The precautionary principle

tavros Dimas, the European Union’s Environment Commissioner, ignoring the opinion of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), recently [nb. 2008] indicated that the Commission will ban two genetically engineered varieties of corn, because of the potential harm it may cause on certain beneficial insects. At present, only one transgenic crop can be cultivated in Europe: Monsanto’s MON810 insect-resistant maize, which now comprises nearly 2% of maize grown in Europe.

In the on-going debate about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Europeans’ plates the mantra is the so-called “precautionary principle”; the idea that regulation should prevent or limit actions that raise even conjectural risks, particularly when the scientific evidence is inconclusive. Add to this the widespread feeling in society that science is moving too far ahead becoming more and more incomprehensible – and should therefore be made to slow down, or even stop – and you get a neo-luddite backlash to anything biotechnology has to offer.

But is this the way to go? If the world rejects GMOs, what other options do we have in order to feed ourselves? Traditional farming, through the intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers, is known to be linked to serious health hazards such as cancer, and is using great amounts of fossil fuels which contribute to climate change. Organic farming is often quoted as a valid alternative, but the figures simply do not add up. We are six billion people on this planet, two billion of whom live on the edge of starvation. Put in this wider context organic farming, with all its splendid benefits, begins to look more like a luxury to be afforded by rich westerners only.

GMOs have gotten a bad name. They are considered an environmental risk. Releasing mutated organisms in nature, say their opponents, could spread havoc to natural evolution and cause untold damage to ecosystems. What one usually does not hear is that most traditional plant-breeding techniques are simply imprecise forms of genetic engineering. Cross-fertilization and cross-breeding are the most obvious ones but there is also mutagen breeding, whereby plants are bombarded by X-rays, gamma rays, fast neutrons and a variety of toxic elements in an attempt to induce favorable chromosomal changes and genetic mutations. The difference is that genetic engineering is a more targeted and precise method, which has the potential to avoid large scale environmental contamination.

The second big fear is impact on health. I have often been told that “mutant organisms cause cancer, everyone knows that!” The truth may in fact be the very opposite. Traditional farming causes cancer, and there have been numerous epidemiological studies that confirm this. GMO farming may even prevent cancer, as in the case of the transgenic corn that Dimas wants banned. The particular corn product releases a protein that is toxic to insects but harmless to mammals (such as humans). By preventing the corn to be invaded by insects it protects the product from a very dangerous fungal toxin called Fumonisin, which is a known carcinogen and a cause of neural tube defects in newborns. The transgenic corn has been shown to contain 900 percent fewer fungal toxins than the non-GMO corn variety grown by traditional and organic farmers.

Nevertheless, Europe says no. Maybe because we Europeans suspect that big American-based multinational crop companies, such as Monsanto and Syngenta, want to monopolize the agro-food business, to the detriment of our environment and health, no matter what scientists say. After all, scientists could be on their payroll too. I can agree that one should not trust corporations with the public good, and that government regulations as well as alert and well-informed citizens are society’s best defenses. However, the current market of big monopolies selling traditional – as well as transgenic – crops to farmers may be about to change, and change rapidly too.

Synthetic biology is nowadays taught at undergraduate level, and any biology student can create her own artificial organism on a Petri dish. Techno-optimists, such as physics professor Freeman Dyson, are heralding a new era where “domesticated biotechnology, once it gets to the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that big corporations prefer.” Just imagine that future: you can grow whatever you like in your back yard, creating your own varieties of plants and animals, free from the monopolizing corporations. On the other end of the spectrum, technophobes see this as a nightmare scenario where bioterrorism runs rampant and Earth’s ecology is disrupted beyond control. GMOs is the tip of a great big iceberg that floats to our shores, whether we want it, ban it, or not.

The risk of being wrong

However, let me focus on the infamous precautionary principle. The first, and most obvious perhaps, problem with the precautionary principle is that it takes no account of the cost of non-action. For example, let us say that I have a serious heart problem and my doctor thinks I should be given an artificial heart. Unfortunately, no-one can absolutely guarantee that the artificial heart will not fail, thus resulting in my death. By applying the precautionary principle I should refuse the treatment. However, if I do not get the treatment my death is certain. The principle, in this case, should be overridden. And yet, when one moves away from managing the risk of a certain technology on her own life or well-being, and arrives at decisions by governments or by the European Union, the Precautionary Principle of risk management has increasing appeal to politicians and policy-makers. It is a completely different thing for me to decide what to do with my health than deciding what should be done with everyone else’s health.

In the latter case the appeal of the Precautionary Principle is irresistible to politicians, and policy-makers, as well as various advocates of the public good. They are certain to win favors with society because citizens will tend to support a precautionary policy, because human instinct prevails.

Reality vs. experiments: Reality, idealistically
Experimental results – (not harmful) + (harmful)
– (not harmful) True False negative
+ (harmful) False positive True

Evolution has programmed us to avoid false negatives at all costs (an error made when we fail to connect A to B, when A is truly connected to B – for example, I did not flee upon hearing a noise, when in fact the noise was a lion coming to get me!). In the case of GMOs a false negative is when the experiment shows that something is harmless when in fact it is harmful (see table above). By the same token evolution has made us more relaxed with respect to false positives (an error made when A is falsely connected to B, for example I hear something which may be a lion about to attack me, and I flee – but there was no lion). In the case of GMOs a false positive is when the experiment shows that something is harmful when in fact it is harmless (see table above). Our survival has depended over eons upon evaluating false negatives as being more risky than false positives. In other words, since we are not absolutely certain that GMOs are safe, let us ban them.

The Gap

In the case of technology, however, the possibility of false negatives will always be with us. Owing to the intrinsic nature of statistical errors, as well as the philosophical impossibility of knowing for certain the link between cause and effect, there can be no absolute knowledge of experimental consequences. Science is a systematic, logical and experimental method of probing into an “ideal” realm that we hypothesize it exists and is called “reality”. We will never know if “reality” really exists. Therefore, the sum total of all our experiments does not exclude the possibility of a false negative.

In the case of science a false negative is a blessing, as it may falsify a given theory. This is another reason for the usual lack of understanding between science and society. Scientists love false negatives, but society does not. Scientists are usually more ready to take risks with new technologies than citizens.

If we do not wish to return to pre-industrial times, there can be no other way forward than through technology. One may argue that this is a recipe for humankind’s eventual doom. I would, however, like to remind of Malthus and his predictions about an unsustainable world which was not supposed to feed the billions of people. Only technology can beat demographics, as the “green revolution” of intensive farming proved. In a projected world of 9 billion people, everyone should be given an equal chance of economic and social development. We cannot hope to achieve this by banning or over-regulating technological progress. The only thing we can do is develop better channels of communication between science and society, to bridge the gap mentioned above, and prepare society for the changes ahead.