Skip to content

Throwing the Precautionary Principle to the Wind?

July 2007

You might think that when a highly acclaimed UC Berkeley integrative biologist brings to the manufacturer’s and regulator’s attention the troubling matter of ovaries growing in the testes of frogs, you’d be inclined take precautionary steps. Not so with the agri-chemical giant, Syngenta and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

For over two decades, Dr. Tyrone Hayes has studied amphibians and what effects environmental changes have on their development, growth, and reproduction. In 1997, he was part of a research team for the chemical company, Novartis, which eventually became Syngenta. Dr. Hayes lab found that the herbicide Atrazine, Syngenta’s biggest seller, “chemically castrates and feminizes exposed male amphibians at low ecologically relevant concentrations.” Needless to say, Syngenta was not thrilled with the findings. In 2000, Dr. Hayes resigned as consultant for Syngenta and published his work independently.

On Dr. Hayes website, AtrazineLovers, he notes, “As corn is the largest crop in the United States and atrazine is used on up to 85% of all corn crops, the amount of atrazine applied in the United States each year (up to 80 million pounds) is significant. Furthermore, “Atrazine cannot be used in a way that prevents it from contaminating ground, surface and drinking water. In fact, it is for this reason that the European Union (including Switzerland, the home of Novartis/Syngenta voted to ban atrazine in 2001, the same week that the US EPA allowed re-registration. In the US, the economic benefits of atrazine were considered over the many risks posed by continued.”

Wow. Despite Hayes’ peer-reviewed findings, the EPA re-registered it and at the same time orders more studies. By Dr. Hayes’ calculations those studies should take about 40 years to complete. In the meantime, chemicals already shown to be dangerous remain on the market, contaminating ecosystems, farmworkers and consumers.

So what does this have to do with the precautionary principle? The precautionary principle, according to Wikipedia, “ is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.”

This case sure looked to me like a slam dunk precautionary principle case. In fact, the European Union uses the principle to guide much food safety and environmental policy such as the decision not to register Atrazine in Europe.

A participant in a sustainable food systems conference, “Our Evolving Food System: Perspectives from the Heartland,” posed what seemed to me to be a spot-on question to Dr. Hayes.  Does he use the precautionary principle to advance the removal of this public health threat from the U.S. agri-chemical market?

I’d have to say that Dr. Hayes didn’t warm to the question. His answer was swift. Much as he subscribes to it, invoking the precautionary principle would subject him to ridicule by his peers.  Science by nature wades into the unknown, which inherently includes taking risks. The precautionary principle stinks of anti-science and rubs many scientists the wrong way.

My bad. As an organizer, I’ve found the precautionary principle to be an essential tool. It makes a lot of intuitive sense when your priority is preserving our commons rather than swelling corporate profit. I’ve lost too many battles to industry-backed science. Take for example, a community organization in a mining community in Peru which published a report on lead-fouled air and water. The mining company quickly published a counter study. The weak regulatory body took the company’s word and refused to act. How many times have you seen a similar dynamic in your own work?

Dr. Hayes experience left me deflated and reckless: Should we eliminate the precautionary principle because it’s too vague and squooshy?

Hell no. Have we just been twiddling our thumbs on global warming as the thermometer rises and the Bush Administration pumps up counter studies against overwhelming scientific evidence?  Nope. As a society, we have decided – at least some of us – that to not be cautious is irresponsible for the health of future generations. We’ve decided to do something NOW.

Yet, I completely sympathize with why Dr. Hayes cannot invoke the precautionary principle as he goes toe to toe with his colleagues in peer-reviewed studies. It’s the nature of his professional terrain. But that’s not the terrain most of us laypeople work on, a broad plain of competing political, economic and ideological interests. The precautionary principle is an ethos at a grand scale to soar above narrow interests, an approach to the sanctity of life, a safeguard for the commons. Invoked by the public, it can provide popular backing to act now on the findings of scientists like Dr. Hayes.

So it may get ugly out there. Syngenta will continue to sling counter-studies to keep their product on the shelf. The EPA may concur. Both parties may tell you you’re a Luddite, a naysayer to economic growth. Or worse.

But don’t cave. Dodge. Stay nimble. Scan the horizon for the nearest moral highground. Climb it. And there, raise the flag of the precautionary principle. No need to apologize. The male frogs of the future – without ovaries – will thank you.

Latest from the Learning Hub
Back To Top