Precaution, or Proportionality?

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Suppose I offered you a product that contained 66 chemicals, most with slightly sinister and technical names like “Ethyl-3-methylbutanoate”.  Suppose I added that these 66 chemicals included twenty-nine that were classified as hazardous; one as toxic; five damaging to health and four damaging to the environment.  And suppose I then invited you to eat it?  Would you do so?  I suspect not.

Suppose I explained that the product in question was a natural, organic blueberry – widely regarded as a health-food that offers some degree of protection against cardiovascular risk factors?  Would you think differently about it?  When was the last time you ate a blueberry?

And much the same analysis could be given for a wide range of food-stuffs, not least coffee and tea.  We need to understand not only whether a substance is potentially toxic, but also whether there is any significant prospect of the amounts concerned having any damaging effect.

During my first term in the European parliament, the Chairman of the Environment Committee was Tory MP Caroline Jackson.  I disagreed with her on many things, but I loved her sharp wit and iconoclastic style.  The European institutions love the Precautionary Principle, which says (I paraphrase) that if anything might potentially be dangerous, we should ban it until we can be sure it’s safe.  Caroline famously remarked that on the basis of the Precautionary Principle, we should ban two-storey houses in the EU.  Statistics show (she said) that a thousand people a year in Europe die from falling down stairs.  We can eliminate that risk by living in bungalows.

That illustrates why I believe we should replace the Precautionary Principle with what I call the Proportionality Principle.  That is, we should avoid products or activities where the risk of harm is disproportionate to the benefit.  Often we are aware of significant risks, but we accept those risks in exchange for the benefits offered by the activity.  For example, several thousand people sadly die each year on our roads.  But we don’t ban cars, and most of us use them.  The advantages of personal mobility are out of all proportion to the relatively small risk of accident or injury.

There is a growing body of evidence that use of mobile phones can cause brain damage.  Yet most of us shrug off that risk in exchange for the enormous convenience offered by our mobiles.  On the other hand, we seem to be getting less and less tolerant of any conceivable risk that we think we can avoid altogether without inconvenience – like shale gas, or GM crops.

This creates, however, a problem for public policy.  It is all too easy for lobby groups or irresponsible media to whip up massive scare stories about risks which are very small indeed.  We all remember the “Millennium Bug”, or Y2K, as we used to know it.  A huge scare over what proved to be a non-event.  Many millions wasted by companies “future-proofing” their systems.

Similarly, we have the fear of shale gas.  Concerned residents blocking drilling sites and waving placards.  Yet I have been twice to the USA to see shale gas operations first hand, and I found local residents who were delighted with the industrial renaissance, the jobs re-shored, the jobs created in drilling areas, the new businesses springing up, the increase in property prices as growth attracted in-comers.  What I did not find was people campaigning against the new wealth.

This is perhaps reminiscent of the nuclear debate, where again and again we find that people living near to nuclear sites, and seeing the economic benefits, are far more positive about nuclear energy than those living further away.  But perhaps the better parallel is with coal.  Hundreds of thousands died within the coal industry, and on some estimates millions outside died of respiratory conditions as a result of pollution from coal (as indeed they are in China today).  Coal mining with its pit-heads and slag heaps created devastation on the landscape (and bigger earth tremors than fracking).  Yet we still look back to mine closures with regret.

(Caveat: We in UKIP support coal, which is now very much cleaner and safer than it once was).

When we’re offered a new energy extraction technology, shale gas, which is overwhelmingly safer and cleaner than coal, and offers vast commercial and economic benefits, we should be welcoming it with open arms, not campaigning against it.

Another example of irrational fear is that of GM foods.  We have been eating them for decades with no recorded case of harm, yet they arouse fierce negative emotions.  At least the Luddites who attacked mechanical looms with sledgehammers in the early 1800s had a credible (if mistaken) argument for their actions.  Opponents of GM have none.  It’s time to learn to weigh up risks and benefits, and to make decisions which are proportionate, not precautionary.

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28 Responses to Precaution, or Proportionality?

  1. Mike Stallard says:

    Good article!
    On EUReferendum blog, which, though angry and often unpleasant does strive through thick and thin to tell the truth, we read that the regulation of the EU comes in fact from international bodies mainly, but not entirely, based in Switzerland.
    So, the argument runs, if we leave the EU, it will make no difference at all to the stream of regulations because we will still be regulated by the same authorities. What we should do, the argument continues, is to leave the EU so that we can be at the sacred Top Table in Switzerland and negotiate for ourselves like Norway and Switzerland do.
    Has this argument any foundation?

