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Sent: 14 May 2003 16:12
To: '[email protected]'
Subject: 52: The Precautionary Principle
This is from Professor C Kameswara Rao, Bangalore, India.
The Precautionary Principle (PP) vis-à-vis Genetically Engineered Organisms (GEOs) in agriculture:
The PP has become an important instrument in making decisions on the introduction of GEOs into the environment. Experience gained subsequent to the application of the PP to the evaluation of biosecurity issues related to GEOs, indicates the need to re-examine the issue, for a more meaningful application of the PP, which is good in intent, but faulted in implementation.
Originally applied to environmental issues (Earth Summit, 1992, Principle 15), long before GEOs were on the scene, the PP states that "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation".
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000, Articles 10.6 and 11.8) applied the PP to GEOs stating that "Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of potential adverse effects of living modified organisms on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in the Party of Import, taking also into account risks to human health, shall not prevent that Party from taking a decision, as appropriate, with regard to the import of the living modified organism....., in order to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects". The emphasis here is on conservation, sustainable use of biological diversity and human health. The PP is meant to exercise caution while importing GEOs or releasing them for commercialisation. The PP should be used with diligence, only when essential, not routinely and certainly not to prevent deployment of GEOs endlessly.
Products of agricultural biotechnology have been subjected to the PP, overtly or covertly, while pharmaceutical and industrial products of genetic engineering are not subjected to the same strict application of the PP. Scientific evidence on different aspects of biosecurity of release of GEOs into the environment, as well as the absence of evidence that such an act is harmful, is adequate to consider it safe. The World Trade Organization (WTO) stated, in the context of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (1993, Article 5.7), that "in cases where relevant scientific evidence is insufficient, ...(the regulatory authority) may provisionally adopt measures on the basis of available pertinent information... (and) may seek to obtain the additional information necessary for a more objective assessment of risk and review...the measure accordingly within a reasonable period of time". In the face of pressure from anti-technology lobbies, regulatory authorities take shelter behind the PP and defer decisions on the deployment of GEOs, as is the case in India with GE mustard and some varieties of Bt cotton, by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), ignoring the rider 'within a reasonable period of time'. The net result is confusion, suspicion and loss of time and money. It should be remembered that there is no technology with zero risk, and that positive evidence of safety of a product should weigh as much as the absence of evidence that it is unsafe. Given the complexities of gene function, it is not possible to prove experimentally that a particular technology is unsafe. It is possible that some un-anticipated effect may surface after a period of time, and they should be addressed, if and when the situation demands.
Whenever the PP is applied, the concerned authority has a moral responsibility to give reasons. It is the spirit of the principle that is more important than its application in letter. The PP should not be an instrument to deter or delay deployment of technology that is potentially beneficial, and it is not intended to be a means of appeasing anti-tech activists.
Professor C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
Bangalore 560 004,
krao (at) vsnl.com
- In 1992, more than 100 heads of state met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for
the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as
The Earth Summit. Among other things, the assembled leaders endorsed the Rio
Declaration on Environment and Development. Principle 15 of the "Rio
Declaration" states "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary
approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.
Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full
scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing
cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation".
- The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is available at http://www.biodiv.org/biosafety/protocol.asp
- the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (1995)is available at http://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/15sps_01_e.htm . Article 5.7 states "In cases where relevant scientific evidence is insufficient, a Member may provisionally adopt sanitary or phytosanitary measures on the basis of available pertinent information, including that from the relevant international organizations as well as from sanitary or phytosanitary measures applied by other Members. In such circumstances, Members shall seek to obtain the additional information necessary for a more objective assessment of risk and review the sanitary or phytosanitary measure accordingly within a reasonable period of time"...Moderator].