de Precaución: La pureza absoluta no existe, ni la seguridad absoluta tampoco
El Ministro italiano de Agricultura, Pecoraro Scanio,
después del culebrón del secuestro de semillas de soja y maíz, ha reconocido
en diversas declaraciones que no es posible la tolerancia cero en cuanto al
contenido adventicio de OGM. La tolerancia cero es reconocida como imposible por
muchos informes científicos, entre otras cosas porque los métodos de análisis
son extremadamente sensibles y porque una vez que hay determinados genes (OGM o
no) dentro del “pool” de genes de la especie, tarde o temprano acaban
llegando a todas partes, aunque sea en trazas.
La pureza genética absoluta no es posible, pero por
las mismas no es posible tampoco la seguridad absoluta que algunos parece que
pretenden lograr con el llamado Principio de Precaución, que parece que
solamente se aplica a los OGM. Si hay o va a haber un umbral del 0,3%, del 0,5%
o el porcentaje que sea para considerar un producto libre de OGM, también tiene
que haber un umbral, aunque sea menos mensurable para la precaución.
Los riesgos asociados a la biotecnología existen,
pero también los asociados a la mejora genética distinta de la biotecnología,
al riego con aguas residuales, a la quema de los MER, a coger el automóvil, y
en general, a todas y cada una de las
actividades y aspectos de la vida. La cuestión es saber con precisión
razonable cual es el riesgo y si éste es asumible.
El llamado Principio de Precaución es una trampa
dialéctica y en demasiadas ocasiones se usa un arma para basar una postura política
en la defensa de una seguridad imposible, aprovechando la preocupación sobre la
seguridad alimentaria y el medio ambiente.
Científicamente se puede demostrar en muchos casos
que algo produce una cosa, (una alergia, un efecto determinado..), pero es extremadamente
difícil en la mayor parte de los casos imposible demostrar con seguridad
absoluta que algo no produce un efecto determinado. Por poner un ejemplo:
existen dudas sobre si el maíz OGM Starlink produce alergias a determinadas
personas, que parece ser que aún no se han encontrado. Aún suponiendo que se
pudiera hacer comer tacos de maíz Starlink a todos y cada uno de los habitantes
de EEUU, todavía se podría decir que hay que probar con todos los del mundo, e
incluso podría caber la duda de las generaciones venideras. Lo mismo ocurre
cuando se invoca el desconocimiento de los efectos de los OGM en el medio
ambiente “a largo plazo” ¿Cuánto es el largo plazo? ¿Años? ¿Meses?
Siglos?. El Principio de Precacución llevado al extremo es la coartada es ideal
para dar largas sine die al tema de los OGM alegando su falta de seguridad, a
pesar de que las pruebas y controles no tengan parangón con las de los
productos no OGM.
En la revista Nature Biotecnology del mes de abrli,
Cregory Conko y Henry H. Miller, escriben un artículo titulado “Precaución
sin principio” donde se describe como no esta claro que en que consiste
exactamente el Principio de Precaución, la incompleta evidencia científica de
su significado y su invocación para justificar acciones políticas.
PRECAUTION WITHOUT PRINCIPLE
Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko write that government regulators now have a more subtle, updated version of the assertion, "Hi, I'm from the government, I'm here to help": a wolf in sheep¹s clothing called the "precautionary principle."
The authors say it has already laid waste to several industries and
boasts a body count in the tens of thousands. It is now being used to cripple
public sector and academic researchers as well as the biotechnology industry.
Although a widely accepted definition of the "principle" does not
exist, its thrust is that regulatory measures should prevent or restrict actions
that raise even conjectural threats of harm to human health or the environment,
although there may be incomplete scientific evidence as to their potential
significance. Several European countries have used the precautionary principle
to justify paralyzing restrictions on agricultural and food biotechnology, and
the European Commission (EC) has invoked it to justify a moratorium on the
approval of new recombinant DNAmodified products 1 .
