Puget Consumer Co-op (PCC)  [Printer-friendly version]
May 1, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "In a world where perfection -- the weed-free
farm, the blemish-free apple, the giant strawberry -- has begun to
look more scary than beautiful, precaution is coming into its own."]

by Carol Estes

May 2006 -- Imagine this: a chemical company plans to market a new
pesticide. A committee is convened of local citizens, including
farmers, consumers, healthcare practitioners, scientists, local
businesses and government representatives, to analyze the alleged
benefits and potential risks to the community.

After deliberation, the committee determines that in the absence of
scientific data ensuring the safety of the pesticide -- a compound
similar to one already banned -- the risks outweigh any potential
benefits. The pesticide is not approved by authorities who recommend
safer alternatives.

A far-fetched scenario? Perhaps not. The idea of precaution is not
new. Ancient folk wisdom tells us "A stitch in time saves nine,"
"Better safe than sorry," and "Look before you leap."

No doubt invention and taking chances always have been more popular --
and far more exciting -- than being cautious. But in an era when
technological prowess turns small mistakes into far-reaching problems,
a precautionary approach has begun to attract admirers.

In the last three decades, the concept of taking action to avoid
potential harm -- even in the face of scientific uncertainty -- has
gained considerable cachet among public health practitioners,
environmentalists, farmers, scientists and most of all, citizen-

This idea, known as the Precautionary Principle, has been codified
around the world in ten or more protocols including the United Nations
Environment Programme, the Nordic Council's Conference, the third
North Sea Conference, the Bergen Declaration on Sustainable
Development, the second World Climate Conference, the Bamako
Convention, the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union and the Rio
Declaration on Environment and Development which the United States

A Precautionary Principle Working Group was started in Seattle in
2004, and already, it has gotten precautionary principle language
integrated into the city's Comprehensive Plan, the section on
environment. Next month, the first U.S. Conference on Precaution will
be held in Baltimore to build the movement nationwide.

(For more information, visit www.besafenet.com or call 703-237-2249,
ext. 11). A public debriefing of the national conference will be held
in Seattle on June 23 (see the May 2006 Your Community Web page and

Why this blossoming popularity? Precaution makes all kinds of sense.

Forward planning

The modern legal concept of precaution grew out of the German word,
"Vorsorge," which means "fore-caring." At the heart of the idea was
the belief that a nation should try to avoid environmental damage by
careful, forward planning, a process that would block potentially
harmful activities. The Vorsorgeprinzip became, during the 1970s, a
cornerstone of German environmental law, balanced with economic

More than 20 years later, in January 1998, a group of activists,
scholars, scientists and lawyers met in Racine, Wis., at Wingspread,
home of the Johnson Foundation, to formulate a precautionary approach
to everyday environmental and public health decision-making.

"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

This rather tame, cautious statement is nothing short of
revolutionary. It completely upends our accepted system for dealing
with potential toxins and environmentally harmful practices.

Our current system assumes that a substance or activity (such as
spraying synthetic pesticides) is innocent until proven guilty. In
other words, a company doing something that is potentially harmful to
human health or the environment has the right to continue doing it
until someone files a complaint or lawsuit and succeeds in proving the
activity harmful.

This is a nasty problem. Because it's impossible to prove harm until
there is harm, the system cannot kick in until it's too late -- after
the harm is done. Furthermore, the victim and the public bear the
burden of proof rather than the proponent of the activity -- the one
who stands to profit from it.

The "burden of proof" is aptly named -- it's a heavy load. It means
that the victims and/or the public must hire expensive attorneys to
argue the matter, along with an assortment of scientists and experts
to run tests and experiments -- a prohibitively costly process.

Precaution advocate and attorney Carolyn Raffensperger points out,
furthermore, that to satisfy scientific standards of proof, evidence
must show with 95 percent accuracy that a particular substance or
activity -- and nothing else -- was the cause of harm. In a world with
82,000 manmade substances, proving a single cause with that kind of
accuracy often is beyond the capabilities of current technology.

In the past, scientific uncertainty has meant that proponents of an
activity were free to go ahead with it. But under the Precautionary
Principle, we acknowledge that we'll never have perfect information,
and as a result, we sometimes need to act before we have all the
evidence we'd like.

The Precautionary Principle also acknowledges that deciding how to
act, or not act, in the face of incomplete scientific evidence is not
a question that science or industry can answer. It's a judgment call,
and for that reason, it belongs in the hands of the public. You and I,
along with the neighbors, all have say in the decision.

