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Risk Assessment and the Precautionary Principle

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There are three roads to ruin; women, gambling and technicians.
 The most pleasant is with women, the quickest is with gambling, but the surest is with technicians.
Georges Pompidou

Risk Assessment and the Precautionary Principle

Look into the eye of GMO food
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The Biotech Corporate Future

Is it preferable to allow science to assess the risk of new technology or is it better to adopt the precautionary principle? In a society that exalts all forms of technology as scientific progress, the notion of questioning new methods or discoveries as actual improvements, is often depicted as heresy. One area where this friction has taken root is in agriculture. From the outset, the subject of food; while often ignored, is an essential commodity that even the most intense idealist must consume. When passionate environmentalists seek to become purists, repeatedly humans suffer.

Nonetheless, if the correct goal is to enact a balance, reminiscent that mother nature employs, you won’t know it when you examine biotechnology. The Biosafety Protocol 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted in early 2000, addresses the safe handling, transfer, and trade of biological organisms. The Protocol sets forth procedures and rules concerning trade in biological products, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that have engendered controversy, especially when they are used as agricultural crops.

The Congressional Research Service outlines food safety risk assessment as a process that “begins with consultations among assessors, risk managers, and other professionals to define the scope of the proposed assessment. Once the scope is defined with specific boundaries, a flow diagram is developed that identifies each step in the process. Scientists then conduct an extensive search for relevant data, published in scientific joumals and for unpublished data produced in academic, government, or industry laboratories, that is applicable to each step in the flow diagrarm Data may be weighted based upon their perceived quality, placed into a database, then used in mathematical models that are part of the risk assessment. The models then are used to produce information necessary to evaluate the risk associated with food products or processing activities.”

Those commonly associated with the environmental movement advocate an approach called the precautionary principle. The basic concept is that an industrial activity or product that is thought to cause harm should be banned even if only limited scientific evidence exists that it may be harmful. The precautionary principle is described in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development as: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

While these approaches seem to be diametrically opposed to each other, both share the same underpinning - REGULATION. The scientific research community has their patron in the chemical industry and the Greens influence the chicken little soothsayers. So who has the high moral and objective ground when it comes to gauging the real risks?

Just ask Rachel’s Environment & Health News: “Agricultural antibiotics gave us plump chickens, fat cattle, and oversized pigs, but they also helped create antibiotic-resistant forms of typhoid fever, cholera, meningitis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, syphilis, salmonella, streptococcal infections, staphylococcus infections, shigella, dysentery, and even tuberculosis . . . Agricultural biotechnology was supposed to develop under precise laboratory control, reduce the use of harmful pesticides, and "feed the world." In reality, even though the commercial use of biotech food is less than a decade old, biotech crops have already increased, not decreased, the need for dangerous pesticides.”

The benefits promised from biotechnology food includes: increased crop productivity including herbicide tolerance, pest and disease resistance, improved food quality, cold-drought and salinity tolerance and improved nutrition. Judging such lofty assurances, the proof is in the pudding. Anyone who is familiar with popular sentiments in Canada, the UK and the EU countries, will readily know that the skeptics reflect a deep seeded fear that the risk assessments are being made by the mad cow academics. No doubt that corporate agriculture will engineer the food supply more efficiently, but is that the prime objective?

Life is always a risk so banning as the ultimate standard for precaution, seems senseless. However, only a cave dweller will deny that the chemical industry has no linkage to the causes of the toxic conditions of modern living. Few issues offer a more clearly delineated common interest than public health. Encouraging biotechnology as useful advancements prematurely is crazy. Methods change and can extend benefits, but not at the price of a certain cancer climate.

Man made improvements over natural processes don’t grow tasty tomatoes. Any home gardener will tell you it’s easier to buy at the market, then cultivate the fields. Moreover, “where’s the beef” and flavor from the test tubes products? Looking toward governments to solve this quandary through added regulation and tangible public welfare policy is like having the fox guard the chicken coop.

Organic farming on a massive scale has not proved practical. Family farms have been driven off the land for decades, all with the helping hand of the bureaucrat. What would lead any critical person to believe that the corporate farm will ensure a dependable food supply? Americans so under appreciate the quantity, quality and selection of food, usually at cheap pricing; that most neglect the real costs of the GMO factor. Consolidation of agriculture into a linear and often vertically integrated consortium resembling a giant Cargill model, is dangerous. Now GMO patents are being granted.

Just consider this one illustration. “The U.S. Supreme Court in the J.E.M. Ag Supply v. Pioneer case, rejected the arguments of the seed distributor that plants are not patentable under the main patent act. Instead, the court agreed with Pioneer holding that a plant breeder can achieve a full-blown patent under the general patent act, as well as mini-patents under the PVPA and the PPA, at the choice of the breeder. The case applies to all plants, GMO or conventional hybrids.” The significance is ominous.

Whole lines of new plant advances will be proprietary and excluded from use or research by all scientists, university affiliated or private.

Research will dry up in areas where full patent protection is not sought or available. Non-Monsanto varieties will become quickly obsolete - frozen in the 1990's state of the art. Publicly available seed banks, such as those maintained by universities, will be outmoded.

Monopoly patents push the new vertical integration in crop agriculture like steroids. As smiling corporate faces promote "alliances," they systemically shut down competitors who don't have the right patented product.

Wonder what the risk assessment was on this project? If we are what we eat, how long will it be until we will need to pay a fee to grow our own food! Somehow the relish of buying from approved suppliers inhibits our sustenance. The fruits of biotechnology food has a sour tang. One need not dine with ‘green fanatics’ to recognize that all is not kosher with the regulation of the biotech food chain. The correct precautionary principle is to halt the corporate/state pact of greed and control. Failure to stop this cartel, means you will starve under the guise of a processed diet. You don’t need a think tank to make that assessment.

SARTRE - August 31, 2003

Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer.
 Dave Barry

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