Rachel's Precaution Reporter #56
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

From: EurekAlert ..........................................[This story printer-friendly]
September 14, 2006


Should a country have the unfettered right to refuse trade in such products as genetically-modified grain or hormone-injected beef based on doubts about their safety? Or is such "precautionary" action trumped by World Trade Organization membership obligations?

[Rachel's introduction: The main aim of the corporate globalization project is to deny national governments the right to make their own laws, to prevent them from defining for themselves a "good society." Instead the good society will be defined for all nations by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The precautionary principle lies near the heart of this debate.]

Biotechnology-altered foods are the focus of a World Trade Organization ruling scheduled for release this month, a landmark event expected to have a major impact on trade in agricultural products, one of the largest sectors governed by the WTO.

The [as-yet-unpublished] final report of the WTO Panel in European Communities -- "Measures Affecting the Approval and Marketing of Biotechnology Products" -- rules on a dispute founded on differing perceptions about what constitutes legitimate precaution when regulating biotechnology.

Should a country have the unfettered right to refuse trade in such products as genetically-modified grain or hormone-injected beef based on doubts about their safety? Or is such "precautionary" action trumped by World Trade Organization membership obligations?

In other words: when can a nation's interpretation and invocation of "the precautionary principle" be ruled trade protectionism in disguise? And which party should shoulder the burden of scientific proof when the safety of a product is disagreed?

These concerns are prompting a growing number of international trade clashes over the perceived safety of products derived from cutting edge biotechnology and other sciences. Most recently, Japan banned imports of US long-grain rice in August amid reports that traces of a genetically-modified variety had been found in American crops; European Union officials likewise imposed a temporary import ban pending more information. In earlier clashes, Zambia refused a US-AID offer of GM [genetically modified] corn over concerns that acceptance would imperil the GM- free status of their exports to the EU. The collapse of the Doha Round means that more of these types of clashes are likely to end up in the WTO.

Averting such conflicts requires a better, common definition and understanding of the "precautionary principle," among other measures, according to the Japan-based Institute for Advanced Studies of the United Nations University. In a report, it calls for international agreement on common approaches to risk assessment and suggests the WTO dispute settlement system is not the "best way in which to resolve disputes in these important areas of policy making."

Prepared by Sabrina Shaw and Risa Schwartz, both professional alumnae of the WTO Secretariat in Geneva, the report warns that disputes over biotechnology products, founded in part on cultural differences, are creating a "trans-Atlantic divide." It highlights similarities and differences between agreements and organizations with respect to precaution -- and the consequences of those differences.

According to Gary Sampson, Professor of International Economic Governance at UNU-IAS and author of the recent book, The WTO and Global Governance: "Precaution -- not science -- lies at the heart of much of the public concern about the regulation of biotechnology products. In the absence of scientific justification for trade restrictive measures, the WTO will increasingly find itself passing judgment on which regulations are 'legitimate' and which are 'unnecessary barriers to trade.' This will put the WTO increasingly between a rock and a hard place to say the least.

"The relative weight assigned to science and societal choice in the determination of standards -- or how "precautionary" regulations should be -- underpins much of the possible future disagreement over the legitimacy of standards relating to genetically modified products within the context of dispute settlement in the WTO," he adds.

"The seriousness of these disputes and the importance of the technology threaten great damage to international cooperation and law," says UNU-IAS Director A.H. Zakri. "More and more commentators are beginning to openly wonder whether the World Trade Organization will be able to survive the full effects of the European Commission - Biotechnology panel, for example."

"How a society chooses to manage the risks of biotechnology will be affected by such factors as confidence in the regulators, acceptance of new technologies, the need for the new benefits and general levels of awareness," says Dr. Zakri.

He notes that several international organizations, often pursuing different objectives, are rushing to regulate biotech, creating "a complex policy and regulatory environment."

The precautionary principle is a central element of several multilateral environmental agreements, a reflection of past instances of underestimated and unanticipated impacts of new technologies - perhaps most famously the industrial release of POPs, a family of organic pollutants subsequently shown to persist stubbornly in the environment -- and the use for refrigeration of chemicals later found to destroy atmospheric ozone.

So far, however, the precautionary principle has not been adopted authoritatively beyond international environmental law.

