We are the grit in the oyster. John Major

Cross the Street!

Caution is great as a political sledgehammer. Carefully formulated, you can ban anything. But this is unreasonable. Here’s what politics should learn from kids crossing the street for ice cream.

Something deeply problematic has happened to the environmental conversation, and it could easily end up costing the EU, and eventually the rest of the world, in food security, wealth, well-being and health benefits. It is the ever-increasing abuse of the precautionary principle. From being a smart, simple concept it has turned into a destructive sledgehammer for certain policy agendas.

The original Rio Earth Summit version of the precautionary principle states roughly: if threats could be significant, don’t wait for complete information to avoid cost-effective actions. This is smart, and what we do everyday. If something is dangerous, we don’t wait to have the complete information before we act – if our kids are trying to cross a busy road for ice cream, we don’t wait to forbid it until we have a complete model of all the traffic and a precise estimate of the risk of accidents. We make a quick assessment, and if there is too much traffic, we send them down to the pedestrian crossing down the road, even if they grumble and think we’re being over-protective.

It can’t be condoned

But since then, the precautionary principle has been progressively vamped up or weaponized. It is now being used to say you can’t do stuff unless you can prove it won’t be dangerous (guilty until proven innocent). The problem is almost nothing can be proven to be un-dangerous. What if there is no car in sight on the road? An especially fast car could still mow down the kids as they cross for ice cream. Send them down to the crossing? – still dangerous, as more than 800 pedestrians died on US zebra crossings in 2010. With the abused precautionary principle, crossing the street for ice cream simply can’t be condoned.

This simply runs counter to how we act and how and where we weigh benefits – even rather trivial ones – with risks – even serious but unlikely ones.

Moreover, it doesn’t stop with ice cream. What are you going to do, when you get hungry? Going to the store for food is also risky. It can’t be condoned.

The vamped-up precautionary principle is inherently self-contradictory. Notice how it suggests that you should only do safe actions. But as nothing is entirely safe, you get a different outcome depending on the question you ask. If you’re lying under your bedcovers and ask: “can I prove that it is safe to stay here?”, you would have to say no. Eventually you’re going to starve, which is clearly not safe. Both staying in and going to the store for food are forbidden by this interpretation of the precautionary principle.

The problem here is the abused precautionary principle is great as a political sledgehammer – carefully formulated, you can ban anything – but this is unreasonable. We have to weigh risks and benefits, not just issue blanket edicts about safe and dangerous.

This is what is happening in the EU with the management of what is known as endocrine disrupting chemicals. They have been implicated in the possible decline of sperm counts, hormonal changes in women and the increase in certain cancers. Sounds frightening and surely we should be careful. But now we’re being asked to drop any man-made chemical if we can’t prove it is safe – an impossible task.

1.3 million people die each year from road accidents, but we don’t outlaw traffic (or ice cream). We continue to make roads safer with smart, cost-effective policies like zebra crossings, safer cars and traffic lights to manage the risks.

Likewise we need to weigh risks and benefits from using chemicals. This is hard, because we’re conditioned to be afraid of man-made chemicals. Yet, the levels of toxins in natural chemicals are often much higher. Scientists have shown that in a single cup of coffee, the natural toxins are more carcinogenic than all the pesticide residues on a year’s consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Caffeine also has endocrine disrupting properties. So does soy, packed with endocrine disrupting phytoestrogens called isoflavones, which are being increasingly added to our processed foods. Feeding an infant only soy milk has a similar endocrine potential as consuming five birth control pills a day. Chick peas, apricots, beans and anything with vitamin C, have much higher levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals than any man-made chemicals.

Yet, we don’t ban fruits and vegetables, because they are also hugely beneficial –it is estimated that almost five million people die each year from not eating enough fruit.When the precautionary principle is weaponized to attack pesticides and not natural foods, it has consequences.

The EU precautionary activities will result in far fewer pesticide options in fighting pests, fungus and weeds. Production will go down, and prices will go up. The consequent reduction in consumption of just fruits and vegetables in the EU could cause tens of thousands of extra cancer deaths. Moreover, Europeans will become more dependent on other regions of the world to feed them (crowding out the needs of poor people elsewhere).

The Septoria leaf blotch is one of the most important diseases affecting wheat production. Without treatment, it has the potential to reduce wheat yields by up to 35-50%. Yet, EU precautionary legislation will remove 80% of all fungicides from the market, including the main products protecting us from Septoria. Similar situations apply to crop protection solutions across the range of EU agricultural production.

Can we prove that these products are completely safe? No. But the threats are likely to be much lower than drinking coffee or eating soy.

And we definitely can prove that these precautionary bans are unsafe. They will cause higher food prices, more starvation in third world countries, less fruit and vegetable consumption in the EU and hence more cancer deaths. At the same time higher prices will mean less biodiversity because of a higher pressure to convert woodlands and nature reserves into agricultural production.

Proper risk assessment

The scientific community is now speaking out against the weaponized precautionary principle. 81 of the world’s leading toxicologists recently signed a letter to the EU Chief Scientific Advisor expressing their concern at the EU’s lack of proper scientific procedures in assessing potential endocrine disruptors. They emphasize that we need to use the best science to find a sensible, rational way of setting policies.

Unfortunately, the EU is not only adopting an activist agenda, where a weaponized precautionary principle is likely to cause much more damage than good. It is also demanding other countries to take on the same policy approach, whether it concerns crop protection methods, seed technologies or food safety demands. The EU is pushing the precautionary principle into trade negotiations and international treaties. The costs are likely to vastly outweigh the benefits.

We need to stand up for common sense and rational policies on human health and the environment. We need to insist on proper risk assessments, through smart weighing of pros and cons. Like we do when the kids want an ice cream across the road.

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