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Unprincipled 'Precaution'

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- Julian Morris,  March 15, 2010 

'India is only the latest country to retard technological progress in the name of safety.'

When India's environment minister banned a new strain of eggplant recently, he justified it by referring to the "precautionary principle," a policy makers' tool intended to protect against catastrophe. The European Union has long based regulatory decisions on this principle, and it has led to all manner of arbitrary and economically damaging decisions. India, with its high rates of poverty and malnutrition, cannot afford to make the same mistake.

Greenpeace defines the precautionary principle thus: "Do not admit a substance unless you have proof that it will do no harm to the environment." This is like demanding that a child prove there are no fairies in the garden before being allowed to play in it. While sometimes precaution is necessary in introducing a new product to the market, the precautionary principle can effectively ban all new products, because it is impossible to prove a negative.

So for practical purposes, weaker versions of the precautionary principle have been developed, such as this one from the United Nations' Ministerial Declaration of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: "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." Translation: If the opponents of a technology are louder and more politically savvy than the proponents, then ban it and cite the precautionary principle as justification, regardless of the plausibility of the threats posed by the technology—or its benefits.
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It is this weaker precautionary principle to which Indian Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh alluded when announcing a temporary moratorium on the commercialization of Bt brinjal, a genetically modified eggplant, last month. "Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach," he stated.

But this approach to policy making, long adopted by the EU, is fundamentally flawed. In the 1980s, for instance, the EU banned the use of animal growth-promoting hormones—a decision that went directly against the advice of an expert committee the EU itself had established. The EU then extended the ban to imports of beef, incurring the ire of various trading partners. In a World Trade Organization case subsequently filed by the United States and Canada, the EU sought to use the "precautionary principle" as justification for the ban, but this argument was rejected by the WTO. Nevertheless, the ban remains in force.

The EU and NGOs have sought to widen the sphere of influence of the precautionary principle, pushing for its inclusion in many international agreements, from the Rio Declaration to the Biosafety Protocol, an international agreement that regulates trade in genetically modified crops and other organisms. As a result, governments that have ratified all or some of these agreements—including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, New Zealand and Pakistan—have begun to introduce the precautionary principle domestically. The consequences are only now beginning to materialize, as with the Bt brinjal decision.

Meanwhile, EU application of the precautionary principle continues to have adverse impacts, both domestically and internationally. Last January, Brussels announced new, "precautionary" pesticide regulations. Previously, the regulations were based on the amount that would be used, recognizing that chemicals toxic at high doses may be harmless or beneficial at low doses. The new regulations ban pesticides that are toxic at high doses, even if they are only used in extremely low doses. By that logic even water and oxygen would be banned if they were classified as pesticides. The regulation is likely to impede the development and use of beneficial new pesticides. And it will likely limit the use of some existing pesticides for disease control in poor countries—resulting in many unnecessary deaths from malaria and other insect-borne diseases.

What drove these decisions? Part of it is simple bureaucratic self-interest: Bureaucrats are rarely credited for allowing beneficial technologies but often blamed for permitting harmful ones. When activists loudly oppose a technology, the blame-avoiding bureaucrat opts for a ban, even if it means a highly beneficial and essentially harmless new technology remains unavailable. The precautionary principle frees regulators from making decisions based on science and enables them to make the decisions that are in their own best interests.

Recently, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has sought to make decision-making on contentious issues more science-based. Among other things, he switched responsibility for approving genetically modified crops from the Directorate General for the Environment, which funds antitechnology nongovernmental organizations and has long opposed such crops, to the Directorate General for Health, which has a more neutral record. Perhaps this is also blame avoidance: In the context of stagnating European economies, he does not want to be blamed for preventing new productivity-enhancing technologies from being adopted. Whatever the reason, it appears to be having a beneficial effect. Last month, DG Health approved commercial production of a genetically modified variety of potato that will be used to produce industrial-grade starch.

But India is going in the opposite direction, as exemplified by the Bt brinjal decision. In India, as in Europe, a small but politically savvy band of opponents has generated widespread attention for a range of more or less specious concerns regarding the impact that genetically modified crops might have on health, farmers, the environment and India's cultural heritage. In the face of such an effective campaign, it is not surprising that Mr. Ramesh imposed a moratorium. But it is nevertheless bad news for the vast majority of Indians, especially the poor.

Decisions about the use of a technology should be based on clear, simple and abstract rules. The precautionary principle is the opposite: It encourages the imposition of arbitrary and capricious restrictions on beneficial technologies. It's time to end this unprincipled "precaution."