The UNU-IAS report notes differences between Europe and North America are highly pronounced with respect to genetically modified organisms and labeling of GM products, with European concerns about the risks manifested in trade restrictions on biotech goods deemed "acceptable or even desirable in the United States."

Differing perceptions about appropriate levels of precaution for biotechnology was the underlying cause of the WTO dispute where the US and EU disagreed about the safety of beef produced from cattle injected with hormones to bolster their growth. This fundamental difference will drive the US and the EU to the WTO Dispute Settlement mechanism again. US industry has already started lobbying the US Government for a WTO challenge to the EU GM labeling and traceability requirements.

Other earlier disagreements have prevented foods such as unpasteurized European cheeses from entering US markets and past WTO decisions have established that the lack of "absolute certainly" with respect to science cannot be used to justify trade restrictions.

The UNU-IAS report says nations need to determine a common threshold of risk "or, at a minimum, a common practice of risk assessment".

"What is lacking is a uniform description of the precautionary principle in these agreements, leading some critics to argue that the principle is overused without a clear understanding of its meaning and consideration of its implementation," the paper says.

"The flexible definition of the precautionary principle may be its strength, but also one of its greatest weaknesses. Several WTO Members have noted in the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) that the difficulty of further integrating precaution in the WTO lies in the lack of an internationally-agreed definition of the precautionary principle."

Says Dr. Zakri: "A clearer understanding of the various uses of the precautionary principle or approach will contribute to a more cohesive and harmonious approach to the regulation of biotechnology at the international level and mitigate some of the damage that is threatened by the current state of affairs."

Says UN Under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UNU: "There is an important need now to take stock, reassess basic positions, principles and areas of agreement about the precautionary approach before countries initiate a new wave of disputes about biotechnology and the precautionary approach.

"Such a discussion could not be more timely given the recent controversy about genetically-modified contamination of US rice exports, the suspension of the Doha round and the prospect of countries re-examining disputes and grievances in the wake of the upcoming WTO ruling."

The full UNU-IAS report is available online.


UNU-IAS contact in Japan: Mitzi Borromeo, Yokohama, +81-45-221-2314; borromeo@ias.unu.edu

UNU Institute of Advanced Studies The Institute of Advanced Studies is part of the United Nations University's global network of research and training centres. IAS undertakes research and postgraduate education on leading sustainable development issues, convening expertise from disciplines such as economics, law, biology, political science, physics and chemistry to better understand and contribute creative solutions to pressing global concerns. UNU-IAS works to identify and address strategic issues of concern for all humankind, for governments and decision makers and, particularly, for developing countries. (www.ias.unu.edu)

United Nations University

Established by the U.N. General Assembly, UNU is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo. (www.unu.edu)

Contact: Terry Collins terrycollins@rogers.com 416-538-8712 United Nations University


From: The Jurist .........................................[This story printer-friendly]
September 14, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Here is a slightly different 'take' on the same dispute. Earlier this year, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the European Union and six of its member states violated WTO rules by stopping the trade of biotech crops from the U.S., Canada and Argentina based on safety concerns -- a precautionary approach. The WTO objects to this approach, demanding that an "absolute certainty" of safety issues must be present before trading bans can be implemented. Who decides the laws governing the health and safety of a nation? The nation itself or the WTO?]

By Holly Manges Jones

A UN report released Thursday urges countries to develop a common understanding of the "precautionary principle," [ISIS backgrounder] a term freely used by nations that do not want to allow certain trade products to enter their borders on health or environmental grounds. The study, conducted by the UN University's Institute of Advanced Studies [official website], found that countries use the term as a justification for banning products due to fear of serious or irreversible harm even in instances when the suspected harm is not certain to occur. The UN report said such environmental or health- related bans could have a detrimental impact on transatlantic trade relations especially in cases when the principle is actually being used as a protectionist measure.

The precautionary principle has been applied to the European Union ban on genetically modified food and hormone-fed beef from the US and the US ban on unpasteurized cheeses from Europe. Earlier this year, the World Trade Organization (WTO) [official website] ruled that the EU and six member states violated trade regulations [JURIST report] by stopping the trade of biotech crops from the US, Canada and Argentina based on alleged safety concerns. The WTO has said an "absolute certainty" of safety issues must be present before trading bans can be implemented. Reuters has more.

Copyright Bernard J. Hibbitts 2006.


