Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition
Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition
9th August 2000
In this issue…
…upton-on-line takes a deep breath and tries to say something non-anaesthetic about the recently released report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. But in case some readers feel their eyes glazing over at its mention, he offers two quick cameos as an intellectual anaesthetic (much in the way NZ newspaper editors do with their animal stories on page one…)
Not a question upton-on-line has been asked, in truth, because New Zealanders (and the locust clouds of tourists who drink disconsolate Perriers in streetside cafés) seem to assume that Paris is just one long silk-scarf-of-a-spring-evening perfumed with the scent of lilac and Dior.
As temperatures hang around the 30 degree mark and ozone levels cause Paris’ new mayor Bertrand Delanoë to press for car-less days to alternate between odd and even numbered registration plates, upton-on-line can confirm that living conditions for those left in a half-deserted city resemble a Turkish bathhouse with the staff on strike. Wellington’s crisp, incisive winter weather of which he reads seems vastly more appealing. But the same fug settles on Auckland from time to time so it’s not a question of yearning for different climates. They come and go.
On the other hand, Parson’s Bookshop on Wellington’s Lambton Quay seems as civilised a place to while away elevenses as anywhere upton-on-line has discovered. The books, CDs, coffee and cheese or date scones are individually replicated in many places but nowhere do they come together with such comforting effect. Mind you, the Wellington criminal bar must be out of sorts since Parson’s culinary maestro, Lorraine Moore, has just been here in Paris where she was able to check out the competition.
Should your children learn French?
The answer is most definitely `yes’ if they are planning to study the documentary history of the 100 Years War, settle in remote non-touristique villages in La France Profonde or possibly consider a career as a missionary or mining company executive in West Africa. But for less exotic career options it is hard to make the case, so pervasive is English in this most ardently patriotic of countries.
Upton-on-line had the misfortune to study French in New Zealand schools for 9 years without, fatally, much recourse to audio-lingual facilities. So in fairness his preparation was severely limited. But, watching Asians and others trying to cope without the 55% overlap in words that assists English speakers, he wonders how on earth anyone gets past base one in a country that, particularly amongst its young people, considers it a point of honour to meet halting French with francophone English.
How different this is with upton-on-line’s first visit to Paris, 27 years ago, when virtually no-one would speak English (as a point of honour) and those who could understand it pretended not to. Today it is ubiquitous – its spread insidious. In New Zealand we would have issued a pest management strategy under the Biosecurity Act. The French seem to have thrown the towel in. The re-guilded dome of the Academie Francaise glitters for the tourists who slog past. But there’s no sign of life within.
[Warning to readers: beyond here the going gets earnest]
The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification
There is no way that upton-on-line can do justice to the latest door stopper to issue from New Zealand’s tireless public policy machine. What follows are some quite unashamedly impressionistic notes that may inspire further investigation by readers. The full report can be down loaded from the Commission at www.gmcommission.govt.nz It is strongly recommended.
Why read it?
If you are part of the biotechnology industry or the vast risk management industry ranged variously against it you will already have devoured the report. But for the general reader, it is still an excellent read not so much for its conclusions (which were utterly predictable and unremarkable) as for the picture it paints of what New Zealand has become today. Diasporans who have been away for a long time may be disturbed that they don’t recognise the country they left. Residents might be surprised to know what has become orthodox in their homeland while they’ve been slaving away at the office, getting the kids through school, fixing the bach etc.
The overwhelming impression is that we have become a terrifically complicated little country. The Commission endorsed the Hazardous Substance & New Organisms Act of 1996 and the Environmental Risk Management Authority created under it as the appropriate regime for dealing with the risks that relate to GMOs. But it has proposed to thicken the alphabet soup with two new beasts - Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council, and a Parliamentary Commissioner on Biotechnology plus a new high-level strategy to be administered from another corner of the jungle by MORST.
Whom do we trust?
Leaving aside one’s view about genetic engineering, the rapid metastasis of organisations in this area is in itself a fascinating commentary on how in 2001 we deal with issues. Back in the 1960s there might have been a Royal Commission. But any policy change would have been taken in hand by the people in departments with number eight wire and the people at the Treasury with the wire strainers. Today that would be like nominating the Midwives Council to oversee the Maternity Benefit (there are those who rather unkindly believe they do).
