Saving Lives and Promoting Health by Throwing Precaution to the Wind

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Environmentalists in Europe and America have a new weapon in their arsenal aimed at innovative technologies being developed for the betterment of humankind: the Precautionary Principle (PP). There is, in fact, no single formulation of the precautionary principle in universal use but in short it means that "No human technology should be used or introduced into the environment until it is can be shown to pose no threat of harm to humans or the environment." Proponents of PP argue that using it to frame policy is common sense like the old adage "better safe than sorry."1

The politics of biotechnology. In one form or another, the PP has been incorporated in both domestic legislation in Europe and America and in more than 12 international treaties, beginning in 1987 with the Ministerial Declaration of the Second Conference on the Protection of the North Sea, and in domestic legislation and regulations throughout Europe and North America.2

Proponents of the PP proposed using it to frame regulations for numerous sectors of the economy, including the chemical, energy and medical technology industries. Most recently, they have focused a great deal of attention on the agriculture industry. In particular, PP supporters targeted the use of genetic engineering and biotechnology to produce hardier, disease resistant and pest-resistant crops at the United Nation's "Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference of the Parties," to negotiate the terms of the Biosafety Protocol in Montreal in January 2000. Environmentalists have repeatedly argued that by altering crops researchers are "playing God" - tampering with things beyond human understanding with the potential to cause catastrophic changes to the environment. This fear was reflected in the draft language of the protocol: "Lack of full scientific certainty or scientific consensus regarding the potential adverse effects of a living modified organism shall not prevent the Party of import from prohibiting the import of the living modified organism in question ..."3 Though this provision was stripped from the final version of the interim Protocol, it influenced the final form of the document and will serve as a backdrop for future negotiations.

At the present time there is almost no evidence to show that bioengineered crops pose a threat to human health or the environment.

While PP may sound reasonable in theory, it would be disastrous if practiced. One cannot prove a negative. Every food (yes, including organic foods), product and tool poses some risk of harm. Without the use of fire, automobiles, anti-biotics, coffee, water, salt, and chlorine - just to name a few natural and human created foods, applications and tools - human life, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes: "would be nasty, poor, brutish and short." Yet none of these would pass the standard set by the precautionary principle. It is for this reason that more than 600 scientists signed a letter presented in Montreal to the Biosafety Protocol negotiators which argued that such a precautionary approach "which demands that new technologies be proved absolutely safe before they can be used" necessarily ignores the very real dangers of going without the new technologies.4 A more progressive approach would balance the risk of introducing new biotechnologies against the much more pressing risks of hunger and poverty.

The scientists argued that genetically modified crops are the best hope for feeding the world's growing population. They go on to point out that there is no scientific reason to believe that the use of recombinant DNA techniques or other advanced biotechnologies inherently poses new or more dangerous threats to biodiversity, to other aspects of environmental quality, or to human health, than do traditional methods of plant breeding or cell culture.

Population growth makes the use of biotechnology more urgent. Approximately 800 million people do not currently get nutritionally adequate diets. 400 million people currently suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, including millions of children who go blind each year for lack of Vitamin A. Human population is growing, especially in countries where people are already malnourished, and will probably plateau sometime in this century at between eight to nine billion people.

With approximately six million square miles under cultivation - an amount of land equal in size to the United States and Europe - the world currently produces more than enough food to feed the earth's six billion people. Malnutrition and the most famous instances of mass famine and starvation occur due to distribution systems that break down primarily during wars (civil and otherwise) or when starvation is used as a political tool under totalitarian regimes.

Most countries are becoming more open and democratic. And in democratic countries, no longer fearing the iron boot of oppression, people demand higher standards of living. They look to the West and in many regards they want to live as well off as people in the developed world - this is natural. However, feeding nine billion people (and their pets) diets similar to those enjoyed by people in industrialized countries will require the production of 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 to feed the coming generations.

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 active 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. Massive biodiversity losses from land conversion for organic food production is especially likely since the relatively undeveloped tropics, the most biodiverse region on earth, is also where population growth is occurring and where hunger and malnutrition are most prominent.

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.

Agricultural biotechnology is already improving lives. For instance, Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute points to the success of the Rockefeller Foundation's "golden rice" project.5 This genetically altered rice was modified to contain beta-carotene (which readily converts to Vitamin A) and new genes to overcome iron deficiency. The Rockefeller foundation reports that golden 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.

Technologies being tested include a biotech rodent contraceptive. Rodents consume substantial portions of the worlds cereals and grains, so reducing rodent reproduction rates would increase the amount of food available for human consumption without increasing crop yields or land under cultivation.

Avery estimates that using bioengineered agricultural products already in existence, those currently being developed and/or tested, and those that are likely to be discovered, we could increase food production the three fold needed for the world's nine billion people to eat well - and all without increasing the amount of acreage in production.

Using biotechnology we can provide the world's future population with enjoyable, nutritionally adequate diets. Otherwise we cannot, at least not without arguably unacceptable environmental consequences. Turning our back on lifesaving, welfare enhancing bioengineered products, when there is ample evidence of the ills they can prevent and little or no evidence that they threaten any harm would be to irresponsibly condemn millions of people to unnecessary suffering and early deaths - now that would be playing God with a vengeance.

Does this mean the precautionary principle has no utility whatsoever? Not at all. In the words of the Social Issues Research Center, in Oxford, UK, "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."6

  1. John D. Graham, "Making Sense of the Precautionary Principle," Risk in Perspective , September 1999.
  2. David VanderZwaag, "The Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Precautionary Approach," 1999 .
  3. United Nations Environmental Program, Conference on Biodiversity, ExCOP/1/L.2/Rev.1, January 2000 p.32
  4. Special Bulletins from International Consumers for Civil Society and Its NGOs in Montreal (Gregory Conko, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Barbara Rippel, Consumer Alert, Frances B. Smith, ICCS and Consumer Alert) News from Montreal - Bits and Bites on Biosafety, Free-Market NGOs Distribute Letter and Scientists' Declaration to Delegates, January 24, 2000,
  5. Dennis Avery, "Biotechnology: Trade Crisis or Path to Future," Global Food Quarterly, Summer 1999, pp. 1,3.
  6. Social Issues Research Center "Beware the Precautionary Principle," 1999, http://www.sirc.org/articles/beware.html.