Two techniques used in this week’s presidential debate resonated with my internet Sustainability study on this week’s topic – GMO’s.
There seems to be three areas of concern on Genetically Modified Organisms (“GMO’s). Their effect on our health, on our environment and on our wallet. I will not dwell on environmental issues (such as genetic drift or loss of diversity) or wallet issues (will the seeds which produce our food be owned by corporations?).
But as for our health, there are studies which say GMO’s are safe and others which say they are harmful. This past Wednesday one presidential contender said he had a non-partisan study which said the other contender was wrong, to which the response was essentially “and I have 6 studies which say you are wrong”. So with studies nothing is conclusive until there has been a long lapse of time – consider how long it took for most everyone to agree that the climate is indeed getting warmer, notwithstanding that the timing of migratory flights and blooming of flowers changed several years ago and neither birds nor plants had a dog in the fight. And with studies you can become very cynical when you look at who did the funding.
A familiar legal concept is “burden of proof” or “onus” and in criminal cases the accused is presumed innocent, so the onus is on the prosecutor to prove guilt. When new drugs or procedures are introduced, which can impact our health or the environment, where rests the onus? The precautionary principle, in one version, states that “if an action or policy has suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.”
There is a strong version of the principle, which does not weigh costs and benefits, and a weak version which does. The strong version of the precautionary principle will require those advocating GMO’s to prove that they are safe.
This is where the exceptions and prevarications get interesting. We use, and have come to depend on, electricity and the internet. They were new technologies that were not proven safe at the time of their introduction and even today have not been proven safe – can cell phone radiation damage our brains? Application of the strong form of the precautionary principle would have prevented or delayed their introduction.
And now for the second technique used in the presidential debate, which was also used in my internet lecture this week. In the presidential debate one contender said it was “immoral” to continue to create government debt. “Immoral” is such a strong word, it gets your attention. In my GMO lecture it was argued that applying the strong form of the precautionary principle is paralyzing, prevents development and can be “immoral” if it prevents the development of countries.
The strong form of the precautionary principle does not weigh costs and benefits. But in our own lives we do take risks and we weigh them against the benefits. Crossing a road can be dangerous, but for most of us the benefit of getting to the other side outweighs the risk of being struck by a car. Applying the principle strongly leads to delays, such as delays in introducing new drugs, which can cause harm. And so the argument goes, we should not stall progress and we should apply the weak form of the precautionary principle and consider costs and benefits.
And this apparently is where we are today with the application of the “substantial equivalence” rule which lightens the onus on those introducing GMO’s.
And two additional consolation arguments for the unconvinced – with world population growth and change in consumption patterns resulting from increasing affluence, we have to find a substitute for the green revolution and GMO’s can be the answer. (There is nothing like having your arm twisted to compel your concurrence or at least, silence). And finally, are GMO’s really all that novel? After all how about the wizardry of early inhabitants of America who used selective breeding to accomplish the miraculous transformation of grass/teosinte into modern corn/maize.