The Royal Commission was established as a purely political device. It recommended nothing that would not have come out of a simple inter-departmental review. The arguments that it heard at incredible length added little to the sum of knowledge before it started. But the current government, when in opposition, had needed to differentiate itself from the former National government that, together with Labour, voted down a Bill calling for a statutory moratorium promoted by Green MPs with whom it is now in de facto partnership.
So the promise of a Royal Commission kicked the ball out of touch for 18 months. The Commission has now neatly kicked the ball back into touch. The essential architecture of what was there before survives – an independent, expert quasi-judicial body (ERMA) set up to remove decision-making from the eddies and currents of day-to-day politics. But ERMA now has blood on its hands – or, more appositely, perhaps one should say DNA on its lapels – having given the green light to various proposals (following equally exhaustive and exhausting hearings). And of course those who don’t like the thrust of those decisions now have a jaundiced view of its ‘independence’.
So the Royal Commission has ridden to the rescue with two new sources of ‘independent’ trustworthy advice – a Bioethics Council and a brand new Parliamentary Commissioner on Biotechnology. The first group will be wiser than ERMA, even wiser than commissioner judges and bishops and certainly wiser than elected parliamentarians. The new Parliamentary Commissioner will be even more trusted because, the Commission tells us, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Office of the Ombudsmen are offices that “are understood and accepted by, and have the confidence of, the New Zealand public.
This is all starting to feel like stacking Russian dolls. Is there any limit to the levels of oversight? And do we just elect MPs these days to appoint other people to apply their minds? Judging by the quality of Parliamentary scrutiny we’ve come to accept, one can understand a reluctance to rely on elected people to make debate issues seriously, but there is a risk that by appointing expert oversight we are going to encourage an even more meddlesome system than we had.
Has the Commission shed any light on the values debate?
Upton-on-line is not a qualified philosopher but he really wonders whether there is anything particularly compelling about Chapters 2 and 3 which lay out weighty pronouncements on things called values aided by diagrams. The Commission claims to have identified seven nationally shared goals that go “some way to ensure congruence between goals and strategies, and to enable different groups to see their own goals more broadly and in relationship to others.”
Some do seem to fit the ordinary definition of a value. Freedom of choice is often argued to have value in itself, as is some measure of equality and the notion of democratic association. But upton-on-line was puzzled to find the (undoubted) uniqueness of New Zealand’s flora, fauna and ecosystems described as a “value”. He would have described those as bio-geographical facts of our place of residence. And “being part of a global family” seemed more in the nature of an assertion that you might hear at a UN conference rather than something you could argue over in a Philosophy 101 seminar.
But that’s not the real worry. What is truly perplexing is the way the Commission believes that everything can ultimately be reconciled with everything else. It purports to outline a “case study” on transgenic animals (a term this reader had difficulty reconciling with what amounted to a 6 page narrative account of what different groups thought) concluding in deflationary tones that:
“Any decision on these issues will require careful articulation of the issues, and a balancing of the various concerns. It will require both consideration of specific decisions … and the development of generic positions that can provide clarity and consistency of guidelines for researchers and institutions…
” …We emphasise that when key elements are excluded from the process flawed decision-making ensues, with consequential damage to people and the environment.” (pp 38-39)
The idea seems to be that as long as you don’t leave anything out of the concrete-mixer, and you get the proportions and the mixing time right you can’t fail to get perfect concrete. On page 335 we are given a glimpse of the sunlit uplands in which all forms of agriculture – GM, conventional, integrated pest management and organic – can share the same Garden of Eden:
“[25.]The different methods should not be seen in opposition to each other, but rather as contributing in different ways to the same overall outcome. [26.] That outcome is the achievement of the three sets of goals outlined in chapters 3, 4 and 5: cultural, ethical and spiritual; environmental and health; economic and strategic.”
And just in case we have missed the recipe for this alchemy there is a diagram that has a happy resemblance to a flower in which everything intersects with everything else.
If everyone is happy with this who is upton-on-line to upset it like some grumpy fairy god-mother? He has no quarrel with the idea that finding workable compromises is the way to move forward – indeed, the entire report of the Commission is one big exercise in doing just that. But trying to root the possibility of all this in some purportedly shared values seems to upton-on-line just too tidy. The Commission, it seems, wanted to avoid dealing with the much knottier reality that exists in the world outside Royal Commissions: facing the fact that there values are frequently incommensurable, and that when they are, the choices that have to be made involve sacrifice, loss and – frequently – rancour. A recessive Hobbesianism in upton-on-line’s intellectual DNA bucks at the tidy meliorism with which the Commission seeks to empty its world of conflict.
