A precautionary tale

Environmental campaigners have for decades argued in favour of the ‘precautionary principle’. When the possible consequences of something are simply too serious to risk — say, global warming —  the responsible action is to take steps early, not wait until you are up to your ears in seawater, waving for help with your hard evidence (which you now have in your hand).

Many people in the natural products industry would say the precautionary principle is the most appropriate response to health risks such pesticide exposure or GM food (see GM cotton crops “led to surge in pest infestation for yet another example of a technology out of control).

But politicians are generally wary of the precautionary principle, while big business hates it with a passion. So when you do hear the precautionary principle being discussed — through the filter of corporate PR or think tanks — it’s generally as if it were either some sort of modern neurosis (do we want our lives to be dictated to by hypochondriacs?) or anti-globalization dogma (do we want to be held hostage by anarchists?).

Which brings me to an extraordinary report published last month by the President’s Cancer Panel. Made up of America’s top oncologists and immunologists, and described by the New York Times as “the Mount Everest of mainstream medicine”, the President’s Cancer Panel is heavyweight in just about every respect. The Panel spent an entire year gathering and reviewing evidence of environmental causes of cancer. It concluded that American people are “bombarded continually with myriad combinations of dangerous exposures” to chemicals and electro-magnetic radiation.

Its report (see President’s Cancer Panel concludes organic is safer) is a high-level call to action to reduce environmental cancer risk in all its insidious forms. And its overall key recommendation is that the precautionary principle should “replace current reactionary approaches to environmental contaminants in which human harm must be proven before action is taken to reduce or eliminate exposure”.

The Report is already sending shock waves through the chemical, drugs and agribusiness industries. No wonder. It presents a direct challenge to the ‘business as usual’ mentality on health and environment issues that has had governments all over the world in its grip.

So, what chance of the Obama administration acting on the advice of America’s top cancer specialists? Well, other recent developments suggest President Obama is quite prepared to put some political space between his administration and the corporate lobbyists. The President is said to be giving serious consideration to a soda drinks tax, despite angry protestations from Coca Cola ands others. And there’s every likelihood that Government relations with the oil industry will be very different indeed post Deepwater Horizon (could you actually ask for a better illustration of the case for the precautionary principle than tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico?).

Perhaps the precautionary principle’s moment has come.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.