U.S.-EU Trade Talks — The Precautionary Principle Rears its Ugly Head

Even before substantive negotiations have begun, a major problem has surfaced in talks on a U.S.-EU trade agreement. Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution stating the EU’s objectives and positions on major issues relating to a proposed trade agreement. One provision in that resolution started an outcry by the U.S. agriculture, food, dairy, and meat producers. The provision deals with the “precautionary principle” and reads:

17.  Emphasises the sensitivity of certain fields of negotiation, such as the agricultural sector, where perceptions of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), cloning and consumer health tend to diverge between the US and the EU; sees an opportunity in enhanced cooperation in agriculture trade, and stresses the importance of an ambitious and balanced outcome in this field; stresses that the agreement must not undermine the fundamental values of either side, for example the precautionary principle in the EU; calls on the US to lift its import ban on EU beef products, as a trust-building measure;

The precautionary principle is a concept invoked even when there is no scientific evidence that a product is harmful to human health or the environment. It is based on the hypothetical rather than the real. Thus, even when there is a lack of scientific evidence that products are likely to cause harm, the EU can take action to ban the import of those products.

In response to the European Parliament’s resolution, a coalition of 47 agriculture and food producers sent a strong letter May 20, 2013, to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) stating that the EU’s endorsement of the precautionary principle in the negotiations would be a form of protectionism hiding behind safety concerns and should be rejected by the U.S.:

At the core, the EU’s non-scientific notion of “precaution” has led to the adoption of many trade-restrictive measures that have resulted in several high-profile WTO disputes in which the EU’s defense of the precautionary principle has been ruled to be inconsistent with WTO rules. Such precautionary measures are often based on mere hazard identification – or worse, on public perception and political considerations – rather than proper, science-based risk assessments, as required by the WTO. And, even in cases where risk assessments are ultimately carried out, the EU has demonstrated an inability to lift unjustifiable measures because of domestic political pressures. “Precaution” in the EU has become a pretext for import protectionism under the pretense of consumer safety. As a result, U.S. exports have repeatedly paid the price.

In comments CEI submitted to the USTR on the proposed U.S.-EU Trade and Investment Agreement, CEI specifically called for the U.S. to reject the precautionary principle in the negotiations. The comments stated:

The precautionary principle is a one-way ratchet. It obsesses about imagined or potential risks of new technology or innovations while ignoring the real risks on the other side, the risks of restricting the development of technology. Both have to be considered and evaluated – the risks of change have to be balanced against the risks of stagnation. Generally, new technologies have reduced overall risk, and that fact is ignored in the precautionary principle.

Since the enshrinement of the precautionary approach in the Rio Declaration in 1992 by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, CEI has sought to demonstrate that applying this principle can lead to stagnation by focusing only on one side of the risk equation – and ignoring the risk of stifling new technology.