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September 27, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: This author claims that the precautionary
principle, or foresight principle, "forces us" to ignore the full
costs of all the alternatives we consider, which of course is

By Xavier Mera

[RPR comment: Tech Central Station, or TCS, hosted by James K.
Glassman, routinely attacks the precautionary principle, or foresight
principle. Here TCS claims that the principle "forces us" to ignore
the full costs of all the alternatives we consider -- which of course
is nonsense.]

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a notoriously bad
reputation in France. In such a hostile environment, some people have
not hesitated to destroy the few authorized fields of genetically
modified plants in the name of the precautionary principle. This
summer, three attacks occurred in the Puy-de-Dome department, and
responsibility for some of them claimed by the Collectif des faucheurs
volontaires (or, "the volunteer reapers"). The company Meristem,
French leader in the development of medicines made from genetically
modified plants, was the target of this last wave of anti-GMO
violence, without much media coverage.

But one group that did object to the anti-GMO vandalism was the
organization Defeating Cystic Fibrosis. It turns out that the plants
destroyed were meant to be used to develop drugs to relieve secondary
effects of cystic fibrosis and to produce anti-cancer antibodies.

First of all, this is an obvious illustration of the dangers of the
precautionary principle. By focusing only on the possible risks of GMO
production, this principle also forces us to ignore the costs of
abandoning it. Every choice has a cost, even if it is guided by this
principle. In this case it is the availability of such medicines and
the income they would represent for their producers -- which have to
be abandoned if the naysayers have their way. This is what
"precaution" means for patients and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Obviously, GMO opponents refuse to be seen as neglecting the interests
of patients. They claim that such interests do not require the
production of genetically modified plants. They claim that alternative
techniques exist and that the only reason why GMOs are chosen is for
greater profit. They are probably right: most of the time there are
various technologies available for reaching a same result, and the
choice of one or the other is generally not based on humanitarian
reasons. So what? What is so sinister about financial considerations?

When a cheaper technique is found for using the soil more
productively, as is typically the case with GMOs, it is good news for
consumers because competition, if we let it do its job, will bring the
prices down. Producing more by spending less means a more profitable
investment. When investors come to understand such an opportunity for
making money, they tend to turn towards the sector concerned by
choosing this technique, thus increasing the production and lowering
the price of the product. The choice of technique is thus not
unconnected to the well being of patients. As long as free competition
works, it is such financial considerations that guarantee patients
wider access to treatments.

What about risks linked to GMOs? Perhaps we might agree with a
statement made by the "voluntary reapers" claiming that "no scientific
or therapeutic reason can justify the use of farmers' fields as
laboratory fodder". Then the group referred to the risk of genetically
modified cornfields "contaminating" the neighboring crops. According
to Meristem, their plants are sterile and do not expose the
neighboring properties to a change in the nature of their production.
Even if we imagine that such deterioration is possible, this does not
lead directly to the conclusion that GMOs should be banned, contrary
to critics' claims. In reality this argument has nothing to do with
GMOs, but rather with trespassing on other people's property. Owners
of genetically modified plants "contaminated" by neighboring fields
could just as well use it. And it would have to be proved that such
trespassing had occurred, unlike self-appointed "reapers" who do not
wait before acting.

In fact, it is not necessary to ban GMOs to prevent farmers' fields
being turned into laboratory fodder. Instead of resorting to
vandalism, these reapers could fight for the government to take more
seriously article 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the
Citizen, enshrining the right to own property. If acts of pollution
like "contamination" of fields were considered by lawyers as what they
really are, trespassing on private property, GMO producers would tend
to settle far away from possible plaintiffs or would invest in means
of protection, such as greenhouses. In any case, the possibility of
legal proceedings would push investors to better estimate the real
risk of GMOs. Defending farmers does not call for banning GMOs, and
destroying plants can only put a halt to the process of discovery
about the risks linked to them.

Xavier Mera is an associate researcher at the Molinari Economic
Institute in France.

Copyright 2005 Tech Central Station