Not seeing, how shall he know

What lies in the hand

Of time to come?”


Wow. It’s coming true.

Back when I was studying for my MSc at CAT, I wrote an essay about the precautionary principle. This is the principle which states that when someone proposes a new technology or a new chemical compound, they should bear the burden of proving that it cannot cause any unintended harm. Putting aside the question of how you prove a negative, are there not some situations where the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks?

In my essay I used the example of GM algae as one of the potential advances which might raise this question on more than a theoretical level. It now seems that it might be a step closer to happening for real. As you may have seen in the news, Craig Venter, the man behind sequencing the human genome, has just created the world’s first synthetic life form. In the video here, he talks about the potential for using the same techniques to design algae which can produce oil. He even has a deal with ExxonMobil.

It makes sense to take a look at the arguments for and against the precautionary principle and GM in general as it applies to this question.

Arguments against GM

“Playing God”

One argument cited against GMOs is that we are acting against or attempting to usurp God. For example, one writer says, “modifying genes is ‘playing God,’ which is unnatural and highly immoral…, an unacceptable intervention in God’s creation, violating barriers in the natural world” (Salvador, 2003). As this is a fundamentalist argument which no amount of argument over costs and benefits could affect, there’s not really any point in discussing it further here. There are plenty of other places on the internet to discuss the merits or otherwise of basing your decisions on the second-hand statements of a bearded guy who is said to have created life.

The Precautionary Principle

Most other arguments against GM rely on the application of the Precautionary Principle. They propose one or more way in which the GMO may harm people or the environment and state that it is up to the scientists proposing GM to prove that this risk does not exist.

A useful analogy is to imagine a school canoeing trip on which a child drowns. The Precautionary Principle would call for a halt to canoeing trips until the person suggesting the trip could prove that no child would drown again. Obviously the death of a child is a terrible thing so this is an understandable reaction.

In one well-known case, a report in Nature (Losey and Raynor, 1999) stated that in laboratory tests, monarch butterfly caterpillars fed milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) leaves dusted with pollen from GM corn showed retarded growth and increased mortality. When the findings were published, based on the Precautionary Principle, Greenpeace demanded that authorities in the United States, Argentina, Canada, and the European Union prohibit the growing of GM maize crops (1999).

This is a more powerful argument than the argument from religion as it is at least theoretically open to evidence that a process is safe. Many of the treaties and documents advocating bans on GMOs cite this principle.

The Precautionary Principle has been around for a long time in such proverbs as “look before you leap.” However it has been making its way into the policy of governments in recent years. The principle is a way of avoiding harm to people and the environment. It advocates caution when cause and effect relationships are not established (Wingspread, 1998 – see Appendix A), and embodies the perhaps commonsense idea that we should take all available measures to avoid risk.

One often cited formulation of the principle is the Wingspread statement (1998). It is here we find the onus of responsibility to prove that there are no serious negative effects of the proposed technology shifted to the proponent of the new technology.

An example of this in practice is the finding of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP), set up in 1999 and reporting in May 2000 in the Stewart Report. It found that the balance of evidence showed no adverse health effects from exposure to radiation from mobile phones. Despite this they advised that “a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available.”

Tony Blair in a speech to the Royal Society (2002), while applauding British science, said that, “None of this…should diminish the Precautionary Principle… Responsible science and responsible policymaking operate on the Precautionary Principle.”  Although he did go on to say that we should, “not fail to proceed at all on the basis of prejudice.”

The Precautionary Principle clearly has found a place in the way governments make decisions on new technologies. There are many sound reasons for this as well as arguments against it which will be looked at below.

Arguments for and against the Precautionary Principle


One argument in favour of the principle is that put forward in the Stewart Report. It points out that advances in technology have made the potential consequences of our actions that much greater: “If science has greater power to do good, it also has greater power to do harm” (2002). This is clearly true. One commonly cited example is the development of nuclear weapons. It seems likely that Robert Oppenheimer would have rather not opened the Pandora’s Box which brought about the end of WWII. Despite arguably saving millions of lives, Oppenheimer was profoundly guilty about his involvement. In his farewell speech on leaving Los Alamos he warned that, “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world… then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima” (1945). The subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons shows that this is a case where a new technology with great power to do harm has been impossible to put back in the box.

