Precaution without Principle

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

Precaution without Principle


Byline: Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The European Parliament voted earlier this summer to change the way it regulates gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM) technology, possibly opening the way for the lifting of the EU's 5-year-old moratorium on approvals of new gene-spliced crops and foods. The EU's spin is that this "progress" should induce the United States and other complainants to drop their World Trade Organization grievance against EU regulation.

This is no more than a negotiating ploy: The legislation makes the EU an even less hospitable environment for gene-splicing, not a better one.

While literally thousands of studies show the risks of gene-splicing plants and foods to be minimal, their benefits are legion and their potential extraordinary. Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops has reduced pesticide use by tens of millions of pounds annually (resulting in less occupational exposure and less runoff into waterways) and saved millions of tons of topsoil from erosion. In less developed countries, gene-spliced crops have increased yields and raised the incomes of resource-poor farmers. Future advances promise to improve human nutrition, reduce the land and water needed to produce food, and save ecosystems from fragmentation and development.

Standing in the way is the precautionary principle, which holds that while the evidence about a product, technology or activity is in any way incomplete, it should be prohibited, or at least heavily regulated. This principle forces government to ignore benefits of innovation in a costly effort to avoid hypothetical risks.

The precautionary principle often has been used in Europe as justification for egregious regulatory abuses of gene-spliced products. The highest French court invoked the principle in 1998, when it suspended commercialization of three gene-spliced corn varieties, even though the French government had endorsed approval of those same varieties at the EU level just two years earlier.

In 2000, the Italian government suspended the commercialization of four gene-spliced corn varieties, allegedly over the concerns about potential health risks, even after a report from the Italian National Institute of Health had found "there is no reason to believe that a risk for human or animal health could ensue from the consumption of products derived from the [gene-spliced] plants in question." The list of baseless and anti-innovation actions by European regulators is endless.

The Parliament's action does not actually repeal Europe's moratorium, nor does it change the voting structure that allows a minority of European countries to refuse registration of new gene-spliced products.

The new legislation does, however, contain Draconian new requirements, including a strict labeling regime that requires gene-spliced foods to be identified, the segregation of gene-spliced from conventional products, and "traceability," so gene-spliced ingredients can be traced through every step of the food chain all the way back to the farm where they were grown. …

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