From: Rachel's Precaution Reporter .......................[This story printer-friendly]
August 22, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The World Trade Organization (WTO) refuses to accept the legitimacy of precautionary action by individual nations aiming to protect their citizens from harm. A recent report from the United Nations University says the problem stems from a vague definition of precaution. Columnist Carolyn Raffensperger shows that the definition of precaution is not vague at all.]

Carolyn Raffensperger

Wags and critics have said that the precautionary principle has been defined in so many ways that nobody really knows what it means. Not true. The words themselves have clear dictionary definitions. "Precautionary" is defined as foresight to protect against possible harm. "Principle" is defined as a habitual devotion to right.

But that's not what the critics are looking for. A legal dictionary would likely use three definitions, the Rio Declaration, Wingspread and the San Francisco ordinance.

The Rio Declaration, Principle 15, the most common definition of the precautionary principle in international law defines it as "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

Compare that with the Wingspread definition, which states, "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

And finally, the San Francisco ordinance defines the precautionary principle as, "Where threats of serious or irreversible damage to people or nature exist, lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect shall not be viewed as sufficient reason for the City to postpone cost effective measures to prevent the degradation of the environment or protect the health of its citizens."

The question raised by critics is whether these definitions are so different that we should throw up our hands and walk away from any attempt to use the principle as a legal matter. Is there a single definition of the precautionary princple?

The answer is "yes" for two reasons. First, every single definition of the precautionary principle (without exception) contains the same three elements:

** uncertainty

** possibility of damage

** and precautionary action or measures to prevent harm.

The idea embodied by all of these definitions is that we don't have to wait for absolute certainty before we prevent harm. We can use foresight and take action rather than wait for the dead bodies to pile up while we measure and manage risk. It is true that definitions can be stated passively or actively, negatively or positively. Rio is a relatively passive and negative formulation whereas Wingspread is active and positive. Adjectives like "serious", "irreversible", "cost- effective" can refine the kind of harm or action specified but this doesn't change the definition of taking precautionary measures to prevent harm in the face of uncertainty.

The second common feature of every definition is that they don't tell you exactly what action to take. For this reason the precautionary principle is not self-implementing. But this doesn't mean that the definition isn't very, very clear. It just means that there are additional steps that must be taken to implement the precautionary principle.

This is why San Francisco created an overarching environmental ordinance that articulates the vision, philosophy and definition of the precautionary principle but went on to enact additional ordinances that spell out what actions they will take to fulfill the principle.

There are five key steps in implementing the precautionary principle:

(1) heed early warnings

(2) set goals

(3) assess and choose the best alternative

(4) reverse the burden of proof (give the benefit of the doubt to public health and the environment)

(5) and use democracy.

One or another of the five steps will be more important than the others depending on the harm that is being prevented. Global warming, land use, whale survival and breast cancer can all be addressed using the precautionary principle, but there is no rigid formula that can or should be applied to every issue.

Not only have critics tried to muddy the clear waters of the definition, but they split hairs by arguing that the precautionary principle and precautionary approach are different and should not be confused. This is also false. The terms are used interchangeably. The precautionary principle and precautionary approach are the same thing. For instance, almost all would say that international attention to the precautionary principle began with Rio, which calls it the precautionary approach.

In summary, every definition of the precautionary approach or precautionary principle tells us to take action to prevent harm in the face of uncertainty. Arguing about the definition is a distraction from the real work of preventing harm.


From: Canadian Cancer Society ............................[This story printer-friendly]
September 14, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "We use the precautionary principle when developing positions, which states that when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." American Cancer Society, please take note.]

Canadian Cancer Society volunteers and staff want you to know what our organization is doing to prevent and fight cancer and the difference we are making in these areas. We believe that Canadians should be protected from inadvertent exposure to cancer causing agents including those in our environment.

Here are some of the things that we have been doing about cancer and the environment:

We use the precautionary principle when developing positions, which states that when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

We have positions against the cosmetic use of pesticides, pressure treated lumber and occupational exposure to carcinogens.

We constantly monitor new research and information in this area so we can inform Canadians, develop and revise health messages and guide our advocacy efforts.

