Rachel's Precaution Reporter #113
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

From: IEEE Technology and Society Magazine ...............[This story printer-friendly]
January 1, 2003


[Rachel's introduction: How often will nasty surprises emerge? How long will it take us to recognize and address them? How much damage will they do? How much, ultimately, is at stake? A precautionary framework for environmental decision making would respond to the urgency of such questions by attempting to shape technologies in ways calculated to make future nasty surprises less frequent and less severe.]

By Jeff Howard

All environmental problems are nasty surprises. Each runs counter to Western society's expectation of endless progress through mastery of nature.[1] But the term seems especially appropriate for problems that:

** catch most scientists, technologists, regulatory officials, the mass media, and the general public off-guard;

** are already quite extensive by the time they are recognized;

** stem from deeply entrenched technological processes or practices;

** present a potentially large-scale, long-term threat to human or ecological health.

Such problems are surprises because they seem to drop out of the blue -- even if it is soon clear that warning signs were long missed, ignored, or misinterpreted -- and reveal major errors in scientific thinking and public policy. They are nasty because they represent potentially enormous hazards and addressing them entails substantial political challenges. This combination of characteristics makes these problems a useful window into the ongoing controversy over the Precautionary Principle and its place in the environmental policy landscape.


Endocrine disruption is a classic example of nasty surprise, and indeed it was in this context that the term "nasty surprise" may first have been applied to environmental issues.[2, pp. 241-242]

Arguably the most significant development in the ecological and environmental health sciences in the past two decades has been recognition that synthetic industrial chemicals in the environment -- including DDT, chlorinated dioxins, numerous polychlorinated biphenyls, various pesticides, and obscure components of plastics -- can interfere with the endocrine (hormonal) systems of animals, including humans.[3] Efforts are under way to determine whether exposure to these contaminants is linked to increases in the incidence of breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, undescended testicles, abnormalities of the penis, reduced sperm count, and learning and behavioral abnormalities as well as accelerated onset of breast development.[4]

Endocrine disruption is a surprise. Despite what are now seen as ominous warnings over decades, it came into scientific focus quite rapidly in the late 1980s and early 1990s largely through a series of accidental discoveries. Contrary to the doctrine that toxicological risk diminishes with dose, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are specifically (perhaps uniquely) active at extremely low doses and their action often hinges not on dose but on exposure during key moments in an organism's development. And contrary to the assumption that cancer is the most sensitive health endpoint, this research is demonstrating that for some chemicals it is reproductive and developmental alteration.[2-5, 6, ch. 3]

Endocrine disruption is nasty. To many scientists, government officials, and environmental advocates, it implies a potentially enormous multigenerational threat to human and ecological health, a threat exacerbated by the global ubiquity of some of the pollutants in question and by their ability to remain biologically active for generations to come.[2-7] Bewilderingly complex methodological obstacles impede scientific investigation into the causes and consequences of endocrine disruption and hence progress toward a broadly accepted political response.[3,7] Since U.S.-style pollution policy is based on the very toxicological assumptions that endocrine disruption undermines, mounting evidence suggests the current regulatory regime is an inadequate path to long-term sustainability.[3, ch. 5, 5-7] And regulating a diverse and growing list of endocrine disrupting chemicals could have significant economic impacts.

Over the past half-century, the environmental policy landscape has been littered with similar surprises, including:

** 1960s and 1970s -- Acid precipitation due to long-range atmospheric transport of sulfur dioxide poses a widespread threat to aquatic ecosystems and forests;

** 1960s and 1970s Large-scale industrial use of lead (especially in gasoline) has vastly elevated tissue concentrations of the neurotoxin in the general human population;

** 1980s -- The stratospheric ozone layer is being depleted by chlorofluorocarbons and other common organochlorine compounds;

** 1980s -- Tin compounds widely applied to boat hulls can severely damage the growth and reproduction of marine organisms;

** Recent decades -- Profound disturbances in a wide variety of terrestrial and marine organisms, including periodic mass mortalities of dolphins and seals and a decline in interregional bird migrations;

** Recent decades -- Plant and animal species across the globe are dying off far more rapidly than the natural rate of extinction.


