The need for precaution is being partly blamed for the latest delay in getting AgResearch’s GE rye-grass from lab to commercialisation.
Concern about a potential allergen in pollen from the GE rye-grass is behind the decision to pull the application for field trials in Australia.
Newsroom reports that the withdrawal of the application is to address the concerns of the Biotechnology Regulator which AgResearch and it’s partners are now working on.
This is an embarrassment for politicians and industry using the example of GE Ryegrass to claim New Zealand’s strict regulations for GE have ’caused us to miss out’.
Consumer trust in food safety is paramount. Everyone knows that getting it wrong can be costly. There are memories of the global recall of Starlink corn which is estimated to have cost a billion US dollars.
Is the Precautionary Principle to blame for delaying progress?
Science knows so much more today, so is precaution becoming unreasonable by slowing progress?
The Precautionary Principle made sense when The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification gave it’s advice for New Zealand to ‘proceed with caution’.
That was then, this is now, the argument goes. Things are different.
The belief today is that CRISPR-cas9 makes Genetic Engineering much easier to control and safe.
Except that it doesn’t, not always, and that’s why we need to check.
A review is under way to ensure that New Zealand’s regulatory settings are right for GMO use in bio-medicine.
Good thing too, as nobody would want to see regulatory settings slowing important medical developments as some have warned about. Most people support use of ethical GE biotechnology in medicine, in wider research and for controlled applications.
But the issues are different when it comes to food and to protecting complex natural environments. Safe enough is not good enough.
The debate in New Zealand raised by The Act and National parties is about commercial release of GMOs and exemptions from regulation of Gene Editing.For some in the biotechnology industry, ‘precaution’ and regulation are dirty words.
On the one hand the Chief Science Advisors, The Royal Society and experts say the science is settled that GE is safe. On the other hand scientists including those for the European Ministers of the Environment say that regulation is needed to ensure there is safety, not to assume it.
What are the dangers of Precaution?
There is some evidence that the Precautionary Principle can be harmful, and may have even killed people.
One example cited is Golden Rice which was developed to help poor people with vitamin-A deficiency. The story goes that precaution was part of a long delay in saving thousands from nutritional deficiency with the miracle product of GE Golden Rice. This product took years to be launched. Technical problems and opposition of local communities and anti-GMO groups are blamed for slowing its release.
The long drawn out argument is all but settled now, thanks to the US FDA.
The good news for belief in the hope offered by Golden Rice is that the product has at last been approved for sale in New Zealand and the USA.
The bad news is that Golden Rice doesn’t work. That is to say, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it doesn’t work enough to make a claim to provide a benefit of Vitamin-A to consumers.
The other example cited in the Mercatus paper is of deaths caused by excessive precaution after the Fukushima nuclear explosion. Power shortages were caused by turning off nuclear power stations, and as a result hundreds died.
There may be better examples of why Precaution can be deadly and must be stopped.
But learning lessons from the past is useful for species survival.
We were slow to wake up to climate change. Alarm bells are slowly ringing for AI, and belatedly for nanotechnology, endocrine disrupting chemicals and microplastics.
No time to delay
As the recent Bonn Conference on Climate wrapped up, UN Secretary-General Guterres gave his summation speech and a clear call to action. He warned us not to delay action waiting for technical fixes.
“We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open — with far too many willing to bet it all on wishful thinking, unproven technologies and silver bullet solutions.”
The sense of urgency adds to the alarm that waiting for GE Ryegrass is not what we need for real action on climate change. The problems we face are not because of too much precaution.
The need for action should not be used as a justification for abandoning the Precautionary Principle in the face of powerful technologies. The regulation of Gene Editing is important to ensure safety which cannot be assumed.