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Cropchoice Opinion
Farm Progress gets the Precautionary Principle Wrong

(29 March - Cropchoice Opinion) -- The mainstream ag press hasn't been doing American farmers many favors when it comes to accurate reporting on complicated biosafety issues. An article yesterday (March 28) by Farm Progress' Washington Editor is a good example.

The story, "Beating Back the Precautionary Principle" makes the familiar suggestion that the precautionary principle is a new trick that sneaky Europeans have invented to hurt American farmers and exports.

If it was that simple, American diplomats would have stopped it a long time ago. The US, and our industrial interests, do carry a big stick.

The truth is that the precautionary principle impacts American farmers in much more complicated ways. The concept is simple: basically the precautionary principle says that if you can't prove a biotechnology (like a new GMO crop) is safe, then you shouldn't let it loose outdoors.

Europe, and most of the rest of the world, support this approach. They have questions about some GMO varieties released in the US. The US, and a few allies, counter by saying that unless you can point to a specific problem, why not give the new thing a try.

While Farm Progress' report suggests that the precautionary principle is a new thing "which popped up in the new Biosafety Protocol agreement approved two months ago," really its about a decade old. It was discussed at the giant Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that George Bush attended in 1992, and it is included in the major international agreement on biodiversity.

It is no wonder the US industry, like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, think the precautionary principle is in the way. There is a serious scientific difference of opinion which is getting in the way of markets.

But instead of making serious effort to adapt, industry is on the attack - pointing its finger at other countries' safety laws. They are likely to alienate even more consumers in the process. And so long as foreign consumers are worried about American agricultural products, who wins the narrower debate over the precautionary principle really isn't going to matter much.

While US diplomats are cool to the principle now, because we don't like how others interpret it, in fact, the Clinton Administration is repeatedly on-record as wanting to ratify the very convention that introduced the principle into international law.

Farm Progress says the precautionary principle has "come along to smash you". But could it be that we are paying the price for companies encouraging American farmers to be GMO guinea pigs?