woolly names, chosen to appear unobjectionable and disguise the insidious process of undermining the standards that protect citizens and consumers.

One immediate danger of the innovation principle is its use as a principle for Horizon Europe, the EU’s upcoming research funding programme (working budget: €100 billion). This would steer the program towards developing innovations that can be marketed by business, and away from scientific projects that could help address crucial societal challenges but that might not lead to new commodities.

Now, here’s the thing. Actual innovation is essential for us to tackle economic, social and environmental challenges. But the ​innovation principle’ pushed for by lobbyists prioritises industry interests over the EU’s existing social and environmental standards. Without proper precaution, we’re in danger of ​innovating’ our way into environmental disaster, and endanger public health.

The worst is that this ​principle’ in fact doesn’t have any legal definition. It is an invention by think tanks financed by big business (like the European Risk Forum), and it doesn’t exist in EU law – for now. If it is included as a principle of Horizon Europe, this creates a precedent which could see the principle become part of enforceable EU law.

On top of that, we have no need for an innovation principle. Innovation happens all the time. One of the beauties of science is that it is not necessarily responsive to money. Science is innovation. What we need is to change regulations and rules so that they channel innovation in ways that are socially and environmentally useful. Ulrich Eckelmann, General Secretary of IndustriAll Europe has asked: ​Why not a quality jobs principle, or a social justice principle, or an equality principle?” As science policy expert Professor Andy Stirling warns, without such rules, innovation will just be simply steered to favour the most powerful interests.

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