    • eddie coke says:

      Goodness – twice in two days, independently, I have read this notion about Switzerland. I was rummaging around, feeding my preoccupation with common law, the other day, and came across this document:

      Click to access the-state-of-texas.pdf

      [nb it’s either a fantastic source for a creepy new historical thriller novel – which of course, i baggsy! Or it’s actually pretty worrying. Worth reading the whole thing, esp. Britain – or rather England and Ireland – being owned by the Vatican since 1213 under treaty (page 9).]

      Anyway, on page 2, it claims (and i quote):

      “The legal system (judiciary) of the U.S.A. is controlled by the Crown Temple from the independent and sovereign City of London. The private Federal Reserve System, which issues fiat U.S. Federal Reserve Notes, is financially owned and controlled by the Crown from Switzerland, the home and legal origin for the charters of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and most importantly, the Bank of International Settlements. Even Hitler respected his Crown bankers by not bombing Switzerland. The Bank of International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland controls all the central banks of the G7 nations. He who controls the gold rules the world.”

      Obviously, the author is talking about usA – or what could better be described as the bank-owned corporation called the “United States”, since the bankruptcy of 1933 (uttered here in Congress in 1993 by Sen. J. Traficant: [Very interesting piece, if true. I haven’t verified it – do they keep the equivalent of Hansard?] But UK is controlled by Crown Temple as well so same applies to us, presumably whether in or out of the EU. I still want out, regardless.

    • Roger Helmer MEP says:

      It is true that increasingly there is international or global convergence of regulation — and that can make sense. For example, I believe that the EU, the USA and Japan used to have different standards for the shatter-ability of automotive windscreens — though the objective of all three was to maximise safety. That meant auto makers making three different kinds of windscreen for the same car. Clearly if the three areas can agree a consistent approach, that saves the industry cost and complexity, and facilitates trade. But I believe that much of the most damaging regulation we face — in employment, and environment and energy — is unique to the EU. And we want out.

    • Ex-expat Colin says:

      This is an interesting shout:

      I assume this is the same person – (UKIP Facebook piece) – Richard Bingley, a former Labour Party Press Officer and cabinet visits co-ordinator, has announced that he has joined UKIP.

  2. Ex-expat Colin says:

    I voted for the Common Market and that alone. I therefore reject the EU and its lame ideas and inordinate cost. Rompuy’s £578,000 3 year “easing in/out” fund for instance !!

    In life there is a self duty of care (responsibility) and there is also a cost of life. Risk(s) surrounds us and manifests as nothing all the way to an ugly demise. Common sense, experience and qualification mitigates risk.

    If anybody believes an activity is an unacceptable risk (level of safety) then they must provide adequate evidence as an arguable case. That cannot be a link to a website somewhere or a short/long rant.

    Most of whats going on now is a major risk to finances and industry…the very thing we do not need. I am glad really I am not young now in some ways. Prospects appear rather miserable, leadership weak.

    Mr Farage on ITV/Bite live programme (Youtube) this week was good (2/11/14):

  3. Pingback: The Tap Blog | UKIP’s Helmer lifts telescope to his blind eye

  4. Brin Jenkins says:

    Roger, my reservations on GM are the non fertile plants that are grown, if we are discouraged from keeping our own seed stock, or unable to grow from what we have saved we are completely under the control of Multi National business that seems to own all of the new seed sources.

    If all ones food comes from the so called super markets I suppose one might not care, we grow our own veg, and fruit so we do care a great deal. Multi National control, seems to be the Satan behind all of our problems. In my own view they have not demonstrated benign competency anywhere.

    • Roger Helmer MEP says:

      Thanks Brin. But I don’t buy the “control by multinationals” argument. Farmers can choose to buy where they want, and they will only buy GM seeds if it makes commercial sense to do so. And by the way, many natural hybrids are infertile.

      • Brin Jenkins says:

        Roger, On the non fertile hybrids its perfectly true, F1 hybrid seeds are all duds for future seed stock, but then all brassica plants revert to hedgerow stock naturally. The technology for brassica selective breeding is Medieval in nature, seeds may be bred and selected locally. F1 hybrid seeds are genetically modified and not easily produced.

        I don’t quite understand your easy acceptance of International Companies probably dominating our food chain? The moment Internationalism is mentioned we have a World problem in the making. Be it Government, or economic the aim is a total control of supply and the price to consumers of all products. It is also in control of employment, and where people will work. As we have seen in the UK with unbridled immigration wages pay is depressed for most, to below a cost effective living wage. National control then passes to International powers.

