European Caution Carries Risks
Better safe than sorry sounds like an unassailable policy for protecting public health. But the European Union’s so-called "precautionary principle", used to ban or restrict the use of potentially dangerous substances, looks more like a pretext for blocking new technologies and restricting trade.
The European Commission recently released guidelines, providing guidance on how to apply the precautionary principle when faced with the containment of risk. They aim to explain how the principle can be employed in the EU and in international agreements, such as the World Trade Organisation and the Biosafety Protocol.
But the true meaning of these guidelines only emerges from between the lines. The guidelines allow EU member countries to contain economic risks from trade, rather than risks to public health and safety. Some EU members have used the precautionary principle to close their markets to imports that compete with local industries. The EU has shut out Canadian and US beef, claiming that meat from hormone-treated cattle may cause cancer.
The EU wants to exclude genetically modified foods from the US and Canada, asserting that health and environmental consequences are unknown and potentially significant.
There is also internecine use of the principle among EU members. France and Germany are fighting to keep British beef out of their countries because of their concerns over "mad cow" disease.
Yet in none of these cases does scientific evidence lend credence to the ostensible concerns. Science cannot prove the absolute safety of meat from hormone-treated cattle, biotechnology foods or beef.
Science can sometimes prove that substance "x" causes health effect "y". But it is much harder for it to establish that substance "x" will never cause or contribute to any health effect at all. Health effects may be so minor, rare or distant in time that such connections are impossible to make.
The main problem with the EU’s guidelines is that it could have been written by the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland who succinctly stated: "A word means what I want it to mean, nothing more, nothing less."
Despite the various conditions outlined in the EU’s position, EU members will ultimately be able to have unfettered discretion over how they interpret the guidelines. Before the principle is invoked, a scientific evaluation and risk assessment must be conducted, the guidelines say. Areas and degrees of scientific uncertainty must be identified for decision-makers.
Measures based on the precautionary principle must be proportional to the chosen level of protection, non-discriminatory in their application, consistent with similar measures already taken, based on an examination of potential costs and benefits and subject to review in the light of new scientific data.
The words sound great. But they are sufficiently vague and subjective to allow EU members to continue their protectionist practices. Precisely how much and what type of scientific evidence is needed to comply with the principle remains unclear. Thus, EU members will be able to decide for themselves when and how to deal with scientific uncertainty. There is no question that defining scientific standards can be quite difficult. But the EU’s guidelines gloss over this, assuming that it will always be handled in good faith - at best, a naēve assumption.
Consider the cynicism of David Byrne, the EU’s health and consumer protection commissioner. At the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, he said: "Our [trade] partners should know that our decisions are not arbitrary and disguised protectionism." But in the week before, Mr Byrne imposed an emergency ban on soft plastic toys containing phthalates. The ban ignored the unanimous advice of the EU’s scientific committee, which said there was no evidence of danger to children.
Nevertheless, the guidelines could have been worse. At least, EU member states are willing to pay lip service to the need for science. Greenpeace, by contrast, was critical of the EU’s guidelines even before they were issued, saying the precautionary principle should not rely on risk assessment - the scientific process by which potential harms from substances are evaluated. Greenpeace says risk assessment would defeat the purpose of the principle.
Presumably, this means restricting new technologies and trade according to Greenpeace’s social and environmental agendas. Protecting the public’s health and safety is a legitimate use of the precautionary principle. Protectionist and anti-technology motivations are not legitimate. If EU members are truly interested in trade they will send the EU back to the drawing board to add some meaning to the words of its guidelines. Until the EU better defines the precautionary principle, the latter should be viewed with suspicion.
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