The Precautionary Principle (PP) is increasingly invoked in international environmental protocols and agreements and in national and local environmental disputes. It holds that when there is significant evidence a new or existing technology poses a substantial environmental hazard, lack of detailed scientific understanding should not be used as a justification for postponing measures to contain the threat.[8] Nasty environmental surprises appear to have played a significant role in motivating development of the PP and in shaping efforts to implement it.[8, 9] And they often have been prominent in appeals for precautionary action, as when endocrine disruption and ozone depletion have been cited in articulating a rationale for a precautionary phase-out of major industrial uses of chlorine.[6]

In three ways, environmental nasty surprises illuminate the conflict between precautionary and conventional modes of environmental decision making. They:

1. Dramatically remind us that our understanding of complex natural systems and the complex interaction of technologies with those systems remains quite sketchy.

Unintended, unexpected, side effects are inevitable features of all large technological systems. And when these systems interact with the larger, even more complex natural systems (e.g., ecological, atmospheric) in which they are embedded, they spin off additional "emergent characteristics" at the regional and global levels. The basic mechanisms of change in techno-ecological systems have been poorly studied, constituting "virtually a black hole of knowledge and understanding."[10, p. 360, 11] Nasty surprises are emergent characteristics that remind us contemporary technological systems constitute "a great global experiment -- with humanity and all life on Earth as the unwitting subjects."[2, p. 240]

In the case of endocrine disruption, this "experiment" involves essentially random encounters between industrial chemicals and the hormonal systems of humans and other species. Only a few of the 87,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce and the unknown thousands of other industrial chemicals produced as byproducts and degradation products have so far been screened for endocrine-disrupting properties. Moreover, hormonal systems of animals are staggeringly complex, involving a large and poorly understood diversity of mechanisms and hormone-receptor activities and diversity between species.[7] The open-endedness of this "experiment" is further compounded by the complexity of ecological systems that can be altered by chemical disruption of' reproduction and development.[2]

Conventional design of chemicals, automobiles, and countless other technologies have proceeded largely without regard to humanity's underlying ignorance of natural and techno-ecological complexity; and U.S.-style environmental regulation has relied on the assumption that "sound science" has dispelled or ultimately will dispel such ignorance sufficiently to allow society to achieve sustainability. Both conventional design and conventional regulation are examples of what Funtowicz and Ravetz call "ignorance-of-ignorance, a most dangerous state for [humanity]."[12, p. 1884] By contrast, PP proponents have argued that a "precautionary science"-based approach must account for the reality of substantial ignorance.[7, 8, ch. 61, 9, pp. 169-71, 13]

2. Highlight the inadequacy and politics of risk assessment.

Many nasty surprises stem from activities that predate the institutionalization of formal environmental risk assessment as the back-bone of the U.S. regulatory system in the early 1980s. But nasty surprises nonetheless reflect poorly on present risk-based policies.

While limitations of risk assessment have long been discussed by regulators and academics, risk assessment's inadequacy as a bulwark against large-scale, long-term ecological dysfunction and subtle but profound human health impacts has received little attention. Risk assessment is a poor defense against nasty surprise because it disregards much of the techno-environmental complexity from which surprises emerge.[6,9] Consequently, "The very considerable amount of scientific work which has gone into the modeling of environmental risk systems over the past few decades cannot... be taken as reassurance that even the main dimensions of environmental harm from human activities have been comprehended."[13, p. 113]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's response to endocrine disruption illustrates the dilemma. The agency is pinning its hopes on a program to identify hormonally active chemicals and characterize the risk each poses. Although yielding valuable information, this program is effectively swamped by the complex diversity of chemicals, species, and endocrine mechanisms.[7]

Proponents of precaution argue that the inadequacies of the risk- based regulatory paradigm stem from its tacit politics -- its naive optimism about the ability of science to plumb the depths of environmental complexity; its ability to conceal ignorance; its reductionistic conception of hazard; its technocratic conception of power; its disregard for the availability of less-hazardous technologies; its willingness to sanction damage to the environment in the interest of economic freedom. They call for regulation whose politics is more transparent, more democratic, more environmentally cautious, more scientifically humble. They call for broader participation in environmental decision making and urge that evaluation of a technology include consideration of its social justification, the distribution of its social benefits, and the availability of less hazardous alternatives.[6-9, 13-14]

