Precautionary principle: By removing a risk, are we limiting finding solutions to the problem?


“Modern society has become very risk averse. The better lives we live, the less we are willing to accept the possibility of something threatening that.”

Truth. That was my first thought when I read those words last week.

The statements were part of a brief layman’s article on the “precautionary principle.”

The what?

Precautionary principle. It’s a fancy term that basically means “better safe than sorry.” It’s also the subject of an issue paper released in June by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

If you want the back story, one of the definitions came in 1998 from academics and environmental activists:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

The concept has guided policy makers in the European Union, who follow its mandate of precaution in environmental regulatory decisions, especially food and agricultural products. And it’s a concept that is now prompting international trade disruptions from its application on food or farm technologies like genetically modified crops, for example.

The European Commission didn’t define what level of risk is needed to trigger the precautionary principle.

The PP has also been incorporated into more than 60 international environmental agreements.

So, let me see if I got this straight. In the strictest sense, if an action may cause harm, then inaction is preferable.

Being aware of risk is a good thing, but prohibiting that action — even if it’s not been proven scientifically to trigger the risk — doesn’t make sense.

Risk is an individual and subjective thing. Back in the 1990s, agriculture battled the Delaney Clause, part of a 1958 food and drug act that said that no residues from pesticides found to cause cancer in animals be allowed in any food additive. There was a drawn-out court battle and ultimately Congress repealed the clause, changing exposure from zero risk to one of reasonable certainty.

This current use of the precautionary principle argument reminds me of the debates at that time. And I looked up some of our coverage and found this quote from an Ohio food microbiologist: “None of us wants any hazard, but we’re exposed to risk all the time. You have to put it in perspective.”

And it’s that perspective, that knowledge of relative risk, that I think is missing from the precautionary principle camp.

We need to find the “middle road of risk” to let us continue to explore technologies and systems and products that are better and safer than the ones we currently use.

No one, other than Bill Gates and folks in agriculture, seem to be concerned with how we’re going to feed a world population of 9.6 billion in another 30 years.

“New technologies, in combination with economic, social and political advances, will be critical to meeting this growing food demand,” wrote the CAST paper authors, led by Gary Marchant, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.

Under the PP, how are we weighing the risk from NOT adopting or researching a new, more potentially environmentally friendly, technology? Is that really being more “safe than sorry?”

Public perception of risk can certainly be different than a scientific assessment of risk, but I’m not sure my perhaps ignorant perception should hamper scientific inquiry.

“… the PP’s employment to date, including in the food context, has been dictated more by political influences than scientific factors,” the CAST paper states.

Is that really how we want R&D to proceed? I don’t think so.

The final words of the CAST issues paper say it all: “The PP has been tried but has failed as a risk management strategy. It is time to move beyond it.”

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By Susan Crowell


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