Genetically Modified Foods and the Precautionary Principle

Professor Lawrence Solum, visiting law professor at the University of San Diego and maintainer of the Legal Theory Blog, mischaracterizes the precautionary principle, responding to Stephen Laniel’s critique of Prof. Solum’s original post on genetically modified foods.

Prof. Solum’s original post suggested that perhaps we should prefer natural foods over genetically modified ones for aesthetic reasons. He also says:

Now, I am not an expert, but after reading several articles and two books on the subject, I became convinced that most of the health and safety arguments against GM foods were without scientific support.

Steve responded:

How about the law of unintended consequences, namely that the unintended consequences of a policy often overwhelm the intended consequences? Combine this with the fact that theres no shortage of food in the world, and we just arent allocating it correctly (and that the U.S. government continues to pay farmers to leave parts of their fields fallow), and basically the question becomes: Why should I invest in this uncertain proposition (GMOs), when the one Im familiar with (unmodified food) seems to do the trick just fine? As far as I understand it, GMOs dont even address any need, in the same way that grafting new roots onto grapes to make them hardier, or other such human interventions do. So the positive consequences of changing to GMOs seem small, and the potential negative consequences are unknown.

Finally, Prof. Solum characterized Steve’s argument:

Laniel’s argument seems to be that GMO’s are risky, but this really isn’t an argument at all.

He goes on to talk about the precautionary principle, following a definition from BioTech InfoNet:

In this form, the precautionary principle can easily swallow itself. The precautionary principle is itself a new method for making social policy that will effect the rate of technological innovation in ways that cannot be predicted. The precautionary principel might lead to disastorous consequences, delaying the introduction of new technologies that would prevent environmental disastors (such as global warming or depletion of the ozone layer) because they could not be proven safe “beyond reasonable doubt.” Can the precautionary principle itself be shown to be safe “beyond reasonable doubt”? Obviously not.

Clearly, this is a straw man argument. (Have you ever noticed that the attack—”this is a straw man argument”—can, itself, be a straw man argument?) Prof. Solum, perhaps understandably, focuses in on the standard of proof proferred in the definition, and thus reads the definition as self-defeating. In fact, the crucial issue is not so much the standard of proof, but rather the burden of proof (discussed more below).

Part of the problem here is that Prof. Solum has used the definition that comes up first in a Google search, which may be a reasonable technique, but is also likely to miss some subtleties. For the record, I prefer this definition, which appeared in Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, an excellent publication that provides extensive factual support for its claims. I also think the BioTech InfoNet definition did not intend “beyond a reasonable doubt” literally—it was simply part of an extended analogy to the presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system.

The precautionary principle, as I understand it, applies most strongly to those circumstances where it is very hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and where we don’t yet have sufficient information to make an informed risk assessment. This is precisely the issue with genetically modified organisms. Since they have been released into the natural environment, it will be practically impossible to get rid of them if they prove to have undesirable consequences. The precautionary principle would demand far more extensive “laboratory” testing before turning the entire ecosystem into a laboratory, especially since the primary benefit of the technology is only increased profits to large agricultural conglomerates (and obviously to the biotechnology companies themselves). The Panos Institute report, Food For All, demonstrates why political factors are the primary obstacle to world hunger, and why biotechnology is unlikely to improve the situation, and may even exacerbate it.

The problem of unintended consequences is particularly acute with ecological systems. We’ve seen time and time again that disrupting one element in the food chain can have disasterous results for many species, including ourselves. The introduction of rabbits into Australia is one common example. Thomas Austin introduced 24 wild rabbits into Australia in 1859, and by 1869 it is estimated that over two million rabbits had been destroyed on Austin’s property alone. Rabbits continue to be a major problem in Australia to this day.

The Precautionary Principle in Environmental Science (PDF), a commentary by several academics, set out these key elements of the precautionary principle:

  • Taking preventive action in the face of uncertainy
  • Shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity
  • Exploring a wide range of alternatives to possible harmful actions
  • Increasing public participation in decision making

Obviously, it would be possible to adopt these principles without totally paralyzing all innovation. There may be close cases, particularly in the medical arena (a cancer cure, for example, with potentially unknown side effects). But the issue of genetically modified organisms is not one of those cases.

While it’s quite unlikely that genetically modified foods are going to turn any of us who eat them into mutants (I can say this as someone who spent several years splicing genes in the laboratory), the possibility for ecosystem disruption is quite high, or at least quite unknowable at this point. Rather than proceeding with careful controlled testing, we’ve released this organisms into the wild (to some degree, the ease with which GMO’s have been introduced into the ecosystem is the result of regulatory confusion between the EPA, USDA, and FDA).

It is not as if legitimate warnings have not been raised. There have already been several cases of cross-contamination, e.g., with StarLink Corn. An article in the prestigious science journal Nature raised concerns about butterfly mortality from B.t. corn. Certain GMO’s, which produce their own pesticides, are likely to reduce the effectiveness of traditional pesticides (because of increased resistance in the pest population), requiring all farmers to use GMO seeds in order to thwart the newly resistant pests. Since the seeds are patented, this forces farmers to acquire their seeds from a single source (which is bad for a number of reasons). There is also the possibility that modified genes will be transferred to other species. A common GMO (Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Soybeans) is engineered to be herbicide resistant so the crop can be sprayed with a herbicide that will kill everything except the soybeans. What if this herbicide resistance gene is transferred to the weeds themselves? This sort of gene transfer is common between plant species. This article provides many more examples of potential GM risks.

Given these risks, the relative novelty of the technology, and the lack of demonstrable widespread benefit, wouldn’t it make sense to shift the burden of proof to the proponents of genetically modified organisms before deploying them more widely?

Hunting for Bambi is a Hoax

I was reading our free daily subway tabloid, Metro, when I came across an article about “Hunting for Bambi.” The article describes what appears to be an unbelievably offensive sport, where men with paintball guns pay thousands of dollars to hunt down nude women in the forest. It immediately struck me that there was something awry.

It turns out it’s a hoax.

But Metro wasn’t the only newspaper taken in; try a Google news search for “hunting for bambi”, and you’ll see dozens of reputable news outlets covered the story. Of course, at this point, the stories are being overwhelmed by the discovery that it was a hoax. Here’s one typical story as it appeared in the Washington Times:

Jockstrip: The world as we know it
By Alex Cukan
United Press International
Men are paying thousands of dollars to shoot naked women with paint ball guns near Las Vegas.
Hunting for Bambi is the brain child of Michael Burdick. Men pay anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 for the chance to come to the middle of the desert to shoot what they call “Bambi’s” with a paint ball gun, KLAS-TV in Las Vegas reports.
Burdick says men have come from as far away as Germany. The men get a video tape of their hunt to take home.
Burdick says hunters are told not shoot the women above the chest, but admits not all hunters follow the rules.
The women get $2,500 is they don’t get hit, something they admit hurts, and $1,000 is they do get hit, according to KLAS-TV.

I think the problem here is that once a story appears in one “legitimate” mainstream news outlet (in this case, KLAS-TV), all the other media think they can just carry the story without rechecking the original facts.

I’d hope to see a retraction in the Metro, but I’m not going to hold my breath.