What is the Precautionary Principle?
Better safe than sorry. Err on the side of caution. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We have many ways to say that it is wise to avoid foreseeable problems whenever possible. This idea is so important that the governments of the world created the precautionary principle: a globally agreed upon system for navigating possible risks in situations where scientific understanding is lacking or incomplete.
The most comprehensive and well-known iteration of the precautionary principle comes from the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). While the precautionary principle itself is not a legally-binding document, it is an important guiding principle found in many international treaties–you can read this document in its entirety to learn more.
In a nutshell, it says that we all have a moral obligation to employ caution when evaluating human activities that could hurt people or the environment.
The precautionary principle is not limited to actions that will definitely cause harm; it specifically includes scientifically plausible harm, or harm that is possible but uncertain. Scientific analysis determines the threshold for plausibility. Genetically modified organisms—living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering—are the first example included in the UN’s list of “possibly catastrophic risks” that make the precautionary principle so important.
Morally unacceptable harm and GMOs
The precautionary principle deals in terms of “morally unacceptable harm,” defined as plausible harm that is any of the following:
- Threatening to human life or health
While the full impacts of GMOs on human health have not been sufficiently studied, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests these novel crops could adversely affect humans. The wide-reaching ecological impacts of some of these crops—from Bt resistance to increased herbicide use—are also threats to human health.
- Serious and effectively irreversible
Genetically modified crops have already led to serious and irreversible problems in agriculture. They have contributed to the rise of superweeds and Bt-resistant pests, led to a 15-fold increase in pesticide use, jeopardized soil health around the planet, and they continue to present a major contamination risk.
- Inequitable to present or future generations
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe it is unethical to silently put experimental technologies in the foods people feed to their families. More than 60 countries require labels on GMOs, and many of these also have severe restrictions or bans against GMO food production or sale. We all deserve the same level of protection and information, no matter where we live.
- Imposed without adequate consideration of the human rights of those affected
GMO agriculture adversely impacts farmer sovereignty around the world. Because GMOs are novel life forms, biotechnology companies have been able to obtain patents with which to restrict their use. As a result, the companies that make GMOs now have the power to sue farmers whose fields are contaminated with GMOs. Therefore, GMOs pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty and to the national food security of any country where they are grown, including the United States and Canada.
“People have a moral responsibility to make an effort to find out whether their actions might lead to damage.” — Precautionary Principle
We cannot always count on our governments to follow the Precautionary Principle. This has become increasingly evident in recent years as the United States and Canada have failed to produce meaningful labeling laws, sided with biotech over farmers, and permitted new types of genetically modified foods to enter the food supply.
The Non-GMO Project was founded because we believe everyone has a right to know what is in their food and deserves access to non-GMO choices. By voting with our dollars every time we shop, collectively we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made. If we all choose not to purchase products with genetically modified ingredients we can influence the supply chain, increase non-GMO crop acreage, and create a non-GMO future.