Everyone remembers our parents' admonition that it's better to be safe than sorry. But can too much caution make us more sorry than safe? It already has in the field of agricultural biotechnology.

Opponents warn that, in theory, genetically modified organismsM-d (or GMOs) could harm the environment and make for unsafe food. But GMOs also hold the potential to increase food production, make safer and healthier foods and reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. These advances are critical in a world where natural resources are finite and where one and a half billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition -- a number that is likely to climb as world population races toward nine billion during the next 50 years.

The Progress So Far

The discovery of gene-splicing techniques 30 years ago was heralded as a signal advance for the future of medicine and agriculture. Extensive research on GM foods and pharmaceuticals has been conducted since then. Based on that research, a broad consensus has emerged within the scientific community that because gene-splicing is more precise and predictable than older techniques of genetic modification -- such as selection, mutation and hybridization -- it is at least as safe. Contrary to the apocalyptic predictions of those who are ideologically opposed to the use of the new techniques, scientists understand the major risks associated with products derived from genetically improved plants, animals and microorganisms, and know what to look for when testing them.

So where are the promised benefits of biotechnology? Many products have been on the market for almost two decades. Dozens of safe, pure and highly effective GM medicines are commonly used to treat diabetes, anemia, AIDS and other immune dysfunctions and numerous types of cancer. And by growing GM cotton and maize, farmers in the United States have been able to forgo the use of thousands of tons of chemical pesticides.

But the wide application of the new biotechnology to agricultural and food products has been hampered by regulatory systems that single out biotech products for heightened scrutiny -- discriminatory regulation that amounts to a punitive tax, discouraging innovation.

The Precautionary Princple

These rules are frequently rationalized on the basis of the precautionary principle,M-d which states that regulatory action should be taken to avoid risks even when there is incomplete scientific evidence as to their magnitude or potential impact. Advocates of the precautionary principle portray it as a neutral tool for assessing risks. But the precautionary principle oversimplifies the complex processes of risk analysis and management, allowing regulators to assume that new technologies have infinite risks but uncertain benefits. A new technology is thus assumed to be guilty until it can be proven innocent to a safety standard dictated by its antagonists -- a practical impossibility.

When applied to agricultural and food biotechnology, the precautionary principle focuses almost exclusively on the theoretical risks new products may pose: what if they threaten biodiversity, create dangerous super-weeds or introduce unknown health hazards? Regulators can justify prohibiting the use of new products on the basis of such what ifM-d questions despite abundant counter-evidence. The products of the new biotechnology have already been demonstrated to enhance biodiversity, help to save wildlife habitat, reduce the use of chemical pesticides and make foods safer and more nutritious. And there is evidence that the hypothesized risks are highly improbable.

Misguided Decisions Abroad -- And In The U.S. Consider the case in Germany of a gene-spliced variety of maize that was precisely engineered to resist a destructive insect pest, the European corn borer (the name says it all). In February, the German government called for a moratorium on the commercial growth of the new maize -- just a single day before the agriculture ministry was expected to announce its approval.

The German government specifically cited the precautionary principle in its decision, arguing that more tests needed to be conducted. But the agriculture ministry's Office for Varieties had carefully scrutinized all the test results and found that every major concern had been resolved, including, for example, the identity, function and stability of the genetic insert and the agronomic traits of the new variety. Similarly, the German Central Commission for Biological Safety, a scientific group advising the government on gene-splicing, recommended approval. Following the government's announcement, the Commission issued a statement saying that it could perceive no scientific basis for the decisionM-d -- a strong dissent from a government advisory body.

Closer to home, overly risk-averse Environmental Protection Agency regulations have unnecessarily inflated the costs of developing GM plants and microorganisms and have stifled commercial and, especially, university-based research. They have all but destroyed development of "biorational" microbial pesticides and of GM microorganisms for cleaning up toxic wastes, by making it vastly more difficult and expensive to test new products outside laboratories and greenhouses. The EPA has also announced its intention to treat as pesticides GM plants that have been improved to enhance their pest- or disease-resistance, making them subject to the hugely expensive pesticide registration procedures.

U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations are similarly biased against GM products. Under USDA's Plant Pest Act regulations, the early field-testing of GM plants is ten to twenty times more expensive than the testing of virtually identical plants modified with less precise, less predictable techniques. Among domestic regulatory bodies, only the Food and Drug Administration once stood as a counter to this general trend. Though forces within the FDA have at times been antagonistic to biotechnology, the agency has tended to treat gene-spliced foods cautiously but fairly. Unfortunately, the FDA recently announced a change in policy that will begin treating gene-spliced foods in a discriminatory fashion.

So What?

Still, one might ask why any of this is relevant. Does the U.S. really need more pest-resistant crops? Does Germany really need more maize? Why bother with GM in the first place? Admittedly, the productivity increases delivered by this generation of biotech crops may not seem necessary to well-fed Americans or Europeans. But the next generation of products -- which will bring improved nutrition, greater shelf life and improved taste -- will not be developed if this first generation is rejected. Nor will we see low-profit products targeted at poor subsistence farmers and consumers in developing countries -- areas that are most in need of lower-input, more robust and more nutritious crop plants.

Which brings us to a final, central point. The precautionary principle is focused myopically on the risks of the new technology, entirely ignoring the risks of not introducing that technology. While biotechnology critics conjure up extremely unlikely scenarios of corn-gone-wrong and the like, they ignore the real and palpable threat of hundreds of millions more people going hungry or being malnourished -- in addition to the hundreds of millions who already do not have enough food.

The bottom line is that the application of the precautionary principle is stalling progress in agricultural biotechnology, inflating the costs of research and development, and exacting a substantial human toll. No one disagrees that innovators should be cautious, as all new technologies have both risks and benefits -- some known, others hypothetical. But if our real goal is to maximize societal benefit, the question we need to ask is: How much caution is appropriate?M-d The answer involves weighing the risks and benefits of moving into the future against the risks and benefits of forgoing the new technology -- not pointing to hypothetical risks and saying no.

Gregory Conko is Director of Food Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Henry I. Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider's View (Austin: R.G. Landes Co., 1997).

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