Often when some natural disaster has occurred or a public health challenge emerges, we hear leaders exercising "an abundance of caution" when adopting a conservative strategy. An example was the boil water advisory issued in Winnipeg during 2016 in in response to very low levels of E.coli in a few water samples. And is it not always better to be safe than sorry?
Well, no, at least not always. In fact, playing it safe has a lot to do with the difficulties our farmers face in exporting Canola.
Let’s start at the beginning. Termed the precautionary principle, playing it safe and not being sorry has become a centre piece of environmental law.
The case of asbestos best illustrates its application. The fire-retardant properties of Asbestos were recognized in the mid-19th century with mining starting in 1879. By 1998, annual global production had risen to 2 million tonnes. Early warnings about the harms of asbestos emerged at the turn of the century and despite the growing incidence of asbestosis, its use in building structures of all types grew rapidly until the fifties and sixties.
Then, in 1999, the World Trade Organization upheld the ban on asbestos imposed by the European Union despite the objections of Canada, which was seeking to protect its asbestos industry. Had the government banned asbestos in 1965 when the threat of mesothelioma was plausible but unproven, one recent study projected that this would have saved 34,000 lives and almost $28 billion.
So, it seems that when scientific and technical advances present us with wondrous benefits that also have uncertain and potentially irreversible cost, we should play it safe.
The key is uncertainty. This is a situation where we just cannot calculate the risks of harm. The precautionary principle also requires a plausible connection between the new technology and the potential harms.
To illustrate, we override this principle when assessing whether living close to high voltage transmission lines causes brain cancer. While a very few scientists believe this, the majority do not. Coupled with the likely low incidence of adverse from transmission lines and the significant benefit, no one suggests applying the precautionary principle to ban transmission lines just to be safe.
In contrast, the prevention principle applies when risks are knowable and the benefits/costs measurable. We use risk mitigation strategies such as, for example, regulations to compel seat-belt use or insurance to financially compensate those affected by traffic accidents. Setting the financial awards for vehicle damage, bodily damage, and even the loss of a life has become a routine matter for insurance companies and courts.
Some authors such as the noted behavioural economist Cass Sunstein, argue that the precautionary principle is a recipe for inaction and creates many unintended consequences. Most important, the burden of proof shifts to those causing the alleged harm to show evidence of no harm to anyone, even in the slightest way. It often takes just a whisper in the internet trolling age, to sow "fud" — fear, uncertainty and doubt — prompting corporate decision makers and politicians scurry for cover.
The case of genetically modified organisms in food production is an excellent example of the harms caused by the precautionary principle. Many European countries have banned GMO products under precautionary principle, requiring this well-established technique for creating new strains of crops, to show that its harms are non-existent.
The food industry climbs aboard the myth-making, touting all manner of products as GMO-free, subverting as allies the very Canadian consumers that should be standing behind the defence of this agricultural technology. This is in marked contrast to how Canadians stepped up and increased their consumption of Canadian beef when the U.S. closed the border over the bogus BSE scare.
So, when China shuts down our canola exports, Canada’s second-most-important grain export, countries that ban GMO under the precautionary principle constrain our alternative markets. In truth, this principle becomes a convenient strawman to hide non-tariff barriers to limit imports. Most of the European countries have powerful farm lobbies that seek to limit the imports of foreign food in a effort to extract more money from the consumer.
But times may be changing. Golden rice, enhanced with vitamin A, finally received approval in Bangladesh after 20 years of waiting. The vitamin A boost promises to limit childhood blindness that afflicts as many as a half million children each year. Repeated meta-analyses show no harms and many benefits to GMOs. The New York Times, previously very cautious and even hostile about GMOs, has recently published an important article advocating their wider use.
The precautionary principle is indispensable when managing new and unproven technologies with uncertain and potentially irreversible costs. However, it is all too easy for the politically motivated to sow doubt, create conspiracies about the malign intent of large corporations, and distort the principle to create barriers to implementing smart new technologies. It encourages lazy thinking and "awfulizing" that harms with miniscule chance will come true.
Overzealous application of the precautionary principle has supported the self-interest of European governments to create large costs for Canadian agriculture. When science shows high benefits and very low risks to GMO technologies, it is time for governments to take leadership and "act out of an abundance of evidence."
Gregory Mason is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba.