A case study reported by Christopher Booker in The Castle of Lies:
In March 1995 Geoff Richardson, chairman of a small Yorkshire firm Aquaspersions, was so angry about a disaster which had befallen his company that he reported his story to a Select Committee of MPs.
The story began some years before with a young laboratory technician named Robert Pickford. His speciality was devising ways to keep crops free from pests through biological controls, environmentally-friendly methods which can drastically reduce the need for chemical poisons. Pickford was so successful he eventually became research director for Humber Growers, Britain's leading cucumber growers.
One of his early triumphs back in 1980 was devising a way to deal with tiny insects called thrips. Instead of drenching the plants with poisons, Pickford suggested simply spraying the greenhouse floor with harmless sticky stuff on which the insects would be trapped. Thanks to 'Thripstick' the problem was solved. But in 1987 the company faced an even worse problem, a plague of whitefly - and this inspired Pickford to his finest brainwave.
Watching his wife ironing one day, he saw her using starch to stiffen the clothes. What if he could somehow apply starch to the whitefly pupae? Might this not stiffen the casing so that the tiny insects couldn't struggle out? His wife's spray-on starch didn't do the trick. But Pickford's mother then suggested he try her old-fashioned potato starch, which worked a treat.
Everyone was so excited about this extraordinarily ingenious new answer to the whitefly menace that another company, Aquaspersions, was brought in to help transform it into a saleable product. The two companies spent £400,000 on developing and patenting what they called Hugtite. It passed all the necessary tests by the Pesticides Safety Directorate and attracted interest from across the world. Finally plans were in place for a major chemical company, Levington Horticulture (formerly Fisons) to launch Hugtite on the international market in Januar 1995. Sales in the first year alone were projected at £1 million.
Then the blow fell. The companies were told that under new rules to comply with an EC directive 'on the placing on the market of plant protection products', 91/414, they would have to submit their product to a hugely complex and expensive series of new safety tests. These would cost at least another £250,000 and take three years.
This was because, under the EC rules, potato starch was considered to be a new and hitherto untested 'active substance'. It therefore had to be tested just as if it was some dangerous new chemical. In fact potato starch is something so harmless and familiar that we eat it every day in soups, sauces, pie glazes and hundreds of other food products. It is even used in the glue on envelopes, so we may lick it every time we send a letter. Nevertheless the EC rules said the starch had to go through this bizarre rigmarole, at a cost so prohibitive that Levington's pulled out. This left the two small companies with their colossal £400,000 bill, for a product which everyone wanted but which could now never be sold.
So angry was Aquaspersions' chairman Geoff Richardson that, when he heard the Agriculture Committee of the House of Commons was conducting an enquiry into the licensing of pesticides, he sent in the details of what had happened. The MPs were impressed enough to include this horror story in their printed volume of evidence. The problem was this insanity came from the EC. And when it came to laws from Brussels, the MPs knew they were powerless to do anything, even though they had caused an ingenious British product, with the potential to earn tens of millions of pounds on the world market, to be chucked on the scrapheap.