3. Lead us to expect additional nasty surprises.

The enormous pace and scale of human-induced change in global systems that are themselves enormously complex means that we are "more and more likely to engender problems that we are less and less likely to anticipate."[15, p. 37] Viewing the rapid decline in global biodiversity, biologist Myers concludes: "In the midst of much scientific uncertainty about our world -- a world on which we are imposing multitudes of simultaneous new insults -- we can be all but certain that there are environmental processes at work, or waiting in the wings, with the capacity to generate significant problems and to take us by ostensible surprise."[10, p. 358] Colborn and colleagues, considering the emergence of ozone depletion and endocrine disruption, concur. "If anything is certain," they write, "it is that we will be blindsided again" probably by "something never even considered."[2, p. 242]. How often will nasty surprises emerge? How long will it take us to recognize and address them? How much damage will they do? Is the worst behind us, or ahead of us? How much, ultimately, is at stake? A precautionary framework for environmental decision making would respond to the urgency of such questions by attempting to shape technologies in ways calculated to make future nasty surprises less frequent and less severe.

The risk-based regulatory approach, with its disregard for the systemic character of nasty surprise and its technocratic mode of responding to new surprises, does not offer a viable approach to dealing with nasty surprises. As the European Environment Agency concludes in its recent report on precaution, the scientific hubris built into western society's technological decision making has made society vulnerable to technological blunders that undermine the prospect of sustainability.[9]


[1] D. Sarewitz, Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress. Philadelphia, PA: Temple Univ., 1996.

[2] T. Colborn, D. Dumanoski. and J. Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility: Intelligence, and Survival? -- A Scientific Detective Story. New York, NY: Dutton, 1996.

[3] S. Krimsky, Hormonal Chaos: The Scientific and Social Origins of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000.

[4] G.M. Solomon and T. Schettler, "Endocrine disruption and potential human health implications," Canadian Med. Assoc. J., vol. 163, no. 11, pp. 1471-1476, 2000.

[5] P.L. deFur, "Public policy recommendations to address endocrine disrupting chemicals," Biotechnology International, vol. 2, pp. 230-234, 1999.

[6] J. Thornton, Pandora's Poison: Organochlorines and Health. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[7] J. Thornton, "Chemicals policy and the precautionary principle: The case of endocrine disruption," in Science and the Precautionary Principle, J. Tickner, Ed. Washington, DC: Island, to be published.

[8] C. Raffensperger and J. Tickner, Eds. Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. Washington, DC: Island, 1999.

[9] Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000. European Environment Agency: Copenhagen, 2001.

[10] N. Myers, "Environmental unknowns," Science, vol. 269, pp. 358-360, July 21, 1995.

[11] N. Myers, 'Two key challenges for biodiversity: Discontinuities and synergisms," Biodiversity and Conservation, vol. 5, pp. 025-1034,1996.

[12] S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, "Uncertainty, complexity and post-normal science," Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, vol. 13, no. 12, pp. 1881-1885, 1994.

[13] B. Wynne, "Uncertainty and environmental learning: Reconceiving science and policy in the preventive paradigm," Global Environmental Change, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 111-127, 1992.

[14] M. O'Brien, Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[15] C. Bright, "Anticipating environmental 'surprise'," in State of the World 2000: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, L. Brown et al., Eds. New York, NY: Norton, 2000, pp. 22-38.


From: International Herald Tribune .......................[This story printer-friendly]
September 25, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: As a parent, I have a choice of waiting years for results [of studies of the health effects of electromagnetic radiation] or following the "precautionary principle" with my child who will be exposed to electromagnetic energy over a much longer period of her life than mine. Should I use "dial up" or WiFi? I know what we can live with.]

By Doreen Carvajal

With the start of school, I blithely purchased a mobile telephone for my 11-year-old daughter and then started evaluating wireless networks to install in our country home in a village 30 kilometers northwest of Paris. Unlike most of the regions of France, our village is still stuck in a rural gulag of dial up.