        Our small farmers are replaced by multi national land controlling companies, where profit has nothing to do with nurturing and conservation of land. Chemical control and one crop cultivation will fail one day and may heaven help us in the New World Order.

        I’m a Nationalist, I also believe Schumacher had it correct when he said small is beautiful. Since he first came to my notice in 1973 we have seen the dangers he spoke of happening as if coincidental.

        Schumacher’s philosophy is one of “enoughness,” appreciating both human needs, limitations and appropriate use of technology. It grew out of his study of village-based economics, which he later termed Buddhist economics, which is the subject of the book’s fourth chapter.

        He faults conventional economic thinking for failing to consider the most appropriate scale for an activity, blasts notions that “growth is good,” and that “bigger is better,” and questions the appropriateness of using mass production in developing countries, promoting instead “production by the masses.” Schumacher was one of the first economists to question the appropriateness of using gross national product to measure human well-being, emphasizing that “the aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption.”

  5. DougS says:

    Excellent piece as usual.
    But not every country fell for the Y2K scare, which resulted in many of them expending billions for no measurable result. I seem to recall that Italy spent about 500 lira with the same outcome as elsewhere – no problema!
    One small pedantic point Roger – is it 66 or 68 chemicals in organic blueberries?

    • Ex-expat Colin says:

      Where it did cause a problem was in the context of software and systems maintenance. So much of it was elderly and written without adequate documentation, some none! Fixing much of it was more to do with a re-write and adhering to newer software requirements/standards. Requirements change usually means software change and its very costly.

      The Military (MoD) suffers enormously from software maintenance/support because procurement rarely involves experienced software specialists within procurement. Latterly that has improved. Plus, where you pay cheap, thats precisely what you get. Gov IT projects for instance…just an ongoing p*ss take at the taxpayers expense.

    • Roger Helmer MEP says:

      Sorry — my mistake — mis-print. It’s 66, if the International Fragrance Assn is right.

  6. Flyinthesky says:

    I’m sorry Roger I can’t agree with you on the GM issue. I feel I must illustrate a difference, we have been eating selectively bred food crops for decades, indeed, but there is a world of difference between selective breeding and genetic modification.
    We have a lot of legacy crops that we can no longer grow commercially and we’re going to lose, why, because they don’t have current certification as food crops. A position no doubt lobbied for by global agri giants.

    Here is a response I made elsewhere to an enthusiastic proponent of GM food:

    “GM crops have NOTHING whatsoever to do with feeding the world, it’s a thinly vieled attempt to cartelise all agribusiness.
    Once we allow a company to patent our food we’re doomed.
    You should look at other sides of this argument and not believe the fluffy perspective you are presented with.
    Start with the enforcement arms of these companies, no you can’t set aside seeds from this years crop to plant next year, a method used since farming began, you have to buy new seeds.
    GM crops have ruined as many third world farmers as they have benfitted.
    The only promise on offer is the enrichment of GM companies. Culminating in our seeds or no seeds.
    The enforcement teams of some of these companies make the mafia look like playground bullies.”

    • Roger Helmer MEP says:

      You don’t have to buy anyone’s seeds. You can choose to do so, or not. Where they are available, many farmers will buy them because that is more profitable than not buying them. You pays your money and you takes your choice. This is not about forcing anyone to do anything — it’s about wider choices and better technology. I will not tell you that Monsanto’s primary objective is to eliminate hunger and feed the world. Of course not. But that is potential a by-product of GM technology, and as a politician, I give great weight to that proposition. I prefer for people not to starve.

      • Brin Jenkins says:

        I lifted this from another source whilst researching seeds and I learned that its now illegal to grow your own food in New Zealand (and other places) Below relates to a new high yield Corn developed for the warmer US climate. If it replaces our local corn and the weather gets chillier?
        OK, so back to that issue on food crops. The issue on that is that instead of each generation taking fifteen to twenty years, it turns over constantly and roughly annually. With worldwide travel and distribution of seed crops, what they can run into with some places is a “superseed” on say, Corn, which cannot survive in certain climates, thus totally killing of some particular sovereign nation’s food production. So what the Europeans also worry about is the American seeds being geared toward warmer weather, and while they can work in Europe now, they might not work if Europe goes through a cold snap with their traditionally shorter growing seasons (don’t forget most of Europe actually shares climate with Canada, not the mainland USA).

