NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Precautionary Principle Runs Unnecessary Risks

August 15, 2001

Many environmentalists, citing the adage "better safe than sorry," argue that the "precautionary principle" should govern policy making -- meaning technology should not be used until it can be shown to pose no threat to humans or the environment. While the principle may sound reasonable in theory, critics argue it would be disastrous in practice. One cannot prove a negative.

A case in point is genetically modified crops. While some environmentalists want international Biosafety Protocols to embody the precautionary approach, scientists say their stance ignores the very real dangers of going without new technologies.

  • Biologists from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that any environmental threats posed by the use of genetically modified crops pale in comparison to the environmental harm produced by traditional agriculture practiced in developing countries on lands not suited to farming.
  • The National Research Council concluded the potential health risks of eating such foods are the same as those of eating crops that have undergone traditional non-genetic cross-breeding or cell culture techniques.

By 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 in the relatively undeveloped tropics. By using biotechnology, proponents argue, we can provide the world's future population with enjoyable, nutritionally adequate diets.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett and A. Wess Mitchell (NCPA), "Saving Lives by Rejecting the Precautionary Principle," NCPA Brief Analysis No. 368, August 15, 2001.

For text


Browse more articles on Environment Issues