Last week Allie and I attended a luncheon put on by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) and the National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research (NC-FAR) entitled “Goldilocks and Risk Management”. This talk highlighted their recent publication called the “Impact of the Precautionary Principle on Feeding Current and Future Generations”. I highly anticipated this discussion and couldn’t wait to get my hands on this paper, as agriculture and feeding the world is a mission very near and dear to my heart.
Anyone involved in agriculture has heard the numbers. It drives what we do. By the year 2050 (only 37 years away now, by the way) the world will be inhabited by 9.1 billion people. A 70% increase in food production between now and then is necessary. There essentially is no more land. So where does that leave us? Thankfully technological advancement in crop and livestock production has made tremendous progress in recent years. For example, it was determined 20 years ago that pesticide application had already allowed a 32-38% decrease in yield losses for corn, wheat and rice, and 43% less losses in soybeans and potatoes. Despite these improvements, the very thought of pesticide application is frowned upon by European Union leaders whose agricultural and economic policies enacted over the last two decades are saturated with the precautionary principle.
Precautionary what? Modern society has become very risk averse. The better lives we live, the less we are willing to accept the possibility of something threatening that. Enter, precautionary principle (PP). Germany and Sweden began heavy focus on utilizing caution when drafting environmental policy in the early 1990’s. Regardless of their intentions, the PP began to snowball and weave itself into EU policy. In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development adopted a version of the PP and the EU’s foundational Treaty of Rome included PP amendments. The PP was the law in environmental policy from that day on and soon found its way into EU health and regulatory decisions as well. All of these policies proclaimed the application of the PP, but not until eight years later in 2000 did the EU issue an actual explanation of what the “precautionary principle” was. So, can I offer a clear definition for you? No. Neither can anyone else.
The ambiguity of the PP is the beginning of its end. It is the first of the three major problems that the authors of the paper discovered. As previously mentioned various definitions exist, but no one definition is globally adopted. The second problem is the PP’s resulting arbitrary application. The actual level of risk to which the PP should be applied is up in the air. Whether to serious risks or any risk, whether to scientifically studied risks or to scientifically exhausted risks, the measures that should require the PP are not universally agreed upon. Some very severe examples noted in the paper include Norway’s 2011 ban on vitamin-fortified cornflakes, France’s ban on caffeinated energy drinks in 2004 due to the risk to pregnant women, and Zambia’s rejection of food aid from the United States in 2002 which included genetically modified corn. The third and possibly most detrimental problem the investigators identified was the PP’s discouragement of new technologies. The paper points out that whether considering drugs, pesticides, factories, cars, etc. new versions of these things are usually safer than old ones. In the area of food production, new technology takes an especial hit by the PP because they are less familiar.
Another interesting paper recently released on the PP reveals that the EU has essentially defeated its own goals with the PP. The EU is becoming less competitive in the global market as the PP has driven research, innovation, and development to other countries. In terms of biotechnology crops, the EU understands their potential to increase crop yields and the resulting economic benefits, but yet it upholds the world’s most restricting legislation for growing them. In 2012, approximately 250,000 acres of EU land involved GE crops whereas almost 400 million acres of GE cropland exist in the rest of the world. The EU is very dependent on GE imports as a result. 80% of their animal feed is imported of which half are GE crops. Although the European Food Safety Authority has deemed GE foods safe for consumption, other risk perceptions are the law of the land.
Although the United States and various other countries maintain a “precautionary approach” viewpoint rather than absolute PP guidelines, the EU’s enchantment with the PP is adversely affecting global trade. Inconsistent beliefs have led to inconsistent regulations and very detrimental trade barriers and restrictions. Although 50% of people across the globe are categorized as malnourished, EU policies discourage developing countries from using GE agriculture. The PP may have begun with good intentions of protecting people and protecting the environment. However, it is not based on evidence provided by science nor long term economic models. Thus its role in meeting the world’s needs of future food production must to be reassessed immediately. It simply has not done what it set out to and can no longer remain unaddressed. This quote from the authors summarizes the results of the PP: “The precautionary principle may well be the most innovative, pervasive, and significant new concept in environmental policy over the past quarter century. It may also be the most reckless, arbitrary, and ill-advised.”