Precautionary Principle: Who Decides?

April 7, 2014 07:57 AM

Source: National Institute for Animal Agriculture

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.

"Overabundant precaution calls for getting people comfortable with innovative
processes," Edwards stated.

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

"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

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