Everyone accepts that science and scientific evidence play a major role in deciding whether the precautionary principle should be invoked and applied. Five years ago, the UK government seemed to think so too. Its Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA) produced a report recommending that the precautionary principle should be invoked when there is good reason to believe that harmful effects may occur to human, animal or plant health or to the environment; and the level of scientific uncertainty about the consequences or likelihood of the risk is such that the best available scientific advice cannot assess the risk with sufficient confidence to inform decision-making.
In practice, no UK government departments and agencies have made use of the precautionary principle. And this is particularly the case in dealing with genetically modified (GM) food and feed, as documented in the report on p. 32, prepared for the Franco-British Council (FBC) Conference on Risk Management and Government Policy held in Paris in February 2007 (see opposite).
Our report shows how the regulatory agencies (in UK, Europe and USA) ignore the precautionary principle, manipulate scientific evidence, corrupt science and sidestep the law to help promote GM food and feed in the face of damning evidence piling up.
The abuse of science by the regulatory agencies is particularly blatant. Scientific evidence is manipulated by a biased and selective review of the scientific literature and uncritical acceptance of research claiming no effect, including those submitted by the biotech industry that are flawed at every stage, from experimental design to data collection, analysis, reporting and interpretation. Science is used not only to exclude counter scientific findings, but also to exclude key evidence from the real world where GM crops are grown and farm workers and crop handlers fall ill, and livestock die from the new GM feed. The result is to prevent the precautionary principle from being invoked, let alone applied.
Scientists have been drawn into a tightly closed loop of self-reinforcing advocacy science to smooth the passage of GM produce into the market, without regard for safety, or moral, ethical concerns.
At the FBC conference in Paris, it was eerie to hear David Gee, Project Manager of the European Environment Agency (EEA) talk about some of the case histories documented in the excellent EEA Report, Late Lessons from Early Warnings, which covers fisheries, radiation, benzene, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), halocarbons, diethylstilboestrol (DES), antibiotics as growth promoters, sulphur dioxide, chemical contamination in the Great Lakes, tributyltin (TCB) antifoulants, hormones as growth promoters and BSE. GM food/feed looks so much like a replay of these cases in the misplaced science, and the wrong kind of science dominating decision-making, with devastating consequences.
ILGRAs report five years ago also stated that when the precautionary principle has been invoked, the burden of proof shifts away from the regulator and it is for the proponents of the activity in question to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety.
Ministers had accepted the report, and a paper issued jointly by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office stated clearly that the government would apply the precautionary principle where there is good reason to believe that irreversible harm may occur and where it is impossible to assess the risk with confidence.
Unfortunately, almost as soon as the ink was dry on the documents that stressed the importance of the precautionary principle, new ones appeared that did not.
The 2005 Treasury document, Managing risks to the public, appraisal guidance, mentioned the precautionary principle, but only as an afterthought. The contrast with the earlier position is so great that Lord Broers, the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, asked in the House of Lords why the new document made no reference to the guidance contained in the ILGRA report and whether the government planned to strengthen what it says about the precautionary principle. The answer was no.
In the summer of 2006, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology produced a report on the use of scientific advice, and in the course of this they came out against the precautionary principle. It is not clear why they object to it, because on the one hand they thought it was so strong that it would hinder progress, and on the other, they agreed with the governments Chief Scientific Adviser that it says nothing more than that one should be cautious.
In fact, neither criticism is valid. The precautionary principle is a useful tool in risk management but it does not make decisions for us. And while there are different formulations, the basic idea is the same.
What the precautionary principle tells us is that we dont have to wait until we are certain about the hazard before we can take measures to mitigate or avoid it. To act or not depends on the nature of the hazard and the strength of the evidence that we have in front of us. And we have to make sure that the science is not abused to exclude key evidence and to misinform ministers and the public.
At this point, it is still open to the innovator to supply further evidence, and if that is sufficient to reassure us, then the restriction could be lifted. The burden of proof is on the innovator; it is for those who want to change the decision to supply further evidence.
Opponents of the precautionary principle often claim that it will bring a halt to progress and innovation. They forget that while in the criminal courts the burden of proof is on the prosecution, many defendants are convicted. What is required is not proof in the sense of a mathematical theorem, but proof beyond reasonable doubt. Every year, thousands of ordinary people serve on juries and are perfectly capable of understanding what this means and reaching verdicts on the basis of the evidence presented to them.
ILGRA is the only UK government body that has looked in detail at the precautionary principle. On the basis of their recommendation, the government accepted that the principle should be part of risk management. That was the right decision, and they should stick with it. And they should start to apply it, too.
Article first published 17/02/16
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