The beginning of the end for the precautionary principle?: We need to talk about TTIP
David Burnham, MA student at the University of East Anglia
The recent leak of the draft TTIP Treaty shows us much that is disturbing about what the EU and the US are planning, argue UEA’s Rupert Read and David Burnham. They argue the most disturbing of all is the threat TTIP poses to the ultimate environmental protection: the precautionary principle.
After the recent massive leak of documents regarding the EU/US discussions over the Transatlantic Trade And Investment Partnership (TTIP), what do we know? And is there cause for alarm? The answers are: We know a lot more now about what is in the planned TTIP. And yes, there is great cause for alarm.
Great efforts were made to keep the TTIP discussions secret, due to the highly contentious pro-corporate nature of the plans of the negotiators. Now that we can read a lot of the draft TTIP, it is clear just how worrying it is. One element in particular is a plan to remove the precautionary principle from EU law and replace it with a less protective risk- management strategy.
The latter so-called risk-based approach represents a complete misunderstanding as to what the precautionary principle is all about, and a complete failure to understand why it is needed, as explained in an article in The Ecologist.
The precautionary principle is a tool for when risk management fails. It fails where there is uncertainty or ignorance, and when the stakes are high – in other words, it would be wrong to gamble. And when an approach that calculates risk when it is actually incalculable is a reckless gamble.
If you don’t know how many bullets are in the chamber of a revolver, it would be reckless to play Russian roulette with it: even if you were promised a fortune, were you to survive pulling the trigger – that is essentially what the precautionary principle says.
The TTIP negotiators must have failed to understand what the precautionary principle is about, and why it is needed. But maybe that is a naive thing to say. Maybe the truth is darker. There is every reason to believe, as commentators have been saying for years, that the US has wanted to gut the precautionary principle out of EU law from the beginning of these negotiations, and that the EU were not willing to stand up for the principle.
The precautionary principle stands in the way of short-term corporate profit. Eviscerating it makes it much easier for corporations and markets to benefit from upsides while the potentially catastrophic risks are borne mainly by ordinary citizens and future generations. Perhaps the pro-corporate governments and officials who are behind TTIP actually understand all too well what the precautionary principle is all about.
Given the astronomical scale of what is at stake here, this deserves to be a big issue in the EU referendum campaign. Let’s have a conversation about the precautionary principle and TTIP and the EU. Whether you believe that TTIP is a good reason for getting out of the EU or that it is not — or, indeed if you think that neither option offers us a good prospect of having the kind of precautious, green country and continent we need— then one thing is clear: we need to talk about TTIP.
With GM crops, for example, there is an unknown but potentially serious risk to health and to ecosystem health and, ultimately, of some kind of genetic disaster propagating. These risks are unknown in part because we haven’t completed any truly long-term studies into them. These studies would not be over a period of a few years, they would be over many generations. The so-called evidence that GM is safe is not statistically significant, relative to the possibility of rare ‘black swan’ events, which are simply very unlikely to show up over the period in which ordinary studies of GM are conducted. Relative, even, to human lifetimes.
But given some of the potential risks and the devastating effects that those risks might bring, the precautionary principle says that, for the foreseeable future, GM crops should not be introduced into the environment outside of secure laboratories. If we merely managed the risks associated with GM crops we would constantly be on the back foot, as the only way we will know about a rare and catastrophic risk is if we see it happen. By which time, it would – will? – be too late.
The situation is complex but currently the EU has a ban, in effect, on growing most GM crops in most countries. But removing the precautionary principle from EU law would also remove this de facto ban. We would then be in much the same situation as the US – which is exactly what the US TTIP negotiators, evidently, want.
Consider this: Given that more than 80 per cent of all corn produced in the US is GM, it is increasingly difficult for them to be able to do studies on the health of people eating GM. If TTIP passes and the precautionary principle is gutted, how will the existential risk associated with GM crops be managed? Likewise, what about the same kinds of risks associated with various other technologies that are either with us or on the not-so-distant horizon, such as geoengineering technologies? Those are risks that risk management cannot account for.
If the precautionary principle is evacuated from UK/EU law, woe betide us all.
Rupert Read is a reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia (UEA). This post is based on a paper written by Rupert Read, Nassim Taleb and colleagues, entitled ‘The Precautionary Principle (with Applications to the Genetic Modification of Organisms). Rupert Read specializes in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of the environment.
David Burnham is an MA student at the University of East Anglia (UEA), working as a research assistant on humanity’s relationship with the natural environment.