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August 23, 2000


Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically


Get the full 44 page report, "Applying the Precautionary Principle to
Genetically Modified Crops" at http://csab.wustl.edu.

Genetically Modified Crops Are Good for Public Health and the Environment

Washington State University, Center for the Study of American Business

Robert Batterson, Communications Director
(314) 935-5676

ST. LOUIS — August 14, 2000 — Genetically modified crops would increase
the quantity and nutritional quality of food supplies and hold the promise
of improving public health and reducing mortality rates worldwide,
according to a study released by the Center for the Study of American
Business at Washington University in St. Louis. By comparison with
conventional crops, cultivation of “GM” crops would be more protective of
habitat, biological diversity, and carbon stores and sinks, thus improving
the environ-ment, too.

In Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops
policy analyst Indur M. Goklany notes in the CSAB report that a ban on GM
foods, contrary to the claims of its proponents, would be imprudent rather
than precautionary. The so-called “precautionary principle” often has been
invoked to justify a prohibition of GM crops. The precautionary principle
argues that, when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or
the environment, precautionary measures should be taken if some cause and
effect relationships are not established scientifically.

Goklany develops a “framework” of criteria for applying the precautionary
principle in situations where a decision to act involves uncertain
benefits and costs. He applies the framework to the case ofGM crops and
demonstrates that public health and environmental protection will benefit
from a sustained effort to research, develop and commercialize GM crops,
provided reasonable caution is exercised during testing and
commercialization of these crops.

Genetically modified crops ensure that — despite the expected increases in
human population (projected to reach 9 billion by 2050) — the world’s
progress in improving public health, reducing mortality rates, and
increasing life expectancies during the twentieth century should be
sustained into the twenty-first. Unless food production outstrips
population growth significantly over the next half century, billions in
the developing world may suffer annually from undernourishment, hundreds
of millions of children may be stunted, and millions may die from
malnutrition, Goklany warns.

GM crops could also reduce or postpone deaths due to “diseases of
affluence,” including heart disease, hypertension, and cancer. According
to the World Health Organization, these diseases account for 4.8 million
or 60 percent of the total deaths in high-income countries, and 14.9
million or 32 percent of deaths in the low and middle-income countries in
1998. GM crops, like genetically enhanced soy-beans that are lower in
saturated fats, can help reduce this toll. Bioengineering could produce
peanuts with improved protein, tomatoes with increased antioxidant
content, potatoes that absorb less cooking oil, fruits and vegetables
fortified with vitamins such as C and E, and higher-protein rice.

With respect to environmental effects, cultivation of genetically modified
crops would be more protective of biological diversity and nature, Goklany
says. By increasing productivity, GM crops reduce the amount of land and
water that would otherwise have to be converted to mankind’s needs.
Reductions in land conversion to agriculture would reduce soil erosion,
conserve carbon stores and sinks, and improve water quality. GM crops also
could help limit environmental damage by reducing reliance on synthetic
fertilizers and pesticides, and increasing no-till cultivation, which in
turn, would further reduce soil erosion, water pollution, and greenhouse
gas emissions.

Goklany also addresses the possible adverse public health and
environmental consequences associated with GM crops. A major health
concern is that the new genes inserted into GM plants could be
incorporated into a consumer’s genetic makeup. But there is no evidence
that any genes have ever been transferred to human beings through food or
drink despite the fact that plant and animal DNA has always been a part of
the daily human diet. Another concern is that GM foods could trigger
allergies in unsuspecting consumers. In fact, because bioengineering
allows more precise manipulation of genes than does conventional plant
breeding, it could be used to render allergenic crops non-allergenic.

The major environmental concerns regarding GM crops are those related to
crops that are de-signed to be resistant to pests and tolerant of
herbicides. One potential risk is that target pests will
become resistant to toxins produced by pest-resistant GM crops, such as Bt
corn or Bt cotton. Goklany says strategies used to address pest resistance
due to conventional pesticide spraying can, and should, be adapted for GM

Goklany concludes that an action, precondition, or restriction regarding
testing or commercialization is "reasonable” if its public health benefits
are not likely to be negated by reductions in the quantity and quality of
food, particularly for the poorer and most vulnerable segments of society.
Also the environmental gains flowing from a “reasonable” precaution should
more than offset the gains to the environment that could otherwise be
obtained. “In other words,” he says, “a reasonable precaution is one that
does not kill the goose that lays the golden egg, as a ban on GM crops
would do.”

The Center for the Study of American Business is a nonpartisan, nonprofit
research organization at Washington University in St. Louis that conducts
scholarly research on issues affecting the American business system.
Please contact the Center at (314) 935-5676 if you would like a copy of
Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops or
visit the CSAB web site at http://csab.wustl.edu. Indur M. Goklany, Ph.D.
is the D&D Foundation Julian Simon Fellow at the Political Economy
Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, while on leave from the United States
Department of the Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis.