The Precautionary Principle: Agriculture and Biotechnology

Published December 1, 2000

On September 27, 2000 the International Consumers for Civil Society (ICCS) held a briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss the precautionary principle, its historical roots, and its likely impact on developing nations and global markets if it becomes the underlying principle for international treaties and trade agreements. The current debate is focused on the principle’s application to agricultural biotechnology.

The briefing was moderated by Frances B. Smith, founder of the ICCS and executive director of Consumer Alert, based in Washington, DC. ICCS is an international umbrella group of market-oriented nonprofit organizations that emphasize the benefits of market economies for consumers around the world. It promotes the benefits of consumer choice, competition, and open trade, as well as the need for public policy decisions to be based on sound scientific and economic data.

In the program’s keynote address, Congressman Nick Smith (R-Michigan) reviewed his April 2000 report on the benefits, safety, and oversight of agricultural biotechnology.

Other speakers on the day’s program included Julian Morris, director of the Environment and Technology Programme at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London; Barun Mitra, managing trustee of the Liberty Institute in New Delhi, India; and Fred L. Smith Jr., president of the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Precautionary principle defined

According to Morris, there are “strong” precautionary principles and there are “weak” ones, depending on who’s applying the principle.

Proponents of a “strong” version of the principle urge policy-makers to “take no action unless you are certain it will do no harm.” This form of the principle is most evident among radical environmentalists and consumer advocacy organizations that demand bans and restrictions on industrial practices or products. Morris quoted Jeremy Leggett of Greenpeace, who said “the modus operandi we would like to see is ‘do not admit a substance unless you have proof that it will do no harm to the environment.'”

A weaker form of the precautionary principle is framed as, “the lack of full certainty is not a justification for preventing an action that might be harmful.” Morris noted that most governments have employed this form of the precautionary principle at one time or another. In 1985, for example, the European Commission decided to ban hormones used for animal growth because “their safety has not been conclusively proven.”

The precautionary principle, in either its strong or weak form, is not supported by sound science, Morris contends. He offered the following critiques:


  • Preventing some action that might lead to the death of all human beings may itself result in the death of all human beings.



  • Demanding that a technology not be employed until it has been proven harmless is equivalent to requiring an infinitely high standard of proof—which can never be achieved.



  • The notion that there is no safe dose for any chemical that exhibits harmful properties at some dose has been widely refuted.



  • Applied generally, the strong definition of the precautionary principle would end civilization as we know it. Morris offered as an example the research and development of medications to eradicate disease. If the precautionary principle were applied to the development of penicillin, he noted, there’d be no need for discussions today about overpopulation in any of the world’s nations.


Precautionary principle in action

The Liberty Institute’s Barun Mitra offered briefing participants graphic examples of the hypocrisy of affluent non-government organizations advocating the use of the precautionary principle in policy-making. Greenpeace, he noted, opened an office in New Delhi and began making clear the organization’s opposition to the use of pesticides in India—where between 100,000 and 200,000 citizens die of malaria every year.

“The precautionary principle does not take into consideration the cost of maintaining the status quo,” Mitra noted.

How can any organization or international trade agreement, Mitra asked, attempt to ban a genetically modified food, such as vitamin-enriched rice, to a society that can hardly afford green vegetables?

The average Indian family spends 50 percent of its income on food. Even a modest increase in the price of food would throw that family into poverty or starvation. Implementation of the precautionary principle, Mitra said, would only widen the divide between rich and poor countries.

“The richer societies would claim the knowledge, and would try to prevent the ignorant, poor societies from making their own decisions. It would bring about a new imperialism.”

Widespread application of the precautionary principle would severely limit the access of farmers in poor countries to a growing global market for agricultural products. Their ability to participate in that market successfully depends on their access to new techniques, such as genetic modification, that make it possible to grow more, better food in poor conditions. Restrictions or bans on such techniques, driven by the precautionary principle, would close the door to economic freedom for developing countries.

Finally, Mitra argued, implementation of the precautionary principle would fundamentally endanger the principles of a free society. “Since all human beings have the potential to commit a crime, freedom of choice—the basis of morality—will be rendered obsolete” by the precautionary principle and the police state its enforcement would require.

Caution is itself risky

CEI’s Fred Smith described the precautionary principle as “a strategy for addressing the risks of innovation, trade, or change.” Yet, Smith noted, innovative stasis, technological stagnation, and institutional apathy have risks of their own. These risks compete with one another, fear of the unknown versus fear of the known.

Who would have thought, Smith mused, that Franklin Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” would so fittingly apply to international trade in a global free-market society in the new millennium?

“Safety is not ‘chosen,'” said Smith, drawing upon the work of the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, “as the precautionary principle advocates would have it. Rather, safety is found in experience, in learning to live with the risks all about us. Paradoxically, only by developing dangerous products and technologies—that are nonetheless safer than existing alternatives—does the world become a safer place.”

Drawing on statistical decision theory and calculated risk management, Smith suggested a framework within which to examine the precautionary principle and balance competing risks. Our goal, he said, should be to move toward an unbiased technology assessment rule: a procedure that would weigh the risks of change against the risks of stasis.

“The normal situation is that we compare the risks of technological innovation with the risks of technological stagnation. Given the lack of knowledge, we might elect to approve, while monitoring closely and setting aside reserves to address any unsuspected difficulties. Or we might decide to delay while accelerating data collection,” he explained.

By contrast, the precautionary principle presumes we have the knowledge to make the decision, forgoing the process of trial and error. It essentially eliminates the gathering of knowledge through the scientific process to facilitate informed decision-making.

Asked Smith, “How intellectually honest are you going to be? Science demands intellectual honesty; the precautionary principle does not.” Proponents of the precautionary principle, said Smith, would have to ignore the millions of deaths caused by malaria in order to support their proposed ban on pesticide-spraying in Third World countries.

Advancing the debate

Advocates of the precautionary principle have drawn a line in the sand, declaring today’s world as reasonably safe and placing the burden of proof upon those who would disturb the status quo.

By contrast, the history of innovative practices in food production and distribution—hybrid crops, refrigeration, pasteurization, and otherwise-extended shelf lives—was made possible by a belief that, as good as the world currently is, it can be made better. Cutting-edge, experimental practices ultimately became our status quo, providing better nutrition at a lower cost for all people, but especially the poor, the elderly, and the sick.

Smith called upon briefing participants to redefine the debate. “Our goal is not to clarify the precautionary principle,” he said, “but rather to replace it with an unbiased decision rule: a rule that gives weight to the plight of those less fortunate, to those needing the benefits that only technology can provide.

“Science is the only tool we have for helping us sort out our fears from our hopes—what is from what might be. It is the only tool mankind has for that critical task. We abandon it at our peril.”


Sandy Liddy Bourne is director of the Energy, Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council.