Use of the precautionary principle is sometimes represented as "erring
on the side of safety." But the authors believe the way it is typically
applied to research and development and to commercial products can actually
Potential risks should be taken into consideration before proceeding with
any new activity or product, whether it is the choice of site for a power
station or the introduction of a new drug into the pharmacy. But advocates of
the precautionary principle focus primarily on the possibility that technologies
could pose unique, extreme, or unmanageable risks. What is missing from the
precautionary calculus is an acknowledgment that even when technologies
introduce new risks, most confer net benefits; that is, their use reduces many
other, far more serious hazards. Examples include blood transfusions, magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and automobile air bags, all of which offer
immense benefits and only minimal risk. The real danger of the precautionary
principle is that it distracts consumers and policy-makers from known,
significant threats to human health and often diverts limited public health
resources from those genuine and far greater risks.
The authors go on to say that dozens of scientific bodies, including the
UK¹s Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, the World Health
Organization, and the American Medical Association have analyzed the oversight
that is appropriate for gene-spliced organisms and arrived at remarkably
congruent conclusions: The newer molecular techniques for genetic improvement
are an extension, or refinement, of earlier, far less precise ones; adding genes
to plants or microorganisms does not make them less safe either to the
environment or to eat; the risks associated with recombinant DNA-modified
organisms are the same in kind as those associated with conventionally modified
organisms; and regulation should be based upon the risk-related characteristics
of individual products, regardless of the techniques used in their development.
Notwithstanding the EC¹s promises that the precautionary principle would
not be abused, regulators treat recombinant DNA-modified plants and
microorganisms in a discriminatory and inconsistent fashion, and without
proportionality to risk. Both the fact and degree of regulation turn on the use
of certain production methods techniques have been used individual products.
For example, recombinant herbicide-tolerant crop plants, such as soybeans
and canola, are subject to lengthy, hugely expensive mandatory testing and pre-market
evaluation, whereas plants with virtually identical properties but developed
with older, less precise genetic techniques are exempt from such requirements.
In the United States, Department of Agriculture requirements for paperwork and
field trial design make field trials with gene-spliced organisms 1020 times more
expensive than the same experiments with virtually identical organisms that have
been modified with conventional genetic techniques 5 .
The authors say that the real-world impacts of this wholly
disproportionate approach are instructive. If a student doing a school biology
project takes a packet of "conventional," but genetically improved,
tomato or pea seeds to be irradiated at the local hospital and plants them in
his backyard in order to investigate interesting mutants, he need not seek
approval from any local, national, or international authority. However, if the
seeds have been modified by the addition of one or a few genes by recombinant
DNA techniques, this would-be researcher (or equivalent highly skilled
agricultural scientists) faces a mountain of bureaucratic paperwork and expense.
Not only does this discrimination flaunt the scientific consensus about
the essential continuity between the traditional and molecular genetic
improvement of plants, but it also ignores the fact that recombinant DNA
technology is more precise and predictable and the modifications far better
characterized than with other techniques. Logical application of the
precautionary principle to situations of scientific uncertainty would dictate
that greater precaution apply to the cruder, less precise, less predictable
"conventional" forms of genetic modification. Instead, by torturing
the precautionary principle, regulators have chosen to set the burden of proof
far higher for recombinant DNA technology than for conventional plant breeding.
And, as the EC¹s moratorium on new product approvals demonstrates, even when
that extraordinary burden of proof is met through unprecedented amounts of
testing and evaluation, regulators frequently declare themselves unsatisfied.
Remarkably, although the EC characterized its communication on the
precautionary principle as an attempt to impart greater consistency and clarity,
it specifically declined to define the principle, adding naively that "it
would be wrong to conclude that the absence of a definition has to lead to legal
uncertainty." Although reliance on regulatory agencies and courts to define
and elaborate statutory policy is not unusual, this reluctance to define what
purports to be a fundamental principle makes confusion and mischief inevitable,
leaving innovators' legal rights and regulators' legal obligations subject to
the wholly subjective and sometimes nefarious judgment of governments or even
individual regulators. As it is being applied, the precautionary principle
provides neither evidentiary standards for "safety" nor procedural
criteria for obtaining regulatory approval, no matter how much evidence has been
accumulated. In effect, regulators are given carte blanche to decide what is
"unsafe" and what is "safe enough," with no means to ensure
that their decisions actually reduce overall risk or that they make any sense at
all. Contrary to the claims of its supporters, the precautionary principle tends
to make governments less accountable, not more so, because its lack of
definition allows regulators to justify any decision.
