Throwing Precaution to the Wind: The Perils of the Precautionary Principle


From the August/September issue of CEI UpDate


Mom always said, “Better safe than sorry.” Dad, on the other hand, believed that, “He who hesitates is lost.” Risk is an omnipresent fact in everyday life, requiring us to strike a reasonable balance between these competing sentiments. You might think, though, that the future of global trade would rest on firmer ground than the essence of two old clichés. But those diametric attitudes about the proper approach to health and environmental risks sum up rather succinctly the growing international tension over food safety and agricultural trade.


International trade in food and other agricultural products is big business and of major importance to just about every country around the world. Years of arduous negotiations under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization brought about a general reduction in tariff barriers on agricultural imports. But a desire to protect domestic farmers, to preserve a sense of “cultural integrity” in their food, or simply to halt the progress of multinational agribusiness, has led protection-minded politicians around the globe to pursue less forthright means of restricting trade. Lately, western European politicians have seized upon a growing concern for environmental preservation as a cover for their back-door protectionism.


At the heart of the public debate lies a fear of the growing influence of technology on the practice of farming. Enter the “precautionary principle.” There is no universally accepted definition of the precautionary principle, but it is generally summarized as a belief that, when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, regulatory measures should be taken to prevent or restrict the activity even if the risks have not been demonstrated scientifically. In effect, advocates of the precautionary principle believe that governments should prevent new technologies from being used until they are proven to meet some obscure and ill-defined measure of “safety.”


The precautionary principle is designed to tap into that general suspicion we all have about new products and new situations. “Of course,” we tend to think, “isn’t it better to be safe than sorry, especially when we’re dealing with something novel?” Unfortunately, health and environmental risk issues aren’t so simple. No one disagrees that innovators should be cautious. Advocates of the precautionary principle – mainly the organized environmental movement and many governments within the European Union – portray it as a neutral tool for assessing risks and argue that the principle should be used in a manner that duly considers potential costs and benefits. Indeed, there is nothing inherently dangerous in the sentiment expressed by the plain language of the precautionary principle.  But to advance adoption of the principle, advocates have erected a false dichotomy.


Critics don’t oppose the precautionary principle because they’re in favor of reckless abandon.  Rather, opposition springs from the tendency of the principle’s supporters to take an overly-simplistic view of environmental and human health risks – viewing danger only in technological progress.  Focusing mainly on the possibility that new technologies may pose new, theoretical risks ignores very real, existing risks that could be mitigated or eliminated by those technologies. For example, if the precautionary principle had been applied decades ago to innovations like polio vaccines and antibiotics, regulators might have prevented occasionally serious, and sometimes fatal, side effects by delaying or denying approval of those products, but that precaution would have come at the expense of millions of lives lost to infectious diseases.


Instead of demanding a safety assurance that approaches absolute certainty, the goal should be to balance the risk of accepting new products too quickly against the risks of delaying or forgoing new technologies. The precautionary principle is faulty because its practitioners tend to ignore the risks of technological stagnation.


“Look Before You Leap”


Of course, advocates argue publicly that the precautionary principle should not be construed as being a “search for zero risk.” They argue further that it should be enforced in a manner that is “proportional,” “non-discriminatory,” and “consistent,” and that precautionary risk management practices should carefully weigh “potential benefits and costs” and be “subject to review in the light of new scientific data.” But none of these restrictions seem to matter much to real world practitioners of precautionary regulation.


Consider a recent example. In February, the German ministers of health, agriculture, environment, and research specifically cited the precautionary principle when jointly calling for a moratorium on the commercial growth of a genetically-engineered corn variety a single day before the agriculture ministry’s Office for Varieties was expected to announce its approval. The German Central Commission for Biological Safety, a scientific group advising the government on genetic engineering, announced that the government had ignored the commission’s recommendation for approval and stated that the commission “could perceive no scientific basis for the decision.”


“He Who Hesitates Is Lost”


In addition to such intra-national restrictions, the precautionary principle is increasingly being invoked by European nations to stifle international trade. Technology-intensive agricultural practices–including the used of chemical pesticides and herbicides on crop plants, genetic engineering, and the use of artificial growth hormones and antibiotics in livestock–have been the subject of vigorous debate between major food exporting countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, on the one side and net food importers, such as those countries in western Europe, on the other. Specific examples include a restriction by France on imports of beef from the Great Britain (due to lingering concern about Mad Cow Disease), and a European Union-imposed ban on imports of beef from the United States (over concern of artificial growth promoters). In each of these cases, policymakers rejected the assurances of the scientific community that the products at hand are safe (at least within a reasonable definition of that term), instead indulging the subjective fears of any element of the populace to justify restrictive policies.


Moreover, in a white paper released this past February, in which the European Commission endorsed precautionary regulation, the Commission makes it clear that it will be pushing for the principle’s inclusion in the WTO and other international trade agreements. As more transparent trade barriers begin to crumble around the world, importers may increasingly find themselves captive to risk-averse and protectionist regulators who will feel free to insist that innovators meet their seemingly insatiable demands for proof of safety.


