Beware of the precautionary principle

Biotechnology activists are currently attempting to persuade South Africa’s parliamentarians to adopt a super cautious approach towards the utilisation of biotechnology in agricultural development. They suggested in the run-up to parliamentary hearings on the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Bill that the ‘precautionary principle’ should be applied to the production of GMO’s.

At first sight the precautionary principle sounds reasonable and sensible. Have we not all since childhood been warned to ‘look before you leap’ or to follow the precept ‘if in doubt don’t’? Those who have followed the advice will no doubt at times have avoided danger, loss and even injury. On the other hand, if they followed the precautionary advice to avoid all risk they would have missed opportunities for adventure, career advancement and success. Not leaping out of the way of a vehicle before being sure of your landing could prove fatal.

The Cartagena Protocol, which addresses a broad spectrum of issues related to the protection of biological diversity, has been incorporated into the GMO Bill. The Protocol’s stated intention is ‘the conservation of habitats in developing nations’ which is admirable and the agreement’s specific objective is crafted to sound unobjectionable. However, its reference to 'the precautionary approach' contained in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development should give us pause.

According to the statement, the objective of the Protocol is ‘to contribute to ensuring an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on trans-boundary movements.’ Opponents of GMO’s, for whom the Protocol has become a useful tool, are inclined to exaggerate the risks and demand from governments that they regulate biotechnology to the point of extinction using its ‘precautionary approach’ to try and block even the most sensible government approaches to the issue.

The precautionary principle is not as benign and innocuous as it may sound. It requires action to be taken to avoid a risk even when there is incomplete scientific evidence as to its magnitude and potential impact. The approach demands that a technology should not be used unless and until it has been shown to be absolutely safe, reversing the usual burden of proof. New technologies are assumed to be harmful until they have been proved safe to an impossible standard demanded by their critics.

Doctor Elizabeth M. Whelan, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, recorded objections to the precautionary principle. She said that it always assumes worst-case scenarios, distracts consumers and policy makers alike from the known and proven threats to human health and assumes no health detriment from the proposed regulations and restrictions. She said that: ‘the precautionary principle overlooks the possibility that real public health risks can be associated with expending resources on eliminating miniscule hypothetical risks.’ When the Zambian government turned away GMO maize intended for its starving people because of the theoretical health risk it attached to its consumption, it created a real risk that turned into tragedy. Denied the food, people died of starvation.

The entire focus of the precautionary principle is on the possibility that new products may pose theoretical risks. Applied to agriculture and food biotechnology it ignores the very real existing risks of hunger, starvation and malnutrition that can be reduced or eliminated by the new products. Applied decades ago to innovations like polio vaccines and antibiotics the precautionary principle may have prevented occasional serious side effects at the expense of millions of lives lost to infectious diseases. Applied today to penicillin and aspirin, to which some people are allergic, it would deny their use to others who are not allergic to these valuable medications.

Regulations based on the precautionary principle severely compromise the potential for new technology. By acceding to the protocol South Africa has risked deterring large multinational biotechnology companies from carrying out research in this country or making their products available to its citizens.

Major potential investments that could provide jobs and reduce poverty in South Africa are placed at risk. Without such investments highly skilled South African scientists may choose to leave the country in order to pursue their occupations elsewhere. The amendments to the legislation are likely to increase the amount of paper work and costs of field-testing the plant varieties created with biotechnology. As the writers Miller and Conko noted: ‘The Biosafety Protocol has become the UN’s Trojan horse, surreptitiously delivering ruinous biotechnology-averse regulatory policies to the developing world’.

South African legislators, in considering the GMO bill that is currently before them should test the precautionary principle against itself. The principle requires that we take action to avoid a risk even when there is incomplete scientific evidence as to its magnitude and potential impact. Consider the risk of applying the precautionary principle. How do we know what harm it will do in blocking South Africa’s agricultural development? Can we be absolutely sure that the non-utilisation of biotechnology will not cause future poverty, hunger and malnutrition in South Africa? We cannot be sure and the opponents of the use of biotechnology can also not be sure.

We should then avoid the risks attendant on not using biotechnology. Applying the precautionary principle to the precautionary principle in this matter, we must conclude that there is too much risk involved in the non-utilisation of biotechnology. We already have a government system with adequate controls over biotechnology research and development. Adding more red tape will merely add unnecessary costs and reduce efficiency. In a country that desperately needs high growth, jobs, and higher living standards for its people, innovation with such spectacularly positive potential should not be discouraged.

Author:Temba Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article is based on an excerpt from his evidence before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee hearing on the Genetically Modified Organisms Bill on 18 January 2006. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 17 January 2006 Policy Bulletin 24 November 2009
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