Excessive caution and risk aversion could stifle critical innovation in agriculture, just as the world needs more efficient food production to keep up with explosive population growth. That was the theme of last week’s National Institute of Animal Agriculture (NIAA) annual conference in Omaha. The conference theme focused on the “Precautionary Principle,” a philosophy based on “better safe than sorry,” but with more teeth and less flexibility, as several governments around the world have adopted it as policy.

The program Tuesday kicked off with a presentation from Mark Walton, PhD, a veteran of agricultural biotechnology who now serves as chief marketing officer for Recombinetics, a Minnesota-based animal-genetics company that uses genome-engineering methods to develop animals for the biomedical and food industries.

Walton set the stage for the two-day conference by providing background on the Precautionary Principle and its implications for agricultural technology. A widely accepted definition of the principle, he says, comes from the “Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle” developed in 1998. That statement reads, in part, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

In other words, Walton says, technology such as recombinant genetics, which could increase food production and improve human health, should be held up indefinitely, with no evidence of harm, until it supporters “prove” it is without risk, which is functionally impossible.

Another portion of the Wingspread Statement reads “The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” Walton argues that while transparency and dialog are important, placing the power to block implementation of valuable technology in the hands of all “potentially affected parties,” including those who do not understand the technology or simply oppose modern agriculture, is counterproductive.

Walton provided several examples of how the precautionary principle currently is blocking products that could significantly benefit society.

  • Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil-dwelling bacteria used for more than 50 years as a natural insecticide. Foliar application of Bt is a widely accepted practice, even in organic production. In the 1980s, scientists found ways to genetically modify crop plants to produce the Bt toxin, providing increased resistance to insects such as corn rootworm. Bt corn and other crops have been in wide production in the United States since 1995. In some parts of India, a type of eggplant known as brinjal is an important staple crop, but borer insects frequently cause 75 to 100 percent yield losses. Scientists developed a Bt variety of brinjal, which was thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy, but activists planted fears in the minds of government officials, blocked release of the product and even stopped further field trials.
  • Lysozyme is a naturally occurring antibacterial enzyme that protects human eyes from infection. Lysozyme also is present in egg whites in bird eggs, protecting the developing embryo from disease, and helps protect infants from potentially fatal diarrhea. Regulators recognize lysozyme as “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS), and cheese makers use it to control bacterial on cheese rinds. Scientists have used biotechnology to breed goats that produce milk high in lysozyme that reduces diarrhea in infants, but the company cannot gain FDA approval and moved to Brazil where officials are more accepting of the technology.
  • Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes up to 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and 2 million deaths each year, with the greatest impacts on pregnant women and children. Across the globe, an estimated 19 million pregnant women and 190 million children suffer from the condition. Scientists have developed a genetically modified rice variety, known as Golden Rice, that is high in vitamin A. Research has shown that 100 to 150 grams of cooked Golden Rice provides 60 percent of the Chinese recommended intake of vitamin A. Estimates suggest that supplementing Golden Rice for 20 percent of the diet of children and 10 percent for pregnant women and mothers will be enough to combat the effects of VAD. The product has been widely tested and U.S. volunteers consume it regularly with no ill effects. And yet, activist organization Greenpeace has targeted it and blocked its release, portraying its sponsors as greedy profiteers.