Steven M.Druker European Voice 17 June 2004 (vol. 10 number 22)
In attempting to show that the precautionary principle is a harmful impediment in general, and especially in relation to genetically modified crops (‘Why precautionary principle can damage health and wealth’, European Voice, 10-16 June), Barun Mitra reveals a deep misunderstanding about both the nature of this principle and the facts regarding gene-altered organisms. While he correctly states that the principle places the burden of proof on new products and procedures, he erroneously asserts it demands that their safety be proven “absolutely.” In reality, the principle makes no such unreasonable demand, since it is well known that every substance and technology entails some degree of risk.
Nor is it true, as Mr. Mitra contends, that the principle is impractically vague and has never been coherently implemented. For example, US law has done so since 1958, when Congress enacted an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requiring that all new additives to food be proven safe prior to marketing. And Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations clearly define the standard of proof in practical, nonabsolute terms, calling for demonstration of “a reasonable certainty” of no harm. Further, although Mr. Mitra appears to believe that risks may always be offset by purported benefits, US food safety law forbids it, placing paramount concern on human health.
For many years this precautionary law functioned well. But in 1992, FDA administrators circumvented it in order to usher GM foods onto the market, in furtherance of their admitted agenda “to foster” biotechnology. Doing so, they bowed to industry’s desire to avoid the extensive testing that is legally required to establish the safety of each GM food. They also disregarded the overwhelming consensus among their own scientists that such testing is necessary to screen for the unique risks posed by these novel products. (This was revealed when my organization brought a lawsuit against the FDA that forced it to divulge its files.) And they further ignored the fact that the first GM food allowed on the market had, according to agency experts, failed to pass the safety testing to which its manufacturer voluntarily subjected it.
This illegal abrogation of the precautionary principle in America set the stage for its relaxation in the EU and the approval there of several GM foods in reliance on a lax testing regime that the Royal Society of Canada and numerous other experts have criticized as scientifically unsound.
Further, even were it justified to balance risks against benefits, GM foods should still not be on the market. Though Mr. Mitra claims “the benefits [of GM crops] far outweigh the risks,” the facts do not back him up. A 2004 position paper by the Ecological Society of America observes that for the most part, the presumed benefits of these crops have not been scientifically substantiated; and when rigorous research is conducted, it tends to reveal their lack. For instance, studies on Iowa farmers for 1998 and 2000 by an Iowa State University economist showed that those who planted GM crops did not profit more than those growing conventional varieties. The researcher concluded that the primary benefits have flowed to the seed and chemical companies.
The FDA scientists, the Royal Society of Canada, and numerous other experts have cautioned about the risks of GM foods. Officials in the US and the EU seriously violated both sound science and the law in exempting them from the precautionary principle, and it is imperative they promptly reinstate it.
Steven M. Druker is a US public interest attorney who directs the Alliance for Bio-Integrity. Photocopies of 24 key FDA documents are at www.biointegrity.org along with fuller explanations of US law.