New expanses for Treatyology
Nowhere is the desire for a magical squaring of the circle more apparent than in the voluminous sections on the Treaty and consultation with Maori. Chapters 3 and 11, and the third appendix devoted to describing the consultation process with Maori, are required reading, not to mention the patient detailing of arguments raised by Maori submitters throughout the Report. It is an extraordinary portrait of where the debate on the place of the Treaty in New Zealand society and how the Maori side of the Treaty industry now sees itself after 25 odd productive years in the trenches of the Tribunal, the Courts and elsewhere, has got to.
Pakeha New Zealanders reading the report may be surprised to learn just how different they are from the Maori of Aotearoa. Pakeha ethics arise contextually whereas for Maori ethics are located at the boundary of the natural and spiritual worlds. The Commission’s meliorist spirit keeps moving towards the possibility of totally different world views being able to co-exist:
“[67.] The difference in the ways Maori and Pakeha arrive at decisions means that there needs to be careful consultation if common ground is to be found. The values and worlds views do not need to be shared, but need to be understood and respected if a mutual way forward is to be agreed…” (p 30)
The trouble is that the tone of Maori commentary cited throughout the report (with literally a handful of exceptions) posits a vast chasm and, what is more, one that may be unbridgeable. Bevan Tipene Matua is cited (also on p 30) as complaining that
“They [the scientists] are unable and don’t want to create or enter into the Maori world or create relationships to ensure that our rights are protected but also the taonga themselves are protected.”
The trouble is that plenty of testimony is cited in support of the fact that Maori knowledge is rooted in spiritual values that are simply inaccessible to outsiders, and that the knowledge in question is variously “shared in the deep hours of the night, on empty stomachs away from food” (p 18) or at unexpected moments (like in the car on the way to the supermarket (p 19) and is “not discussed easily, especially outside marae or by younger people”.
As upton-on-line has previously commented, if Maori – or indeed New Zealanders as a whole dealing with this discourse – are so different that we become inexplicable to outsiders, then we are going to be a very cut-off little group. But there are grounds for wondering whether the Commission, like so many liberal listeners before it, is not unquestioningly accepting differences where there may not be any. We are told, for instance, that for Maori
“No distinction is made between the process and the outcome. A bad way of going about decision-making cannot lead to a good outcome, one that is acceptable. In fact the process shapes the decision.” (p 28)
We are told that Maori-decision making is characterised by consensus, that emotion is vented and tolerated especially when mana is challenged, and that when consensus and agreement aren’t forthcoming, then matters are left to lie upon the table and so on. Is this really so different from the way many people operate? Is the phenomenon of silence not necessarily indicating consent really something that belongs under a special description of Maori custom?
The observation is made that -
“Komiti marae meet regularly on set dates, run by agenda, usually take immaculate minutes and are over in the prescribed few hours. They differ from Pakeha counterparts in that non-members sit in and are involved. Consensus means votes are rarely taken…”(pp 29-30)
Where have these Commissioners been these last few years? Having sat through hundreds of tedious National Party meetings over the years upton-on-line can report endless decisions reached by consensus and a welcome extended to anyone in the district who could be bothered to turn up (the one who did were often the most lively contributors!). The minutes were more or less meticulous depending on who took them. But he has also been at meetings where Maori present felt the need to caucus separately just like other groups with matters of particular moment for them. This sort of egg-shell sensitive commentary is painful. Of course there are differences – they’re part of every day life and they don’t benefit from this sort of embarrassing anthropological notebook approach.
The currents of constitutional revolution
It is clear that the Commission ran head-long into a rapidly developing constitutionalist argument in its dialogue with Maoridom. The resolutions of the national hui recorded on page 152 make that very clear. So this has been another case of people being heard, treated enormously respectfully, and then by-passed.
Upton-on-line concurs completely with the Commission’s decision not to accept the argument that section 6 of the HSNO Act should be amended to require those exercising powers under the Act to “recognise and provide for” Maori values. In support of its decision the Commission said:
“It would be contrary to the spirit and the principles of the Treaty were the cultural values of either Treaty partner given pre-emptive standing. In our view, the appropriate framework for the consideration of applications under HSNO is that the spiritual and cultural values of all New Zealanders ought to be taken into account, as envisaged by section 5.”
