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November 16, 2004


We Must Proceed; Transgenes Invade - So What?; Killing Frankenfoods; Tweaking Trees; Biotechnology Trap; Precaution and Power


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 16, 2004

* Proceed With Caution - But
* Transgenes Invade Mexico -- So What?
* Killing The 'monstrous' Idea of Frankenfoods
* Tweaking Tree Genes on Horizon
* GM Poppies Could Produce Anti-Cancer Drugs
* GMO Opponents Exposed: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
* GM Rainbow Papaya Saved Industry
* Biotechnology for Bangladesh
* Precaution and Power
* An Apology


Proceed With Caution Over Genetically Modified Crops - But Proceed We Must

- Western Mail (UK), Nov. 16, 2004 http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/

A senior faculty member at an ancient Chinese university once told me that, in about the 7th century, their metal-workers had achieved such precision in casting that they were able to build a simple steam engine for pumping water. Local farming depended on irrigation, so the potential benefits were enormous.

But traditionalist mandarins, who wielded administrative power, feared the consequences. Would the owners of the pumps and newly-productive land become unduly powerful?

And if less labour was required, would unemployed workers cause trouble? Tensions between engineers and administrators ran high, there were riots in the streets, and eventually the Emperor was asked to rule. He decided in favour of the mandarins - the metal-working department was closed, the technology abandoned.

Similar tensions arose when steam railways appeared in Britain. Some foresaw exciting opportunities for economic and social change. Others feared disruption of a predominantly rural society.

And there were scares about the effects these noisy, smoking monsters might have on crops and livestock. One Carmarthenshire landowner fought for years to prevent a railway being built across his land, eventually being overruled by Act of Parliament - an early case of compulsory purchase.

It is not too far-fetched to see analogies with present attitudes towards genetic modification (GM).

Many believe the technology offers great benefits: crops which are disease- and pest-resistant, which can compensate for dietary deficiencies, which can produce inexpensive human and animal pharmaceuticals. Others are profoundly anxious about possible unintended consequences for other crops, or for human or animal health.

It is obviously prudent to be cautious. We know that genes mutate and are in a dynamic relationship with the environment, but there is no reason to think there is any difference in this between GM and other plants.

Caution can be overdone, especially when it is driven, as sometimes it seems to be, by an ideological distrust of industry. Caution, yes, but scaremongering, no.

The results of obstructive attitudes can be tragic. In rice-dependent poor countries hundreds of thousands of children suffer blindness every year because rice does not naturally produce the Vitamin A needed in their diets for proper development of the ocular system. Attempts to introduce supplements failed, but a Swiss researcher slightly modified a rice genome so that the plant produced Vitamin A naturally.

He was careful to arrange that the plant was otherwise unaffected, and that there would be no commercial advantage to himself or anybody else - other than the poor farmers who might plant the crop, and, of course, their children.

Yet GM opponents in rich developed countries inspired such opposition that the planting programme was frustrated.

My Chinese acquaintance concluded his story by asking, "Suppose we had had our Industrial Revolution 1,200 years before you in Britain, what would the world look like now?"

A couple of years ago China was reported to have well over a hundred GM plants in development - clearly they don't intend to miss out twice.

With new technologies it is sensible to proceed with caution - but proceed!


Transgenes Invade Mexico -- So What?

- Ronald Bailey, TechCentral Station. November 16, 2004

First, a mea culpa -- nearly two years ago I criticized activist scientist Ignacio Chapela for trying to alarm Mexican farmers about transgenic "pollution" of their local varieties of maize. At the time, I asked two questions -- is he right and does it matter?
A new report issued by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) under North American Free Trade Agreement points out that genes from genetically modified corn (maize) have been found in traditional varieties grown by Mexican farmers. The transgenes evidently came from corn genetically enhanced for insect resistance that has been imported from the United States. Instead of eating the corn, some Mexican farmers planted it and it crossbred with local varieties. So Chapela was right.

Now we turn to the question, does it matter?

