Skip to content

Balancing risks and benefits

“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.”

This is a statement of the Precautionary Principle, which seems at first sight to be a self-evidently sensible statement. If this approach had been taken in years gone by, rabbits and cane toads perhaps would not have been introduced into Australia, nor Japanese Knotweed into the UK. Some things have unintended consequences, but some of these are predictable with a bit of forethought.

But that is only one side of the story. There are three key factors in this precautionary approach which warrant further thought. The first is who decides what is potentially serious or irreversible damage, the second is that this Principle is only applied to environmental issues and the third that it is a flawed approach to decision-making since it makes no attempt to balance risks against benefits.

Who decides is a big issue, especially as the PP specifically does not require scientific certainty. With environmental issues now being firmly embedded in EU and member state policymaking – and with much already having been done to improve air and water quality and wildlife conservation – it is relatively easy for well-funded campaign groups to get their messages across to politicians and officials.

The formal adoption of a precautionary approach to the environment makes many of the messages difficult to resist, especially when those presenting the opposing point of view can be painted as self-interested companies who put profit above Nature. The fact is that what constitutes damage can often be in the eye of the beholder.

At one extreme, the more radical members of the Deep Green fringe of environmentalism regard humankind as a blot on the planet. Undoubtedly, we (and previous generations) have had a greater and more widespread impact on the environment than any other species, but this is more a matter of degree than a complete contrast to other species.

The essential difference is that our adaptability and inventiveness have overcome a series of what would otherwise have been limiting factors on population growth. Without farming, a hunter-gatherer existence would have restricted world population to perhaps a few hundred million at most. Without the development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and modern crop plants, a Malthusian catastrophe would most certainly have kept the global population far below what it is today.

That very ability to move beyond natural constraints has also made us acutely aware of our impact and allows us to make choices. While no-one would argue about the importance of clean air and water, opinions may vary when it comes to protection of habitats and wildlife conservation. There is a balance to be struck, which the Precautionary Principle tends to push in the direction of conservation. But there can be unforeseen consequences, such as the damage done to churches by (protected) bats, or the impact on hedgehogs and cattle of increasing numbers of badgers.

Less contentiously, the countryside which we regard as ‘natural’ across the UK and many other countries has been shaped by our ancestors over thousands of years. Instead of a largely wooded landscape, we now see and enjoy (manmade) open views, (manmade) fields with (manmade) hedges, with a different range of wildlife species than before cultivation started. This is what conservation charities now try to protect, and yet such drastic changes wrought by farming would be strongly resisted today as ‘damaging’. To many campaigners, change has become synonymous with damage.

Which brings me to the third point, that the Precautionary Principle does not aid decision-making, but simply allows a stop to be put on anything which could be argued to have a harmful environmental impact. There is no provision for the consideration of both risks and benefits as the basis for a rational decision.

Precaution in other areas of life is embodied in the Health and Safety culture, which has made many things safer for individuals, although at times can be taken too far. However, if the PP was to be used more formally across other sectors we would be unlikely to have access to the internet (which can be used for a range of distasteful purposes at the same time as being of enormous benefit) or mobile phones (implicated in road accidents).

One of the key impacts of the Precautionary Principle is on agriculture, particularly seen in the opposition to genetically modified crops in a number of member states. It is generally recognised that this has a lot more to do with social attitudes than any credible risk to either the environment or human health. Standing up for evidence-based decision making in this area is not a vote winner, although a number of governments (including the UK) are, to their credit, taking this approach.

In the meantime, the European livestock industry remains dependent on imported GM soya protein to keep costs down, and genetically modified microorganisms are regularly used for food processing. But the damage in terms of competitiveness has been done and cannot easily be undone. Once a scientific leader, the EU has now lost all the private industry R&D capacity in the sector. The message to biotechnology innovators is not a welcoming one.

On the other hand, all may not be quite lost. The emerging techniques of gene editing, such as CRIPR-Cas9, are elegant and highly controllable ways to make precise changes to genomes. The EU is currently still deciding whether to regulate plant varieties developed in this way as GMOs or whether to take the less stringent approach which evidence suggests is more appropriate. For the sake both of Europe’s future competitiveness and its farming sector, let’s hope that common sense prevails.