Truth About Trade & Technology
February 15, 2006


By Temba Nolutshungu*

[This is a revised version of an Op-Ed that appeared February 8, 2006{1} 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{2}. 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{3}.]

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 products.

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.

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* Temba Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation{4}, South Africa