American Legislative Exchange Council, October 12, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The chemical industry is conducting a worldwide campaign opposing the precautionary principle. Here is one of the industry's most recent strategy papers.]


The "precautionary principle" is a term invented by environmental alarmists to justify their opposition to technological progress. It essentially states that one must conclusively "prove" that a proposed action or advancement poses no risk of human or environmental harm before being deemed lawful. This asserted burden of proof is deliberately worded to be a very difficult standard to attain. It is impossible to "prove" that a hypothetical result, no matter how far- fetched, absolutely cannot occur (i.e., one cannot prove a negative).

The practical effect of the precautionary principle is to ban almost anything that is not "natural." It prays on irrational fears regarding technology rather than relying on empirical scientific research. An example of the stifling effect of the precautionary principle can be found regarding genetically improved crops. For three decades biotechnology, operating under stringent government regulatory scrutiny, has produced greater yields, higher nutrition, and crops requiring ever-decreasing amounts of pesticides, with not a single person ever experiencing any adverse health effects. Nevertheless, environmental activists operating under the precautionary principle continue to assert that genetically enhanced crops should be banned because such an extensive record of human and environmental success does not constitute "proof" that genetically enhanced crops pose no human health risks. All we have seen, precautionary principle advocates argue, is anecdotal evidence that perhaps no harm has yet occurred.

One need not have an overactive imagination to see the stifling, if not destructive, effect the precautionary principle can have on scientific progress and our standard of living. There is little good that can be accomplished, and much evil that can result, from abandoning our current EPA and FDA regulatory procedures in favor of a "precautionary principle" that, if adopted 10,000 years ago, would have us still living in the Stone Age.

Talking Points:

* Current EPA and FDA rules, regulations and procedures already rigorously ensure environmental health and consumer safety. There is no need to abandon a system that encourages advances in human welfare for an overly alarmist agenda that will stifle scientific and societal progress.

* The precautionary principle itself forbids implementation of the precautionary principle: proponents have failed to conclusively "prove" that the adoption of the precautionary principle will not cause more societal harm that good.

* Application of the precautionary principle 10,000 years ago would have kept us in the Stone Age, as there was no "proof" that mining, using, and disposing of bronze, iron, etc., would not cause environmental or human health harm. Application of the precautionary principle 100 years ago would have banned automobiles, air travel, electricity, and other modern essentials as well. Application of the precautionary principle today will seem just as ridiculous and progress-stifling to our children's children 100 years from now.

* Application of the precautionary principle to biotechnology -- as activists frequently seek -- would have negated tremendous recent gains in global crop yields and nutrition, and would have negated dramatic recent reductions in the need for pesticides.

* Application of the precautionary principle to biotechnology -- as activists frequently seek -- would have negated numerous life- saving medical advances.

* The precautionary principle will outlaw many of the scientific advancements that have come to define modern society.

* From an economic standpoint, studies show that application of the precautionary principle in Europe has the effect of a 15 percent tax on new capital investment.

Additional Sources:

Guldberg, H., "Challenging the Precautionary Principle," Spiked Online, July 1, 2003.

Milloy, S., "U.S. Should Not Import European Laws," November 17, 2005.

"Precautionary Principle," Competitive Enterprise Institute.