The limitations of risk assessment
Keywords:  Genetic engineering; Biosafety/Foodsafety; Public acceptance; Participatory approaches.
Correct citation: nn. (1999), "Editorial: The limitations of risk assessment." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 38, p. 2-3.

In the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development it was proposed that environmental decision-making should be guided by the ‘precautionary principle’. This approach demands that if there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage to the environment, measures should be taken even before they are fully proven by scientific evidence. However, such measures to prevent environmental degradation should be ‘cost-effective’. This approach has different ramifications for environmental policy making: first, the acknowledgement that scientific knowledge on certain risks is a process with an open end and it can even be assumed that it will never be finished. Second, the measures to be taken should be ‘cost-effective’, which brings onto the agenda the socio-economic issue of preventing risks to the environment. Obviously, the ‘precautionary principle’ leaves a lot of questions unanswered when used as a general guideline for environmental decision-making. Several articles in this Monitor issue reflect the consequences of these loopholes on biological risk assessment.

Risk assessment is confronted with a dilemma inherent to empirical scientific knowledge production: in terms of identification of potential hazards, the absence of proof is not the proof of absence. One way out of this dilemma is to move away from focusing only on the answers derived from scientific research. As an alternative approach, the article by van Dommelen suggests that attention should be drawn to the identification of relevant research questions. But this approach too is fraught with an inherent limitation: if risk assessment tries to include all the possible variables, it might become too complex to be handled. On the other hand, if only a few variables are investigated, some important issues might be overlooked. Moreover, its use for generating more general insights is limited. The transgene-centred approach for the risk assessment of transgenic herbicide-resistant crops described in the contribution by Nap aims at a compromise that is specific in its questions and still allows for conclusions at a general level. Moreover, Nap also suggests to balance risks with benefits.

In this sense, public perception is another important aspect. In this regard it is interesting that in Europe a large part of the population seems to accept genetic engineering for health-related applications such as the production of medicines. At the same time, food produced employing the same technology is increasingly rejected. Irrespective of how rational or science-based this standpoint is, risk perception is also very much equated with the perception of corresponding benefits. For medicine and health, the risk-benefit ratio seems acceptable whereas for food products, the perceived risk seems to outweigh the perceived benefits. It could be that in the latter case products from modern biotechnology do not really address the needs of the consumers, who, at the same time, have a large number of alternative products to choose from. In contrast, consumers of medicines are often very limited in their alternatives because of the nature and the immediacy of their illness. Furthermore, products other than from modern biotechnology are often lacking. The role of perception for public acceptance of biotechnology is not limited to Europe but, as the article by Aerni shows, also plays a role in how developing countries such as the Philippines accept genetically modified rice.

We all have a right to know about potential risks we are exposed to, for instance by consuming genetically modified foods. However, a hundred per cent proof of absence of eventually harmful impacts will never be achieved, due to the inherent limitations of scientific risk assessment. In this sense it can be misleading to call for a moratorium on the release of genetically engineered crops until it is scientifically proven that these crops do not cause harm. Nevertheless such a moratorium could create the space also to include parameters such as what risks are acceptable to gain what benefits. It could furthermore include ethical values, and alternative routes in technology development that may lead to the same goal. This would transform the exercise of scientific risk assessment into a negotiation process on technology development, in which different social actors would have to participate. As the article by Frempong shows, participatory priority setting is important in creating public acceptance of biotechnology in developing countries. Yet the reaction of European consumers on the introduction of transgenic crops reflects that also in industrialized countries technology development often lacks public participation. In this sense both industrialized and developing countries could profit from the public having their say in setting an agenda of risk assessment that goes beyond the limitations of scientific data.

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