We were leaders in advocating for the implementation of the Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control. We applauded the federal government's announcement in May 2006 of $52 million a year for 5 years to implement the Strategy.Prevention is a major component of this cancer strategy. As part of our work on the Strategy, we participated in a committee that made recommendations about the prevention of occupational and environmental cancers in Canada. We are also members of a committee of the Strategy that recommended that a symbol be used to clearly and quickly identify whether a substance does or does not have any cancer-causing substances in it. We continue to apply pressure to policy-makers to put this initiative into effect.

We worked with Cancer Care Ontario in 2005 to produce a report for policy-makers and health professionals about environmental exposures and cancer.

We have been funding prevention research, including projects: investigating genetic and environmental factors that may cause acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- one of the most common childhood cancers identifying risk factors for prostate cancer including physical activity, smoking, alcohol use and exposure to chemical agents found in the workplace investigating possible environmental and genetic factors that might contribute to the development of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

We've been leaders in tobacco control for years, including by ensuring policies and legislation are in place to protect Canadians from tobacco smoke. Thirty per cent of all cancers are caused by smoking.

The complexity of cancer requires that we approach the disease in a comprehensive way and that we work in partnership with other organizations -- governments, regulatory bodies, employers, businesses and individuals -- to maximize the impact of our efforts. The complexity of the disease also requires that we focus first on areas where science tells us we can make a substantive difference.

Prevention is a vital part of the Society's work and we are always intensifying our efforts in this area.

Here are some of the other things we're working on to help prevent cancer:

We brought together an international committee to develop updated health messaging about vitamin D, UV exposure and cancer. There is a strong scientific body of evidence showing that unprotected sun exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer. However, there has been mounting evidence to suggest that adequate vitamin D levels - obtained through unprotected sun exposure or supplementation -- may reduce your risk of some cancers. Key findings were released in May 2006.

We're reviewing the body of evidence around the benefits and risks of oral contraceptives. We expect to have completed this review and to have information available in the summer.

We're reviewing and will be updating our Seven Steps to Health to better reflect what individuals can do to reduce exposure to cancer causing substances at home, in their community and at work. You can contribute to making healthy choices easy choices by working together with us to advocate to governments and by working in your communities to change policies.

We're establishing a Canadian Cancer Society Research Chair in the Primary Prevention of Cancer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

We're establishing a Canadian Cancer Society Chair in Population Cancer Research at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

We launched a Cancer Prevention Week in Ontario (April 17-23) with heavy emphasis on what individuals can do to reduce their risk in conjunction with the need for supportive public policies in the areas of both primary and secondary prevention.

We're finalizing a plan to have a panel of prevention research experts review the current state of knowledge about cancer prevention in Canada and around the world. These experts will then identify gaps in our knowledge and make recommendations about how they can be filled.

We will be conducting a review of the CancerSmart Consumer Guide and, if appropriate, assist in making it more easily accessible to Canadians.

We will continue to be active members of the National Committee on Environmental and Occupational Exposures and the Primary Prevention Action Group, both part of the Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control.

We will continue our participation in the review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

We will continue to advocate to all levels of government to ensure they implement policies that will protect Canadians from known or probable carcinogens and that will help them make healthy choices easy choices.

On a final note, you may have heard Canada is experiencing rising cancer rates. In fact, according to Canadian Cancer Statistics 2006, in general, incidence and death rates for the majority of cancer sites have stabilized or declined for more than a decade. This means that your individual risk of developing or dying of cancer is the same or lower than it was 10 years ago. But because Canada's population is growing, baby boomers are aging and cancer occurs most often in older people, the number of new individual cases of cancer is rising. If current rates continue however, in the next 20 years, the number of new individual cases of cancer will rise by about 60%. At the Canadian Cancer Society, we are absolutely committed to ensuring this does not happen. The best way to control cancer is to stop it before it starts.

The Society takes pride in its ongoing work in prevention, providing support for people with cancer, advocating to governments, providing cancer information for all Canadians and funding important research. Society volunteers and staff are committed to their efforts to eradicate cancer and to improve the quality of life of people living with the disease. In no small part, our efforts against cancer are helping to prevent the disease and together we will continue to find important answers about the disease.

Visit the prevention section of our website for more information about our efforts.

Together we will make cancer history.


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Precaution Reporter send a blank Email to one of these addresses:

Full HTML edition: join-rpr-html@gselist.org
Table of Contents edition: join-rpr-toc@gselist.org


Environmental Research Foundation
P.O. Box 160
New Brunswick, N.J. 08901