Truth About Trade & Technology  [Printer-friendly version]
February 15, 2006


By Temba Nolutshungu*

[This is a revised version of an Op-Ed that appeared February 8,
2006 in The Standard, which calls itself Hong Kong's business
newspaper. It confirms that free traders -- opponents of government
regulation and of the precautionary principle -- think they can defeat
precaution by claiming that precaution is starving the masses and
killing babies. The argument is bogus. The world already produces
sufficient food for everyone. The problem is that many millions of
people are too poor to buy food. If you combine that fact with the
"free market" concept that those without money don't have the right to
eat, you get famine.]

Zambia has just reconfirmed its ban on famine-relief containing GM
food. Uganda and Kenya are wavering. More than 12 million people are
starving in Africa right now. GM food would not solve malnutrition and
starvation by itself, but it would certainly help.

But even South Africa, with bumper harvests of genetically modified
crops, is threatened by irrational fears about them, even though they
provide food and income for hundreds of millions of rich and poor
alike. Activists there are calling for tight new legislation to
restrict GM crops, citing the precautionary principle -- a legal
concept promoted by the EU and the UN.

At first sight, the precautionary principle looks reasonable. Have we
not all since childhood been warned to look before you leap or, if in
doubt, don't? Those who have followed the advice will no doubt at
times have avoided danger, loss and even injury. On the other hand, if
they followed the precautionary advice to avoid all risk, they would
have missed a lot of opportunities and might even have come to grief.

The UN's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety imposes restrictions on trade
in GMOs and has been incorporated into a proposed Genetically Modified
Organisms Bill in South Africa.

The protocols' stated intention is the conservation of habitats in
developing nations, which sounds admirable. However, its reference to
the precautionary approach contained in Principle 15 of the Rio
Declaration on Environment and Development must give us pause.

The objective of the protocol is to contribute to ensuring an adequate
level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and
use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology
that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use
of biological diversity. It also takes into account risks to human
health, specifically focusing on trans- boundary movements. The
problem here may have adverse effects.

The precautionary principle requires action to avoid a risk even when
there's no evidence of any risk: it demands that technology should not
be used unless, and until, it has been shown to be absolutely safe,
reversing the usual burden of proof.

New technologies are assumed to be harmful until they have been proven
safe to an impossible standard.

Dr Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and
Health, says the precautionary principle always assumes worst-case
scenarios, distracts consumers and policy-makers alike from the known
and proven threats to human health while assuming no risk from the
proposed regulations themselves: the precautionary principle overlooks
the possibility that real public health risks can be associated with
expending resources on eliminating miniscule hypothetical risks.

When the Zambian government turned away GM maize intended for its
starving people because of a theoretical health risk, it created a
real risk and turned a disaster into a tragedy. Denied the food,
people died of starvation. But that same type of GM maize has been
consumed by Americans and Canadians for more than a decade.

Applied to agriculture and food biotechnology, the precautionary
principle ignores the very real existing risks of hunger, starvation
and malnutrition that can be reduced or eliminated by the new

Applied decades ago to innovations such as polio vaccines and
antibiotics, the precautionary principle would have cited occasional
serious side effects at the expense of millions of lives lost to
infectious diseases. Applied today to penicillin and aspirin (or
peanuts and potatoes), to which some people are allergic, it would
deny their use to others who are not allergic.

It's worth repeating that no one has yet detected any allergy, harm or
risk to humans, animals or the environment from commercialized GM
crops. Farmers use GM seeds because they're more efficient, giving
higher yields and costing less in pesticides. Consumers use them
because they're indistinguishable from any other crop and cheaper too.

By acceding to the Cartagena Protocol, African governments, including
my own in South Africa, have risked deterring biotechnology companies
from carrying out research in their countries or making their products
available to their citizens.

Major potential investments that could provide jobs and reduce poverty
in Africa are at risk. Without such investments, African scientists
may leave the continent to research and produce elsewhere.

The precautionary principle requires that we take action to avoid a
risk even when there's little or no scientific evidence of its
existence, magnitude or potential impact. In that case, consider the
risk of applying the precautionary principle. How do we know what harm
it will do in blocking agricultural development? Can we be absolutely
sure that rejecting biotechnology will not cause future poverty,
hunger and malnutrition in Africa? We cannot be sure and nor can the
opponents of the use of biotechnology.

Applying the precautionary principle to itself, we must therefore
avoid the risks attendant on not using biotechnology.

In a continent that desperately needs growth, food, jobs and exports,
innovation is exactly what we need.

The United States, Canada and Argentina have the muscle to bring cases
to the World Trade Organization, but African countries are still
vulnerable to EU trade barriers and to Western activists supported by
the aid industry, all opposed to free trade and GM products -- just
the tools we need to boost exports and fight famine.

For Africans, this really is a question of life or death.

Truth About Trade and Technology, 309 Court Avenue, Suite 214, Des
Moines, Iowa 50309

Copyright 2003

* Temba Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation,
South Africa