Has society become overly cautious? Are we passing up critical opportunities for innovation in food and agricultural production in the spirit of “playing it safe?” Those are the primary questions behind a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) titled “Impact of the Precautionary Principle on Feeding Current and Future Generations.”

CAST report scrutinizes the “Precautionary Principle”The Precautionary Principle (PP), the authors explain, has helped guide global policies, particularly those related to environmental protection and food safety, over the past 20 years. Specific definitions vary depending on the source, but the PP concept essentially maintains when a practice or technology carries a potential risk to the environment or public health, societies should take the cautious approach, delaying adoption even in the absence of scientific proof.

In some cases, PP is employed as a philosophical concept, in some others, such as in the European Union, PP is officially embedded in legislation governing decisions on technologies such as bio-engineered crops and growth implants in cattle.

Here in the United States, we’ve seen the PP concept turn up regularly in attempts to restrict practices such as antibiotic use in food animals or the inclusion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food.

The authors acknowledge that some level of precaution is appropriate as a form or risk management. “Given the inevitable scientific uncertainty that surrounds most environmental, health, and safety risks, it would be unacceptable to require regulators to wait for absolute certainty of harm before undertaking any protective measures,” they write.

However, they note several criticisms against the PP concept including;

  • The ambiguity and lack of definition of the PP.
  • The arbitrariness and unprincipled ways in which the PP has been applied.
  • A bias against new technologies.

They provide several examples of dubious application of the PP, including France banning caffeinated energy drinks to prevent pregnant women from consuming too much caffeine and Zambia turning down U.S. food aid during a famine over concerns the food could contain GMOs.

The report includes three case studies involving the application of the PP to food-related risks, examining  agricultural chemicals, genetically modified foods and food irradiation. The studies provide real-world assessments of the pros and cons of the PP for managing food-related risks.

In their conclusions, the authors acknowledge the PP can be credited for

bringing attention to the need to better define the appropriate level and form of risk management that should be applied in various situations. However they say, application of the principle has been too broad, extreme, biased and arbitrary.

Governments have exploited the PP’s ambiguity and arbitrariness to adopt protectionist policies, and activist groups have used the PP to apply a double standard of higher scrutiny and demands for certain technologies of which they disapprove. In some cases, the PP has the net effect of increasing overall health and environmental risks by impeding safety-enhancing technologies.

For millions of people who lack adequate nutrition, or will as the food demand-supply gap widens, the PP does more harm than good, the authors say. Its application holds back technology, innovation, incomes, environmental improvements, and health benefits, while increasing trade disruptions, risks and human suffering.

The authors conclude the “Goldilocks strategy” could be the most appropriate approach to risk management – not too little precaution, not too much, but just the right amount is needed.

Read the full report from CAST.