Most regulatory systems—including that of the United States — utilize a precautionary approach to regulation. And, while most people would agree that precaution is a good idea, two key questions arise: Is the precautionary approach working? Can overzealous precaution actually halt innovation?

Several speakers zeroing in on the Precautionary Principle at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s 2014 Annual Conference, “The Precautionary Principle: How Animal Agriculture will Thrive,” in Omaha, Neb., April 1-2, unanimously agreed that an overabundance of precaution can impede innovation and stifle progress. Another speaker stressed to the 225-plus conference attendees that sustainability—and not the Precautionary Principle—should drive decisions.

NIAA’s Opening General Session speaker Mark Walton, PhD, Chief Marketing Officer for Recombinetics said the Precautionary Principle, which is based on a “better to be safe than sorry” approach to regulation, is not a “bad idea.” But, when the Precautionary Principle becomes twisted and diverts progress due to prejudices, he contends that it is not accomplishing what it was designed to do.

Walton identified several challenges associated with policy being set when the Precautionary Principle is taken to the extreme. Among the challenges he shared are “who gets to decide what risks warrant not moving a product forward” and why do fear-instilled, perceived risks voiced by activist groups take precedence over fact-based evidence such as research and science findings. Adding to the concern is that “there is no single, generally agreed-to definition of the Precautionary Principle.”

While NIAA’s Closing General Session speakers Ron Stotish, PhD, president and chief executive officer of AquaBounty Technologies, and Dave Edwards, PhD, director of Animal Biotechnology, agree that the Precautionary Principle applied to the extreme can halt progress, Edwards didn’t leave those in animal agriculture off the hook. He stressed that it is animal agriculture’s job to be open and transparent, communicate with consumers and convince others than the technology used is safe.

Everything is changing in today’s world and the rate of change is close to unbelievable, Marty Matlock, PhD, executive director for the Office of Sustainability and a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas, told conference attendees.

“While we don’t know where we will be 40 years from now, what we do now can make a difference,” Matlock said.

With technology continually bringing about change, Matlock said sustainability should be the focus of all change. Borrowing from “Field to Market™,” Matlock defines agricultural sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability to meet future generations by increasing agricultural productivity while decreasing environmental impact; improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food; and improving social and economic well-being of rural communities.”

Matlock said the sustainability message needs to be communicated beyond agriculture. Before any messages go out, however, he maintains that trust must be built between farmers/ranchers and consumers. He urged farmers/ranchers to organize, identify their aspirations and convey their aspirations to consumer and companies that utilize agricultural commodities such a meat and milk. And he said strategies and tactics must be put in place to bring identified aspirations to reality.

“The best messages are from those who are farmers and ranchers,” he stated.

“We invented sustainable agriculture, and we’re good at it. In fact, we’re better than anyone on the planet.”

If Matlock could wave a magic wand today, he would replace the Precautionary Principle with a strong focus on sustainability, adding that there are risks associated with not adopting technology.

NIAA’s Opening General Session and Closing General Session presentations, along with various NIAA Committee and Council Session presentations, will be available online at animalagriculture.org by April 15.