Center for Ecoliteracy  [Printer-friendly version]
July 18, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "In adopting the precautionary principle,
members of the Emeryville School District school board chose to
assume the role of guardians of this generation and those to come. As
guardians they are taking steps to protect children for the long

By Carolyn Raffensperger

Children in our day suffer from a host of diseases and problems that
our great-grand parents could not have imagined. We have seen
increases over the span of one generation in autism, learning
disabilities, certain birth defects and cancers, asthma, obesity, and
diabetes. The nature of the increases point to the possibility that
these afflictions may have been preventable. Some statistics are
startling: the chance that a little girl would get breast cancer was
only one in 25 when my mother got married. But now, one woman in seven
can expect to get breast cancer. By the time my 12-year-old niece gets
married, one in three will likely face that diagnosis. Unless we do

My generation came of age in a world in which the best minds thought
we could measure and manage risk. We believed that economic decisions
would take care of any unacceptable risk and the market would make
necessary course corrections. That old approach has failed. Measuring
and managing risk has led to global warming, emptying the oceans of
fish, polluting much of the world with toxic chemicals, and increasing
chronic diseases in humans. The GNP may be healthy, but our world and
our children are not.

Risk management may represent a flawed strategy, but a new and
significant approach to protecting public health has emerged in the
last decade. In January of 1998, at the Johnson Foundation's
Wingspread Conference Center, environmental leaders met to develop
guiding principles for evaluating decisions that affect human health
and the environment. They came to consensus around what is referred to
as the precautionary principle, or the "forecaring" principle. It is
based on the simple notion that an ounce of prevention is worth a
pound of cure.

The group called on governments, corporations, communities, and
scientists to implement the precautionary principle when making
decisions affecting public health:

When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human
health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and
effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this
context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should
bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary
principle must be open, informed, and democratic, and must include
potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of
the full range of alternatives, including no action.

In other words, we can take precautionary action in order to prevent
harm and suffering in the face of uncertainty. This simple idea of
preventing harm is, at its core, an ethical precept, with its origins
in other ethical norms like the physician's Hippocratic Oath to do no
harm or the Golden Rule, which says we should do to others as we would
have them do to us. In this case, "others" represents our fellow
beings on the Earth, including future generations. Implementing the
precautionary principle emphasizes upstream evaluation and decision-
making -- preventing potential problems and harm -- in contrast to the
risk management approach based on evaluating our capacity to deal with
problems downstream.

While several state, municipal and county governments have adopted the
precautionary principle to guide environmental and public health
policy, public schools have been in the vanguard of this precautionary
principle movement. The school is a primary environment for children
from the day they enter kindergarten until the day they walk out with
a diploma. In the late 1990's the Los Angeles Unified School District
adopted the precautionary principle paired with a program of
Integrated Pest Management to eliminate unnecessary pesticides from
the buildings and grounds of the largest school district in the United
States. LAUSD chose this route because they believed that a child's
future health and learning potential should not be compromised through
the use of pesticides that include neurotoxicants, carcinogens, or
mutagens on playgrounds or in classrooms.

More recently the Governing Authority of the Emeryville Unified School
District in California adopted the precautionary principle as the
foundation of all its environmental policy. This far-reaching policy
will guide everything from curriculum to building materials and the
food served at the schools. Some elements of the precautionary
principle included in the policy are the following:

** The community has a right to complete and accurate information on
the impacts of school district choices. The proponent of the product
or service must supply the information, not the public.

** Precautionary decisions should be transparent, participatory and

** The district asserts an obligation to examine and choose the
alternative with the least harmful impact on human health and the

** When evaluating those alternatives, there is a duty to consider all
the reasonably foreseeable costs, including raw materials,
manufacturing, transportation, use, cleanup, eventual disposal and
health costs even if such costs are not reflected in the initial
price. Short- and long-term benefits and time thresholds should be
considered when making decisions.

Taking the long view is key to the precautionary principle. Our
children stand on the threshold of the future. My Indigenous friends
say that the precautionary principle is the seventh generation
principle, which comes from the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy
practice of making decisions with the seventh generation in mind. The
only way we can guarantee that we leave blessings and an inheritance
for future generations, rather than the fruits of our
shortsightedness, is to acknowledge that we can't wait for science to
prove everything before we take action. We need to use the
precautionary principle and make decisions that are the wisest,
fairest, and most preventive of harm.

In adopting the precautionary principle, members of the Emeryville
School District school board chose to assume the role of guardians of
this generation and those to come. As guardians they are taking steps
to protect children for the long term. Those steps were laid out in 10
action points, three of which describe a precautionary food policy.
The food recommendations are to:

Follow and build upon the examples of New York City, Chicago,
Nashville, San Francisco and others and ban soda, candy, junk food,
and fast food from all school grounds.

Evaluate the district's school lunch program to ensure good nutrition
and consider developing a farm-to-school program.

Encourage the development of school gardens and green schoolyards as
hands-on learning tools that promote good nutrition and stewardship of
the land.

The Emeryville School District leaders intuitively understand that
school meal programs stand at the center of our hope for a good and
healthy future. Lunch is the time when we can say, "We have provided
food that will nurture your body and not harm you. We want to show you
your place in the community of farmers, bees, water, and the land that
grew your food. We promise to be wise guardians of your future."

School lunch is our communion, of past lessons and hope for the
future, of knowledge that wisdom accrues in small bites, and of our
vow to forecare.


Carolyn Raffensperger is the Executive Director of the Science and
Environmental Health Network (SEHN). In 1982 she left a career as an
archaeologist to work for the Sierra Club, where she addressed an
array of environmental issues, including forest management, river
protection, pesticide pollutants, and disposal of radioactive waste.
She began working for SEHN in 1994. As an environmental lawyer, she
specializes in fundamental changes in law and policy necessary for the
protection and restoration of public health and the environment.
Carolyn is coeditor of Protecting Public Health and the Environment:
Implementing the Precautionary Principle (Island Press, 1999), the
most comprehensive exploration of the history, theory, and
implementation of the precautionary principle. She coined the term
"ecological medicine" to encompass the broad notions that health and
healing are entwined with the natural world. She writes the Public
Trust column for the Environmental Law Institute's journal
Environmental Forum.

This essay is part of Thinking outside the Lunchbox, an ongoing series
of essays connected to the Center for Ecoliteracy's Rethinking School
Lunch program. Read all the essays at

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Copyright 2006. Center for Ecoliteracy