Precaution without Principle

The European Parliament voted earlier this summer to change the way it regulates gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM) technology, possibly opening the way for the lifting of the EU's 5-year-old moratorium on approvals of new gene-spliced crops and foods. The EU's spin is that this “progress” should induce the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United States and other complainants to drop their World Trade Organization grievance against EU regulation. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

This is no more than a negotiating ploy: The legislation makes the EU an even less hospitable environment for gene-splicing, not a better one.

While literally thousands of studies show the risks of gene-splicing plants and foods to be minimal, their benefits are legion and their potential extraordinary. Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops has reduced pesticide use by tens of millions of pounds annually (resulting in less occupational exposure and less runoff into waterways) and saved millions of tons of topsoil from erosion. In less developed countries, gene-spliced crops have increased yields and raised the incomes of resource-poor farmers. Future advances promise to improve human nutrition, reduce the land and water needed to produce food, and save ecosystems from fragmentation and development.

Standing in the way is the Precautionary Principle, which holds that while the evidence about a product, technology or activity is in any way incomplete, it should be prohibited, or at least heavily regulated. This principle forces government to ignore benefits of innovation in a costly effort to avoid hypothetical risks.

The Precautionary Principle often has been used in Europe as justification for egregious regulatory abuses of gene-spliced products. The highest French court invoked the principle in 1998, when it suspended commercialization of three gene-spliced corn varieties, even though the French government had endorsed approval of those same varieties at the EU level just two years earlier.

In 2000, the Italian government suspended the commercialization of four gene-spliced corn varieties, allegedly over the concerns about potential health risks, even after a report from the Italian National Institute of Health had found “there is no reason to believe that a risk for human or animal health could ensue from the consumption of products derived from the [gene-spliced] plants in question.” The list of baseless and anti-innovation actions by European regulators is endless.

The Parliament's action does not actually repeal Europe's moratorium, nor does it change the voting structure that allows a minority of European countries to refuse registration of new gene-spliced products.

The new legislation does, however, contain Draconian new requirements, including a strict labeling regime that requires gene-spliced foods to be identified, the segregation of gene-spliced from conventional products, and “traceability,” so gene-spliced ingredients can be traced through every step of the food chain all the way back to the farm where they were grown.

The labeling and traceability rules have nothing to do with protecting consumer health or the natural environment, a fact acknowledged even by officials such as EU Minister for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne.

A recent report summarizing the conclusions of 81 different EU-funded research projects spanning 15 years shows that, because gene-spliced plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable scientific techniques, they are at least as safe, and often safer, than their conventional counterparts. Moreover, the technology has been given a clean bill of health by dozens of scientific bodies around the world, including the French Academies of Science and Medicine, U.K. Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association. A revealing aspect of the new legislation is the distinction made by the EU between foods and animal feeds produced with and produced from a gene-spliced organism, a bizarre bureaucratic distinction that favors certain classes of products widely made in Europe.

For example, products made with the aid of gene-spliced enzymes (such as chymosin for cheese production) or with gene-spliced yeasts to make beer and wine are exempted from the new labeling and traceability rules, while a food like cornflakes made from gene-spliced Iowa corn would be captured by the new regulations.

Thus European regulators find it necessary to protect consumers from foods developed with certain production methods, but only when the foods come primarily from other countries.     

The new labeling and traceability regime does no more than the old to promote consumer choice. It will, however, make it prohibitively expensive and complicated for growers of gene-spliced crops to comply with the rules.     

The only winners from such wrongheaded public policy will be the unelected apparatchiks in Brussels, who will enjoy additional power and resources; and anti-science activists, who will have succeeded in erecting yet another barrier to a superior technology. The biggest losers will be consumers, who systematically will be denied access to safer, more nutritious, and affordable products.