Scientifically, the CEC report basically concludes that crossbreeding between transgenic, conventional and traditional varieties does not matter, that it will not harm maize biodiversity: "There is no reason to expect that a transgene would have any greater or lesser effect on the genetic diversity of landraces or teosinte than other genes from similarly used modern cultivars. The scientific definition of genetic diversity is the sum of all of the variants of each gene in the gene pool of a given population, variety, or species. The maize gene pool represents tens of thousands of genes, many of which vary within and among populations. Transgenes are unlikely to displace more than a tiny fraction of the native gene pool, if any, because maize is an outcrossing plant with very high rates of genetic recombination. Instead, transgenes would be added to the dynamic mix of genes that are already present in landraces, including conventional genes from modern cultivars. Thus, the introgression of a few individual transgenes is unlikely to have any major biological effect on genetic diversity in maize landraces."

Despite this scientific conclusion, the CEC report recommends that corn imported from the United States be labeled as containing genetically modified organisms and/or be milled at the border so that farmers can't plant transgenic seeds. If transgenic corn won't harm maize biodiversity, why should these expensive processes be required? Because the Mexican government wants to mollify local farmers who have been frightened by activists into apparently believing that evil transgenes will somehow consume their crops.

This is very bad trade policy. Any restrictions on trade must be made on the basis of scientific evidence of health or safety concerns or else the door is open to all kinds of arbitrary trade barriers.

The point is not to fan the fears of Mexican farmers (or other people), but to use science to allay them.

Ronald Bailey is reason magazine's science correspondent. His email is rbailey@reason.com .
© 2004 Tech Central Station

Killing The 'monstrous' Idea of Frankenfoods

- Dan Murphy, Meatingplace.com, November 12, 2004; Via Agnet

This column will (hopefully) offer a new take on the battle of biotechnology, but let me first start with an observation that is au courant.

Simply put, there is a fallacy associated with modern political campaigns: They reduce complex issues to simple sound bites.

And that's bad. Okay, the first part is true, but the fallacy is that cutting to the co re of some issue facing both government and the voters who empower its leadership is universally negative.
Wrong. The process of selling a slogan and making it meaningful involves tapping into the essence of an issue. A sound bite can be succinct as well as simplistic. As informative as it occasionally is adolescent.
As a professional critic of the always antagonistic activists bent on crippling the industries they oppose, I consider sloganeering to be an art form. There's power in such phrases as "peace through strength," "compassionate conservative," or even "meat is murder." A great example of the impact I'm talking about is one that is perhaps the most creative concept the anti-industry types ever stitched together: Frankenfoods.

In a word, it connects with the primal fear we harbor of mad scientists messing with Nature, of an ill-advised experiment gone horribly wrong.

Which is exactly what the people trying to derail biotechnology want consumers to believe.
The fact is that for all our se amless integration of modern science -- when it enhances our lives through telecommunications or transportation, for instance -- we still harbor a hard-wired suspicion of "black box" technologies that goes back to the day the first caveman ran off in fear of the flames ignited by a lightning strike.

"Frankenfoods" captures that imagery perfectly in three fear-filled syllables. The word is so subliminally suggestive that it's ascended to the status of shorthand for an entire spectrum of bio-engineering, gene-spli cing and genetic modification initiatives aimed at increasing and improving food production and processing.

Even a new book that compiles the strongest arguments yet in support of this controversial yet compelling area of research adopts the name. Unfortunately, "The Frankenfoods Myth," by Henry Miller and Gregory Conko, reads more like a legal brief filed as an amicus curiae in the court of public opinion than the best-seller it deserves to be. In fact, the text could benefit from some literary gene-splicing, maybe a John Grisham gene or something similar.

However, it's not necessary to wade through all 230 pages word for word to acknowledge that Miller, a research fellow at Stanford University, and Conko, the director of food safety policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., have written a monumental rebuttal of all the myths that the GMO haters have parlayed into the consumer concerns that still surround biotechnology more than 40 years after it's been in development.

Is that surprising? Yes, biotechnology began in the 1960s and was the foundation of the "Green Revolution" spearheaded by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug. Using the same techniques that have been refined by decades of later research, Borlaug saved more than "one billion lives with his bio-engineered strains of corn, wheat and rice, a fact that activists try to pretend is insignificant.

It isn't. But what still is problematic is the traction of the scare-story scenarios the anti-GMO extremists have successfully propagated. To each of the major myths, Miller and Conko offer powerful counter-arguments.

