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Marchant co-authors paper on precautionary principle in environmental policy

June 26, 2013

A paper co-authored by ASU Regents’ Professor Gary Marchant, “Impact of the Precautionary Principle on Feeding Current and Future Generations,” has been published by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), an international consortium of scientific and professional societies, companies and nonprofit organizations.

Marchant, who chaired the panel of four authors, presented the paper on June 24 at three venues in Washington, D.C. – two meetings at the U.S. Congress, sponsored by the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, and a public forum at The George Washington University, sponsored by the National Capitol Region of the Society for Risk Analysis.

Marchant is the faculty director of the Center for Law, Science & Innovation at the College of Law at Arizona State University and the ASU Lincoln Professor of Emerging Technologies, Law and Ethics.

The paper examines the history of the precautionary principle, defined as “a legal requirement, such as that enacted by the European Union, that mandates the formal and explicit application of precaution in regulatory decisions.”  While the principle has played an important role in bringing attention to the impact of precaution in appropriate risk management, the authors point out problems of ambiguity, arbitrary application and bias against new technologies, using case studies that center on agricultural issues such as pesticide use, genetically modified foods and food irradiation.

While acknowledging the importance of safety, the authors indicated the principle has become unworkable and counterproductive. They predict that, if applied too stringently, it will suppress innovation, to the detriment of the economy and human health.

“The precautionary principle may well be the most innovative, pervasive and significant new concept in environmental policy over the past quarter century. It may also be the most reckless, arbitrary and ill-advised,” the authors wrote.

The paper provides examples of the precautionary principle’s failure to offer a credible and reasoned framework for the application of risk management. It also describes inconsistencies in the principle’s use and suggests that it increasingly will be controversial, marginalized and ignored in the future.

For example, based on the precautionary principle, Norway banned cornflakes fortified with vitamins, France banned caffeinated energy drinks, Denmark banned cranberry juice drinks with extra Vitamin C and Zambia rejected U.S. food during a famine (because the corn might contain genetically modified kernels).

“As with many things in life, the Goldilocks strategy may be most appropriate – not too little precaution, not too much, but just the right amount is needed,” according to Marchant and the other authors.

Collaborating with Marchant were Linda Abbott of the Office of Risk Assessment and Cost-Benefit Analysis in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.; Allan Felsot of the Department of Entomology and School of the Environment at Washington State University Tri-Cities; and Robert L. Griffin of the Plant Epidemiology and Risk Analysis Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Raleigh, N.C.

Click here to read the full study.