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1962 poster for 'Day of the Triffids'. Photo: James Vaughan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
1962 poster for 'Day of the Triffids'. Photo: James Vaughan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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Philippines GMO ban is the Precautionary Principle in action

Rupert Read & David Burnham

16th December 2015

The Precautionary Principle must mean, above all, avoiding the risk of ruinous outcomes for people or the wider environment, write Rupert Read & David Burnham. When the Philippines Supreme Court applied that test to GMOs, they found they had to ban them - not as a moral choice but pragmatically, to avoid potentially devastating consequences.

What makes the decision in the Philippines such a hopeful precedent is this reference to precaution. It is not a 'merely' moral consideration, it is just reason, deep pragmatism in action to avoid the potential for a ruinous outcome.

As reported recently on The Ecologist, The Philippines has banned GM crop trials until further notice.

The GM-testing-mega-coprorations are going to have to find a new testing ground.

The Philippines have defiantly set a global precedent with their decision, through their invocation in it of the Precautionary Principle. Taiwan too have taken a step in this direction banning GM foods in school meals; Hawaii has banned GMOs on the Big Island.

And with Thailand set to follow these two countries after a number of widespread protests against their new proposed 'Biological Safety Bill', GMOs could be in for a rough ride, and maybe even worldwide retreat. That is certainly what the historic Philippines decision suggests.

Some may be wondering where exactly this drive for Precaution is coming from. Part of the answer is that the Supreme Court cited, as part of its deliberation process, a recent paper by one of us (Read, writing jointly with Nassim Taleb et al).

The paper argues that lack of scientific certainty does not justify non-intervention when there is a risk of potentially very serious or irreversible harm to the environment. Specifically, it argues that risk of 'ruin' is a decisive grounds for precautionary action. And, as scientific and technological research has run ahead of legislation, as it has with genetic engineering (and similarly with geo-engineering), then there is indeed sore need for precaution.

Deep pragmatism in action

What makes the decision in the Philippines so special, and such a hopeful potential precedent for other countries including our own, is this reference to precaution. It challenges or removes a number of disagreements that might otherwise be had.

Firstly, precaution is not a 'merely' moral consideration, it is just reason, deep pragmatism in action to avoid the potential for a ruinous outcome.

You don't get out of the car without putting on the handbrake, even if you're on the flat. Or again: precaution doesn't demand that we don't cross streets; it just counsels us not to cross the street blind-folded. Secondly, it's not a complete, forever-and-eternity decision. Precaution demands we keep rethinking, and keep learning more; it is about covering all your bases and not going recklessly into a situation half-blind.

That is one of the things that the paper brings out. It places GMOs in a category of systemic risk due to their capacity to cause a total collapse or irreversible alteration of an entire eco-system. In the case of GMOs, the authors argue for the existence two types of systemic risk.

First, the risk to whole ecosystems if GMOs get released into the wild and become fertile; to quote Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way". In this case, for instance, the introduction of what would essentially be a super-species could strangle the life from all or most of the other species of (say) plant in the area thus devastating the local biodiversity which the ecosystem depends upon; causing a collapse of an unpredictable area of land.

Second, is the risk to human health in the long and short term through consumption of GMO foods. This is simply an unknown. There's plenty of evidence that the high levels of herbicide residues found in 'Roundup ready' and similar GM foods may be harmful, but it's harder to pin it on the genetic modifications themselves.

There are causes for concern, however, as set out on The Ecologist by Jonathan Latham. Arguably one could say that short term risks are low. However no long term research into the health impacts of GMO foods on people who eat them has ever been carried out, leaving the question open.

And absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm. This is one of the crucial features of the Precautionary Principle, properly understood. GMOs have only been in the food chain since the 1990's so we just don't know anything significant about their long-term effects.

To know for sure, we need to do the epidemiology

For these reasons we need to be precautious: we need to do some very carefully controlled and contained, independent, genuinely long-term 'longitudinal' studies, as well short term studies, and above all consider all the options, including options (such as agroecology) which escape the downsides not only of GM technology but also of 'conventional' agriculture.

Don't just assume that GMOs are the only way forwards. But look instead for solutions that contain no risk of ruin. They exist!

Finally, just to be clear, if we can get GMO's right and properly long-term test them then one day we could potentially lift some of the bans and start using them. Just not until we've removed all of the systemic risk from the equation.

The point of thinking truly long-term and taking precaution seriously is: it will be a long long time before we can safely test GM over long periods and against all likely potential harms.

Thus the wisdom of this decision by the Philippines Supreme Court. Which finally helps those of us who have been seeking to find an effective way of raising doubts about GMOs get off the backfoot, and to take the high ground.

The principle that the potential for 'ruin' must trigger firm regulatory action can and should be applied in numerous other contexts, among them climate change (think 'runaway greenhouse effect'); release of chemicals (think CFCs, thalidomide, chlorpyrifos, neonicotinoids); nuclear power (think Chernobyl and Fukushima); nanotechnology; introduction of alien species; and synthetic biology.

Precaution is simply the new common-sense.

 


 

The paper: 'The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms)' is by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Rupert Read, Raphael Douady, Joseph Norman & Yaneer Bar-Yam, and published in the NYU School of Engineering Working Paper Series.

Dr. Rupert Read is Chair of the Green House think tank and a  co-author of the cited paper.

David Burnham is a Masters student in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

 

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