Thomas R. O'Donnell

Paper: Too much precaution stilts innovation, could perpetuate hunger

In Uncategorized on July 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm
Caution tape

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via photopin cc

I’m a pretty careful guy. I wear my seatbelt, floss my teeth, and look both ways before crossing the street. These precautions keep me safe and healthy.

Precautions are generally prudent, wise and forward-looking. We all want to be safe as possible. Why risk a bad outcome?

This is a simple way to consider the Precautionary Principle, an approach regulators often use to consider new technology. It’s best, they say, to be careful, lest unexpected, unwanted consequences crop up. What can be wrong with that?

Plenty, a new report from an Ames-based agricultural policy think tank says. Citing a long string of academic papers and case studies, it blasts misapplication of the Precautionary Principle for blocking technology like genetic engineering of grains while ignoring the costs: less food for a growing population, less income for rural farmers and greater environmental harm.

The principle is ambiguous, arbitrarily applied, and biased against new technologies, the paper says, and its consequences have been mostly negative. It ignores technology’s many benefits while focusing on its risks, no matter how small.

“The [principle] has been tried but has failed as a risk management strategy,” the authors say. “It is time to move beyond it” – a conclusion some environmentalists are sure to challenge.

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) has been around since the 70s. I’ve often driven by its office, a former QuikTrip convenience store, on West Lincoln Way.

CAST’s materials say it was founded out of a 1970 meeting sponsored by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, organizations Congress – and I – rely for nonpolitical science information.

Gary Marchant, a law and life sciences professor at Arizona State University, chaired the CAST task force that wrote the issue paper, “Impact of the Precautionary Principle on Feeding Current and Future Generations.” It largely reviews and synthesizes previous research, including some from task force members.

Reviewers included Leen Hordijk (PDF), a retired Dutch researcher with the Institute for Environment and Sustainability at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

Hordijk’s role is noteworthy because the European Union (EU) has adopted the Precautionary Principle (PP) as policy. The EU “has been the global leader in adopting and promoting the PP,” the CAST report says, and has used it to restrict imports of genetically modified (GM) crops such as Bt corn.

The PP is under scrutiny again this month as the United States and EU negotiate a new free-trade agreement. EU officials and farmers say they’re blocking GM crops for health and safety reasons. U.S. farmers and trade officials charge the PP is a smokescreen for trade protectionism.

This matters to Iowa. If the EU drops its restrictions, it opens huge markets for plant and animal products our farmers raise. And when farmers do well, Iowa does well.

So what’s the PP? One way to sum it up is the old axiom, “better safe than sorry”: We must be sure any new technology or activity won’t cause unexpected harm.

But that’s only one simple definition. No one agrees on and few people fully understand what the PP is, the report’s authors charge, and that’s one of its problems. One version “would seemingly ban anything to which it is applied.” And none of the definitions addresses what evidence is needed to trigger the PP, the PP’s level of acceptable risk, how to balance that against risks of not adopting a technology, or what action the PP requires.

The authors agree some precaution is essential for regulation, and regulators shouldn’t wait until it’s definitely proven a technology or product is harmful before taking protective measures.

But the PP, as the European Union applies it, seeks to apply an increased amount of precaution, the paper says.

Besides ambiguity, the PP often is applied arbitrarily, the paper says. In some cases, “political factors appear to be the only explanation for why the PP is applied to some risks but not others.”

The paper cites cases like Norway banning Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Denmark banning Ocean Spray cranberry drinks because vitamins added to those products could harm susceptible consumers.

“As a general matter, the PP is often applied selectively to ‘exotic’ new technologies … that are often sensationalized (both the risks and benefits) in the news media,” the paper says. It adds: “There are other examples of arbitrary application of the PP that are only possible because of the lack of any coherent definition or criteria.”

The PP’s bias against technology isn’t surprising, the authors say, given its goal of preventing new risks in the face of uncertainty. But new products “often present lower risks than the older products they’re intended to replace.” New technology like Bt corn and golden rice “present potential environmental and health benefits in addition to possible risks,” but those benefits often aren’t considered in applying the PP.

This creates a conundrum, the authors say, citing other studies and papers: The PP is designed to forestall harm, but in doing so it can cause harm. For instance, invoking the PP to block GM crops, which can produce bigger yields with fewer inputs, puts more hungry people at risk of starvation and violates the PP.

Widespread cultivation and consumption of golden rice, for instance, could alleviate vitamin A deficiencies plaguing children in developing countries and causing disability and death. But “the recalcitrance of some advocacy groups to accept the process of genetic engineering despite repeated safety testing shows the flaw of a regulatory policy that focuses on process (PP) rather than product (typical risk assessment and management paradigm).”

That focus delays adoption of technology needed to feed millions of people who now go underfed or hungry, the authors say.

The PP, the paper concludes, has helped focus attention on the need to better define levels of risk assessment and management. But “the PP’s solution to the question of appropriate risk management is blunderbuss rather than nuanced, extreme rather than principled. Its failure to offer a credible and reasoned framework for the application of risk management suggests that the PP will be increasingly controversial, marginalized, and ignored.”

What’s needed, the paper says, is a Goldilocks approach, with “not too little precaution, not too much, but just the right amount needed.”

CAST says the paper is based on work supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

The nonprofit council’s membership includes numerous societies, such as the American Dairy Science Association, American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and the American Veterinary Medical Association. It also includes companies and trade groups like Monsanto, the Iowa Soybean Association and the National Pork Board.

I don’t think the Council’s sponsorship makes the paper’s conclusions any less significant, but it’s always wise to consider look at who paid for a study when considering what weight to give it.

I have little fear of any detrimental health effects from consuming GM foods. The proteins coded by the DNA biotechnology inserts are no more or less likely to make me sick than other, naturally occurring proteins.

Yet, I can empathize with those advocating a “go slow” approach to biotech. I’ve wondered whether releasing modified plants into the field will lead to the indiscriminate spread of non-native genes to other plants, either of the same species or different species. As the report’s authors point out, however, this already happens between nontransgenic species. And few genes introduced this way actually are expressed in the recipient plants – that is, they rarely change anything about them.

Even if I did fear biotech, what right do I – as a well-fed, healthy American who has no worries about the source of his next meal – have to block something that could help feed millions, either today or in generations to come?

There’s uncertainty and risk in everything we do, and every day we make small risk-reward decisions. Driving to work carries a risk, but the reward is a paycheck. When I lift weights, I could drop a barbell on my neck and die, but I figure the small risk is worth the benefit of staying fit. So it is with GM foods. We probably have bigger things to fear.

What do you think? Is the Precautionary Principle an overreaction, or a necessary way to avoid a catastrophe? Let me know in the comments.

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