Democratizing a process in which the public previously had little say
is one of the most revolutionary changes of the Precautionary
Principle. Instead of facing the simplistic, de-contextualized choices
that industry currently offers (Which detergent would you prefer, the
one with bleach or the one with the lemon scent?), we citizen-
consumers would have a chance to consider complex priorities and

Is cosmetically perfect fruit worth the environmental cost? Shall we
devote a significant portion of our farm acreage to producing
biofuels? At the expense of acres in food? If it means introducing
genetically modified plants? Shall we require testing new industrial
chemicals before they're introduced into the environment, even if it
has a chilling effect on the introduction of new chemicals?

If citizen panels or juries are given the chance to decide questions
like these, their verdicts undoubtedly would have a precautionary
flavor. That's why the Precautionary Principle has plenty of enemies.

Opposition to precaution

Most of the opposition to precaution comes from economic interests and
scientists. Julian Morris of London's Institute of Economic Affairs,
for example, is quoted as saying that "if someone had evaluated the
risk of fire right after it was invented [sic], they may well have
decided to eat their food raw."

And Marlo Lewis Jr., a conservative public policy analyst speaking in
defense of the Bush administration's refusal to support the Kyoto
climate change protocol, expressed a similar objection: "Inflating
'Safety First!' from a mere rule of thumb into a categorical
imperative -- an absolute overriding duty -- is a recipe for paralysis
and stagnation... Do the potential risks of climate change outweigh
those of climate change policy? Or do we have more to fear from Kyoto
than from climate change itself?"

These are serious charges. Would the Precautionary Principle
discourage innovation to the point of paralysis and stagnation? A
precautionary approach demands that we consider these objections

Seattle toxicologist Steven Gilbert, author of "A Small Dose of
Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals," argues that we
needn't worry much about a precautionary approach causing economic
paralysis and stagnation because we already have proof that it works
just fine. Gilbert points to the example of the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and its precautionary testing of pharmaceuticals.

"The FDA requires that a company submit data," Gilbert says, "paid for
by the company, demonstrating the efficacy and safety of the proposed
product prior to approval." That process may sometimes slow things up
and does not always function smoothly, but it hasn't caused paralysis
or stagnation since the thriving pharmaceutical industry has been by
far the most profitable U.S. industry for more than two decades.

Furthermore, at the FDA, the precautionary approach works fairly well
at what it was designed to do: protect people from harmful
pharmaceuticals. "Thalidomide," Gilbert says, "is a classic example."
This drug was marketed widely in Europe and Australia, he says, as a
sedative and anti-nausea drug for woman before it was discovered that
it caused serious birth defects if taken at a certain time during

"But the drug was not marketed in the U.S., thanks to the FDA's
precautionary approach." It seems that a woman in the FDA questioned
the drug's safety data and a great deal of harm was prevented.

Precaution in organics

Goldie Caughlan, nutrition education manager for PCC Natural Markets,
argues that the organic foods industry provides an even better example
of a successful marriage between precaution and economics.

"From the beginning, every aspect of the industry has been about
precaution," Caughlan says. "Precaution is why people wanted organic
in the first place. They were seeking to get away from the perceived
dangers of industrial agriculture. They wanted things to be natural.
The organic foods movement was a citizen definition of precaution in

Lately, Caughlan says, consumers are especially worried about
genetically engineered foods. Soy, corn and canola -- what Caughlan
calls "the big three" -- are the foods most likely to be genetically
engineered. Currently, in these three cases, she says, if you are not
eating organic food, you are eating genetically modified food. That's
not OK with many consumers.

"I frequently hear concerns about genetically engineered foods," says
Caughlan. "And we're still in the dark, since the FDA does not require
labels to inform consumers if a food product includes genetically
engineered ingredients."

As consumers adopt more healthful lifestyles, Caughlan says, they
instinctively apply the precautionary approach. They look for fruits
and vegetables grown without synthetic pesticides and that are not
genetically modified. They want meats and dairy products from free-
grazing animals not injected with antibiotics or growth hormones.

"Even though the pesticides, antibiotics and genetically engineered
plants are approved by governmental agencies, health-conscious
consumers increasingly avoid those worrisome substances and practices.
They buy organic -- as a precaution. Organic is seen as a safe

So, in a world where perfection -- the weed-free farm, the blemish-
free apple, the giant strawberry -- has begun to look more scary than
beautiful, precaution is coming into its own. Even though it's
traditional -- even conservative -- the Precautionary Principle has a
place at the organic supper table and is attracting new devotees to
its common sense beauty.

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