Lost in the maize of precaution

Is free trade in agricultural goods still a realistic ideal? France may prove a key battleground.  As hopes fade for salvaging global trade talks, France has announced it would keep growing genetically modified maize (for research only) despite its rejection by, for example, Germany. The European Commission, by contrast, has rejected use of a genetically tailored maize
variety that has a good track record of repelling pests in the U.S. Corn Belt.

The divergence is significant, because French President Nicolas Sarkozy is eager to burnish his “green” credentials, planning an October conference on ecological concerns. During the French election season Greenpeace dumped a truckload of maize at Sarkozy’s campaign headquarters, because he had not yet proclaimed opposition to growing genetically modified maize in France. “GM maize,” grown in France only for research, in confined areas, nevertheless offends the so-called “precautionary principle” enshrined in European policy: “Precaution” must demand not just care with lab-engineered crops, but an outright ban on them.

In adopting the precautionary principle, the EU cast the adage “better safe than sorry” into rigid policy. “Precaution” made into principle may seem innocuous where human health or the environment are concerned. As the European Commission states, “Decision-makers [need to find the balance between] freedom and rights of individuals, industry and organizations with the need to reduce the risk of adverse effects to the environment, human, animal or plant health.”

The problem is, precaution as a principle isn’t defined in any treaty. It is invoked as protecting the environment, but the commission’s Communication on the Precautionary Principle states that “in practice, its scope is much wider, … specifically where … there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen for the community.”

Since grounds for concern about potentially dangerous effects can be found in just about any human or industrial activity, there is no practical limit to the application of the precautionary principle. Jogging offers grounds for concern, as does not jogging. Driving an automobile, holding pets (sorry: “animal companions”) fit the bill. These absurdities show that the principle is dangerously vague, easily manipulated by bureaucratic whim — no basis for sound laws.

Life is full of risk, and risk management is an endless challenge. But it is supposed to be based on facts, experience, and reason. The “precautionary principle” as embodied in Greenpeace’s maize-dumping is mere superstition threatening to cause more harm than it prevents. (Calling GM products “Frankenfoods” adds a nice theatrical touch.)

Preemptively banning GM foods may do real harm, as in Africa, where its yields could relieve hunger. Global interconnections of trade, aid, and ideology make African politicians wary of accepting GM seed. GM crops which increase yields and nutritional value never get a foothold in global markets, while “precaution” conveniently advances the EU’s agricultural protectionism.

Salient in the EU’s official articulation of the precautionary principle is the fact that it invokes any “reasonable” ground (based on research) to invoke “precaution.” With innumerable researchers and NGOs looking for problems, this is a low threshold indeed. It further assigns moral equivalence to human health, animal health, and plant life: no species-centric thinking allowed. A life-saving drug derived from the purple switchgrass that keeps the Anatolian spotted grasshopper alive, is a no-no.

Judging an “acceptable” level of risk is an eminently political responsibility, and decision-makers must be keenly aware that scientific information always has a degree of uncertainty. If precaution can be asserted on any ground whatever, the question is: How often can it be asserted without undermining human progress in a fundamental way?

Precaution must be tempered with proportionality. When politics interferes with science, it must pay due regard to offsetting gains and losses. One-sided risk assessments dangerously reduce the options for managing risk. In extreme cases, a total ban may be necessary (as some feel about cloning of humans), but absolutism is seldom a prudently proportional response to risks posed by groundbreaking research.

The Mad Scientist, a familiar figure from Hollywood’s B movies, is fodder for politicians claiming they can “stop that guy” (or tomato) before he destroys the planet. Sarkozy, a logical precautionist, can advise his EU colleagues to weigh the multifarious systems of professional peer review, government and industrial testing, and masses of research papers that constrain scientific novelties before they hit the market. Or the verdant fields of France. Risk assessment, yes; thoughtless bans driven by fear, no.


Laurson is editor at large of the International Affairs Forum. Pieler is a senior fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation.