The Precautionary Principle
The precautionary principle (EC health & environmental law) demands that public health be put before commercial gain until the product (oilseed rape and its associated pollen, VOCs and fungal spores) are proven beyond reasonable doubt to be safe and will not (either directly or indirectly) cause or exacerbate ill health.
“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically” ‘Wingspread Statement on Chemically-Induced Alterations to immune system.’ Environmental Health Perspectives, 104:4, August 1996.
Sensible precautions make good science
Sir- Soren Holm and John Harris strongly criticise the precautionary principle but they seem not to understand it (Nature 400, 398; 1999). They complain that it is not valid for evaluating evidence, when that is not what it is for. It is a tool for decision-making, and, like many such tools, deals in expectations rather than probabilities. The point is that it requires us to take into account not just the probability that a technology will be hazardous, but also the benefits if it succeeds and the costs if things go wrong. There may have been a very small probability that a large ship travelling at high speed in the North Atlantic would hit an iceberg, but the captain of the Titanic should have thought more about what could happen if it did - and all the more so because it didn't really matter if the voyage lasted a few hours more.
Holm and Harris argue that the precautionary principle would have stopped research development because the greatest uncertainty about its possible harmfulness existed before anybody had produced one. But the principle does not demand that we halt research if we cannot be certain the end result will be safe (though common sense suggests it is unwise to make large investments if the end result is likely to be dangerous). It is to be applied at each stage in the process, weighing the risks in going one step further against the likely benefits if the project is successful.
Vyvyan Howard, Peter T. Saunders., Department of Fetal & Infant Toxico-Pathology, University of Liverpool
Applying the precautionary principle to oilseed rape cultivation
The information presented above by Howard & Saunders is precisely the reason why the author is arguing not for a complete ban on oilseed rape cultivation but for restrictions in the form of exclusion zones around residential areas until research confirms that oilseed rape crops do not present and increased risk to human health. The author believes that a lot more research that can be carried out in the relative safety of rape fields planted 5km away from residential areas. This is not only good practice, but it is essential in order to protect public health. If a new drug proves to be harmful it can be withdrawn, but once oilseed rape crops are planted in close proximity to residential areas, very little can be done to provide health protection against the causal agent.
EC communication on the precautionary principle
The European Commission, in February 2000, issued a communication on the use of the precautionary principle in the EU and internationally (European Commission 2000). It recommended:
“Where action is deemed necessary, measures based on the precautionary principle should be, inter alia:
- proportional to the chosen level of protection,
- non-discriminatory in their application,
- consistent with similar measures already taken,
- based on an examination of the potential benefits and costs of action or lack of action (including, where appropriate and feasible, an economic cost/benefit analysis),
- subject to review, in the light of new scientific data, and
- capable of assigning responsibility for producing the scientific evidence necessary for a more comprehensive risk assessment.”
The term “substantial equivalence” was introduced by the Organisation for Economic & Co-operative Development (1993) for foods, but has been widely accepted for feed stuffs, including crop cultivation. The concept of substantial equivalence was intended to identify similarities and possible differences between the genetically modified (GM) crop and an appropriate comparator. Three possible outcomes of the comparison were defined:
- The modified crop is substantially equivalent
- The modified crop is substantially equivalent except for the introduced trait
- The modified crop is not equivalent.
It is concerning to note that research scientists studying oilseed rape allergy have on numerous occasions through communications with the media and published literature, made unsubstantiated claims (in defence of oilseed rape cultivation) by comparing non-GM oilseed rape with “other conventional crops” without providing clear evidence of substantial equivalence. [The author is unable to offer forward another conventional crop cultivated in the UK that could be accurately be described as substantially equivalent to oilseed rape. In light of this, the author would welcome assistance from the scientific community to identify a substantially equivalent crop].
“No evidence of harm” is not equivalent to “there is evidence of no harm”
The public recognises the limits of scientific “knowledge” and the often exaggerated claims made by scientists and the policy bodies that they advise. Regulatory frameworks are often seen as comprised by prior political commitments, conveniently ignoring inevitable ignorance and lack of capacity to imagine future eventualities that may arise. Traditional risk communication typically sees the process as an “add-on” at the end of the risk management process, exemplified as “we make the decision then we tell you what the decision is. At best this can be seen as information provision, at worst, it could be described as miss-information provision.” (NCC: Risk and Regulation, June 2002)
Ignoring early warning systems
History is littered with examples where early warnings of future effects were ignored and society faces the effect today. Forestalling disasters requires acting before there is strong proof of harm, particularly if the harm may be delayed and irreversible. This is an approach to scientific evidence and policy making called the precautionary principle. Warnings were given over asbestos, DDT, Thalidomide, PCBs, toxic oil syndrome and BSE sometimes up to a century before any action was taken. We are presently in a position where we either repeat history or honestly accept that the present basis and regulations that allow oilseed rape crops to be grown in close proximity to residential areas is woefully inadequate and potentially catastrophic. The time to reassess the present situation is now whilst GM and biofuel crops are at an experimental stage. There is no short-term economic pressure and no public demand. If the situation is not retrieved in the very near future it will become increasingly more and more difficult to ever do so. An opportunity has been presented by the author to the UK Government to put public health above all other interests.
Hazard as defined by HSE
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) define “hazard” as the potential to cause harm, which includes ill health and injury. It is assumed that the law means ‘a source or agency of possible harm’.
When a hazard cannot be classified
The precautionary principle demands that a potential hazard is given the highest possible hazard status available, and controlled by a means fit for purpose, until a risk assessment has identified the hazard and associated risks. Economic considerations must not taken into account at this stage.
HSE advocate and practice the precautionary principle
This approach is widely advocated in all HSE literature and underpins the management of health and safety. Yet when challenged, the HSE advised that they can only operate within the confines of the law and could not enforce control measures on the growing of oilseed rape because the government has not as yet classified oilseed rape as harmful to health.
Risk should always be expressed in terms of a risk to an individual, a group or community. The following points should be considered when determining acceptable risks to the community (i.e. determining if environmental exposure to oilseed rape is an acceptable risk to the community):-
- The community’s standard of acceptance
- The risks from the industrial activity (i.e.- oilseed rape cultivation)
- The benefits from the industrial activity
- The people who derive the benefits and those who take the risks
- The compensation of risks
- The role of decision making by the community
- Risk aversion
Consideration must also be given to the individual in the community who has to choose whether or not to accept the risk, this will also affect acceptability. It would be simply unreasonable for an individual to accept the risk on the basis that he cannot afford to move elsewhere. Furthermore, the individual exposed to the risk hardly ever has full information relating to the exposure and its ability to cause harm. Even if full information was available, the individual would be forced into consulting health experts because he would not be qualified to evaluate and implement control strategies. Therefore, a community risk is only acceptable if it is considerably lower than a risk an individual (in the community) would choose to take.
Author - Armitage; copyright 2007