GMOs are untested and unsafe. In fact, plant breeders conduct extensive testing to protect their technologies, and as opposed to what Greenpeace would have the public believe, governments at both the federal and state levels also conduct mind-numbingly thorough reviews of safety data prior to even experimental approval of new varieties of crops and seeds.

Biotech crops create new "dangerous" organisms. Actually, modern bio-engineering in incredibly precise. Specific genes are selected for specific traits, which results in plant performance that is light years more targeted than "natural" methods of cross-breeding and hybridization, which of course are totally acceptable to the Frankenfoods crowd.

GMOs damage the ecosystem. This is perhaps the most fraudulent argument raised by activists. From the tales of monarch butterflies rendered sterile to lab rats that suffered immune system damage on a diet of biotech potatoes, the media h as leapt to the bait tossed on the waters by activists who specialize in creating fear and phobias among consumers. Yet extensive research, which Miller and Conko fully conflate (see note above on the Grisham gene), has failed to document any of the alleged "exposés" that received so much unwarranted attention.

These are all arguments most folks in industry have heard before. Moreover, many meat industry managers would argue that biotechnology isn't even "their" problem. It affects the feed given to livestock and poultry, but not the feeders, so the rationale goes.

I would suggest otherwise. The worldwide campaign against the continued research into new applications of biotechnology to improve -- and increase -- food production is one of the strongest and most well-funded initiatives in the entire activist universe. Yet, ironically, if they win, the harm done will exceed exponentially any benefits that could possibly result from the widespread practice of vegetarianism or the setting of legal precedents involving animal rights or any other goals the anti-industry types have established.

What makes the battle over biotechnology compelling for the meat production industries is not its immediate impact on business, but the fact that this is one fight industry can win.

Biotechnology not only offers tremendous potential to reduce pesticide use, improve irrigation efficiencies and increase overall yields -- massive achievements if they were attained on a global scale -- it also can address the social issues activists wear as their badges of honor: hunger, famine, starvation, overpopulation.

These are all "crimes" of which modern societies and modern agriculture are accused. If those problems could be alleviated to a great extent across the Third World, it would undercut for good the moral high ground activists try to occupy. Big, bad agri-business could be the good guys by fostering the benefits of biotechnology. And that alone is worth the cost of doing battle.

Buy the book, skim through its exhaustive factual arsenal and make it a priority to push back against the Sierra Club and Greenpeace leaders who want to demonize biotech.

And push forward wherever you can -- with business investments, political involvement or regulatory pressure -- to reverse the curse that the haters want to put on the whole notion of Frankenfoods.
Remember, the original Frankenstein (the creature, not the scientist), managed to conduct himself as a benign, almost benevolent being after he escaped his creator's lab.

It was the hatred of the townspeople, frightened by his outward appearance, who turned him into a monster.

Dan Murphy is a freelance writer and former editor of MMT magazine based in the Pacific Northwest . His column, THE VOCAL POINT, appears in this space each Friday.

Tweaking Tree Genes on Horizon

- Catherine Clabby, The News & Observer, November 15, 2004

After creating worm-resistant corn and glow-in-the-dark fish, it was only a matter of time before genetic tinkerers unveiled their next big thing. Look up. Now they're talking trees, especially in the Triangle.

Science is poised to insert foreign genes into conifers and other trees harvested for cash. Opposition already is stirring. The prospect raises ecological and cultural issues unlike any encountered before.

But the promise is big, too, said Claire Williams, a geneticist and visiting professor at Duke University. Designer trees may grow faster and yield products cheaper. That could preserve existing forests while the world's appetite for wood and paper keeps growing. Supporters and skeptics, she said, need to talk. "We have a narrow window for constructive dialogue. In five or 10 years it will be too late," Williams said.

This week, she and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke will host a gathering of scientists, lumber industry people, environmentalists and regulators to do just that. The two-day forum at Duke, funded by the National Science Foundation, will be closed to the media so that people can chat freely.

Also this week, the Institute of Forest Biotechnology will host a conference called "New Century, New Trees" in Research Triangle Park. It also wants to generate straight and informed talk about a field soon moving from the research stage to the planting stage.