In spite of the assurance of the European Union and other advocates of
precautionary regulation to the contrary, regulators of biotechnology applied to
agriculture and food production seldom consider the potential risk-reducing
benefits of new technologies. For example, the use of recombinant DNA-modified
plants with enhanced pest or disease resistance has reduced farmers¹ use of
chemical pesticides, reducing runoff into waterways, and the exposure of workers
who manufacture, transport, and apply these chemicals. It has also permitted
farmers to more widely adopt environment-friendly, no-till farming practices.
And recently developed rice varieties enhanced with pro-vitamin A and iron could
drastically improve the health of hundreds of millions of the malnourished in
developing countries. These are the kinds of tangible environmental and health
benefits that have been given little or no weight in precautionary risk
But benefits aside, the authors say that the safety of this new
technology is not really in doubt. Both theoretical and empirical evidence shows
the extraordinary predictability and safety of gene-spliced organisms.
Recombinant DNA-modified plants are now grown worldwide on more than 100
million acres annually, and more than 60% of processed foods in the United
States contain ingredients derived from recombinant organisms. There has not
been a single mishap resulting in injury to a single person.
For anti-biotechnology activists, the deeper issue is not really safety
at all. Often, the controversies over the testing and use of gene-spliced
organisms stem from a social vision that is not just strongly anti-technology,
but one that poses serious challenges to academic, individual, and corporate
The authors go on to say it is precisely the anti-technology nature of
the precautionary principle that makes it the darling of many non-governmental
organizations. Greenpeace, one of the principal advocates of the precautionary
principle, wrote in its 1999 Internal Revenue Service filings that the
organization¹s goal is not the prudent, safe use of recombinant DNA-derived
foods or even their labeling; rather, they demand nothing less than these
products' "complete elimination [from] the food supply and the environment."
6 Many of these groups do not merely proselytize for illogical and stultifying
regulation or outright bans on product testing and commercialization; they
advocate and carry out vandalism of field trials.
Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and
Environmental Health Network, a consortium of radical groups, asserts that the
precautionary principle "is in the hands of the people," as
illustrated, according to her, by violent demonstrations against economic
globalization, such as those in Seattle at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade
Organization 7 . "This is [about] how they want to live their lives,"
In the authors' view, it¹s really about how a small, vocal, violent
group of radicals wants to dictate to the rest of us how we should live our
lives. In other words, the issue here is freedom and its infringement by
ideologues who disapprove, on principle, of a certain technology. But bullies
should not be permitted to use untruths, conspiracy, and violence to oppose
legitimate research into technologies that can improve our safety and well-being.
We should no longer allow extremists to dictate the terms of the debate.
1.Hodgson, J. Nature Biotechnol. 18, 918919 (2000).
2.Anderson, C. Nature 354, 255 (1991).
3.Durodié, W. Poisonous Propaganda: Global Echoes of an Anti-Vinyl Agenda (Washington DC: Competitive Enterprise Institute, 2000).
4.European Commission. Communication From the Commission on the Precautionary Principle (Brussels: February 2, COM 1, 2000).
5.Huttner, S.L., Miller, H.I. & Lemaux, P.G. US Agricultural Biotechnology: Status and Prospects. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 50, 2539 (1995).
6.Greenpeace. 1999 Federal Income Tax Filing with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service: IRS Form 990, Part III, Statement of Program Service
Accomplishments, ``Genetic Engineering.``
7.Appell, D. Sci. Am. 284, 1819 (2001).
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