THE World Trade Organization dispute between the EU and the US, Canada and Argentina over the EU's longstanding moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops ñ due to be decided this week ñ is not about winners and losers. It is about the so-called precautionary principle, which has theoretically allowed the EU to close its borders to a large portion of the world's agricultural produce. The result of this case could have ramifications throughout the world, particularly for other innovative industry sectors.
My article titled Why precautionary principle can damage wealth and health was published in European Voice on June 10 2004
THE World Trade Organization dispute between the EU and the US, Canada and Argentina over the EU's longstanding moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops - due to be decided this week - is not about winners and losers. It is about the so-called precautionary principle, which has theoretically allowed the EU to close its borders to a large portion of the world's agricultural produce. The result of this case could have ramifications throughout the world, particularly for other innovative industry sectors.
The problem is that the precautionary principle has never been clearly defined. It has been articulated by its proponents, but only hypothetically, not in the real world, and they have failed to analyze its consequences. The precautionary principle has found its way into several international conventions and declarations including the Rio Declaration, the convention on biological diversity and now the European Union treaty. It thus threatens to give rise to a global regime of ëgreen protectionism'. This is trade (disguised as environmental) protection.
In the case of biotechnology, the technology was guilty before being proven innocent. The burden of proof has been turned on its head. If there is any doubt, the precautionary principle dictates prohibition until safety is proven, absolutely. Such an approach cannot be tolerated by a modern society. We cannot simply ban everything, unless it is allowed by a small clique of politicians - has history taught us nothing?
The temptation for governments to use the precautionary principle to serve their own political interests is huge. Many invoke it to achieve specific aims and simply ignore it when it doesn't suit them. In cases when all the scientific evidence shows that a product is safe a government can always demand more evidence and justify it to their parliament, media and public as ëbetter safe than sorry'. Here lies the true danger of the principle - it sounds so simple. The average person on the street has no problem endorsing government action taken under the guise of precaution for them, their elderly parents, small children or the environment.
Of course, one can never be absolutely sure about anything and no one can guarantee that the introduction of GMOs into an ecosystem will not have adverse effects. However, the benefits far outweigh the risks and this is how governments should be assessing the use of technologies, through risk assessments and cost benefit analysis, not through a vague precautionary approach.
In my country, India, cotton is an important cash crop covering an estimated nine million hectares. Approximately one million farmers are dependent on it, not to mention the 60 million or so people employed down the value chain. Directly and indirectly, cotton accounts for 33% of India's export earnings. It is little wonder, then, that when Bt cotton came along, farmers were impatient to use it. However, our government was slow to approve. By taking the precautionary approach the government was taking money out of the pockets of its people. India's cotton fields have among the lowest yields, at around 300 kilogrammes per hectare, compared to the world average of 580kg. Chinese cotton fields average 1043kg per hectare.
The field trials in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were burnt down by environmental activists. Their justification? The precautionary principle. The government caved in and insisted on more field trials on top of the three years of existing tests. Farmers began to plant anyway. In September 2001 around 500 farmers in Gujarat were found to have planted approximately 11,000 acres with an unapproved Bt cotton. This was only discovered when a major bollworm attack left the crop devastated except the Bt fields, which not only survived, but thrived. In this light, the real threat to Indian agriculture is the precautionary principle, which denies access to these technologies.
We should all be suspicious when this principle crops up in an international document or treaty. It could end up splitting the world into trade blocs, undermining our opportunities to create wealth and reduce our ability to address real risks to us and our environment. Perhaps, policymakers and negotiators should be subject to the precautionary principle: they can be hazardous to health and wealth.