Africans already suffer from the Euro- pean Union’s bureaucratic ideology known as the “precautionary prin- ciple.” As the EU’s economies teeter on the brink, fettered by bloated and inefficient government policies, the United States is in danger of importing this idea. It is bad for Americans and bad for the world’s poor.
The principle already is at work in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statement of “the need to assess and manage risk in the face of uncertainty.” The President’s Cancer Panel likewise stated that we must “act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm” because “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” The panel admitted in its early May report that “at this time, we do not know how much environmental exposures influence cancer risk,” yet we should be worried anyway. This is the precautionary principle writ large.
EU restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have led to a ban on such technologies by many African governments wishing to protect their farming exports to the EU. Africans pay a price for this in lower crop yields and malnutrition while North Americans happily consume vast quantities of GMOs with no known harm.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, DDT was used widely against mosquitoes, dramatically reducing malaria (and even eradicating it in the Southern United States and Europe). Restrictions on the use of DDT, following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” led to a surge in malaria in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Although there is no outright global ban, DDT use is inhibited by unnecessarily restrictive limits on residues in agricultural imports to the EU. Every year, about a million people - most of them children - die from malaria. Many of those deaths could be prevented if the residue limits were raised to more realistic - and still safe - levels.
This precautionary idea originated in rich countries that can afford luxuries. Those same nations once relied on calculated risk-taking for their economic and social development. Such risks are crucial for alleviating poverty and for economic growth in rich and poor countries alike.
President Obama’s head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, endorsed the precautionary principle in September in her “essential principles for reform of chemicals management legislation.” If our ancestors had attempted to apply the precautionary principle to avoid all potential threats, we would still live in terrible misery, if we survived at all. In their early development, now-wealthy countries such as the United States and Japan imposed few restrictions on new technology. In fact, the story of human progress has been primarily one of risk-taking by pioneers, a story of trial and error that is the opposite of the precautionary principle.
Penicillin, vaccines against polio and smallpox, and DDT would not have been allowed if the precautionary principle had been applied when they were introduced. Hundreds of millions of people would have perished as a result. It is all very well to claim that caution saves lives, but there are times when the opposite is true. When drug administrations take too long to approve the sale of lifesaving new drugs, people die who could have been saved. There are times when the precautionary principle, applied to itself, demands that precaution be abandoned.
The prospect of absolute safety is a mirage. It disregards history and also imposes inappropriate and growth-restricting policies on poor countries that already face a host of difficulties, from unfavorable climates to infertile land. Africa, where economic development has lagged for decades, is just beginning to adopt modern farming technologies. Innovations such as drip irrigation and hybrid seeds in Kenya and Malawi that were long held back by barriers such as tariffs and poor infrastructure are increasingly being used. And there is much more to come. Researchers are developing plants to resist drought and high temperatures - two problems that plague African agriculture.
Unfortunately, as long as the EU - and maybe the United States - continue to legitimize unfounded fears, the uptake of GMOs, herbicides, insecticides and other important modern agricultural technologies will remain limited.
The precautionary principle will harm not only the developed economies that impose them but also the developing world. Before they ban new technologies because of hypothetical, unproven risks, wealthy nations should stop to consider the very real effects of precautionary policies on the poor.
Temba A. Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation, an independent think tank in South Africa.