Western Farm Press  [Printer-friendly version]
December 21, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Some U.S. farmers argue that "sound science"
should convince Japanese and European consumers to buy genetically
modified foods from the U.S. Here Daryll E. Ray, professor of
agricultural policy, University of Tennessee, suggests that the
precautionary approach may be more scientific than the "sound
science" approach.]

By Daryll E. Ray

U.S. agricultural and trade negotiators had been pressuring the
Japanese to reopen their market which had been closed to U.S. beef
since BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or mad cow disease) was
first detected in the U.S. herd at the end of 2003.

The U.S. is also in a trade dispute with the EU (European Union) over
the EU's restrictions on the importation of GMO (genetically modified
organism) crops. In both cases the U.S. has argued that, on the basis
of "sound science," both of these trade restrictions ought to be

On the face of it, it would seem that the U.S. argument is very
strong. After all how could and why would one argue against sound

For their part the Europeans and the Japanese defend their actions on
the basis of the "precautionary principle." The precautionary
principle is what our mothers were talking about when they told us
that it is better to be safe than sorry.

As long-term readers of this column know, we have written about these
issues before. Our analysis of these two trade disagreements has been
based on two ideas. The first is couched in economic terms arguing
that the "customer is always right." If the Japanese are willing to
pay for the BSE testing of every head of beef, the idea that the
customer is always right would suggest that we would agree to the
testing. Likewise, if the Europeans want non-GMO grain, then U.S.
farmers ought to be working to provide them with non-GMO grain.

Our second idea has been to identify why customers might assess the
risk of GMO grains differently than the producers. After all, growing
GMO crops makes it easier for producers to control weeds and insects.
While producers receive the benefits, customers take the risks if at a
later time it were to be shown that GMO crops posed some health risk.
It makes no difference how low the probability of that event is, the
probability is nonzero and therefore important in minds of some

Different view

This past summer we read a paper presented by Priya Om Verma and
William R. Freudenburg at the 2005 Rural Sociological Society Annual
Meeting that took a different look at the conflict between those
advocating for the use of sound science and those advocating for the
use of the precautionary principle in decision making. Verma and
Freudenburg of the University of California, Santa Barbara argue that
"the precautionary principle may be the more scientific of the two

The core of their analysis reduces the two arguments to their
essentials. Those using the sound science as the justification for
their policies -- pressuring Europeans to buy GMOs or Japanese to
purchase U.S. beef -- are arguing that something is safe unless it is
proven to be hazardous. Thus, declaring something is safe runs the
statistical risk that it is not.

Those supporting the precautionary principle are arguing that when
there is a potential risk to life and safety, the prudent course of
action is to err on the side of caution, risking the chance that one
may reject an action or product as unsafe when in fact it may be safe.

Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans provide us with a
chance to apply these concepts to a situation most of us are familiar

Those officials who supported cutting back on levee repairs were
arguing that the likelihood of a Category 3 hurricane that would cause
a breach in the levees was very small and that the money would be
better spent elsewhere. This is the sound science argument which takes
the risk assuming the levees will hold when in fact they won't.

Those who were arguing for the levee expenditures and protecting the
wetlands surrounding New Orleans were basing their argument on the
precautionary principle. As we have seen the sound science argument
favors short-term economic gain over the potential of catastrophic
long-term costs. In this case we can see that an ounce of prevention
would have been worth more than a pound of cure.

Applying argument

Applying this back to the case of GMO sales to the Europeans, the U.S.
is arguing in favor of immediate economic gains from increased trade
over and against long-term health and/or safety problems that may
arise if it were to turn out that GMOs pose a risk that does not show
up for 10, 20, or 30 years. Similarly, in the case of the sale of beef
to the Japanese, the U.S. is arguing that the extra cost of testing
each head of beef sold to the Japanese is unnecessary, given the low
chance that any one animal would have BSE. The Japanese are arguing
that given the long-term risks -- if one imports enough untested beef,
sooner or later a BSE positive animal will slip through -- the cost of
testing is a small price to pay for increased long-term safety.

As Verma and Freudenburg note, statistics teaches us that these two
risks are closely related. As one reduces the chance of making a
short-term error -- rejecting a product as unsafe when it is in fact
safe -- one increases the chance of making a long-term error. There is
a tradeoff between these two types of errors. We cannot have our cake
and eat it too.

Their argument that the "precautionary principle may be the more
scientific of the two approaches is based on their contention that
"the precautionary principle recognizes the reality of scientific
unknowns and acknowledges... scientific uncertainty." They go on to
say, "Under conditions of scientific uncertainty, judging what is an
acceptable level of risk for society is an inherently political
responsibility... These are value-laden processes that reflect
differing perspectives regarding what ought to be 'society's'
preferences for short-term economic risks versus longer-term risks to
health and the environment."

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural
Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the
director of UT's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). (865)
974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.
Daryll Ray's column is written with the research and assistance of
Harwood D. Schaffer, research associate with APAC.

Copyright 2005, PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc.