Commentary: The Precautionary Problem

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The debate over the Precautionary Principle is complicated.

On the one hand, it has been a valuable tool over the last few decades to leverage greater focus on risk management. When organizations invest the time, resources and expertise required to properly assess present and future liabilities, that effort benefits both customers and the bottom line. Maybe not in the immediate short-term, but certainly over the long run.

But when given undue prominence, the Precautionary Principle, as the authors of a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology suggest, may be “the most reckless, arbitrary and ill-advised concept in the last quarter century.”

The reality is that the Precautionary Principle sits squarely at the intersection of private-sector self-policing, driven by market forces and business imperatives, and top-down governmental regulations driven by political calculus.

Most reasonable people (certain activists excluded) agree that either extreme is unhelpful: Modern societies cannot halt scientific and technological progress simply because risk may be attached, nor does stifling, burdensome regulatory oversight advance either public or private benefit.

In short, the Precautionary Principle cannot be wielded as a principle that is immutable. It needs to be flexible, malleable, existential—exactly the opposite of how we understand “principles.” To be a functional tool that can advance both risk management and food safety, the Precautionary Principle cannot be drawn as a line in the sand.

Money for nothing

This dilemma is topical (again) because the Food Safety and Inspection Service just approved a “Non-Bioengineered” food label for meat and liquid egg products, with the claim the products were processed from “animals raised on diets containing no bioengineered grain or ingredients.”

The approval was in response to an application from The Non-G.M.O. Project, a Bellingham, Wash.-based activist group, and three California-based food companies: Mindful Meats in Point Reyes, which markets organic grass-fed beef; Pitman Family Farms in Sanger, which markets free-range chicken and other poultry products; and Hidden Villa Ranch in Fullerton, which produces eggs and egg products.

According to a statement from FSIS Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, “The approved labels state that the products meet the standards of a third-party certifier regarding the use of non-GMO feed. The agency has not developed any new policy regarding non-genetically engineered or non-GMO products and is not certifying that the labeled products are free of genetic engineering or genetic modifications.”

I’d love to see that statement on the side of a package of meat.

On one hand, the new label claim could be seen as merely another example of segmented marketing—like “Organically Grown”—that appeals to a subset of consumers for whom the “threat” of genetically engineered food ingredients is tangible enough to justify the added expenditure involved in purchasing non-GMO products.

But let’s get real. The attraction of “Non-Bioengineered” is based on the perception that GE foods are unhealthy, even potentially dangerous. Consumers who choose products bearing this label are exercising less of a “preference for” impulse, and making more of an “avoidance of” decision. Without any hard evidence that bioengineered foods cause any health problems, thousands of people are going to shell out for the privilege of buying Non-Bioengineered foods.

Never mind the fact that even the most diehard biotech opponents only claim that allergic responses from the (alleged) foreign proteins that might be present only come from eating genetically engineered foods themselves. There is little, if any, attempt to claim that eating meat or eggs from livestock fed GE corn and soy could somehow cause such problems.

That argument didn’t gain traction when it was used to try to stall FDA approval of cloned meat.

Heck, even the group that filed for the label approval isn’t arguing that meat and eggs are loaded with dangerous by-products of genetic engineering.

“Meat and eggs cannot be tested themselves for GMOs,” Megan Westgate, the groups’ executive director, was quoted in several news stories. “That’s why we test the animal feed.”

But the genesis of people’s belief that genetic engineering is scary, dangerous and totally unwarranted is the direct descendant of the years of pounding away at the Precautionary Principle, of flogging policymakers and the public with the notion that since we cannot prove beyond doubt that there will never be ill effects from biotechnology, we mustn’t apply the science to improve food productivity, expand the world’s potential arable acreage or improve the nutritional quality of the staple grains on which billions of people subsist.

There’s only one way to stem the tide that negative labeling creates: Counter-labeling from industry that neither hides behind mushy platitudes about product safety, nor pretends that consumers who’ve bought into the Precautionary Principle are ignorant and uneducated. Indeed, the majority of people buying organic, free-range, grassfed and now Non-Bioengineered foods are highly educated.

You can’t blame them for responding to the tidal wave of negativity that has surrounded the ham-handed and flat-footed efforts by growers, processors and researchers to whitewash concerns about biotechnology.

But you can begin to turn things around by simply labeling as such the foods manufactured from crops that were genetically enhanced.

Of course, that presumes that there is a bona fide enhancement involved that people actually care about.

Unfortunately, the development of crops that can survive a bath in herbicides isn’t one of them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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