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Precautionary principle hinders science

It is one of the ironies of our time, says Bonner Cohen, “that the countries that have the greatest technological advancement are the ones where science and technology are most under attack.”

It is even more ironic, he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual meeting at Charleston, S.C., that “the same people who demonize technology are also the ones who use it.”

Cohen, who is senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, was editor of EPA Watch and now serves as Washington editor for the Earth Times and Environment News.

Since the early 1980s, he says, environmental activist groups have operated on the Precautionary Principle, which says, “When an activity raises the threat of harm to the environment or public health, precautionary measures should be taken — even when some cause and effect relationships are not scientifically established.”

Adherence to this principle, Cohen says, “has brought about a world in which we too often cannot take the risk of risk, with the onus on us to prove the innocence of our science and technology. Had the Precautionary Principle been in effect in earlier eras, we would have no electricity, no automobiles, no airplanes — they would all be too dangerous.”

The principle more recently has been applied in the European Union to impede or ban the use of genetically modified crops and to block the sale of U.S. beef containing growth hormones — “despite there being no peer-reviewed scientific evidence of any danger to human health.”

Efforts are now afoot by environmental groups in the United States, Cohen says, to have the Precautionary Principle serve as the basis for environmental legislation in several states.

“Their idea is to come in under the radar screen to accomplish their agenda. But the ultimate effect is to stifle innovation and research. What company is going to spend millions of dollars to develop a product that can be stopped in its tracks by the Precautionary Principle?”

The Science and Environmental Health Network, based in North Dakota and founded in 1994 by a consortium of North American environmental organizations, is “the leading proponent” in the United States and Canada for use of the Precautionary Principle as the basis for environmental and public health policy, Cohen says.

Following recent mid-term elections that restored control of Congress to the Republicans, he notes, “The president of the Sierra Club was quoted as saying he imagined the Bush administration would try to bring back DDT — as if that would be bad for the nations where it is desperately needed for control of diseases.”

The banning of DDT and other anti-pesticide efforts by environmental organizations throughout the world “reflects the same kind of mentality underlying the Precautionary Principle,” he says.

“They go around the world, telling countries they need to develop ‘in a sustainable fashion,’ the idea being that overcoming Third World poverty and disease should be based on sustainable agriculture — that what's been good enough for the United States and other developed nations in terms of science and technology isn't good enough for poorer countries.”

Increasingly, Cohen says, “these countries are rejecting efforts by developed nations to deny them the fruits of the technology we ourselves have used to achieve so much progress. In the past, they lacked a forum, a voice. But, this is changing.”

At the recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, he says, “one of the overriding points was how the eradication of disease will be viewed in developing nations. The Bush administration has recognized that these serious problems cannot be eradicated unless these countries are allowed to embrace science and technology.

“So, they went around the EU and the environmental groups, and directly addressed the leaders of these countries with the message: ‘We'll assist you in overcoming these conditions — but you must realize that you'll have to do it the way we were able to do it, using science and technology. And you'll have to clean up your own act in terms of dealing with corrupt, inefficient governments that keep people in poverty.’

“All this fell on very receptive ears, and it represents a tremendous sea change in terms of global environmental and health policies.”

There are “tremendous opportunities,” Cohen says, for “those unfortunate enough to be born in the world's hellholes” to utilize science and technology to overcome their desperate need.

“Too many organizations are still married to old doctrines, positive they know what's best. Those most in favor of banning DDT, for example, were not those who were most likely to suffer and die from malaria. This is eco-imperialism.”


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