Progress at Risk: Using the Precautionary Principle as a Standard for Regulatory Policy

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

What is the "Precautionary Principle" (PP), and why should anyone care?

Basically, the precautionary principle states that "No human technology should be used until it is proven harmless to humans and the environment." Variants of it have been incorporated into legislation in Europe and North America and in more than 12 international treaties, including the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and the 1992 Climate Change Convention.

But, while the PP may sound reasonable in theory, it would be disastrous if practiced. One cannot prove a negative. Every food, product and tool poses some risk of harm. Without the use of fire, automobiles, anti-biotics, coffee, water, salt and chlorine, human life "would be nasty, poor, brutish and short." Yet none of these passes the standard set by the precautionary principle.

PP proponents focus their regulatory efforts on preventing hypothetical threats of future harm while ignoring existing threats to human health and the environment.

For instance, many environmentalists argue that the government should end the use of chlorine in plastics, pesticides and to disinfect water based on their belief that using chlorine slightly increases a person's risk of contracting cancer. In calling for a ban on chlorine, however, these groups ignore important facts. First, chlorine is a natural element found plants, animals, salt, and human blood and saliva. Second, because chlorine is used to disinfect 98 percent of the world's drinking water and is a key ingredient in 85 percent of the medicines, phasing it out would lead to millions of deaths worldwide from water borne diseases and infections.

PP backers have also focused attention on the agriculture industry. In particular, they attack the use of biotechnology to produce hardier, disease resistant and pest-resistant crops.

Currently there is very little evidence to show that bioengineered crops threaten human health or the environment. Indeed, the United States National Research Council concluded in its comprehensive report on genetically modified foods that "there is no evidence suggesting [biotech food] is unsafe to eat."

Despite this, in response to boycotts threatened by major environmental organizations, McDonald's announced that it would not use genetically modified potatoes to make french fries. And, baby food manufacturers Gerber and Heinz, snack food king Frito-Lay and Seagram's liquors all said that their products would be free of biotech crops.

Their decisions are bad news for the environment, the 800 million people who are malnourished and the 3 billion additional people expected to populate the world by 2100.

With approximately six million square miles under cultivation - an amount of land equal in size to the United States and Europe - the farmers currently produce more than enough food to feed the earth's six billion people. However, feeding nine billion people will require approximately three times more food by 2050.

If all of the world's farmers adopted the best modern farming practices with high inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, it might be possible to double current crop yields on the same amount of land - but we need to triple yields.

Alternatively, if we went totally "organic," eschewing the use of "artificial" fertilizers, pesticides and biotechnologies, we would have to double the amount of land under cultivation. This would be disastrous for wildlife and native plants, as the lands most likely to be converted to agriculture are forests, rangelands and other wildlands.

There is a third option: the judicious use of biotechnology; being quick to regulate or end the use of products that are shown to cause harm.

Biotechnology is already improving lives. Biomodifications have made tomatoes more resistant to cold, and soybeans, cotton and corn immune to selected herbicides. In addition, the Rockefeller foundation reports that genetically altered rice is preventing thousands of cases of childhood blindness and reducing the amount of anemia suffered by more than 2 billion women in rice dependent countries.

Using bioengineered foods scientists estimate that we could increase agricultural production the amount needed to feed the world's nine billion people - otherwise we cannot, at least not without unacceptable environmental consequences. Turning our back on lifesaving bioengineered products would irresponsibly condemn millions of people to unnecessary suffering and early deaths.

Does this mean the precautionary principle has no utility whatsoever? Not at all. In the words of the Social Issues Research Center, in Oxford, England, "If we apply the precautionary principle to itself - ask what are the possible danger's of using this principle - we would be forced to abandon it very quickly."