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The Precautionary Principle and Genetically Engineered Products: 1. The Root of the Matter
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

The Precautionary Principle (PP) is a regulatory provision to be taken into account while Genetically Engineered Organisms (GEOs) or their products, are released into the environment or placed on the market.   The PP is good in intent but has now become contentious, largely due to its repeated, rigorous and unwarranted invocation by the regulatory authority in several countries, to defer decisions on approval or rejection of GEOs, mostly under pressure from the anti-tech lobbies.   Over the time, the consequences of the application PP have ramified into different contexts affecting international trade.   The PP is now largely seen as a retardant of globalization, instead of being the watchdog of human and environmental safety vis a vis  GEOs.

The Precautionary Principle (PP) was originally proposed in the ‘Rio Declaration on Environment and Development’ of the Earth Summit, 1992, in the context of protecting the environment, long before GEOs were on the scene.   Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration states that ‘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 context and focus of the precautionary approach here is damage to the environment. 

The international Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures of the World Trade Organization (WTO) of 1995 states in Article 5.7 that ‘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’.   This provision governs international trade practices, pre-dates GEOs, and is often interpreted as PP.   The WTO was conscious of the time factor and advised the Members to take decisions ‘…within a reasonable period of time’, which is often ignored.
Articles 10.6 and 11.8 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000) state 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.   This provision also is regarded as PP.  

These three international agreements are often cited as authentication of the PP as an essential instrument in making decisions on a) the introduction of GEOs into the environment, b) importing GEOs or their products, or c) placing them on the market.  

The European Union has taken the lead in making PP sacrosanct, thanks to the stubborn European anti-tech lobbies.   A Directive of the European Parliament and Commission (No. 8, 2001) states that ‘The Precautionary Principle has been taken into account in drafting this directive and must be taken into account while implementing it’.   Article 4 of the directive states that ‘Member States shall, in accordance with the Precautionary Principle, ensure that all appropriate measures are taken to avoid adverse effects on human health and the environment which might arise from the deliberate release or the placing on the market of GMOs’.  

PP was discussed endlessly, by international organizations including the FAO and numerous interested individuals, both for and against.  The PP became as very potent weapon of the anti-tech lobbies, invoked all the time to pressurize the regulatory authorities into at least delaying permission, for the release of GEOs into the environment or on to the market, if not altogether deny it.

An unscientific and irrational emphasis of the PP has a serious impact on international trade, including that governed by the WTO agreements and also on national policy on GE technology in several developing countries. 

It has now become necessary to evaluate the depth and range of the impact of the application of PP to biosecurity issues related to the GEOs and to suggest guidelines for a more meaningful application PP.  

 February 27, 2006