Eco-Activists Rely On Precautionary Principle To Thwart Hunger-Ending Biofood Technology

By Lisa Young

The several hundred Luddites who showed up to protest the Biotechnology Industry Organization's convention in San Diego last month pushed a catch-phrase that betrays a basic misunderstanding of science.

The phrase -- "the Precautionary Principle" -- states that no human technology should be used for widespread human consumption unless "full scientific certainty" exists that it will not cause human or environmental harm.

The Precautionary Principle, or P.P. as it's widely known, plays off a platitude likely absorbed by anyone who ever took Logic 101 in college -- "you can't prove a negative."

The P.P. first took hold among eco-activists in Europe, whose "the sky is falling" ideas consistently were knocked for a loop when they ran into sweet science and hard fact.

Because it's impossible to prove that any product will not, at some point, cause harms to humans and the environment, the P.P. was a handy weapon for fringe groups that were forced out of desperation to rely on scare tactics to combat reason.

A variation of the P.P., indeed, was the basis of several pieces of legislation in Europe and Australia and a number of international agreements -- including the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which was signed by 68 nations in Montreal last year.

American environmentalists, including those from old-line groups as well as more radical ones, swiftly embraced it.

On the surface, the P.P. makes perfect sense -- don't take an action unless you're certain that it isn't harmful. The problem is that reaching full scientific certainty is impossible. Science can prove a hypothesis untrue, but it cannot prove a hypothesis true.

For instance, you can prove that a chemical is harmful, but you can never prove that it is absolutely safe. Indeed, a risk of harm is always present, even for the most commonly used chemicals.

Using the Precautionary Principle as the basis for regulation stifles innovation and impedes trade -- leading to deleterious consequences for world health.

One only has to look at the history of science to understand why using "the Precautionary Principle" to guide policy would drastically increase human suffering.

Virtually all of the most successful scientific advances have involved some risk. Vaccines, antibiotics, chlorine, automobiles and airplanes have saved countless lives, yet all of these advances would have been regulated to the dustbin of history if governments of the past had used the Principle as a litmus test for approval.

Today, biotech advances allow farmers to plant disease-resistant and pest-resistant crops that greatly reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Golden Rice fortified with Vitamin A can prevent the deaths of some two million children a year and annually eliminate 500,000 cases of blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. Genetically modified foods eventually will produce enough food to feed the planet's 800 million malnourished people.

If the Precautionary Principle takes hold in legislation in the U.S. and around the world, such advances and the fate of millions of hungry and malnourished people will be placed at risk.

Because the P.P. allows regulators rather than scientists to decide how much risk is acceptable, the Principle often becomes an excuse to implement trade protectionism.

Although the European Commission recently declared the European community's moratorium on genetically modified crops illegal, many EU enthusiasts are pushing for further regulation of GM foods.

At a meeting of EU and U.S. officials earlier this year to hammer out details of a treaty on food safety, progress was halted when the EU insisted on applying the Precautionary Principle to food imports -- a protectionist aimed squarely at American farmers, the world leaders in biotech crops.

Trade barriers and regulations are already having a negative impact on the future of biotechnology. Complex, burdensome regulations and limitations placed on exports increase the cost of biotech research and development.

Many biotech companies have been driven into bankruptcy, while others have been forced into a merger. The overall result: reduced competition and stifled innovation.

Using the Precautionary Principle to dictate policy is irresponsible. The obstacles it places to scientific advancement may ease the fears of the some relatively wealthy interest groups-those who can afford high-priced organic foods and $2-a-bottle designer water to wash it down. But the cynical use of the P.P. will end up condemning the poor, the sick, and the hungry to lives of endless misery.

U.S. trade officials negotiating bio-agriculture treaties ought to be steadfast in insisting that all provisions fall within the parameters of sound science. And Congress can do its part by passing a strongly worded resolution supporting such a stance to the hilt.