As a tool of public policy, the precautionary principle’s primary shortcomings are that it describes neither the obligations of the regulator nor the rights of the innovator, and that it incorporates neither coherent evidentiary standards nor clear stopping points. Consequently, it means in practice only what legally empowered regulators decide it means. Even in its white paper on the precautionary principle, the Commission  specifically declined to define the term, writing that “it would be wrong to conclude that the absence of a definition has to lead to legal uncertainty.”


Such a cavalier attitude brings to mind the famous remark from Justice Potter Stewart that he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. Leaving an innovator’s (or anyone else’s) legal rights undefined makes us captive to the wholly subjective judgment of politicians. In effect, regulators are given carte blanche to decide what is “unsafe” and what is “safe enough,” with no checks or balances to ensure that their decisions actually reduce overall risk. And under a precautionary standard of evidence, overly risk‑averse, incompetent, or protectionist regulatory bodies are free to require any amount and kind of testing they wish, arbitrarily withholding or deferring approvals indefinitely.


“The Devil We Know”


While the risk of forgoing improvements such as agricultural biotechnology may not be obvious to all readers, farmers in the developing world are learning that they are all too real.  Agricultural productivity in much of the developing world is very low, because soils are poor, the climates harsh, and farmers are engaged in a constant battle against weeds, plant diseases, and voracious insect pests.  Endemic poverty and poor or non-existant infrastructure prevents many of these nations from trading for food.  According to World Bank estimates, nearly one billion people in developing countries are chronically malnourished.  Yet even under conservative assumptions, world population is expected to grow by 40 to 50 percent in the next 50 years.


Without substantial increases in productivity, the need to feed a growing world population will require farmers to plow under large tracts of ecologically valuable land just to keep pace.  And as developing nations develop, this problem will be compounded as the wealthier populations of the year 2050 will be increasingly unsatisfied with subsistence level diets. US Department of Interior analyst Indur Goklany estimates that if agricultural productivity grows by just one percent per year (roughly equivalent to the rate in the pre-genetic engineering years of the early 1990s), the world’s farmers would need to double their current farmland if they hope to meet the demand for food in the world of 2050.


Fortunately, some varieties of genetically-engineered crop plant that will soon come to market will increase agricultural productivity and improve nutritional value.  Importantly, the most  substantial gains are likely to accrue to small, developing world farmers.  Plants  specifically targeted at addressing the specific problems of developing world farmers–such as the recently reported Golden Rice, with added beta carotene and increased iron, and many other examples–are being developed by university scientists, charitable institutions,public research centers, and corporations. 


“The Devil We Don’t”


Still, however, anti-technology and anti-capitalist activists argue that synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, genetically-engineered crop plants, and other agricultural technologies are unsafe for humans and the environment, and that they can never help the poor of the developing world.  Certainly, much needs to be done to help poor nations crawl out of the abyss of poverty–greater freedom, political accountability, and development of the rule of law are all essential.  But contrary to the near-hysterical opinion of environmental activists and so-called consumer groups, the technologies now on the market have undergone extensive testing and have been shown time again to be safe. The risks of those products have been judged small enough to be effectively managed, or grossly outweighed by the products’ ability to reduce other, more substantial risks.


Despite the claims of its proponents, the precautionary principle is clearly being  used by its advocates to examine only one side of the risk equation: the risk of using new technologies. A more transcendent approach to risk management and risk regulation would acknowledge that there are risks in forgoing new technologies just as surely as there are in adopting them. New products should not be rejected solely because they may pose new risks. Instead, we should insist that regulators weigh evidence that new products pose new risks equally against the evidence that they can reduce or eliminate old ones.  Additionally, we should develop institutional mechanisms to hold regulators accountable when the rules they create actually increase risk.


Of course, even these types of institutional reforms cannot guarantee a universal reduction in risk in all cases.  Regulators will always face a perverse incentive structure in which the dangers of new products are apparent, while the dangers of forgoing them are hidden.  Naturally, independent science advisory boards must be given greater authority and third party risk assessments should be persued wherever feasible.  Ultimately, though,a formal, institutional recognition that there is a trade‑off between moving too quickly and moving too slowly is a necessary element in obtaining net risk reduction and in promoting overall risk reduction.


It is also imperative that governments recognize that people are not homogeneous in their tolerances for risk. Some number will always prefer, as yet another cliché would have it, “the devil we know” over “the devil we don’t.” The solution, however, is not simply to ratchet-up restrictions to accommodate some single, “optimal” level of regulation. To the extent possible, it’s important that individuals be given a maximum opportunity to exercise choice when selecting products. Those who are fearful of newer technologies can choose to purchase products made without them. Organic food, for example, is a quickly growing market that has sprung up precisely to meet the niche demand of some consumers for a no-synthetics, no-genetic engineering alternative. Organic agriculture comes with its own risks – primarily lower productivity and resultant higher costs, but also the possibility of increased foodborne pathogens. Evidence of these risks should not be used by government to condemn organics, but neither should the rest of society be forced to accept the organic lifestyle.


Concern about safety is nothing new. But elevating common clichés about caution to the level of public policy is not only unsound but, ironically, it might actually be unsafe.


Gregory Conko ([email protected]) is director of food safety policy at CEI.