Change is sprouting
So far, genetically altered trees are found in only a few places outside corporate or university research plots. Chinese foresters raise altered poplars resistant to bugs. And Hawaiian farmers tend papaya trees that have been made immune to a ringspot virus by a gene imported from that virus.

But change could be coming fast to states with sizable lumber-product industries, including North Carolina. In coming years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reviews and permits genetically modified organisms, is expected to see more applications to test and then grow modified trees.

Geneticists at N.C. State University already have made experimental aspens that produce less lignin, the cellular substance that makes trees rigid and takes polluting chemicals and a lot of effort to break down in pulp mills.

In South Carolina, ArborGen, a research company launched by International Paper and MeadWestvaco Corp., wants to market genetically altered trees by the end of this decade. "An increasing number of field trials will be very visible in the next three years," predicts W. Steven Burke, a vice president at the N.C. Biotechnology Center and a board member at the forest institute.

Plantations filled with engineered trees could follow. Burke expects that people outside the forestry and lumber fields will be watching closely, because trees are so precious in aesthetic and in functional ways. "Trees are requisite for life on this planet," he said. "We can survive without corn. We cannot survive without trees."

Worries of wide effects
Re-engineered trees would differ significantly from modified crops such as corn and soybeans, Williams said. Trees are perennials that can live more than 100 years. They also produce large amounts of pollen that could carry altered genes for miles, making it more likely to affect nature's genetic profile.

That worries Alyx Perry, director of the Southern Forests Network, who will attend Williams' meeting. She sees possible environmental threats to natural forests and economic threats to private landowners raising timber on those forests. "These are clearly brilliant people," Perry said of the scientists leading the charge into this new field. "But we have a real concern with ultimately how this technology is going to affect the land."

Some scientists advocate creating modified trees that are sterile, so their pollen can't mix with other trees. Similar strategies are under consideration to control the spread of altered genes from other re-engineered crops.

But some environmentalists question whether this planet needs sterile trees. Extremists in this debate have previously resorted to sabotage. In 2001, vandals damaged most of the genetically altered trees grown at a University of Oregon program. That same year, an office building at the University of Washington was firebombed. It housed a geneticist who was developing a fast-growing poplar.

Dawn Parks, a spokeswoman for ArborGen, said her company hopes the Duke conference will help people with a stake in the debate sort substantive issues from those without merit. "We want to determine which are real and which don't need to be addressed," she said.

Speaking face to face, Williams said, can only help. "I sympathize with all the different groups. It was time to talk," she said.


Genetically Modified Poppies Could Produce Anti-Cancer Drugs


Sydney, Nov 15 : Although poppy farming is usually banned in most countries because they are identified as a source of harmful drugs like opium, Australian biotechnologists have found that genetically modified poppy can produce their own drugs to fight cancer and malaria.

In a report to be published in the journal 'Nature Biotechnology,' the biotechnologists indicate that when poppies are genetically modified, they cause a build up of a particular chemical earlier on in the biochemical pathway called Reticuline, reports ABC Online. Reticuline is a non-narcotic alkaloid that is useful in developing antimalarial and anticancer drugs.

The researchers say that earlier this year, they had noticed that poppy could produce a lot of different kind of drugs. They had done a biochemical and genetic analysis of Norman, the naturally occurring mutant poppy that does not produce codeine and morphine in its latex.

They identified 10 genes that play a role in preventing the poppy from producing codeine and morphine and for leading to an accumulation of the pharmaceutically useful precursors thebaine and oripavine.

They are now hoping to use RNA interference to switch off these 10 genes individually to see the impact on morphine production.

They said that one advantage of creating a genetically modified version of Norman would be that it would give scientists an opportunity to create a high-yielding version of the poppy used to produce pain killers and drugs to treat opiate addiction. (ANI)


GMO Opponents Exposed: Shoots from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

- Richard O. Rowland, Hawaii Reporter, Nov. 10, 2004

On 11/6/04, the Honolulu Advertiser published an Associated Press story which predicted 9 billion people in the world in 100 years. That translates, the article said, to a growth of 57 million every year.

That report, of course, is a wild guess based on numerous assumptions. But what is not a wild guess is that without human ingenuity in developing better, more efficient ways to produce and distribute food, mass human misery to include starvation is simply inevitable in the future. Malthus' Law would be finally proved correct.

