In other words, Walton says, technology such as recombinant genetics, which could increase food production and improve human health, should be held up indefinitely, with no evidence of harm, until its supporters “prove” it is without risk, which is functionally impossible.
Another portion of the statement reads, “The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” Walton argues that while transparency and dialogue are important, placing the power to block implementation of valuable technology in the hands of all “potentially affected parties,” including those who do not understand the technology or simply oppose modern agriculture, is counterproductive.
Walton provided examples of how the Precautionary Principle currently is blocking products that could significantly benefit society.
- Lysozyme is a naturally occurring antibacterial enzyme that protects human eyes from infection. Lysozyme also is present in bird eggs, protecting the developing embryo from disease, and also helps protect infants from potentially fatal diarrhea. Regulators list lysozyme as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), and cheese makers use it to control bacteria on cheese rinds. Scientists have used biotechnology to breed goats that produce milk high in lysozyme that reduces diarrhea in infants, but the company cannot gain FDA approval and moved to Brazil where officials are more accepting of the technology.
- Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes up to 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and 2 million deaths each year, with the greatest impact on pregnant women and children. Across the globe, an estimated 19 million pregnant women and 190 million children suffer from the condition. Plant breeders have developed a genetically modified rice variety, known as golden rice, that is high in vitamin A. Estimates suggest that supplementing golden rice for 20 percent of the diet of children and 10 percent for pregnant women and mothers will be enough to combat the effects of VAD. The product has been widely tested and U.S. volunteers consume it regularly with no ill effects. And yet, the environmental group Greenpeace has targeted it and blocked its release, portraying its sponsors as greedy profiteers.
Another presentation focused on a fish, possibly the ubiquitous “big one that got away.” Ronald Stotish, PhD, executive director of AquaBounty Technologies, provided a case study of how a bias toward caution can prevent implementation of food technologies that could help feed the world.