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Biotechnology in the Global Economy:
Science and the Precautionary Principle

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


Plenary Sessions: Panel Discussions on: Concepts and Definitions; and Scientific and Technical Foundations

Concepts and Definitions
Dr. Julian Morris, Institute of Economic Affairs, London, Moderator Dr. Kim Waddell, National Research Council, and Marc Saner, Ethics and Policy Issues Centre, Carleton University, Canada

Professor Anil Gupta, Indian Institute of Management, discussed institutional approaches to the management of risks, their externalities and how the poorest people address such risks. He noted that the poorest people generally live in the highest areas of risk and are often employed in the riskiest types of activities. He stressed that the precautionary principle's application depends on a number of social and other attributes and that different segments of society require different levels of assurances, depending on the type of technology and levels of access. He noted the need to consider whether such risks are reversible, immediate, accumulative, source-identifiable, localized, insulated or recombinable. Gupta also proposed a model to appraise technologies through categories of access, assurances, ability and attitudes, and provided examples within India regarding local application of herbal pesticides and a national effort to address famine through the introduction of hybrid seeds from Mexico during the green revolution. status quo regarding the fair chance for competing technologies, voices and visions of the future. He closed by stressing the need to integrate the six-Es (ethics, efficiency, excellence, environment, equity and education) into risk assessment and management. (

Dr. Marc Saner, Ethics and Policy Center, Carleton University, Canada, analyzed the precautionary principle using ethics and philosophy as tools to illuminate its meaning. In outlining three ethical (Western) traditions, he said that all people gravitate to one of three simplified theories that focus on character or attitude, rules to guide (formalistic) actions, or goals to guide (contextual) actions. In regulatory affairs, character ethics would employ the best people to produce the best possible science. Rules ethics would produce a consistent framework providing a basis for sound science. And goals ethics would mandate flexibility in an otherwise clear framework for sufficiently accurate science. Practical implications of applying these traditions to the precautionary principle would require changes to regulation. This presents the problem of uncertainty, where it becomes difficult to agree on character, action may miss the target, and goals are uninformed. Saner suggested either maintaining a standard approach or developing alternatives that recognize implicit value assumptions and the limited scope of regulatory science. He concluded by asking whether there are any ethical imperatives and a place for discourse ethics; citing science as a risk assessment of the second order; and stating that conceiving of the precautionary principle broadly as a call for change in attitude, prescription for formalistic action and call for contextual action may help to conserve its ideal meaning as initially conceived. (

Julian Morris, Institute of Economic Affairs, London



Moderator Kim Waddall (right) with "Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle" written by Morris

Julian Morris gave a brief history of "risk," noting that taking risks can be beneficial and that all human activity entails some element of risk. He stated that most definitions of the precautionary principle fall into two broad classes: strong - take no action unless you are certain that it will do no harm; and weak - lack of full certainty is not a justification for preventing an action that might be harmful. He noted that governments have generally employed the weak version. For example, he said that despite scientific uncertainty, the EC banned hormones used for animal growth promotion on the grounds that "their safety has not been conclusively proven." By contrast, consumers and environmental NGOs have typically employed the strong formulation to justify their demands for restrictions and bans. He quoted Greenpeace's assertion: "Do not admit a substance unless you have proof that it will do no harm to the environment." He criticized this mindset as leading to the damage of GM field trials in the UK, which has discouraged funding of biotechnology research.

In the ensuing discussion, Philip Bereano, Department of Technical Communication, University of Washington (center), objected to Morris' comments on NGOs, noting that most have been calling for better science and raising valid concerns about gene-flow, transmutation, and unintended consequences. Morris responded that he had wanted to highlight concerns about fundraising, suggesting that some NGOs shifted their focus from environmental to consumer issues to raise public fears and thereby mobilize funds.

Panel discussion on Scientific and Technical Foundations
Left to right: Moderator Professor Andrew Spillman, Harvard School of Public Health, Professor William Leiss, Royal Society, Canada, Professor Gary Marchant, College of Law, Arizona State University, and Professor Klaus Ammann, Institute of Geobotany, University of Bern, Switzerland

Professor William Leiss, Royal Society, Canada, discussed "risk controversy," highlighting the following common features: knowledge gaps; distrust of those who perform scientific research; difficulty in handling problems of uncertainty; intensive dispute over risk assessment data; spin-doctoring; and poor risk communication. He challenged the group to find a way to make risk controversy socially useful, thereby ensuring a transparent process where the public can reach informed decisions. He illustrated two examples regarding the role of scientists in addressing risks and the precautionary principle: the monarch butterfly study, where many scientists noted flaws in such studies; and the case of pesticides, where some scientists, who previously asserted their safety, later sought their elimination. He noted that this reflected a fundamental question about the credibility of science and its push for GMOs, and wondered whether biotechnology is at the same point where pesticides technology was in the 1950s. (

Professor Gary Marchant, College of Law, Arizona State University,argued that the precautionary principle is the "wrong" answer to the "right" question of how we can prevent harm to human health and the environment before it occurs, while recognizing the inherent uncertainty in predicting risks. The ambiguities of, inter alia, degree and level of risk, how much data required to demonstrate safety, how to deal with risk trade-offs and type of action required have been dealt with in the context of risk assessment for years, and until there is agreement on these ambiguities he believes there cannot be consensus on the precautionary principle. He noted that the intentional ambiguity of the precautionary principle is designed to challenge the status quo of political power, ideology and environment. In asking who decides what a word means, he identified two levels of arbitrariness: to which problems does the precautionary principle apply, and when applied, what does it actually mean? Stating that US courts are guilty of arbitrary and capricious review, he called for determinate binding standards based on criteria defining how clear an agency must be to be understood. Without a limiting principle, he said, results can become absurdly restrictive.(

Professor Klaus Ammann, Institute of Geobotany, University of Bern, Switzerland, began by stressing three central themes: people should be able decide which technology they want to adopt; progress is not always found in new technologies; and corporate and eco-imperialism should be avoided. He noted preference for the term precautionary approach as opposed to principle, as "approach" reflects an iterative planning process adaptable to changing needs and conditions, especially in the face of problems with increasingly complex structures and non-obvious causal chains. He called for a comparison of biotechnology with organic, integrated and classic farming practices, based on a given set of crops. He suggested that biotechnology: evolve towards precise applications, adapted to the local needs of farmers and the environment; eliminate gene flow where necessary; and attempt to mimic biodiversity's natural processes. He concluded by calling for a focus on the advantages of all farming technologies and their potential integration. He invited participants to visit his electronic debate network ( and also to subscribe to a new journal on biosafety research which will be launched next March (

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