Among the constantly developing innovations in process for generations has been Genetically Modified Foods (GMO). It seems that "natural foods" advocates and radical "stop progress" activists are opposed to current GMO efforts.

In effect, they want to condemn billions of humans to misery, poverty and death. How and why? Because there is absolutely no way for foods grown so-called "naturally" to feed the current world population, let alone the increase projected in the article. These enemies of humanity seem to want to destroy others for their own benefit, Please note that scientists or investors developing GMO techniques have little or no interest in suppressing the "natural" farmers. But many GMO opponents want to destroy the pr=operty, ingenuity and even the lives of whose who are investing and creating better ways to feed people. They lack any moral covering at all.

These emperors are naked.

Richard O. Rowland is president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy institute focused on promoting the free-market, individual freedom and liberty http://www.grassrootinstitute.org

Sprout of the Day
"The campaign of fear now being waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic. In the balance it is clear that the real benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the hypothetical and sometimes contrived risks claimed by its detractors." - Dr. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace


Genetically Modified Rainbow Papaya Saved Industry

- Honolulu Advertiser, 10 November 2004

The Hawai'i Papaya Association is writing to respond to letters criticizing the genetically modified (GMO) Rainbow papaya, which is resistant to papaya ringspot virus. Rainbow papaya is the reason we're still in business. Without it, we wouldn't have trees to grow or fruit to sell. Instead of 350 to 400 papaya farmers in the state, there might be 50.

When ringspot virus reached Puna in 1992, 95 percent of the state's fresh papayas grew there. Whole fields were infected, and growers had to choose between cutting all their trees or letting them stand and hoping for some harvestable fruit. With sick trees left standing, the virus spread quickly. Soil depletion wasn't the problem. Papaya trees growing in all types of soil and under all kinds of agricultural practices were susceptible.

Unlike Rainbow papaya, some early attempts to control the virus were hard on the environment. Some growers tried to control the aphids with insecticides, including malathion. Some looked for isolated places to farm and ended up clearing forests to plant papaya on marginal lands.

Growers lost their crops. Many went out of business. So did most of the Big Island's packer/shippers. Operations that stayed afloat had to lay off workers.

Starting in 1998, virus-resistant Rainbow trees were planted in place of virus-susceptible varieties like Kapoho. The level of virus in the environment dropped, giving growers more choices. They could plant Kapoho again and balance losses from the virus against Kapoho's value on the Japanese market. Having a Rainbow crop to fall back on provided security. It also meant that growers were willing to cut down Kapoho trees at the first sign of disease.

GMO papaya pollen does not affect native Hawaiian plants. Hawai'i has no native papayas and no native plants that breed with papaya. Most papaya trees have flowers that self-fertilize, but sometimes pollen moves from one papaya tree to another. To prevent cross-pollination between Kapoho and Rainbow, we separate the two varieties.

About 20 percent of Hawai'i's fresh papayas are exported to Japan, which pays more per pound but doesn't accept GMO fruit. The Hawai'i Department of Agriculture set up the Identity Preservation Protocol program to prevent GMO papayas from being shipped to Japan. To certify a papaya field through the program, the grower tests every tree to make sure none are genetically modified. It's extra work and money, but everyone is happy with the results. Japanese inspectors have found no GMO papayas since the progra m was implemented.

Pollen drift does not disqualify growers from being certified organic. Fruits from a non-GMO tree grown under organic practices can be certified organic whether the tree self-pollinates or outcrosses with other pollen. All growers, not just organic growers, who want to make certain their seeds come from high-quality plants can bag the flowers to guarantee self-fertilization.

Without the virus suppression we get from Rainbow, we wouldn't grow Kapoho. By keeping virus levels low, Rainbow helps growers who produce virus-susceptible varieties, including organic growers. Packer/shippers have a steady supply of fruit. Consumers can choose their favorite variety knowing that all Hawai'i papayas are equally affordable, nutritious and safe. Even growers who produce other crops benefit because the packing plants that depend on papaya also process lychee, rambutan, longan and sweet potat o.

Puna's 2002 papaya crop is up 35 percent since Rainbow was introduced. Growers put out of business by the virus have been able to return to farming. Two new packing plants have been built in Hawai'i. The Rainbow papaya saved farms and jobs. Without it, our industry might not be here today.