But that will not be the end of the matter. In the first place, Moana Jackson (always good for ensuring that no sugary compromise is being slipped through the door and a supporter of a robustly constitutional and separatist side of the argument) is cited in these decisive terms:
“There is little recognition that the Maori world is anything other than a cultural object, noted for its spirituality and its music. In this view, everything from our notions of political authority to an understanding of genetics is marginalised as cultural, rather than scientific or intellectual … Because the Maori consideration of many issues is reduced to a cultural phenomenon, the efficacy of the Maori intellectual tradition is itself denied. In its place, Maori are asked to offer a mere ‘perspective’, which easily leads to rejection on the grounds of unreasoned, if interesting, spirituality or minimalisation as something may be noted, but ignored if more compelling scientific or economic reasons can be discovered.”(Appendix 3, p 154)
Now one might comment that that’s what happens when you say you have inaccessible knowledge that is beyond communication but that’s for another day. The key point to make here is that that is precisely what the Commission has done – by not acknowledging the constitutional claims being raised, it has treated Mr Jackson in exactly the way that he objects to. Maori have been listened to with exquisite politeness and cosmic tact – and then basically passed by. Like it or not, the Commission’s values concrete mixer and careful listening can’t get away from a fundamental chasm here.
It really is time Governments stopped asking arms length bodies to find ways round these problems and took direct responsibility for these debates. They’re not cultural – they’re deeply political and are all about the exercise of power in a bi-cultural state. Upton-on-line wonders how many more evasions will be tried before this blinding reality is faced up to…
If we’re going to go down this path then let’s get the debate out into the open.
Because if we don’t, we’ll be taken down it anyway without realising it. That’s because courts and commissions (with a fair cross-pollination of membership) are taking us steadily down the path of a wholly novel treaty-based constitutionalism. It’s the comfortable assumptions along these lines that are the really important thread in this report. On p 298 the Commission blandly notes that
“The courts have described the Treaty relationship as a partnership, and a jurisprudence of formulating ‘principles of the Treaty’ has evolved. These principles have emerged from decisions of the Waitangi Tribunal … from the courts, and, on occasion, from government publications. Agreement on what the principles are, and the precise form in which they should be stated, is still developing…”
So there you have it. The courts are in the driving seat. True, there’s the odd government publication to refer to – but nothing that smacks of an engagement by Parliament or some sort of democratically based constitutional debate. And if some of this Commission’s other recommendations are followed – like up-grading section 8 of the HSNO Act to require those exercising powers under the Act to “give effect to the [as yet unknown and still developing] principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”- this cosy constitutional revolution by judges will continue.
A simpler, more liberal regime?
Space does not permit upton-on-line to go through some of the Commission’s other juicy recommendations. On the research side, some small recommended changes will make life easier. For the rest, it looks more complex. The idea that conditional releases is a liberating step – explicitly rejected after careful thought by the select committee in 1996 – can cut two ways. Certainly, it makes it likely that the regulatory jungle will expand – which may be no bad thing if it means things are allowed that would otherwise have been declined, but could also end up perpetuating opportunities for review and re-litigation long after they would otherwise have been dropped. The extra Maori engagement in the intellectual property process will almost certainly – in the absence of clear guidance – add more complexity and delay. And despite the exhortations by the Commission that the WAI 262 claim should be dealt with (it’s only a decade old so far) one could reasonably predict that the too-hard basket will grow heavier before it grows lighter.
A sting in the tail
The Commission thoughtfully felt that the Minister should exercise her call-in powers to deal with the very first application for general release. Upton-on-line knows how chuffed Marian Hobbs will be to play this role. She may be even more excited when she learns about the powers she has in the Act. Upton-on-line shepherded the HSNO legislation through the House a time when the Bolger Administration didn’t have a clear majority so the Act which passed onto the statute book represented some real select committee horse trading. The result is a level of potential risk aversion that is way beyond anything he had first envisaged when the Act was introduced – and in truth didn’t realise until after it was passed.
students upton-on-line reprints here an extract from a
speech he gave in Washington DC in 1999 to the American
Association for the Advancement of Science on the subject of
risk management and the environment. It received not a word
of coverage in the New Zealand press but it covered many of
the issues the Royal Commission grappled with. I expect the
Commission was equally unaware of it but it spells out
truly awesome opportunities for political manipulation that exist in the Act. If the Greens do their homework, as I expect they will, they will be working busily to achieve through the Minister's office what they failed to achieve through the Commission.