I didn't think about the health impact of a mobile telephone pressed to a child's ear, which would absorb electromagnetic energy. Nor did I think about wireless networks, which emit less electromagnetic energy than telephones and seem to be spreading everywhere I walk in what has become Cyber Paris.

Then I heard about the French health ministry's demand for a study on this issue, pressed by environmental groups. There is not much scientific research in the United States on the impact of exposure to mobile telephones, but Europe is moving ahead with a number of on- going scientific studies. There is one glaring gap: research on children, whose brains are developing and may react differently than adults.

With that great unknown, some public officials and teacher associations are promoting the "precautionary principle." That means that if there are suggestions of risk, use cautiously. A British study was published earlier this month that urged further testing on children to evaluate the impact of mobile telephones. They are about to start new studies of children with brain cancer to determine if there are links.

As a parent, I have a choice of waiting years for results or following the "precautionary principle" with my child who will be exposed to electromagnetic energy over a much longer period of her life than mine. Should I use "dial up" or WiFi? I know what we can live with.


From: Prospect Magazine (London, UK) .....................[This story printer-friendly]
November 1, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Here is more sophisticated propaganda from the biotech food industry, claiming that biotech food will solve world hunger and that opponents of biotech crops are baby-killers. This is a bogus argument. On a per capita basis, the world produces enough food to feed everyone. But two billion people are too poor to buy it in sufficient quantity. Biotech seeds will not solve that problem, and may very well make it worse. Even "golden rice" won't alleviate world hunger. Hunger is a political/social problem, not a technical problem.]

Dick Taverne

[Dick Taverne is the author of The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism (OUP)]

Seven years ago, Time magazine featured the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus on its cover. As the principal creator of genetically modified rice -- or "golden rice" -- he was hailed as potentially one of mankind's great benefactors. Golden rice was to be the start of a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It would help remedy vitamin A deficiency, the cause of 1-2m deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. It was the flagship of plant biotechnology. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent times held out greater promise.

Seven years later, the most optimistic forecast is that it will take another five or six years before golden rice is grown commercially. The realisation of Potrykus's dream keeps receding. The promised benefits from other GM crops that should reduce hunger and disease have been equally elusive. GM crops should now be growing in areas where no crops can grow: drought-resistant crops in arid soil and salt-resistant crops in soil of high salinity. Plant-based oral vaccines should now be saving millions of deaths from diarrhoea and hepatitis B; they can be ingested in orange juice, bananas or tomatoes, avoiding the need for injection and for trained staff to administer them and refrigeration to store them.

None of these crops is yet on the market. What has gone wrong? Were the promises unrealistic, or is GM technology, as its opponents claim, flawed -- because of possible harm to human safety or the environment or because it is ill-suited to the needs of poor farmers in the developing world? Public discussion of GM food in the British media, and throughout Europe, reflects a persistent suspicion of GM crops. Supermarkets display notices that their products are "GM-free." Sales of organic food, promoted as a natural alternative to the products of modern scientific farming, are increasing by about 20 per cent a year. Indeed, EU regulations, based on the precautionary principle, provide safeguards against "contamination" of organic farms by GM crops; they require any produce containing more than 0.9 per cent GM content to be labelled as such, with the clear implication that it needs a health warning and should be avoided. This causes a major conflict over GM soya beans imported from America. Some GM crops are taking root in some European countries, but in most they are in effect banned. The public is led to believe that GM technology is not only unsafe but harmful to the environment, and that it only serves to profit big agricultural companies.

Seldom has public perception been more out of line with the facts. The public in Britain and Europe seems unaware of the astonishing success of GM crops in the rest of the world. No new agricultural technology in recent times has spread faster and more widely. Only a decade after their commercial introduction, GM crops are now cultivated in 22 countries on over 100m hectares (an area more than four times the size of Britain) by over 10m farmers, of whom 9m are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, mainly India and China. Most of these small- scale farmers grow pest-resistant GM cotton. In India alone, production tripled last year to over 3.6m hectares. This cotton benefits farmers because it reduces the need for insecticides, thereby increasing their income and also improving their health. It is true that the promised development of staple GM food crops for the developing world has been delayed, but this is not because of technical flaws. It is principally because GM crops, unlike conventional crops, must overcome costly, time-consuming and unnecessary regulatory obstacles before they can be licensed.