- Kenneth Y. Kamiya, Hawai'i Papaya Industry Association


Biotechnology for Bangladesh

- Zeba I. Seraj, The Daily Star, November 11, 2004

Most critiques of biotechnology seem to think that it is a Frankenstein that will take over all the agricultural research of the country (Daily Star, November 1, The Biotechnology Trap, by Nazrul Islam).

On the contrary, if used within the context of national needs, it can be used to increase crop productivity in our country.

First of all, biotechnology does not simply mean genetically modified crops or organisms. It can be used to speed up current breeding practices, as a tool for disease diagnostics as well as to catalogue the rich biological diversity of our plant species.

Secondly, all biotechnology is not what we can import from abroad. Scientists in our country are doing biotechnological research to improve our local crops.

Thirdly, by agreeing to consider the fact that biotechnological research can benefit our agricultural sector, the government has opened the door to the legislature, which can prevent multinationals from exporting GMOs to Bangladesh, unless the policy-makers approve of it.

I would like to clear the mind of the general reader about certain misconceptions generated by The Biotechnology Trap.

First of all, farmers can make their own hybrid seeds if trained to do so. BRRI has produced its first hybrid rice, which has gained popularity with farmers in Jessore and some farmers have already been trained to produce their own seed. It just needs an extra step of having to produce the parent seeds first from which hybrid seeds will be derived, every time. Due to its genetic makeup, hybrid seeds have to be produced from specific parents because only the hybrids (and not their parents or progeny) have h igh yields.

As pointed out by the author, a lot of biotechnology is private, but a lot of research is being carried out by public research institutes as well. Golden Rice is one example and then we have Bt rice as well as bacterial blight and fungus resistant rice, produced at IRRI.

Yes, in the West, the main focus is on pesticide resistant varieties -- that is because they do not need disease resistant or drought tolerant crops. We need to do this research ourselves.

Agriculture has become commercial, just as everything else has in the 21st century. This is a sign of the times and not really to do with the Green Revolution. Potato crackers are available even in the tiniest village shops. It is however not true that seeds from GM crops cannot be saved. These are like any other seeds.

Yes, if the seeds are bought from a multinational company, they may ask royalty every time these seeds are planted. However, it is unlikely that foreign GM seeds will do well in our environment. If these seeds have qualities that we need, like say drought resistance, these will have to be introduced into farmer popular varieties of our country. So the government can enter into a farmer-friendly deal, if the quality of the crop is beneficial to our needs.

The adverse affect of GM food reported by Mr. Islam's article is very specific and that of one type of Bt corn to which only one out of a million people were found allergic to. This product was later taken off the market. Most GM foods have to be tested under stringent criteria and are only released after safety is assured. This is unlike the scenario where our farmers spray insecticide to the eggplant crop once a day, which surely becomes toxic and we eat it without question.

Yes, some herbicide resistant crops may become weeds, but this is only true for crops, which are cross-pollinated. Most cereal crops are self-pollinated. Then again, Bangladesh does not need herbicide tolerant crops. It needs disease resistant and drought, flood and salt resistant crops. We should aim to take what we need and after determining whether it will make a much-needed impact on increasing our productivity.

As for Bt cotton in India, the full picture of the results of such plantation is not complete yet. Some farmers have reported good yields, while others have not. Since it is the same seed, other environmental factors are probably at play here and one cannot claim that Bt cotton has been a disaster in India.

As with any technology, its proper use in a planned manner can yield benefits, while improper use can harm the public. If we can produce a flood tolerant rice variety, no writing in newspapers will prevent farmers from using such a crop in flood-prone areas, because that is his livelihood. Research has progressed to a stage, where such a crop could be produced very soon. Neither the West, not any Multinational is interested in such a crop, but a farmer would be. Instead of being critical, let us encourage the government to fund research that would actually produce such a crop within our country for the benefit of our farmers.
Zeba I. Sera is a Professor, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Dhaka University.


Precaution and Power

- Editorial, Multinational Monitor, Sept. 2004, v.25, no. 9

'The Precautionary Principle is an idea who's time has come.'

