ecoglobe [yinyang] news (30 November 1999)

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The Precautionay Principle

Nature 25 November 1999

Precautionary approach to risk assessment

Sir -- The meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which opens on 29 November in Seattle, Washington, will be a focal point for discussions about the social, economic and environmental implications of trade. Science has been given a central role in mediating disputes about the safety and environmental impact of new technologies. Our research indicates that the WTO will need to be both more rigorous and more precautionary in its use of regulatory science if it is adequately to address issues of sustainability.

First, there is the issue of product safety. Conventional probabilistic risk assessments play an important role in WTO rulings about the safety of new products, such as genetically modified (GM) foods and hormones used in animal production [see Briefing in this issue, pages 341-345]. In contrast, 'precautionary approaches' are often thought of as deviating from sound science.

Yet current risk assessments can only characterize some of the potential outcomes of the use of new products. Precautionary approaches, by acknowledging our incomplete knowledge of possible outcomes, and addressing the huge variation in the results of risk assessments, may actually enhance the rigour of scientific assessment. We developed this argument in The Politics of GM Food: Risk, Science and Public Trust (see

Second, there is the question of burdens of proof. WTO regulations and other international trade rules increasingly assume that new products are safe until proven otherwise: the burden of proof falls heavily on those who are worried about unforeseen or untested safety and environmental issues.

The debate about the safety of the bovine somatotropin (BST) growth hormone is a recent example. It has fallen to the European Union (EU) to provide evidence to support its doubts, rather than the producer of BST to demonstrate its safety. So the burden of proof falls on the regulator rather than the proponent of the technology. We believe that the burden of proof should be re-balanced through enhanced and transparent testing of new products, similar to the current method for testing and approving drugs. Likewise, there is a need for better scientific monitoring of the effects of new technologies once in use. Hormone-disrupting chemicals exemplify the issue of inadequate monitoring.

Assuming that products are safe until proven otherwise may lead to what can be described as 'soft disasters' -- large-scale health and environmental problems that emerge slowly but at high cost to society. Such disasters mostly occur because excessive faith has been placed upon limited data about the safety of a product or process, ignoring many possible eventualities where there is little or no information.

It is now generally accepted that the assessment of risk in different social contexts can produce different -- but equally valid -- results based in science. Alternative assumptions, for example, are often adopted in different countries, partly as a result of varying social, economic and institutional conditions. But this calls into question the WTO's apparent assumption that the application of 'sound science' will lead to a single 'scientific' answer to complex questions of risk and safety. Further, to expect a uniform pattern of associated regulatory decisions is inconsistent with the well-established insights from risk assessment.

Such a desire for single, definitive answers is likely to generate increasing tension in the WTO, and undermine public confidence in its decisions. Public confidence will be vital if the advantages of liberalized global trade are to be sustained. A more effective way forward would be to pursue these issues through a precautionary approach within multilateral environmental agreements. Liability regimes also need to be strengthened as a safety net for those affected by 'soft disasters'. In this respect, the EU's recent extension of its strict liability laws to include agricultural products is to be welcomed.

These comments are based on research carried out within the Global Environmental Change Programme of the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Alister Scott*, Andy Stirling, Nick Mabey, Frans Berkhout, Chris Williams, Chris Rose, Michael Jacobs, Robin Grove-White, Ian Scoones, Melissa Leach *Corresponding author: ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme, Mantell Building, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RF, UK

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1999 Registered No. 785998 England.
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[ We received this contribution via the Biotech_Activists list, posted by "Jackie Hunt Christensen" <>]
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