THE precautionary principle may well be the most innovative, pervasive and significant new concept in environmental policy of the past quarter-century.
It may also be the most reckless, arbitrary and ill-advised, according to the authors of an issues paper released by the Council for Agricultural Science & Technology (CAST) in Ames, Iowa.
The paper looks at the history of the precautionary principle and examines the problems of ambiguity, arbitrary application and bias against new technologies. Because the publication is especially focused on the need to feed a growing population, the case studies center on agricultural issues such as pesticide use, genetically modified foods and food irradiation.
The authors said the precautionary principle has played an important part in bringing attention to appropriate risk management. If it is applied in its more stringent formulations, however, the precautionary principle will suppress innovation to the detriment of both the economy and human health.
The CAST paper:
* Gives examples of the precautionary principle's failure to offer a credible and reasoned framework for the application of risk management;
* Describes inconsistencies and suggests that the precautionary principle will be increasingly controversial, marginalized and ignored in the future, and
* Acknowledges the importance of safety and gives credit to the general concept that sparked the precautionary principle but indicates that it has become unworkable and counterproductive.
Commonsense safety practices are necessary, and the paper does not advocate reckless abandon, but the findings indicate that, in many respects, the precautionary principle does more harm than good.
"The future involves a mission to feed a population of 9.1 billion by 2050. The precautionary principle has failed as an overall risk management strategy, and it is time to move past it," the authors said.
"CAST Issue Paper 52" is available online at www.cast-science.org.