Using precaution to avoid environmental problems makes sense right? Well, that is what is called the Precautionary Approach. Opponents argue that precaution is a recipe for inaction, that it stands in the way of innovation and that it is peddled by those pursuing the illusion of a zero-risk society. We beg to differ.

The Precautionary Approach gives the benefit of doubt to the environment. It basically reverses the burden of proof and says: “If you are in doubt about the consequences of what you intend to do, then don’t do it”.

In reality, precaution is simply the application of common sense to effective environmental regulations, allowing protective decisions to be made with greater confidence in the face of inevitable uncertainties and unknowns. 

So why then would we want to take a different approach to regulating genetically engineered organisms (GEO)? In fact, given how little is known of the effects of GEO on non-target species and the ecosystem as a whole, why would we not want to be still more cautious?

Precaution is precisely what it says – taking cautious action to prevent harm in advance rather than assuming and relying upon an ability to recall and remediate should harm occur. If the release of GEOs to the environment is not done with a precautionary approach, is it really precaution that’s the problem?

What is surprising is that such an approach is seen as unrealistic or utopian by many chemicals manufacturers, when in fact it is based upon the same strategies that we all use to navigate our way through the hazards of everyday life. Precaution underpins the way humans respond to hazards. In some cases these are subconscious decisions, in other cases we sidestep such hazards through conscious decision making.

The Precautionary Approach has increasingly found a place in the text of agreements aimed at environmental protection and has been much misrepresented and maligned ever since. From its origins in Germany in the 1980s, where it was applied to the protection of forests from acid rain, the relevance of the precautionary approach to other environmental problems surrounded by scientific uncertainty was quickly recognised.

This included pollution by one-time ‘wonder chemicals’, such as PCBs and many pesticides, for which the “benefit of the doubt” had routinely been given to the chemicals (and therefore their producers) rather than to the environment.

This led to pollution problems of global proportions because the lack of conclusive proof of harm had been sufficient to allow business as usual, despite the clear warnings available for many of the most hazardous chemicals.

Even now, with near universal bans on the worst of the worst chemicals, not only are we faced with the contaminating legacy of past mistakes, but new problems continue to emerge from chemicals put into widespread use without the drawbacks having been fully investigated by the companies that are marketing them.

The European Environment Agency, in its 2001 report: “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” (and in the follow-up volume due for publication this year) provides numerous case studies of where “permissive regulation” has failed the environment and action to prevent harm has come too late.

So let’s use some common sense and take a precautionary approach.

Paul Johnston and Dave Santillo, Greenpeace International Science Unit

For further reading:

The Precautionary Principle: Protecting against failures of scientific method and risk assessment