Throwing precaution to the wind

13 March, 2014

If you want to know where someone stands on health and environment there can be few better barometers than their views on the Precautionary Principle (PP).

The PP, which is part of the regulatory framework in the EU, but not in the US or many other countries, is based on the idea of ‘forecaring’. It does not call for an abandonment of science, as so many detractors misleadingly suggest. It acknowledges that science, because of its limitations and uncertainties, is not able to provide an accurate prediction of future hazards.

The PP has come back into the fore recently as the US and EU hash-out a sweeping trade agreement known the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Protocol (TTIP). If you don’t know about the TTIP, you should.

Under the guise of everyone working together – ‘harmonisation’ in regulatory parlance – it promises to create massive profits and more jobs through trade liberalisation. All that we need to give up in return are some of our most basic approaches to health and safety.

Last October a barely-noticed environment committee report for the EU Parliament found four areas which could be negatively impacted by the regulatory harmonisation required by TTIP: GMOs, toxic chemicals, measures to control poultry pathogens and aviation emissions.

Reconciling the philosophical and regulatory differences in these areas has proven near impossible and what is more, under the TTIP, as recently reported, “Multinationals will have wide-ranging powers to sue EU states that enact health or environmental laws breaching their ‘legitimate expectations’ of profit.

According to the Financial Times, the US farm lobby is apoplectic at the EU’s steadfast refusal to allow beef treated with hormones and GMOs into the European market with some interested parties blustering that it is it was “preposterous” to question the safety of US food. Really?

It may seem like we’re holding our own against a Goliath, but within the EU moves are afoot to demolish our sensible approach to precaution.

For instance, while food remains a sticking point, in other areas this process has already begun.

Europe’s headlong push into fracking, despite abundant evidence of the health and environmental harm it does – is a blatant disregard for the PP and evidence that Europe’s politicians and regulators are putting profit before people.

When Anne Glover, the EU’s chief scientist, says “the precautionary principle is no longer applicable”, she isn’t speaking as a scientist. She is speaking in her capacity as a mouthpiece for corporate Europe.

Likewise the UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and his embrace of GMOs, and MEP Julie Girling with her broadsides against tighter controls on endocrine disrupters, chemicals found in plastics and herbicides that are linked to cancers and hormonal problems, as well as bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides. Indeed, Girling has gone on record saying that the PP is “a risk to innovation.”

That statement is key because “innovation” has, in the mixed up world of political rhetoric, become the unquestioned antonym for “precaution”.

In fact, in late 2013, the CEOs of Bayer, Dow Chemical, Novartis and Syngenta sent a crude and blatantly self-interested a letter to the Presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council asking them to stop applying the precautionary principle to risk assessments, and instead apply the “Innovation Principle” to stimulate economic recovery in Europe.

According to a recently leaked internal document, written in preparation for the EU-US Summit later this month, civil society concern for trifling details like transparency, and potential damage to environmental and social standards are seen as a threat to the almighty TTIP.

Long may civil society continue to be so disruptive to such “innovation”.

Pat Thomas, Editor