Featured stories in this issue...
Environmental Nasty Surprises as a Window on Precautionary Thinking
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.
Health Risks for a Wired Child?
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
The Real GM Food Scandal
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
Cosmetics Firm Adopts the Precautionary Principle
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.
From: IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Jan. 1, 2003
ENVIRONMENTAL NASTY SURPRISES AS A WINDOW ON PRECAUTIONARY THINKING
By Jeff Howard
All environmental problems are nasty surprises. Each runs counter to
Western society's expectation of endless progress through mastery of
nature. But the term seems especially appropriate for problems
** 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
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 AND OTHER NASTY SURPRISES
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. 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
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
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.
NASTY SURPRISES AND THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE
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. 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.
In three ways, environmental nasty surprises illuminate the conflict
between precautionary and conventional modes of environmental decision
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. 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.
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.
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.
 D. Sarewitz, Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the
Politics of Progress. Philadelphia, PA: Temple Univ., 1996.
 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.
 S. Krimsky, Hormonal Chaos: The Scientific and Social Origins of
the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
Univ. Press, 2000.
 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.
 P.L. deFur, "Public policy recommendations to address endocrine
disrupting chemicals," Biotechnology International, vol. 2, pp.
 J. Thornton, Pandora's Poison: Organochlorines and Health.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.
 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.
 C. Raffensperger and J. Tickner, Eds. Protecting Public Health and
the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. Washington,
DC: Island, 1999.
 Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle
1896-2000. European Environment Agency: Copenhagen, 2001.
 N. Myers, "Environmental unknowns," Science, vol. 269, pp.
358-360, July 21, 1995.
 N. Myers, 'Two key challenges for biodiversity: Discontinuities
and synergisms," Biodiversity and Conservation, vol. 5, pp.
 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.
 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.
 M. O'Brien, Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative
to Risk Assessment. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.
 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,
Return to Table of Contents
From: International Herald Tribune, Sept. 25, 2007
HEALTH RISKS FOR A WIRED CHILD?
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
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.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Prospect Magazine (London, UK), Nov. 1, 2007
THE REAL GM FOOD SCANDAL
GM foods are safe, healthy and essential if we ever want to achieve
decent living standards for the world's growing population. Misplaced
moralising about them in the west is costing millions of lives in poor
By 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Return to Table of Contents
From: PR Newswire, Oct. 24, 2007
COSMETICS FIRM ADOPTS THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE
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.
Unlike most alternative hair care products on the market today, Each
BeautiMarko Hair Care product is formulated free of toxic parabens and
is uniquely structured to maximize the visual quality of synthetic
hair to give it the look and feel of natural human hair.
The BeautiMarko Hair Care Collection consists of Paraben-Free
Synthetic Hair Shampoo, Leave-In Spray Conditioner, Style & Hold Hair
Spray, Brilliant Shine and Shaping Creme.
BeautiMarko Hair Care Products launched sales of the new product line
October 1, 2007. Products may be found in exclusive salons and
websites across the United States.
To view the full line of Paraben-Free BeautiMarko Synthetic Hair Care
Collection, log on to http://www.beautimark.com.
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 email@example.com.
Copyright Copyright 1997-2007, Vocus PRW Holdings, LLC.
Return to Table of Contents
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
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