Complexity theory talks about the principle of irreversibility in complex adaptive systems. This restated means that once our actions are released into the environment it is very hard or impossible to prevent their effects from continuing, and propagating further, unconsidered effects. It is clear that we have a duty of care to the environment and to future generations to attempt to consider the implications of our actions.

Of course, the aspect of the Precautionary Principle which advocates caution even in the absence of a proven causal link would have had great positive effects in the early days of climate change science. Once it had been suggested that human CO2 emissions were causing global warming then those countries which advocate the Precautionary Principle would have done everything possible to limit emissions. There would not have been the long and ongoing debate of whether human activity was causing climate change. In fact the principle was applied in the case of CFCs. Perhaps this is due to the fact that there is a far greater possibility of economic harm in reducing CO2 emissions than there was in the case of CFCs.


As is the beauty of proverbs, one can find them for both sides of this argument. For example, “he who hesitates is lost.”

A logical objection to the Precautionary Principle is that it is impossible to prove a negative using deductive reasoning. The most we can hope for is to find that in a large number of cases something does not happen. Through inductive reasoning we may then speculate that it is unlikely to happen, but we cannot prove that it will never happen. Unfortunately, this is what the strong application of the Precautionary Principle demands, therefore expecting higher and higher levels of proof. In fairness, the principle is rarely applied as such: rather, this is what is demanded by lobbyists. Nonetheless, in our political system, single issue campaigners and the media’s reporting of their campaigns has a large effect on public opinion and hence on political decision making.

The danger may also be overstated. In the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, little or no harm was found outside of the lab (Ortman et al, 2001). Continuing the canoeing trip analogy, schools may cancel other, safer school trips on the grounds that on one trip a child died. In fact in today’s litigatory climate this may well happen. In this case the “opportunity cost” is the benefits which would have been gained by the children on all the cancelled trips.

In an attempt to explain the opportunity cost, Ronald Brunton in the journal Biotechnology (1995) pointed out that when a government allows something to go ahead the effects “tend to be much more visible and politically threatening.” Approving a drug like Thalidomide “can produce highly visible victims, heart-rendering [sic] news stories, and very damaging political fallout.” On the other hand as he goes on to say, delaying a drug creates “victims who are essentially invisible.”

A neat summation of these arguments was put forward by the author, Michael Crichton in his 2004 novel “State of Fear.” This is a controversial novel as he takes a sceptical view of climate change (the fictional book controversially won the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ 2006 Journalism Award). However, the relevant point he makes is that the Precautionary Principle can be seen to be “self-contradictory,” in that the benefits of applying the Precautionary Principle itself may be outweighed by the combination of the cost of safety measures and the lost potential good of abandoned technologies. This applies just as much, in fact probably more, to GM energy technologies as to the CFC-using fridges Crichton uses as an example.


It is generally agreed among those in the environmental science community, and increasingly among the general public, that climate change is the biggest threat to life on this planet. The technologies described above have the potential to alleviate the effects of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The consensus is that we have to act now. Many are suggesting that we are nearing a “tipping point” beyond which runaway positive feedback effects may begin. It is suggested that given a further one degree rise, the release of the greenhouse gas methane from melting permafrost and other feedback reactions may force even quicker climate change (Hansen et al, 2006). As a full application of the Precautionary Principle would mean many more years of debate on ethics and experimentation on safety and may still conclude that there may be some unforeseen risk, we should instead undertake a sensible form of risk assessment. This would include an assessment of the known and speculated risks of climate change to be weighed against the known and speculated risks of the new technology.