The alleged risk to health from GM crops is still the main reason for public disquiet -- something nurtured by statements by environmental NGOs, who in 2002 even persuaded the Zambian government to reject food aid from the US at a time of famine because some of it was derived from GM crops. This allegation of harm has been so soundly and frequently refuted that when it is repeated, the temptation is to despair. But unless the charge is confronted, contradicted and disproved whenever it is made, its credibility will persist. The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world's leading experts -- the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue -- has confirmed this. Independent inquiries have found that the risk from GM crops is no greater than that from conventionally grown crops that do not have to undergo such testing. In 2001, the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself -- not by private industry -- conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or to the environment.

Indeed, the nature of GM technology makes it unlikely that it is more dangerous than conventional farming. Throughout history, farmers have sought to improve their crops by cross-breeding plants with desirable characteristics. Cross-breeding, however, is a lottery and its consequences cannot be easily predicted. Small genetic changes that are desirable may be accompanied by others that are undesirable. It may take generations of back-crossing to eliminate unwanted characteristics. The process is therefore not only unpredictable but slow and expensive, and may even be risky. One of the most effective standard methods of breeding to obtain improved crops is to bombard seeds and plants with gamma rays to alter their DNA by causing mutations, some of which can then be selected for a desired trait. (Incidentally, organic farmers, in their desire to avoid artificial chemicals, are even more dependent than conventional farmers on crop varieties generated by irradiation.) Irradiation alters both chromosome structure and genome sequence in a way that is quite random. Moreover, there is no legal requirement to test such irradiated products either for effects on health or for what they might do to the environment. By contrast, genetic modification in the laboratory introduces a well-characterised gene or genes into an established genetic background without big disruption. What such modification does is what plant breeding has always done, but more quickly and accurately. Opponents often argue that GM technology is different because it can transfer genes between species. But again, this is nothing new, as during evolutionary time genes have moved between species naturally. That is why we have such a diversity of plant life.

Also, those who oppose genetic modification in agriculture often embrace the technology in medicine. The human insulin used to treat diabetes, for example, is genetically engineered: the human gene that codes for insulin has been transferred into bacteria and yeast, a process that involves crossing the species barrier. By what rationale can the technology be safe and ethical when saving lives in medical treatment, but not when used to make plants resistant to pests in order to save people from hunger?

Some opponents of GM crops, who seem to have realised that the argument based on lack of safety has no basis, now focus their opposition on environmental concerns, arguing that GM crops destroy biodiversity. It would be wrong to claim that the planting of GM crops could never have adverse environmental effects. But their impact depends on circumstances, on the particular crop and environment in which it is grown. Such effects occur with all sorts of agriculture. Worldwide experience of GM crops to date provides strong evidence that they actually benefit the environment. They reduce reliance on agrochemical sprays, save energy, use less fossil fuels in their production and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. And by improving yields, they make better use of scarce agricultural land.

These findings were reported by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot of PG Economics in a careful study of the global effects of GM crops in their first ten years of commercial use, from 1996 to 2005. They concluded that the "environmental impact" of pesticide and herbicide use in GM-growing countries had been reduced by 15 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. Energy-intensive cultivation is being replaced by no-till or low-till agriculture. More than a third of the soya bean crop grown in the US is now grown in unploughed fields. Apart from using less energy, avoiding the plough has many environmental advantages. It improves soil quality, causes less disturbance to life within it and diminishes the emission of methane and other greenhouse gases. The study concluded that "the carbon savings from reduced fuel use and soil carbon sequestration in 2005 were equal to removing 4m cars from the road (equal to 17 per cent of all registered cars in the UK)."

