I want to thank you for your indulgence, and than the other panelists for understanding. My presence here is certainly not any more significant than any of you, I have responsibilities for my district, I must be there to vote, and I take those very seriously. And I'm expecting that the votes could come as early as 10:00. So, I again want to thank you for your indulgence, and to say to all of you, good morning, bonjour, it is a pleasure to be here as part of this significant panel on this most important issue.
At the simplest and most general level, a precautionary approach means taking action to protect health or the environment before there is conclusive evidence that harm is occurring. That's a position that's been articulated by Consumers Union. To most citizens, it is a commonsense idea to look before you leap. In essence, this is what the precautionary principle is driving at. And at its core is the true definition of sound science.
The precautionary principle is dedicated to investigating all aspects of the technology to ensure that the lowest risk is found using the most rigorous testing. The precautionary principle has received much criticism as the opponents claim that it is supported by very little scientific evidence. Government bodies, notably the United States, have been very skeptical of the precautionary principle because they regard it as a trade weapon with no valid basis for its application.
A closer look at the precautionary principle will unveil that there are many virtues to its application. It definition is intended to include all methods of scientific analysis rather than solely on risk assessments, which are too easily distorted. The precautionary principle takes a closer look at the safety risks affecting human health and the environment, making a judgment on a technology without taking precaution is a risk in itself as it is imperative that thorough testing is done to eliminate the risk rather than to permit the risk to be tested on our family.
With respect to the science of the precautionary principle, good science is instilled in the precautionary principle because it puts an emphasis on what we don't know, or what we can't know. This is an amazingly fundamental and straightforward aspect of the principle, because it reminds us of the limits of science. It reminds us that science can be very limited in scope, particularly when it regards food safety hazards. Thus, it is crucial that precaution is taken in order to examine the risks more scrupulously by putting proper emphasis on what we don't know or can't know, risk assessors can put what we do know into a more accurate perspective.
When discussing the principle it is imperative to discuss its close relationship with science. The term "sound science" has been tossed around and manipulated quite frequently in the recent past. Thus, for science to be creditable in any sense, it is imperative that it is treated scientifically. Thus, there should be rigorous examination of what we know, what we don't know, and what we can't know through scientific measures.
Albert Einstein once said, a single experiment could prove me wrong. Would Einstein eat genetically engineered food knowing how much we don't know and can't know, and should we? Too often big business has used only the scientific experiments that their company has generated. This information is often used as evidence of no harm. However, there's not enough attention placed on risk that is not known about their technologies. This lack of searching for the unknown risk is done for the obvious reason of protecting profits. The precautionary principle was installed in the European Union to protect consumers. Current testing measures in the U.S. using risk assessments have been molded to suit corporate interests. This is what occurs when investments are made in a technology, such as genetically engineered foods, where the science is not thorough enough to test what we don't know and can't know.
With respect to ethical considerations of the precautionary principle, the strongest food safety standard in the United States is to find "reasonable certainty of no harm." Yet, many other standards in the U.S. use the bodies in the street principle. If we can't see the harm, even if we are not looking hard, then there must be no harm. This approach of equating a lack of proof of harm with a lack of harm is seriously flawed. We must agree that the term "acceptable risk" is a value judgment. I fear the "reasonable certainty of no harm" has become lack of certainty of harm. Perhaps a more accurate alternative to the current safety standards should be interpreted as people have a right to know what's in the food they're eating. They also have a right to refuse to eat food they sense is unsafe. Genetically engineered foods, and I'd like to comment before I conclude here about genetically engineered foods and BSE.
Most of you know that I take a precautionary view towards GE foods. U.S. regulators and the biotech industry who have developed genetically engineered crops believe their methods are more precise and predictable than traditional plant breeding, and assert that the likelihood of unexpected potentially harmful effects is very small. They've created the concept that most transgenic crops are "substantially equivalent" to their non-engineered counterparts, and don't require safety approval. This reflects a scientific belief that genetic engineering of crops raises no major novel food safety issues. On the other side of the question a substantial minority of qualified scientists challenges the view that genetic engineering is like traditional crop breeding.
Genetic engineering methods make possible transfers of genes into crops from organisms that could never be crossed by any other means. Promoter genes are often inserted as well to turn on the transfer genes, and they may affect other genes in the host organism with unknown or unpredictable effects. One area of particular concern is the possibility that transfer genes might code for new proteins in the engineered plant, some of which might be allergens. It is generally agreed that current test methods for screening novel foods for allergens and especially unknown allergens are not adequate.
The situation with genetically engineered crops is similar to the situation with respect to BSE in the late 1980s. At that point the majority of experts believed that the disease in cattle posed no threat to human health. A minority disagreed, argued that far too little was known about BSE to be confident it posed no substantial risk, and urged a stronger precautionary policy. History proved the minority correct.
Awareness of the BSE case undoubtedly is a factor in the call by many scientists, some governments and consumer NGOs for strongly precautionary postures towards genetically engineered foods. With a technology that has radically changed major sectors of agriculture in just a few years, it is easy to understand why many stakeholders believe policy should be more precautionary than the approach the United States has taken to date. And I thank the panelists and the audience for its attention, and I want to appreciate all of you for understanding that I'm not going to be able to stay. I do have one of my staff leaders on this issue here, who is certainly capable to stand in for me since he writes many of the things I present.
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Last Updated on 8/5/00
By Karen Lutz Benbrook