An additional alternative approach to environmental governance is the precautionary principle. Although it tends to garner very little support in the United States, it has made some headway in Europe. Much of the debate over the use of the precautionary principle has come out of a debate over the use of Genetically Modified Organisms or Foods (GMO) and the use of hormones in animal products. Europe’s use of the principle has, in fact, led to a ban on 7 different US foods. However, the discussion of stevia enhanced strawberries or rBGH induced cows will have to wait for another entry into this blog. For now, let’s explore what the principle is and discuss its advantages and disadvantages.
The precautionary principle, at its root, is one that seeks to protect the stakeholders of society from the potential negative externalities (unintended consequences) of actions , whether those actions be related to the environment or the food industry. As a result, the precautionary principle is a moral and political principle that emphasizes the need for scientific evidence that reflects reduced risks given the desire for action–precluding that action being taken. Central to this thesis is the notion that the burden of proof is not specifically the responsibility of the objector to an action but now the responsibility of the proponent of an action. If a company wants to produce pig-gene tomatoes, they have to prove without a reasonable doubt that there are no significant risks.
Advantages: At first glance, the precautionary principle provides policymakers with a simple common-sense approach to evaluating actions. Very simply put, if we are embarking on something new, we should think very carefully about whether it is safe or not, and we should not go ahead until we are convinced it is. This approach allows for, I believe, government regulators to catch up with private enterprise; allow government to create appropriate plans of action given “good” information; allow regulators the chance to examine the far-reaching effects of proposed action prior to that action being taken; allow for greater protection of the consumer and environment.
Disadvantages: There has been significant academic work on the precautionary principle. Much of what has been written relates to an ambiguity in notions of a weak vs. strong precautionary principle (see Cass Sustein’s Law of Fears). Also, many advocates of agro-business, bio-chemical industries and pharmaceuticals put forward an import thesis regarding, what I consider, an important disadvantage of the principle. Basically, given the increased rigor of regulatory demands for proof of limited to no risk, many health related products may be kept from the market. There could be a potential drug that could be used to help cancer patients; however, it has not shown significant results in limited risks–although there are clear benefits–and is kept from the market. This raises the question: how much risk must be eliminated? Are all risks foreseeable?
Ultimately, as an alternative to the current command-and-control regime, precautionary principle does not stand firmly on its own, but would function best when coupled with the sustainability approach. In cases where consumer and environmental safety and sustainability are at risk, the principle would due well to address the concerns over such actions. However, in order to ensure the maintenance of well-being, precautionary principle could be avoided in instances of national security or health/life emergencies. Of course, defining such emergencies remains ambiguous but the point is that no policymakers, even the ones we disagree with, should be permitted maneuverability on issues like the environment that are continually changing.