Every day we accept a level of risk because of the rewards associated with our decisions. Those decisions might be to climb a steep mountain to enjoy a spectacular view, or to trich-test an 1,800-pound bull to prevent the spread of disease, or simply to get in a vehicle to run out for groceries.
As a society, we likewise have adopted a precautionary approach, crafting rules and regulations intended to balance risks with rewards. Speed limits, for example, help to reduce the danger of driving while allowing reasonable travel times. In veterinary and human medicine, federal regulations require extensive testing to help ensure drugs and other products are safe and efficacious, even if there are some risks associated with their use.
Some segments of society have decided, however, in regard to food and agriculture, no risk is acceptable. They have embraced a philosophy known as the “Precautionary Principle,” which takes the concept of “better safe than sorry” to an extreme, potentially stifling critical innovation in agriculture just as the world needs more efficient food production to keep up with explosive population growth.
The Precautionary Principle served as the primary theme for April’s National Institute of Animal Agriculture (NIAA) annual conference in Omaha. Throughout the discussions, there was a general consensus that some level of precaution in adopting new technologies is wise and prudent. We must, however, accept some level of risk to achieve progress, and we also should consider the risk of doing nothing.
The NIAA program 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 provided 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 its supporters “prove” it is without risk, which is functionally impossible.