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Biotechnology in the Global Economy:
Science and the Precautionary Principle

22-23 September, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University


Photos and Real Audio from 22 September

Opening Session
Dr. Calestous Juma, Science, Technology and Innovation Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and Conference Chair, noted three key areas highlighted by the last biotechnology conference, held at Harvard in September 1999, including environmental safety, safety for human health and the safety of socioeconomic systems, and noted that the notion of uncertainty is a central overriding factor encompassing them. Within this context of uncertainty, he stated that no general agreement exists on what the precautionary principle means or how it is applied in different socioeconomic systems. Juma expressed hope that this meeting could help create a common language and vocabulary, and whether the principle serves as a new perspective on uncertainty or whether it complements existing approaches. He further noted that the meeting would address national and international experiences with the precautionary principle and its formulation, as well as the ultimate implications for policy, institutional and regulatory systems.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director, Center for International Development (CID), Harvard University, stressed the need to integrate science and technological issues in global economic development. He discussed some of CID's activities in the area of science and technology, including: understanding the gap of technological development between developed and developing countries; understanding the mechanisms that drive the gap and that could be used to reduce the gap in innovation; and trying to find ways to incorporate serious scientific reasoning into international development efforts.

Professor Sachs then went on to discuss biotechnology and the precautionary principle. He stated that the precautionary principle is essentially a risk assessment tool, and that if there are no externalities, then individuals should be able to manage their own risks. He proposed that labeling could be a potentially useful mechanism. He also suggested the need for: delivery assessment to look at biotechnology's net effects; risk evasion frameworks to evaluate whether the loss of a technological application is more painful than its gains; investing in a better understanding of biotechnology; decentralized decision-making; and using independent scientists and peer reviews to evaluate risks. In closing, he suggested that while the political debate over biotechnology may continue in Europe, the furor will subside elsewhere given its general adoption in the US, China, India and increasingly in Latin America. He noted the reluctance to adopt the technology in Africa, mainly due to Europe's influence and donor role, but believed that overall the technology will continue to grow.


Professor John Holdren, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, presented relevant comparisons between the theoretical application of the precautionary principle in biotechnology and his past experience with comprehensive risk assessment and hazard management of alternative energy, including nuclear arms control and non-proliferation. He began by critiquing the Wingspread formulation of the precautionary principle, noting that this definition, inter alia, offers little guidance on the real questions of what kinds of measures should be taken. In examining suggestions for application of the precautionary principle, he elaborated on why management and risk in society is so difficult, beginning with the key question of how much and what kinds of caution should be exercised. He noted that uncertainties about the costs and risks of alternatives presented difficulty in making decisions on how to evaluate and choose between them, that the burden of proof would be placed on industry, and that mechanisms for informing those affected and enabling them to take part in decision-making is not easy but crucial. (
Jeffrey Sachs, Calestous Juma, and Konrad Von Moltke (International Institute for Sustainable Development)

Panel discussion providing an Overview of the Origins and Evolution of the Precautionary Principle
Konrad Von Moltke, International Institute for Sustainable Development, highlighted the fact that the scientific basis of all of modern environmental policy involves some degree of uncertainty, and that governance procedures to deal with this uncertainty are essentially the institutions of precaution. He said the international community should stop arguing over the meaning of the precautionary principle, but should instead strive to better understand the institutions through which governments move from science to policy. (
Carolyn Raffensperger, Science and Environmental Health Network, supported application of the precautionary principle as humans have caused damage, sometimes catastrophic, with technologies and that the present magnitude of the human-induced change is unprecedented. To operationalize the principle, Raffensperger proposed four provisions, including people's duty to take anticipatory action; the burden of proof on the proponents of a technology; examination of a full range of alternatives; and open, informed and democratic decision-making, including affected parties. She concluded by noting, inter alia, that the principle: is not optional in view of the magnitude of potential damage; requires more and different science; employs ethics, as well as science; and is no longer an academic, but now a public, debate. (

Above left: Amir Attaran, Center for International Development, Malaria Project; Above right: Philip Bereano, Department of Technical Communications, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Book Presentation and Discussion: Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods by Alan McHughen
Alan McHughen, genetic engineer and author of Pandora's Picnic Basket/Consumers' Guide to GM Foods, explained the process used to write the book. He noted that it is generally based on questions, whether simple, complex, outlandish, environmental, social, scientific or ethical, posed to him by the public. He noted the extremes on both sides of the biotechnology debate, remarking that positions have often hinged on bad science and/or false assumptions. He added that increased public scrutiny of biotechnology is generally a positive development. He stressed the need for a common understanding of the precautionary principle, otherwise it will be applied in self-serving, and ultimately conflicting, ways. He emphasized the need to look at the current status quo in terms of techniques that biotechnological methods could replace, noting that many conventional activities present greater threats to the environment and human health, yet are not subject to the precautionary principle. (
In a slide presentation, McHughen also compared the Canadian regulatory process for approving a conventionally-bred variety of flax and a genetically modified variety, noting an almost excessive burden of additional information for the GM crop (illustrated in photo) despite a difference only with regard to tolerance of herbicide residues in the soil.

Center for International Development

bullet CID homepage bullet Conference Program
bullet CID events bullet Abstracts and Viewpoints
bullet International Conference on Biotechnology in the Global Economy homepage  

Other biotechnology-related sites

bullet CBD Secretariat web site

bullet ENB coverage of CBD COP-5, Nairobi, May 2000

bullet Linkages biodiversity page

bullet ENB coverage of resumed Ex-COP, Montreal, January 2000

bullet Links to other Biotechnology-related sites

bullet SD coverage of 1999 conference on Biotechnology in the Global Economy

�2000, IISD. All rights reserved.

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