[Any reader wanting the full text of the speech from which the following extract is taken can request it by emailing Simon Upton at firstname.lastname@example.org]
The following extract continues on from a detailed account of the illegal importation of the RCD virus:
“The RCD decision was taken under laws that precluded political intervention. The subsequent illegal importation, however, forced the debate into the political arena. The HSNO Act, while giving the decision-making power to the ERMA, explicitly provides an avenue for the Minister for the Environment to take the final decision after the Authority has heard all the evidence.
The grounds on which the Minister may call-in a decision add little to those that already apply to decisions that remain in the hands of the Authority. But the Minister is given one potentially potent power. In deciding that he will take the final decision, the Minister is entitled to specify "in the circumstances of the particular case, what is or is not significant" for the purposes of applying section 36 of the Act. Section 36, you will recall, spelt out the risks which, if found to be significant, provide sufficient grounds alone for the Authority to turn down an application. In other words, a politician is given the power to provide a definitive and final definition of an operative provision of the law.
Jurisprudence scholars in this audience may well quail at the opportunity for executive excess this might imply. But from the point of view of any politician who might advocate its use, it raises as many problems as it might solve. The provision was framed while the RCD process was being considered and was frequently referred to by those who argued that a duly elected and publicly accountable office-holder should have to exercise the judgement required in hard cases such as those posed by the RCD application. It is an easy argument to advance for everyone other than the person - for the time being me - able to exercise the power. Imagine, in the RCD case I have just outlined to you, deciding that, for the purposes of section 36, adverse effects on human health or safety should not be regarded as significant. Quite apart from requiring the wisdom of Solomon, such a possibility assumes an ability to reflect through the person of a single politician, a level of risk aversion that somehow reflects community held values. The problem is that the circumstances in which such a consensus could be discerned would be the very circumstances in which the pressure to call-in a decision would be least pressing. Conversely, it is in precisely those cases where the community is irreconcilably divided that the pressure to call-in the decision (and thereby render it politically influenceable and accountable) will be most intense.
Given the low regard in which politicians are held in most contemporary democracies, it seems counter-intuitive that we should want politicians to involve themselves in weighing up the esoteric concoctions of science, ethics, values, costs, benefits and probabilities that are at stake. But this is what the New Zealand legislature has opted for. It is, at the very least, a frank admission that at their most profound, these issues of risk management enjoy no immunity from political engagement. Which, in a way, is exactly what the illegal importers of RCD proved.
There is scant chance that the sort of debate raised by the RCD affair will be an isolated occurrence before the ERMA. Controversy over the possible field release of genetically modified crops is already on the boil. In a country such as the United States where field release has been a fact for five years, this may seem strange but the acknowledged risks that some transgenic crops raise take on an added potency when injected into the debate over risk management in a country like New Zealand that has a long tradition of wrestling with biological risks.
The HSNO legislation should provide applications for the field release of GMOs with one of the most rigorous and transparent assessment procedures in the world today. Indeed, it is only the existence of the statute that stands between potential applications and widespread calls for an across the board moratorium on the release of GMOs. By and large, I am confident that the ERMA can handle the case-by-case risks more than adequately. But there are some special elements of the GMO debate that could benefit from separate and prior consideration. They have to do with irrevocability and the extent to which anyone has an 'ownership' stake in the status quo.
Some food producers - organic farmers and beekeepers, have raised the issue in particular - who argue that the introduction of genetically modified crops would irrevocably deny them the ability to market their products as coming from a GM-free environment. On the face of it, this is an argument that is more to do with marketplace perception than any real environmental risk - and then, only in markets that have themselves a high level of concern about genetically modified food.
It raises a claim to the preservation of the status quo ante which will, inevitably, be challenged by those who wish to benefit from the advantages that some genetically modified crops may offer (including environmental benefits in some cases). We have, as a society, generally accepted that the position of all of us is subject to change through technological innovation. Here, potentially, is a claim that an entire application of molecular biology should be forever contained to the laboratory to ensure not just a low level of risk but in this case the maintenance of a state of affairs that precludes the possibility of any risk materialising.
If this seems to be without precedent, I should remind you that New Zealand has once before taken a zero risk approach and that is with respect to nuclear energy. Starting with a Royal Commission in 1978 that recommended against nuclear power, New Zealand has set its face increasingly against any engagement with anything nuclear. The spillover into our foreign policy is well known in this country and has complicated an otherwise excellent relationship. But the political reality is that, whatever the assurances about risk, New Zealanders not only want no connection with things nuclear: they have turned the stance to one of positive advantage in promoting New Zealand as a nuclear free tourist destination and food producer. Whether that makes any rational sense, it is perceived by some businesses as a real advantage in the marketplace.