      • euresolution says:

        One can only hope you choose to invoke one of my life rules: “Beware expert opinion as the principal benficiary is often the expert”
        BSE, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. This was expressed by the experts as a “disease” bacterial, viral, prion theory etc etc. I was none of these, in my opinion, we tried to feed cows with substances they were not designed to assimilate, we poisoned them for financial gain. Simmilarly with GM food, we/they have no idea of the potential consequences, the consequences could take decades to manifest themselves. The vanity of man thinking we can disregard natures intents and evolved realities. If there is doubt, and there is, a lot for those prepared to look, but not published, we should be very cautious about messing with it.
        You really need to investigate further, it isn’t the panacea that it’s presented to be.
        The bottom line: Once we allow a company to patent our food we’re doomed.
        The intent is to monetise everything, food is an open area, they’ve coralled almost everthing else, what’s next….Water!
        Who knows the effect of cross polliintion, we don’t and more importantly they don’t either.
        They have generated mutations that nature would have taken millions of years, if ever to achieve. I’m not at all anti progress but really believe we don’t even begin to understand what we’re messing with, the vanity of man eh, it will be our undoing.

  7. Catalpa says:

    Roger, it is because companies spent a lot of money Y2K-proofing their businesses that there was no problem on 01/01/2000. The company I worked for had to scan through millions of lines of program code and correct all the code that would have failed after 31/12/1999 to ensure that there was no problem. This took a large group of people the whole of 1999 to find, correct and test the changes needed.
    The fact that there was no problem just shows that all the hard work and money spent was successful.

    • Roger Helmer MEP says:

      Sorry, Catalpa, but that’s nonsense — though I hear it occasionally, especially from the IT consultancies who made millions out of the scam. There were companies that spent a fortune on future-proofing their systems, and others that did not. Neither had a problem, so those that spent the money found that they had wasted it.

      • Catalpa says:

        Roger, our company did not use IT consultants. This was not a scam to con money out of my company. The normal workers did the work. It was proven during their testing that many of our systems would have failed, if they had not corrected them.
        I expect this is also true of many other companies, that you have dismissed as wasting money or being conned.

      • Sean O'Hare says:

        I can back up what @Catalpha says about the work done to correct the huge quantity of legacy code for Y2K problems. I was working for an IT consultancy at the time and we weren’t all out to rip people off. The main problem was that much of the legacy code had been written using programming languages (COBOL and FORTRAN) whose use were on the wain even then and there was as a result a shortage of staff experienced in their use. A lot of that code was written way back in the 70/80s and obviously the originators never dreamed that it would still be in use 20-30 years later. The most common problem was only allowing 2 decimal digits for the year in date calculations and prefixing the constant ’19’ whenever the date was displayed or printed. There were also many cases where the leap year calculation following the year 2000 was incorrect.

      • Brin Jenkins says:

        I remember it, I had been an Apple engineer around that time and there was a worry navigation might fail at midnight on aircraft. After the millenium changed I didn’t hear of any catastrophes amongst our customers though.

        I still have a late 1980’s Macintosh that boots up and runs, just like my 1996 Mac Book.

  8. Ian Terry says:

    As usual Roger smack on the button.

    As regards fracking is it not about fear the fear and do it anyway. With a £1.5 trillion debt we had better start doing something right and that will not please all of the people but the economic survival of this country is paramount. Brin is so right it is all about putting trusted and respected experts at the helm to fully control the processes to ensure that all these “horror” stories about fracking are chased down and acted upon. It is not the fracking process per se it is the people operating it. A gun in its normal form is just at best a posh club. It is only when it is picked up and loaded does it become lethal. The people involved with fracking from the design, planning stage through to possible production must be highly skilled and professional. The sad thing is that if all fracking sites qualified for the same incentives as turbines there would not be a problem. Greed would drive it through.

  9. DICK R says:

    When the ecolunatics want to cause a scare everything becomes a ‘chemical’, whereas anything they consider to be benign becomes an ‘organic compound’.

  10. Roger Helmer MEP says:

    I am amused by the phrase “organic food”. I am struggling to think of any foodstuffs which are inorganic, apart maybe from water and salt.

  11. DICK R says:

    The very word organic has been corrupted to such an extent that there have been prosecutions upheld for describing food as organic ,which all food must be, for not complying to the ecolunatic interpretation of the word.

  12. Sean O'Hare says:

    My objection to the sale of GM food is the same as my objection to that of Halal/Kosher meat, i.e. it is not clearly labelled as such. I don’t want to be forced to pay through the nose for organic produce when a regular, but non-GM, alternative should be available. I want to have the choice of whether to buy a food product based on clear labeling of its mean of production. I don’t really buy the Frankenstein food argument, but I do have a worry at the back of my mind that cross-contamination will make having that clear choice forever impossible.

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