View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

The precautionary principle


Pretty much everyone with an environmentalist streak tends to be of a ‘better safe than sorry’ mindset when making decisions about the future of the planet. This even has an official term to make it acceptable in policy situations: the precautionary principle. It’s often used as an argument against GM crops.

Taking fewer risks with the environment sounds extremely wise to me, but life involves some risks, so do we need to move towards a thorough cost-benefit analysis?

This is being debated in London on Tuesday (1st April) and sadly I will be at a plant science conference so can’t come. Instead I’m going to persuade lots of people to go so they can tweet, and get my word in here.

According to the European Commissionthe precautionary principle may be invoked when a phenomenon, product or process may have a dangerous effect, identified by a scientific and objective evaluation, if this evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty


For me the neonicotinoid debate was a prime example of the precautionary principle giving a view which is far too simplistic. There is evidence of adverse affects of these pesticides on bees, which has led to a 2 year EU ban on their use. The evidence, however, is complex and the remains inconclusive, mainly because field studies on the effects of pesticides in wild* bee populations are extremely difficult to perform. But as we couldn’t prove harm/no-harm, there were cries of ‘precautionary principle’, hence the ban.

However, not only may the ban change fail to help bees, it could actually have a detrimental effect if farmers turn to older, more damaging pesticides. Invoking the precautionary principle disguises these nuances.

I don’t know whether I would have voted to ban neonics, but I would have looked at the possible effects in more detail than using  the precautionary principle, and I would also have looked at the potential effect on yields. We know for certain that intensive agriculture (organic too) is bad for the environment, but we’re still keen to eat.

Climate change

I’m very much of the mindset that even if we aren’t 100% certain that climate change isn’t caused by humans, the dangers of not acting are so severe that we need to do something. So it’s precautionary principle all the way for me here. You could, however, argue that if we’re not sure climate change is caused by humans we shouldn’t risk economic loss by tackling it.

Given our level of certainty on climate change this is a pretty indefensible position, but what if I’d been writing this in the 1980s? What if we were only 50% sure, or even less? How much certainty do you need to invoke or dismiss the precautionary principle?

Such decisions will partly be based on values, weighing up risks such as environmental, health & economic. There are many reasons why I would give more weight to environmental protection than economic growth, but others very legitimately disagree.

Ways to look at this

A couple of years ago I decided not to do things which I knew were a bad idea. I had correctly thought ‘if I don’t pack that now I’ll forget it’ too many times. It’s a good way to live – now I add email attachments before I write the email not hope I remember afterwards, I take food with me if I think I’ll get hungry. Basically, I’m applying the precautionary principle. There are times, however, when I identify a risk but decide it’s worth taking. I don’t always get it right, but in general I think I’ve found the right balance.

I would like to end with a witty remark that if I truly applied the precautionary principle to my life I would never leave the house, but we all know that the house is actually a very dangerous place to be.

Much of risk is counter-intuitive, and humans are notoriously bad at making rational choices about risks. Far more children die from TVs falling on their head than of shark attacks – watching Jaws really is more dangerous than sharks are.


* I wouldn’t actually class honeybees as wild

Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:

2 thoughts on “The precautionary principle

  1. Hi Rebecca,
    I am really frustrated to the lack of scientific (I means long term research) information regarding the poisonous effect of the GMOs crops in beneficial insects, just to mention a group of beneficial animals. Do you have information that show real evidence of harmful effects of GMOs (transgenic corn pollen) in insects. I am thinking on you for your studies with migrant butterflies.


    Laura Torrentera PhD Marine Biologist.

  2. “Given our level of certainty on climate change”

    you mean, given the fact that temperatures are not increasing anymore (since 17 years), that models have failed, that temperature drives CO2 not vice versa, and that the IPCC terror spreading group has been debunked?

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