One other effect of GM crops may be the most significant of all. In the next half century, the world will have to more than double its food production to feed the over 800m people who now go hungry, the extra 3bn expected by 2050 and the hundreds of millions of people who will, as living standards rise, acquire a more western lifestyle and eat a great deal more meat. At the same time, the world is running out of good farming land and water resources. Shortage of land already causes subsistence farmers in Indonesia and South America to slash and burn tropical forests. More droughts and desertification caused by global warming will make matters worse. So will the manufacture of biofuels from wheat, corn and other food crops that further diminishes the supply of land for growing food and thus pushes up prices. Improved yields from GM technology lead to better use of land and prevent the destruction of forests with its effect on global warming. By contrast, the environmentalist James Lovelock has estimated that if all farming became organic, we would only be able to feed one third of even the present world population.

Given the evidence about the safety of GM crops and their beneficial environmental impact, and given the global success of GM cotton, maize and soya, why have so few staple GM food crops been licensed for commercial growth? Why are the benefits of golden rice, drought or salt-resistant crops, plant-based vaccines and other GM products with special promise for the developing world so long delayed?


The story of Potrykus's golden rice suggests one explanation. The development of the product itself was a great scientific achievement. A bacterial gene together with two genes from the daffodil were inserted into rice to make it synthesise the micronutrient "beta- carotene," which when eaten is converted into vitamin A. This process took ten years. Many more years were spent, with the help of Syngenta and other biotech companies, in solving the patent problems to enable golden rice to be made available to small-scale farmers without royalty payments. Then began the struggle to obtain regulatory approval.

First, although it is agreed even by those opposed to the technology that the presence of beta-carotene in the rice grain presents no possible risk to the environment, no experimental small-scale field trials are permitted. So all rice plants must be grown in specific plant growth chambers in greenhouses -- processes that take three years. Each plant must be shown to be the product of one gene transfer into the same part of its DNA. Then its proteins must be extracted and fractionated, characterised biochemically and their function confirmed -- analyses that take at least two years of intensive work in a well- equipped laboratory. Next, feeding experiments in rodents are required, though most people have happily eaten these genes and the proteins they code for from other sources throughout their lives and though the proteins produced from the daffodil genes bear no relation to any toxin or allergen. No slight hypothetical risk may be left untested.

It is ironic that other varieties of rice grown all over southeast Asia have been shown to be "genetically modified" too, but accidentally as the result of mutations, chromosomal recombinations, translocations of pieces of DNA and even deletions of sections of DNA. This rice is consumed everywhere without the requirement of any laboratory tests.

The scientific way of ensuring that crops are safe is to test the product, not the process. Perversely, regulations in the US as well as Europe require the opposite. The result is that it takes much longer and costs at least ten times as much to bring a new GM crop to market as an equivalent conventionally bred crop. As Potrykus has pointed out, no scientist or scientific institution in the public domain has the funding or the motivation to go through such an expensive and drawn-out procedure. Only large companies or the most richly funded charities can and the only projects companies are likely to back are those that make big profits. Producing rice that saves the lives or the eyesight of millions of the poorest peasants offers no great financial rewards.

Why is a technology which has so much to contribute impeded by regulations that make no sense? Part of the blame lies with the large agrobusinesses. They initially welcomed elaborate regulation to discourage competition from small companies that could not afford the cost. Indeed, they successfully resisted every attempt by advisers in the Reagan administration to regulate each GM crop simply as a new product, rather than by the process by which it was derived, an approach that would have treated GM and conventionally grown crops similarly and made more scientific sense. But the large companies won, and the concentration of agricultural biotechnology in the hands of a few giants, like Monsanto, is the result. Furthermore, although tight regulation was backed by some supporters of GM who believed it would reassure the public, it has had the opposite effect. If governments appear to think it necessary to take extreme precautions, the public will conclude that the technology must be dangerous. A third element has been mistrust of multinationals. This has intensified opposition to GM crops because it is widely felt that companies are the main, if not the only, beneficiaries -- and that, since they are responsible for most of the development of the crops, this must be subject to the strictest possible regulation. The inept PR that accompanied Monsanto's introduction of GM crops to Europe was also bitterly criticised by other agrobusinesses.