Given the biological nature of New Zealand's economy, it is to my mind inconceivable that New Zealand would adopt such an approach to the use of biotechnology. But there is no question that, given the wide provisions of the HSNO Act, an argument could be mounted against the field release of genetically modified crops on the grounds that any benefits alleged in support of their release were outweighed by the costs to those who sought to maintain a GM-free growing environment.
An application that did not pose any significant adverse consequences (in terms of section 36) and didn't raise the risk of undesirable self-sustaining populations (in terms of section 37) would, in my view, be likely to win approval from the ERMA. It was not, after all, established to eliminate risks - rather, to manage them. But it would be a Pyrrhic victory if (as in the UK) the result were mindless destruction of the crops once planted. Indeed, in New Zealand, a Government owned research institute has already had contained trials destroyed by activists. Threats of vandalism are no basis for a defensible policy. But, equally, blunt assertions by experts that the risks are acceptable are not in themselves persuasive if people feel that the environment they live in is being exposed, irrevocably and without their consent, to a risk they do not understand.
There have been, in New Zealand, calls for a moratorium on the field release of genetically modified organisms pending an enquiry by a Royal Commission. Such a commission if established would, not withstanding the painstaking effort of enacting the HSNO legislation, trawl back through the debate about the way in which GMOs should be treated. The Government has rejected this approach, largely on the basis that it would not yield any new information and would be unlikely to narrow the gap between points of view that, beyond a certain point, are unlikely to be influenced by evermore fine-grained and voluminous analysis. In any case, there is something artificial about having two or three eminent persons spend months if not years hearing a vast amount of evidence if the outcome (a weighty volume of carefully balanced words) is immediately rendered obsolete by fast moving science. Such an approach also reinforces the view that this is a matter that great minds can pronounce on when, in fact, the issue is less about the quality of the science than the community's understanding of the nature of the risks and its ability to debate them.
On this basis we have opted, instead, for an independent advisory group whose brief is an interactive, community-based engagement in debate on an iterative basis rather than a single and purportedly final pronouncement. Its membership spans science, community and ethical expertise and it is tasked with staying ahead of the debate. As such it is in a good position to pick up the concerns of a group like the organic farmers and commence a dialogue that will, hopefully, place the contested issues in context before legal processes are activated. Between the two extremes of organic growers wanting the entirely understandable assurance that neighbours shouldn't be able to plant weedy, potentially hybridising close relatives of their own crops next door, and the removal of any risk by prohibiting any GM crops anywhere, there must be a middle ground. Whether there is a middle ground depends on just how risk averse in the face of uncertainty we are. Those in favour of a moratorium have, in a more or less explicit way, referred to the sorts of propositions that underlie the so-called precautionary principle. Characterised in extremes terms, the precautionary 'principle' demands that a moratorium or prohibition should issue when there is a threat of a reversible harm even if there are doubts about the causal link between the threatening activity and the possible harm, or the likelihood of that harm coming to pass.
A letter published in a very recent issue of Nature points out that this reading of the 'principle' leads to paralysis: that "in the case of genetically modified (GM) plants ... the greatest uncertainty about their possible harmfulness existed before anybody had yet produced one..." with the result that no experimental process that could show whether there are risks would ever be allowed to proceed. In putting this problem down to "a common problem in attempting to convert moral choices into legislation", Holm and Harris contend that "the precautionary principle will block the development of any technology if there is the slightest theoretical possibility of harm."
This, I believe, is an extreme interpretation of the Rio Declaration’s version of the Principle that talks of taking “cost effective measures” to prevent degradation. This falls considerably short of an absolute, blocking approach that would, if Holm and Harris were correct, make intelligent risk management impossible. As I have noted (above) the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act in New Zealand makes reference to something called the 'precautionary approach'. I have deliberately avoided using the term 'precautionary principle' in any legislation that I have sponsored since it carries with it the promise of a formula - a talisman of certainty - that simply doesn't exist. A more pragmatic approach simply allows that there is no unique principle of rational choice that can assist us in these circumstances. I am clear, however, that there are real risks in a precautionary approach that is prepared to place such heavy weight on future risks that the status quo (with its attendant risks) is automatically favoured. This would represent the replacement of open scientific debate with a clumsy ideology of risk that would ultimately be inimical to the very scientific enquiry we need to manage pre-existing risks and those yet to be identified.