On the Application of the Precautionary Principle
By Marc Lappé
The precautionary principle encodes the hoary tradition of minimizing consequences
through caution. Prudence, a long-recognized virtue, involves more than
simple caution. It entails knowledgeably incorporating what is known,
suspected and anticipated into action.
In this sense, genetic engineering is paradoxical. By its very innovative
newness, it creates a precautionary principle case ipso facto. That
is, it is the essence of a precautionary circumstance from the word "go."
This is so because novel movements of genes are by nature uncertain in their
long-term consequences, as are any evolutionary changes induced by say a burst
of cosmic radiation, novel hybridization approaches, and so-called "wide crosses"
where genes from distant species are commingled with the species at issue.
Hence, something much more sophisticated than merely "shut it down"
is needed to justify targeting each and every genetic intervention for action.
The few instances where gene insertions have disturbed the universe, e.g.,
through affecting tap root production in cotton, stem-bursting in soybeans,
or producing modestly toxic pollen are, in theory, small blips on the long-term
impact radar screen. If these accidents are indeed industry described
"kinks" which will be worked out, then why the hoopla about genetic
Part of the reason for a high level of concern about genetic engineering.
is the matter of "wise choices." Free market forces have already
demonstrated that left alone, the industry will select options which feather
its own nest in favor of those which serve the public interest. There
is no scientific rationale for each company choosing its patented herbicides
to be the targets for tolerance gene insertions. Nor is there any scientific
rationale behind usurping the Bt genes for insecticide resistance in the assumption
that "first come, first served" is a reasonable model for an evolving situation
of insect resistance.
The second reason is that the scale of the genetic engineering intervention
involves a great intensification of agricultural practices, centering on a
few genetic seed types. Such a move virtually assures that genetic systems
will concentrate to a few monopolies, that economies of scale will take precedence
over individual interests of assuring autonomy, collective benefits, and fair
distribution of products.
A third reasons is that genes are being splashed all over the evolutionary
landscape with no or little concern for long-term consequences, reduction
in genetic diversity or ecological disturbance. Because of the scale
of the operation, there is a virtual assurance that weedy species related
to the parent plants will pick up genetic variants.
A fourth is that no one is guarding the hen coop. These developments
are being made helter skelter to meet corporate agendas with an occasional
nod to the public when the circumstances heat up: e.g., "golden rice"
infused with vitamin A supplementation. Because there is no or little concern
about genetic pollution or admixture, we are in a kind of wild west environment
where the "fastest gene gun" wins.
A fifth reason for invoking the precautionary principle is that safety is
being ignored. Public health protection, say from novel gene products in plants,
is not being carefully considered. Little attention to allergenicity
is occurring, and no long-term toxicity testing is being planned. Such a testing
regime, while expensive could be done on a "worst-case" basis where
an independent body would design and oversee the testing.
A sixth reason for invoking the principle is simply because a significant
number of consumers are afraid, some for good reason, that their food supply
(and that of their infants and children) is being distorted without full knowledge
and disclosure. Not to take cognizance of the secondary effects of stress,
uncertainty and anxiety is a risk in itself.
Finally, the precautionary principle need not function as a brake on innovation:
all it asks is that representative models of the newest and most potentially
hazardous situation be scoped out and proven safe prior to the introduction
of the whole block of novelty. Now, without the principle in operation,
we have an open flood gate of invention, some highly creative and useful and
others probably dangerous and risky, pouring into commerce. Without
labeling, controls on concentration and content of supplements, and safety
testing, there is a disaster waiting to happen: where? In our children
and infants, partially through intrauterine exposure to novel plant products
(e.g., phytoestrogens, mutagens or allergens) and partially through a subtle
modification of the childhood diet, contributing in theory to new allergies
and possibly, long term behavioral effects.
Caveat emptor will not do: we need a full-scale investigation of the
long-term implications of genetic engineering with the same force and imagination
given to its present commercialization.