TCS Daily

Are You Better Safe Than Sorry?

By Hans H.J. Labohm - January 17, 2003 12:00 AM

'Better safe than sorry.' This is the crux of the precautionary principle. The application of the principle manifests itself everywhere. There are crash barriers along the highway and handrails along the staircase.

But the ladder of the traditional window cleaner does not have a handrail. And the same is true for the ladders in sluices, which may give rise to hair-raising spectacles of a passing skipper using the ladder to take out his St. Bernard dog. We do take part in traffic, although it may cost human lives. We finance the fire brigade via our taxes, but not every house has a sprinkler installation. And at the apogee of the Cold War, there were even people who did not possess a nuclear free shelter in their backyard.

In other words, a risk-free world is unthinkable and there are limits to the application of the precautionary principle. We believe that some risks are too small to warrant additional expenditure. If we would spend more on them, then we will have to forgo the satisfaction of other needs, including the precautionary measures that will protect us against other risks that we believe to be more likely. In short, the application of the precautionary principle should be subject to the same simple cost-benefit analysis, which we also apply in all other fields of human decision-making.


Over the last decade or so, the precautionary principle has been given more priority than before, especially in Europe. Even to the extent that The European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs, David Byrne, has reluctantly raised the question whether Europe wasn't exaggerating a little bit and had perhaps fallen victim to a certain degree of risk paranoia. But his attempts to do something about it in order to remedy what he has called the European 'GMO-psychosis' (GMO = genetically modified organisms), have mainly faltered so far.

Also his colleague for trade, Pascal Lamy, is troubled by this phenomenon, particularly because there exist important differences in risk appreciation between the US and the EU. These give rise to trade tensions, for instance as regards the use of growth hormones for meat and the use of GMOs in vegetable food production.

In the US people have been eating GMO food for years without any health problems. In
Europe it is perceived as Frankenstein-food. This has a negative impact on the mutual trade relations. Americans see this as the umpteenth proof of European protectionism. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that European cheese, wine and beer are being enriched with genetically modified enzymes, without anybody bothering about it.

In a recent paper on the precautionary principle, Jaap Hanekamp of the Foundation Heidelberg Appeal Netherlands (which aims at providing the public, media and politics with objective information on the environment, biotechnology and similar fields) notes that the precautionary principle is ambivalent vis-à-vis scientific knowledge and capabilities. On the one hand it emphasises that there are limits to scientific knowledge and that this knowledge is fraught with uncertainties: the quintessence of the justification of the precautionary principle! On the other hand, the precautionary principle requires scientific demonstration of absolute safety when new products or processes are being introduced. On balance, however, overcautiousness suppresses scientific knowledge in favour of political considerations, false beliefs and irrational fears. Excessive application of the precautionary principle prevents action until there is complete certainty that it will not produce any harm. But 100% safety can never be guaranteed. The result is paralysis and stagnation.

Trial and Error

The precautionary principle, moreover, turns a blind eye to the costs or damage of the preservation of the technological status quo. The risks of existing products and processes are taken for granted and are not subjected to the same rigorous tests. But economic growth is primarily due to innovation and the development of technology. When these are obstructed, economic growth will decline which will also entail risks.

There is no progress without risks. Excessive application of the precautionary principle limits the possibilities for trial and error that are critical ingredients of progress. An example where the application of the precautionary principle has been harmful to society is the reduction of the use of DDT in the Third World, which has led to the re-emergence of malaria. The precautionary principle is also responsible for the impediments concerning the application of GMOs in the food production of the developing countries. These could promote the production of safer and cheaper food, with more nutritional value, which contributes to the alleviation of hunger in the world. Additionally, GMOs could contribute to stem worldwide deforestation, because it raises the productivity of land already in cultivation.


In short, overzealous application of the precautionary principle may lead to the stifling of innovation, impediments to trade, and the loss of human lives. If the precautionary principle in the past would have been applied in the same way as today, we would not have been able to enjoy amenities such as motor cars, railways, aeroplanes, drugs etc., which make modern life much more comfortable and interesting than life in ancient times.

As has been mentioned before, Europe takes a more strict stance than the US as regards the application of the precautionary principle. At the same time, the EU, at its Summit in Lisbon in 2000, has publicly declared its ambition to become the most competitive, dynamic, knowledge-based economy in the world in ten years time. It seems that Europe still has to considerably readjust its current policies to close the gap between these two objectives.

Hans H.J. Labohm is senior visiting fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, 'Clingendael, in The Hague.

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