Last week the Food and Drug Administration released a preliminary report declaring that genetically modified salmon appears to be A-OK. The agency is holding hearings in the coming weeks to determine whether to approve the fish for consumer consumption. In its analysis, the FDA determined that the super-salmon aren’t likely to pose any significant environmental threat, and that the fish are “as safe to eat as food from other Atlantic salmon.” As if on cue, anti-technology and environmental groups are having a collective conniption fit, trotting out the same tired arguments we hear about genetically modified food crops.
Thirty-one groups led by the “Center for Food Safety” and Food & Water Watch recently put out a press release, and the gripes (in the release and elsewhere) boil down to this: The modified salmon might escape the underwater pens they’re grown in, and they might out-compete wild salmon for food, and they might cause an allergic reaction in some people.
And the price of Apple stock might drop to a penny a share.
These activists don’t have any evidence—just “might” language and wild theories that force scientists to prove a negative. This approach to risk assessment has a name. It’s the Precautionary Principle, the idea that governments should (or even can) eliminate all risks from life, no matter how small, before allowing something to go forward. This is a favorite weapon of activist group that want to slow down technological progress with endless environmental assessments and re-assessments.
Can’t be too careful, right? Better safe than sorry? Not really. The Wall Street Journal rightly calls this the “paralyzing principle” because it opens the door to an endless supply of theories and fear-mongering—and results is usually a battle of data versus fantasy. As long as Food & Water Watch can pull “risks” out of thin air, activists can tie up the regulatory process. And that’s the real goal behind “precautionary” challenges, as one activist leader famously stated: “They don’t get to do it. Period.”
The difference between reasonable and unreasonable risk is evident in the FDA’s preliminary report (emphasis added):
[T]here is a reasonably certainty of no harm from the consumption of food from this animal […]
As a result of all of these containment measures, the potential occurrence of any significant effects on the global commons or any foreign nations not participating in this action is considered extremely remote. In addition, no effects on stocks of wild Atlantic salmon are expected.
Let’s face it: There’s always a remote chance of lightning striking you. (The same goes for winning the lottery.) But most people seem to get along just fine in their daily lives. For groups on the green fringe, though, blowing risk out of proportion is business as usual.