Frankenfoods and Politics

January 27, 2000
Globe and Mail

The words "precautionary principle" have issued out of Montreal this week with relentless regularity. As 130 countries debate adoption of what is called the Biosafety Protocol, Canada and other large agricultural exporters have found themselves ranged against precautionary principlists.

While the term's exact definition is in some dispute, journalists have been counselled that the easiest translation of PP (as it is commonly known) is "better safe than sorry."

In terms of the issues being discussed in Montreal, the precautionary principle is interpreted to mean that countries have the right to ban the importation of genetically modified foodstuffs unless exporters can prove beyond a doubt that altered foods don't cause, and never will cause, any damage to human health or the environment.

It is a standard of proof that Canada and other countries in what is called the Miami group have said is impossible to meet. Proving a negative is notoriously difficult in science, and ruling out all risk is impossible. Therefore, the Miami group prefers safety guidelines that evaluate the preponderance of scientific evidence and tries to weigh potential risks against potential benefits.

The problem for Canada and its allies is twofold. First, the precautionary principle stakes out such an absolutist and high moral ground that it seems that anyone arguing against it has adopted a viewpoint of "better sorry than safe." Oppose PP and you become, by definition, the risk-taking, environment-hating, health-destroying bad guys.

Worse, if the term is taken literally, it is impossible to apply the precautionary principle and allow technological change of any kind ever to occur.

Consider electricity. To produce it in large quantities one dams rivers, burns fossil fuels or splits atoms. Each of these technologies creates actual, not potential,long-term environmental damage and may injure health. A judicious application of the precautionary principle suggests that humans should not have developed electricity in the first place, and, in good conscience, should dismantle it now.

Then there are antibiotics. This medical technology is unhealthy (it produces deadly allergies in some humans) and environmentally damaging (it promotes the evolution of an antibiotic-resistant bacterial ecosystem). Shouldn't it too be anathema?

Finally, consider human agriculture. No matter what farming techniques are used, agriculture replaces multitudinous and diverse natural habitats with monocultures of often non-native plants. Shouldn't precautionary principlists ban the farm to enrich the planet?

With this in mind, we liberals watch the arch-conservatives of Greenpeace and their ilk make their anti-modernist arguments and shake our heads. Liberals don't want certainty in human affairs; we want relatively small risk and relatively large benefit. We want fewer pesticides and herbicides to be used in farming, so we like the idea of genetically enhanced Bt corn. We want food that lasts longer to extend its nutritional benefits, so we think fondly of genetically modified tomatoes with a long shelf life.

We liberals want genetic modification, but not at any price. With that in mind, we advise you to see for yourself how this technology is being regulated in Canada. Go to the Web site of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's plant biotechnology division -- -- and observe how scrupulously this country is balancing the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology. See how even potentially revolutionary change seems manageable when the precautionary principle isn't being used to batter the ignorant.


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