TAKING a "better safe than sorry" approach to regulation is not necessarily wrong — until the precautionary principle becomes so distorted due to prejudices that it diverts progress, Dr. Mark Walton, chief marketing officer for Recombinetics, told the National Institute for Animal Agriculture's annual conference.
Most regulatory systems, including in the U.S., adhere to the precautionary principle — a rule of thumb that action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous. However, more often than not, he said, the principle becomes so twisted that it does not accomplish what it is designed to do.
Today's farmers and ranchers are facing challenges their forefathers could never predict, including feeding an escalating world population.
The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that farmers and ranchers will have to produce as much food in the next 50 years as the previous generations produced in the prior 10,000 years combined. Moreover, demand for animal protein will outpace overall food production, with demand for meat, milk and eggs increasing 60% by 2050.
Furthermore, the food production challenge is not exclusively about feeding a growing population but also producing higher-quality food, Walton said.
The food production puzzle cannot be solved without innovation and change. FAO highlighted that 70% of the additional food needs can come from new technology.
"As an industry, we must have access to innovative ideas, innovative methods and innovative technology if we are, in fact, going to feed 9 billion people by the middle of this century," Walton said.
For agriculture in general, many innovations, especially biotechnology, encounter policy roadblocks that are formed when the precautionary principle is taken to extremes.
"We must fight against prejudices that exist against modern animal agriculture practices that masquerade as caution or risk (and that force producers) to use the same production practices as those used by our grandfathers and great grandfathers," Walton said. "We have to understand that the components of the precautionary principle are, in fact, doing everything they can to force us to act as if it is 1914 rather than 2014."
A serious flaw of the precautionary principle, in regard to establishing regulations, is who decides which risks or what level of risk would warrant not moving a new product forward. Fear-instilled perceived risks voiced by activist groups frequently take precedence over fact-based evidence and science.
While open, transparent discussion is important in establishing trust for a new product or technology, assigning an equal value to each voice along the regulatory approval process, especially on subjects beyond the scope of the participants' knowledge, can lead to decisions based on popularity rather than by facts, Walton concluded.
Using the precautionary principle as a framework for regulatory decisions can be a prescription for disaster and ultimately can halt progress, he said. The burden of proof has become so high that many individuals and companies have simply stopped trying to introduce new innovations.
Dr. David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, agreed that there is both opportunity and need for new technologies to produce more food in an environmentally sustainable way, but the precautionary approach has hindered technological advancements.
Edwards said the precautionary approach has significantly delayed the approval process for new products of both plant and animal biotechnology. The intention of the coordinated framework established in 1986 for assessing the safety of biotech products over time was to reduce the approval time as more data were collected, particularly for similar products.
However, Edwards said in an extreme context, the precautionary approach, specifically under health, food safety and environmental statutes, has definitely increased regulations and approval times for new products to come to market.
Many times during government review, agencies will inquire about the marketing of the new product. This line of questioning adds a new layer of confusion, he said, since it is the agencies' job to complete the risk assessment, not sell the product to the public.
In a perfect world, Edwards explained, "the process should allow innovative products to come to market after science-based review and then allow the people to decide what they are going to buy."
Unfortunately, numerous biotech products currently are at a crossroads. In general, most animal biotechnologies are owned by small companies that continuously face unpredictability in the regulatory system, and well-funded opponents have contributed to inaction by these companies over time.
Moreover, these opponents are sparking ballot initiatives and bills on labeling genetically modified ingredients in food.
"Their intention to impose (labeling on) biotechnology is really to make these market decisions for people through legislation," Edwards explained.
Last year, these labeling initiatives occurred in some form in 30 states, and the effort is anticipated to continue in 2014.
"It is really unfortunate, because these things have stalled innovation in a number of areas where we could be feeding people," Edwards said.
U.S. inaction on approvals is causing these technologies to move overseas. Last year, China invested more than $12 billion in agricultural biotechnology and developed more than 50 animal lines. Brazil is also actively recruiting U.S. researchers with a biotech-supportive environment and currently is approving plant biotech products more quickly than the U.S.
Innovation through biotechnology still will have a positive impact on future food security, but inaction has caused some of these technologies to wither, Edwards concluded.