The term ‘Precautionary Principle’ has been bandied about a lot recently. From climate change to neonicotinoid pesticides to GM crops; it has been invoked in discussions and policy-making pertaining to a variety of issues. But what exactly is it? And why is it so important?
If you’ve ever mulled over these questions, or are interested in the topic in general, then the Society of Biology’s latest Policy Lates debate could be for you. The event will cover how the Precautionary Principle is used, whether it is still appropriate today, and how it might best be employed. The panel will be Chaired by Professor Jim Dunwell, from the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading and speakers include Professor Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense about Science and Professor Joe Perry Professor of Biometry at the University of Greenwich. This free event will be held on 1 April (that’s no April fool) and booking is essential; to register visit the Society of Biology’s Events pages.
In the meantime, let’s get back to those questions… just what is the Precautionary Principle? When it isn’t clear whether or not an action has harmful effects on humans or the environment, applying The Precautionary Principle is advocated to avoid potential harm until there is greater certainty. In many ways, this is aligned with the old adage ‘better safe than sorry’. Clearly in many cases this is a good ethos; however there are situations where its use could stifle innovation and growth by way of a prolonged quest for certainty.
It is pertinent to take a look back and reflect on the happenings that led to the widespread adoption of the Precautionary Principle in policy-making. A key example is the use of antibiotics as growth-promoters in livestock feed throughout the late twentieth century. This, in turn, relates to an issue that is very much a focus for the Biochemical Society: antimicrobial resistance.
The growth promoting properties of antimicrobial agents in farm animals were discovered in the late 1940s. Consequently, the practice of feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to livestock over long periods of time was readily adopted and soon became an integral part of industrial-scale animal husbandry. This practice now makes many modern-day microbiologists recoil in horror…
In the mid-1960s growing concern over food-bourne infections with multi-drug-resistant salmonella in the UK led the government to establish an independent advisory committee to investigate. The task of the committee, chaired by Professor Michael Swann, was to examine the issue of transferable antimicrobial resistance and the consequences for human and animal health arising from the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and in veterinary medicine.
The recommendations in the resulting Swann Report were based on less than full scientific certainty and created much debate and prompted many calls for further research. Its recommendations were clearly precautionary, although the word ‘precaution’ was never actually used in the report. The eponymous document faced strong opposition from both the pharmaceutical industry and the farming community in the UK.
Without the appreciation of the Precautionary Principle as is held now, subsequent UK governments gradually diluted the recommendations of the Swann Report. This resulted in an increased risk of resistance and susceptibility of animals to salmonella and other enteric pathogens. Looking back with modern eyes, it seems that little notice was taken of the uncertainty regarding the long-term effects of the continuous use of livestock feed spiked with antibiotics.
In 1998, the agriculture ministers of the EU Member States voted in favour of a proposal to ban the use of four key antimicrobial growth promoters. The ban was submitted by the European Commission as ‘a precautionary measure to minimise the risk of development of resistant bacteria and to preserve the efficacy of certain antibiotics used in human medicine’. Once again, the pharmaceutical industry protested against the decision and called for further scientific facts about the risks involved in the use of antimicrobial growth promoters.
In the last few years substantial scientific evidence has shown that the use of antimicrobial growth promoters in food animals contributes to the problems of antimicrobial resistance in humans. Since 2006 the use of all antibiotics as growth promoters has been completely banned in the EU. Unfortunately this practice remains commonplace in many other countries, including the US.
The links between the spread of resistance in humans and animal product consumption remain far from proven today. At the final evidence session of the recent House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into antimicrobial resistance, both the UK Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Veterinary Officer reiterated the importance of invoking the Precautionary Principle.
When the example of AMR is considered, the value of the Precautionary Principle may seem obvious. However it’s vital to remember that it can’t necessarily be applied in a blanket fashion across all examples of policy-making where unsubstantiated scientific evidence must be considered. This, and other issues, will be discussed during the Society of Biology’s Policy Lates event on 1 April. Do join us… what’s the risk?!