This is not necessarily an argument for throwing out the Precautionary Principle. If we take the full view on the application of the Precautionary Principle from Wingspread, “It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action” (1998). This is perhaps the most important aspect in this case, and one which is often forgotten. We need to weigh the proven and immediate dangers of climate change against the intangible dangers of manipulating nature in ways we do not yet fully understand. It is not fashionable to talk about the current crisis in terms of war; however it may be relevant in this case. If the world is at the tipping point then we may need to take actions which at other times may be deemed too risky or distasteful.


The Precautionary Principle is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is not sufficiently discriminative or forward-looking therefore a new way of looking at new technologies needs to be adopted by Britain and the EU. This is particularly important in the area of energy. In this field the potential risks of doing nothing are far greater than in almost any other. This is not a biodiversity issue; this is a planetary survival issue.

In this light, perhaps the Precautionary Principle should be adapted – expanding on the examination of alternatives which is suggested in the Wingspread Statement but often not carried out in practice.

My “modest proposal” is the “Proportionary Principle” comprised of six statements.

1)      It is important to understand the proven risks inherent in a new technology or new application of an old technology.

2)      It is also important to assess the likelihood of credible speculated risks actually occurring.

3)      It is equally important to consider the severity of the problem or inconvenience the new technology in question is intended to relieve.

4)      Fourthly, one must consider to what extent the new technology may alleviate the problem, both as proposed and in future developments.

5)      From these four factors an assessment may be made of the risk to humanity or the environment, as well as the potential benefits.

6)      Dependent on the estimated ratio of risk:benefit, caution should be exercised to a greater or lesser extent. This is the essence of the Proportionary Principle, in that measures are taken which are proportionate to the balance of risk to benefit.

This isn’t anything staggeringly new. It is essentially a risk-adjusted cost benefit analysis. Obviously research should continue to be carried out into the risks which may be posed by GMOs spreading into the environment. However, at least in applications which have the potential to help in the fight against climate change, work should continue unless there is tangible evidence of harm. In cases where the stakes of inaction are so high, the proposed Proportionary Principle or something similar should be applied in preference to the Precautionary Principle. It is of course important to recognise that some of these risks may be fat-tailed, as with climate change and the credit crunch. However I think it will be a while before anyone forgets the lessons of the past couple of years.

Development of a quantifiable means of assessment of the use of GMOs in the energy industry which takes account of potential lost opportunity needs to be undertaken. This would be a scientific way of balancing the risk against the level of benefit, along with a sensible way of calculating what level of proof of safety should be required in the light of this risk:benefit  ratio.

This policy should be adopted by those countries which have either explicitly or implicitly taken the Precautionary Principle into their legislative frameworks. We need to take a less averse attitude towards small risks when the potential benefits may be great.

I haven’t tried to make any assessment (or guess) here of what kind of dent the technologies here might make on climate change. That is beyond the scope of this discussion. It would however be interesting to try and make an assessment of these technologies which may be able to feed into a risk analysis along the lines of the Proportionary Principle.

I don’t even know whether what I’ve said here makes sense – can fat-tailed risk ever be properly accounted for in a cost benefit analysis? Isn’t the whole point that the events are so rare / unlikely / unprecedented that there’s no way of assigning a probability to them?

Ok, this is getting long. Best get back to the day job!


Brunton, R. (1995) in Biotechnology, Vol 5, No 4.

Crichton, M., (2004) State of Fear Harper Collins.

Greenpeace International, (1999) “Monsanto and Novartis genetically engineered maize harms butterflies: Greenpeace calls for a ban”

Hansen, J. et al (2006) “Global temperature change” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol103: pp14288-14293.

Losey, J. E., Rayor, L. S., Carter, M. E. (1999) “Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae” Nature 399: 214.

Multiple authors (1998) Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Wingspread Conference,

Oppenheimer, J. R., Speech to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists
Los Alamos, NM, November 2, 1945

Ortman et al (2001) “Transgenic insecticidal corn: the agronomic and ecological rationale for its use” BioScience 51, pp900–903

Salvador, A. K. “Genetically Modified Food – To Eat or Not To Eat?” Web Fair and Exhibition, Autumn 2003

Jamie Bull |

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