Rachel's Precaution Reporter #56

"Foresight and Precaution, in the News and in the World"

Wednesday, September 20, 2006........Printer-friendly version
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Table of Contents...

Report Says, 'To Avoid Clashes Over WTO Rules, Define Precaution'
  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.
UN Report Calls for Common Definition of Trade Ban Principle
  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?
Try This at Home: Defining the Precautionary Principle
  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.
Canadian Cancer Society Focuses on Prevention and Precaution
  "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.


From: EurekAlert, Sept. 14, 2006
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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?

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

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

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;

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.

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.

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

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From: The Jurist, Sept. 14, 2006
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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.

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From: Rachel's Precaution Reporter, Aug. 22, 2006
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By 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

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.

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From: Canadian Cancer Society, Sept. 14, 2006
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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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  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.

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