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The Policy Lates series examines topical science policy issues, and “The Precautionary Principle: Can we strike the balance between risk and reward” coincided with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry into the uses of the precautionary principle and its application in Europe in legislation regarding genetically modified foods.

The panel for the discussion was Chaired by Professor Jim Dunwell of the University of Reading, and was made up the chief scientific adviser of Defra, Professor Ian Boyd FSB, the managing director of Sense About Science, Tracey Brown, and Professor Joe Perry FSB who is Chair of the GMO panel of the European Food Safety Authority.

The precautionary principle is sometimes described as an attempt to put into practice the common sense principles of "better safe than sorry" and "look before you leap". While this may seem sensible in everyday life, some argue that this approach is too limiting and stifles innovation when applied on a larger scale. Its use has been discussed recently in a number of areas, with some questioning whether or not it is still appropriate.

Tracey Brown highlighted a number of issues surrounding the precautionary principle. In the case of the licensing of blight-resistant potatoes, she argued that it does not address the original question of how to deal with significant crop loss. She also made the case that its narrow focus in the case of the ban of neonicotinoids has meant that other factors which contribute to the decline in bee populations have been overlooked.

Professor Dunwell pointed out that significant differences between the EU and parts of North America in terms of use of the precautionary principle impact globally. The panel were in general agreement that, while a precautionary approach may be sensible, application of the precautionary principle in the form which the EU uses is not always appropriate. Professor Perry noted that in terms of GMOs, voting on their use within the EU is often done on political rather than scientific grounds and Professor Boyd added to this saying that the precautionary principle is “politically convenient".

The storify of the event is now available.

To contribute to our response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry email