Other than potential entrees, there seems little linking golden rice, genetically modified salmon, and beef from a steer implanted with growth hormones. In fact, all are casualties of something called the Precautionary Principle.
There is no commonly accepted definition. However, presenters at the annual meeting of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) explained it is being used more frequently by regulators everywhere to mean proving something 100% safe for the environment, livestock and people — period.
As such, the anti-everything crowd is also using the principle — the fact that nothing on this earth is 100% assured — to stir up fears inside and outside of governments.
The European Union (EU) began banning hormone-treated beef in 1989, “based entirely on the Precautionary Principle,” Mark Walton explains. He is chief marketing officer for Recombinetics, an innovator in genome editing.
You may be less familiar with golden rice, developed by Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in the 1990s. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and death in children, and affects millions of kids every year in developing countries. Since rice is the primary staple of many folks living in those developing countries, Potrykus and Beyer figured out how to genetically modify rice to produce betacarotene (pro vitamin A). The developers never intended to profit from this. They donated the technology to resource-poor countries where Vitamin A deficiency is a problem. Today, golden rice is only evaluated at research institutes in a couple of countries.
Greenpeace and like-minded organizations continue to engage in a fear-mongering campaign that makes governments and consumers skittish about golden rice, though reams of data prove it is safe.
Keep in mind that approved genetically modified crops first introduced 50 years ago have never yielded a safety problem.
Then there's the salmon
Then there’s the salmon, developed by AquaBounty Technologies. Developers took a North Atlantic salmon, added a growth gene from the Chinook salmon and a growth regulator from another freshwater fish called the ocean pout. The resulting AquAdvantage® Salmon, now 14 generations old, grows to market weight twice as fast as conventional North Atlantic salmon and then quits growing. It is also 5% more feed-efficient. It can be grown inland, too.
According to Ron Stotish, AquaBounty president and CEO, the U.S. imports $2 billion worth of North Atlantic salmon every year. Imagine the jobs that could be created.
Almost 20 years and $80 million later, AquaBounty is still trying to get FDA approval. This is despite government experts at various stages already having determined that AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe to eat as any other North Atlantic salmon and poses no risk to the environment. It would be the first transgenic animal approved for human consumption.
There’s exciting potential in the pipeline, too. There’s everything from gene editing to take the horns off cattle, to cows producing human antibodies, to goats producing malaria vaccine in their milk.
“The problem with the Precautionary Principle is not that it leads the wrong direction, but that if taken for all it is worth, leads in no direction at all,” Stotish says.
Some companies and researchers facing similar challenges are simply going elsewhere. They’re taking their talents and intellectual property to countries that judge innovation with common-sense precaution rather than the all-or-nothing Precautionary Principle.
One example is the transgenic goats developed by James Murray and his research team at the University of California, Davis. The goats produce milk with the antimicrobial human lysozyme, which shows promise to prevent the fatal effects of persistent diarrhea in millions of children worldwide. After battling to get to square one with U.S. regulators, the project moved to Brazil, where it’s being embraced.
Another flaw of the Precautionary Principle, Walton says, is that it can be embraced without considering the consequences of doing nothing.
“Inherent in the supposition is that new technology is somehow less safe than what already exists.” Walton says.
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