Monday, March 10, 2014

In the Hawai`i GMO battles, everyone cites The Precautionary Principle: But which one?

The Precautionary Principle is used and often abused in response to any number of major public issues.

The problem is that while it seems simple, there is no consensus on how to apply it. The term has multiple meanings, and some of them are in pretty direct conflict with each other.

As most folks understand it, the principle translates to this: if there’s risk, use extra caution.

But that’s not an enforceable standard. Which side determines whether there is risk? Who must show whether that risk is significant? How much caution is required? And what if an action has benefits that outweigh the risks—can you balance those factors?

Some people argue that if there is any possible risk, the action must be prohibited. In the heated discussions over genetically modified crops, even folks supporting a total ban on GMOs say that’s too harsh a standard.

British mathematician Peter T. Saunders, who has argued before the U.S. Congress in support of a moratorium on all GMO research, says: “The principle does not, as some critics claim, require industry to provide absolute proof that something new is safe. That would be an impossible demand and would indeed stop technology dead in its tracks.”

That said, the libertarian Cato Institute argues that even weaker versions of The Precautionary Principle establish an impossible standard. In a 2002 paper, Cato calls it The Paralyzing Principle.

And it is not even always protective of health and the environment. The Precautionary Principle has occasionally been used AGAINST the environment, preventing actions that promote conservation on the grounds that they may have negative conseuences as well.

Commentators have identified three versions of the principle: weak, moderate and strong.

The “weak” version requires actual evidence of environmental harm rather than a suspicion of it. It can place the burden of proof of harm on those proposing regulation of an activity.  And it may permit a balancing of the cost of mitigation against the benefits of the activity.

In the Hawaiian GMO controversy, as an example, the anti-GM forces would be required to prove that there are more than anecdotal impacts of GM farming. And regulations on those growing genetically modified crops could be balanced against the economic and other costs of shutting down those businesses.

A “moderate version,” as in the United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan, suggests actual evidence isn’t needed, but “a significant chance of damage” is. The burden of proof is still with those insisting on precaution. And if that case is made, balancing of costs and benefits may not be required.

A “strong” version of The Precautionary Principle put the burden on the person or agency proposing an activity to prove it will not cause significant harm. In this example, Hawai`i’s seed industry would need to provide evidence that their activities are benign.

With so much variation, one issue with asserting The Precautionary Principle, is: “Which Precautionary Principle?”

One of the early attempts to define The Precautionary Principle in legal terms came in the 1982 United Nations Charter for Nature. It said, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically. In this context the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

The 1992 Rio Declaration, which was also adopted by the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety says in Principle 15: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
The Science and Environmental Health Network puts that alittle more clearly: “When the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action.” 

That is a restatement of the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Supporters of a stronger version argue that it protects human health, protects the environment and ultimately makes the planet a safer place. Opponents argue that it stifles innovation, raises costs, provides regulators with too much power since no version is an entirely clear standard, and that it promotes legal challenge.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

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