CAST report scrutinizes the “Precautionary Principle”

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Has society become overly cautious? Are we passing up critical opportunities for innovation in food and agricultural production in the spirit of “playing it safe?” Those are the primary questions behind a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) titled “Impact of the Precautionary Principle on Feeding Current and Future Generations.”

CAST report The Precautionary Principle (PP), the authors explain, has helped guide global policies, particularly those related to environmental protection and food safety, over the past 20 years. Specific definitions vary depending on the source, but the PP concept essentially maintains when a practice or technology carries a potential risk to the environment or public health, societies should take the cautious approach, delaying adoption even in the absence of scientific proof.

In some cases, PP is employed as a philosophical concept, in some others, such as in the European Union, PP is officially embedded in legislation governing decisions on technologies such as bio-engineered crops and growth implants in cattle.

Here in the United States, we’ve seen the PP concept turn up regularly in attempts to restrict practices such as antibiotic use in food animals or the inclusion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food.

The authors acknowledge that some level of precaution is appropriate as a form or risk management. “Given the inevitable scientific uncertainty that surrounds most environmental, health, and safety risks, it would be unacceptable to require regulators to wait for absolute certainty of harm before undertaking any protective measures,” they write.

However, they note several criticisms against the PP concept including;

  • The ambiguity and lack of definition of the PP.
  • The arbitrariness and unprincipled ways in which the PP has been applied.
  • A bias against new technologies.

They provide several examples of dubious application of the PP, including France banning caffeinated energy drinks to prevent pregnant women from consuming too much caffeine and Zambia turning down U.S. food aid during a famine over concerns the food could contain GMOs.

The report includes three case studies involving the application of the PP to food-related risks, examining  agricultural chemicals, genetically modified foods and food irradiation. The studies provide real-world assessments of the pros and cons of the PP for managing food-related risks.

In their conclusions, the authors acknowledge the PP can be credited for

bringing attention to the need to better define the appropriate level and form of risk management that should be applied in various situations. However they say, application of the principle has been too broad, extreme, biased and arbitrary.

Governments have exploited the PP’s ambiguity and arbitrariness to adopt protectionist policies, and activist groups have used the PP to apply a double standard of higher scrutiny and demands for certain technologies of which they disapprove. In some cases, the PP has the net effect of increasing overall health and environmental risks by impeding safety-enhancing technologies.

For millions of people who lack adequate nutrition, or will as the food demand-supply gap widens, the PP does more harm than good, the authors say. Its application holds back technology, innovation, incomes, environmental improvements, and health benefits, while increasing trade disruptions, risks and human suffering.

The authors conclude the “Goldilocks strategy” could be the most appropriate approach to risk management – not too little precaution, not too much, but just the right amount is needed.

Read the full report from CAST.

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corrine wynne    
June, 25, 2013 at 09:48 AM

So in other words you want to by pass healthy natural foodsand have a report tgat says everythings safe. When you stated this is a activists used piece of protectionism you revealed you really just want the reports toclear all food i mean after all if people r starving we can feed them unsafe food grown in america and collect their money until they die from consuing it, at least they got a meal beforetheir dead , i have less respect for your articles than ever. Condoning horse slaughter, defending animal abuse, commenting on this article about protectionism just shows you hVe sunk our industry to a new,low. How utterly pathetic. No wonder you have to use pink slime we arent hiding anything r cattle eat grass and grain, nothing added to their meats, no antibiotics, sick animals are just separated from the slaughter animals. Pretty simple, we see the finished products at local stores because we dont want public deception. I am appalled ypu condone roing safeguards at all. No wonder people dont trust large industry foods. pinl

Oklahoma  |  June, 25, 2013 at 09:48 PM

It is a little late to discuss a precautionary principle. That would have been a good thing to have had before GMO's and roundup were released into the food system and onto the farm without any research to show they were safe. To say it has been overused is ridiculous. I applaud the countries who take the health of their people seriously instead of using them for guinea pigs like the US does.

Iowa  |  June, 26, 2013 at 12:49 PM

CW, if you would spell and use the English language properly your letter would have more value. I counted at least 13 errors in your comment. What do you propose for old, unwanted horses, just let them die? Do you have evidence of people dying from approved GMO products, whether starving or not? If you do not eat food from large industry companies you probably are starving. Most sweeteners, flour, meat, tofu and anything including them come via those companies.

SD  |  June, 26, 2013 at 06:08 PM

Ms. Wynne, we do have choices in the foods we eat in the USA, and other countries to a lesser degree, IMO. You, it seems, would limit food production to "healthy natural foods". Where would that leave people who can't afford to buy into that club? Further, it is ludicrous to believe that conventionally produced food in the USA, even GMO foods, have not been extensively tested for safety. Your comments on horse slaughter reveals your aganda. Who are you to tell anyone what foods they may not eat??? For the record, antbiotics are not ADDED to MEAT! Animals who need treatment for illnesses or injury may be given antibiotics under the orders of a veterinarian. There are strictly enforced withdrawal times before treated animals are processed into food. There are NO residues of medications allowed in the meat, and the inspections are strict for traditionally produced meats. Are all the "natural" foods you champion inspected when they are slaughtered on the farm???

Truth or Consequnces, NM  |  June, 29, 2013 at 11:37 AM

See for sources of CAST funding.

Truth or Consequences, NM  |  June, 29, 2013 at 12:22 PM

The truth is that we do feed sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to improve the efficiency of gain, or correct for the effects of high concentrate diets. This may or may not affect meat quality, or microbial resistance. The data we have so far indicates there is little to no negative impacts of these feed additives on meat quality, or safety. Antimicrobial substances are pervasive throughout most environments. Everyone should have access to healthy foods. Perhaps rethinking how we subsidize agriculture is a start toward achieving this goal. We tend to subsidize the least healthy foods the most. Plus, we should install independant regulatory mechanisms that people respect and trust. Based on the many comments from our customers this is not case now.

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