The industrial age's experience with leaded gas, ozone destruction, involuntary chemical poisoning of virtually every person on earth, and global warming -- among many other phenomena -- highlight the importance of acting to prevent public health and environmental harms before they occur, and acting even when there is less than complete certainty about the risks of such harms occurring.

With application of many novel technologies, such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology, speeding to market, society faces a choice: Undertake an experiment on a planetary scale to determine if these technologies endanger human well-being and the ecology -- and try afterwards to fix whatever problems emerge -- or act in preventive fashion to assess what problems might occur, and take action to avoid them in advance of widespread diffusion of the technologies.

The Precautionary Principle says: Take the second course.

The core mandate of the Precautionary Principle, as Carolyn Raffensperger describes in the interview in this issue, is to take preventive action in the face of uncertainty to prevent harm. It should guide not just environmental protection, but management of the economy.

The Precautionary Principle directs that where public health and environmental protection is at stake -- as it is generally throughout much of the functioning of the economy -- the proponents of an activity bear the burden of showing it is safe. Rather than passively accept technological and other choices made by corporations, society should consider alternatives to proposed activities, and opt for the safest option, including the possibility of doing nothing. Because it insists on intentionality -- that society should actively consider options and make conscious decisions about what products it will use and in what circumstances, how products may be manufactured, and many other technological and economic matters -- the Precautionary Principle emphasizes the centrality of establishing democratic decision-making and citizen authority to make decisions that now are often left, by default, to corporations.

Not surprisingly, big business generally finds the Precautionary Principle threatening. That's because it imposes new duties and responsibilities on private corporations, even as it says that decision-making authority should be transferred from the private corporate realm to the public sphere.

Trade associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have launched increasingly shrill campaigns to denigrate and mischaracterize the Precautionary Principle.

Perhaps the most serious threat to implementation of the Precautionary Principle is the claim that it conflicts with governmental obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements and other trade deals.

The European Union has been a global leader in beginning to incorporate the Precautionary Principle in its policymaking. Joseph DiGangi describes in this issue one of the most important manifestations of the EU engagement with the Precautionary Principle -- the REACH chemical regulation policy -- and the U.S. government and chemical industry joint campaign to undermine REACH.

In addition to the direct lobby pressure on the EU, private industry has developed a series of well-crafted arguments about how Precautionary Principle-based regulatory systems violate WTO rules, and these corporate groups have in many cases induced the U.S. government to launch WTO challenges to EU polices based on these theories.

The National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a U.S. business association working on trade issues, has issued a series of reports arguing that precautionary action conflicts with countries' WTO duties. The centerpiece of the council's elaborate argumentation is this: The WTO's Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards Agreement (SPS Agreement, covering food safety and animal and plant health standards) and Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT Agreement, covering regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures) require countries not to use standards more stringent than those established by international agencies. Countries may exceed these standards only in very rare circumstances, and based on risk assessments. Regulatory action in the face of uncertain evidence -- the core of the Precautionary Principle -- conflicts with these WTO rules.

As it happens, the NFTC's arguments are good ones, at least in WTO terms. Consumer and environmental critics have long complained that the WTO agreements -- drafted under industry influence, or, in many cases, directly by industry lobbyists -- contradict the Precautionary Principle.

The United States has already won arguments of this sort in successfully challenging an EU ban on beef treated with hormones at the WTO; has lodged a complaint against EU policy on biotechnology that is based in part on the Precautionary Principle; and has signaled its readiness to sue the EU at the WTO over the EU's REACH policy, once the policy is implemented.

Countries that lose WTO cases may maintain their offending rules -- but only at the price of expensive trade sanctions or fines.

Thus although the Precautionary Principle may be an idea who's time has come, there is nothing inevitable about its adoption, implementation and diffusion. Powerful forces are arrayed against it. One of the chief benefits of the Precautionary Principle, as its adversaries acknowledge, is that it helps frame issues in a way that empowers citizens to take action. Unless people take and demand action -- including the roll back of WTO rules -- Precautionary Principle foes will manage to suppress this rising and vital public health and environmental doctrine.


An Apology

- Chris Preston   

Dear All, I have managed to misspell Jeannette Fitzsimons name in my recent posting. For that I apologise.

Dr. Christopher Preston, Senior Lecturer, University of Adelaide.