Regulatory officials in the European Union seem to be ignorant of the rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging. Numerous analyses over the past two decades have documented <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Europe's declining competitiveness in agricultural biotechnology—the use of genetic modification to improve plants, animals and microorganisms.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Recently, for example, the European Commission's Joint Research Center reported that two-thirds of large European companies that had been involved in developing GM crops had cancelled substantial projects since 1998. Yet the EU seems determined, through its unscientific, unwise, and unproductive approach to regulation, to let the sector fall further behind.
At the root of the problem is the EU's adherence to the so-called "precautionary principle," which holds that as long as the evidence about a product, technology or activity is in any way incomplete, it should be prohibited or, at the least, heavily regulated. This in turn is based on the false assumption that little harm comes from delaying the introduction of new products and technologies.
The principle exaggerates the potential drawbacks of new products and underestimates their benefits. The decision making process it dictates is intentionally weighted against new technologies even after they have been cautiously examined.
Literally thousands of laboratory, greenhouse, and field studies show the risks of GM plants and foods to be minimal, while their benefits—in terms of increased yields and reduced pesticide use—are legion. Future increases in their use would improve human nutrition and, by reducing pressure on land and water, protect fragile ecosystems.
But the precautionary principle stands in the way. It forces us to ignore proven benefits in a costly effort to eliminate hypothetical risks that are small or easily manageable. Thus, in 1998, the highest French court invoked the principle when it suspended commercialization of three GM corn varieties, even though the French government had already endorsed approval of those same varieties at EU level. Similarly, in 2000, Germany rescinded the license for field testing a GM corn variety just one day before the agriculture ministry was due to approve it for commercial cultivation.
The list of bizarre and baseless actions by European regulators goes on and on. Even the Commission's own research implies that this has little to do with protecting consumers or the environment. Last year, it reviewed the 17 years of risk assessment research it had funded—81 projects by more than 400 multinational research groups, costing about €70m ($79m)—and concluded that GM organisms are "probably...safer than conventional plants and foods" for both the environment and human consumption.
The precautionary principle purports to be a useful method for decision making in situations of uncertainty. In practice, however, it serves as an excuse for imposing arbitrary restrictions, often transparently motivated by protectionism, on new technology. The results of this approach are plain in the EU's labeling and traceability regime, which makes it prohibitively expensive and complicated for growers of GM crops to comply with the rules. The ultimate outcome will be to replace a de facto moratorium with insuperable regulatory obstacles.
In view of the moribund state of GM research and development in the EU, its only viable strategy may be to poison the well—that is, to make sure that GM technology fails everywhere, and that no competitor remains viable. European attempts to secure acceptance of the precautionary principle in international agreements and treaties are a good start.
In the interest of human rights, economic justice and free markets, we need global regulatory policies that make scientific sense and that lead to greater productivity and consumer choice. By promoting the precautionary principle, and by exporting their own version of unscientific and inconsistent regulation, EU politicians are doing us all a grave disservice. The only winners will be the Brussels bureaucrats who will enjoy additional power, and the anti-science activists who will have succeeded in erecting yet another barrier to a superior technology. The biggest losers will be consumers, who will be denied access to safer, more nutritious and more affordable food.