The broader driving force behind the excessive regulation of GM crops, however, is the cult of "back to nature," which has also inspired the propaganda against agricultural biotechnology as a whole. This cult has many manifestations. One is the popularity of organic farming, which is based on the manifestly false principle that artificial chemicals are bad and natural chemicals good. Another is the rising fashion for alternative, non-evidence based medicine. The dogmatic opponents of GM crops in Europe believe that interference with the genetic make-up of plants is essentially a moral issue. It is to be condemned as part of mankind's sinful attempt to control nature, which contributes to global warming, to epidemics of cancer and all the blights of modern life.


In the light of this undercurrent of anti-science sentiment, what are the chances that the obstacles to the spread of GM crops will be overcome? There are grounds for hope. In 2006, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology recommended "that the term 'precautionary principle' should not be used" and should "cease to be included in policy guidance." The principle has long been a major impediment to good sense in public policy. It is either so obvious as to be otiose ("if there is cause for concern, be careful"), or so vague as to be meaningless. But in its most common application -- "where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically" -- it has been an invaluable tool for those who want to stop any new scientific development that they dislike.

There are also encouraging signals from the British government. Earlier this year, the then environment secretary, David Miliband, announced that there was no evidence that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food. In principle, the government has declared itself ready to license GM crops and has supported their promotion in Europe. Furthermore, there are significant signs of change in several European countries. Spain has successfully grown GM maize for some years. But the biggest change of attitude seems to be in France, where the number of hectares on which GM crops are cultivated has increased from 500 to 50,000 in three years. The fact that French farmers are becoming convinced of the commercial benefits of GM is likely to have a big impact on the rest of Europe.

But most important is GM's rapid spread in India and China. The Chinese government has declared that biotechnology could become its fastest-growing industry in the next 15 years. According to Clive James, author of the annual "Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM Crops" report, half the research and development of GM crops in the world will soon be done in China and will naturally concern crops that benefit the developing world. China is already ahead in testing new strains of GM rice of potential benefit to 250m farmers. While China's exports to Europe must comply with EU regulations, it also has a huge home market. India is not far behind and favours a light regulatory regime.

Finally, in Africa the Gates Foundation is committed to the improvement by genetic engineering of the staple crops on which most of the population depends. Two years ago, the foundation announced its investment of millions of dollars in an ambitious programme building on the work of Potrykus and his colleagues, which aims to add the essential nutrients vitamins A and E, iron, zinc and improved protein to bananas, cassava, rice and sorghum.

There can be little doubt that GM crops will be accepted worldwide in time, even in Europe. But in delaying cultivation, the anti-GM lobbies have exacted a heavy price. Their opposition has undermined agrobusiness in Europe and has driven abroad much research into plant biotechnology -- an area in which Britain formerly excelled. Over- regulation may well cause the costs of the technology to remain higher than they need be. Above all, delay has caused the needless loss of millions of lives in the developing world. These lobbies and their friends in the organic movement have much to answer for.


From: PR Newswire ........................................[This story printer-friendly]
October 24, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: We are not endorsing this company or its products but we think it is noteworthy that they have cited the precautionary principle as the basis for their decision to eliminate suspected cancer-causing chemicals from their products.]

Dallas, TX -- BeautiMarko has responsibly adopted the precautionary principle of eliminating suspected cancer causing substances from its alternative hair care products. Why? Some scientific studies imply parabens are linked to negative health effects, including endocrine system damage, allergic reactions and breast cancer. Parabens are chemical preservatives, identified as disruptive to normal hormone function. Parabens are widely used in thousands of cosmetics & personal care products.

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BeautiMarko (http://www.beautimark.com) is based in Dallas, Texas. BeautiMarko Synthetic Hair Care products are formulated free of toxic parabens and are uniquely structured to maximize the visual quality of synthetic hair to give it the look and feel of natural human hair. For More information on Paraben-Free BeautiMarko Hair Care Products & Accessories call Toll Free 1.800.632.4009, Monday through Friday from 9:00AM to 6:00PM (CST) or email sales@beautimark.com.

Copyright Copyright 1997-2007, Vocus PRW Holdings, LLC.


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
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