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Late lessons from early warnings, volume 2

The European Environment Agency has published its report on 'Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation' (Item 1). This is the second volume following on from an earlier publication on the Precautionary Principle and investigates 20 case studies.

New technologies have sometimes had very harmful effects, but in many cases the early warning signs have been suppressed or ignored. Historical case studies show that warnings were ignored or sidelined until damage to health and the environment was inevitable. In some instances, companies put short-term profits ahead of public safety, either hiding or ignoring the evidence of risk. In others, scientists downplayed risks, sometimes under pressure from vested interests. Such lessons could help avoid harm from emerging technologies.  However, five of the stories illustrate the benefits of quickly responding to early warnings.

The report recommends the wider use of the Precautionary Principle to reduce hazards in cases of new and largely untested technologies and chemicals. It states that scientific uncertainty is not a justification for inaction, when there is plausible evidence of potentially serious harm. Such a precautionary approach is nearly always beneficial - after analysing 88 cases of supposed 'false alarm', report authors found only four clear cases. The report also shows that precautionary actions can often stimulate rather than stifle innovation.

Among the case studies examined is that of GM crops (Item 2). This is contrasted with agroecological methods. The authors argue that GM crops are well suited to high-input monoculture agricultural systems that are highly productive but largely unsustainable in their reliance on external, non-renewable inputs. In addition, intellectual property rights granted for GM crops often close down, rather than open up further innovation potential, and stifle investment into a broader diversity of innovations allowing a greater distribution of their benefits.

In contrast, science-based agroecological methods are participatory in nature and designed to fit within the dynamics underpinning the multifunctional role of agriculture in producing food, enhancing biodiversity and ecoystem services, and providing security to communities. They are better suited to agricultural systems that aim to deliver sustainable food security than high external input approaches. They do, however, require a broader range of incentives and supportive frameworks to succeed. 

The full report is available at http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/late-lessons-2 

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Item 1

<http://www.eea.europa.eu/pressroom/newsreleases/the-cost-of-ignoring-the>

The cost of ignoring the warning signs - EEA publishes 'Late Lessons from Early Warnings, volume II'

Published : Jan 23, 2013

New technologies have sometimes had very harmful effects, but in many cases the early warning signs have been suppressed or ignored. The second volume of Late Lessons from Early Warnings investigates specific cases where danger signals have gone unheeded, in some cases leading to deaths, illness and environmental destruction.

The first volume of Late Lessons, published in 2001, was a ground breaking report detailing the history of technologies subsequently found to be harmful. The new 750-page volume includes 20 new case studies, with far-reaching implications for policy, science and society.

Case studies include the stories behind industrial mercury poisoning; fertility problems caused by pesticides; hormone-disrupting chemicals in common plastics; and pharmaceuticals that are changing ecosystems. The report also considers the warning signs emerging from technologies currently in use, including mobile phones, genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology.

The historical case studies show that warnings were ignored or sidelined until damage to health and the environment was inevitable. In some instances, companies put short-term profits ahead of public safety, either hiding or ignoring the evidence of risk. In others, scientists downplayed risks, sometimes under pressure from vested interests. Such lessons could help avoid harm from emerging technologies.  However, five of the stories illustrate  the benefits of quickly responding to early warnings.

The world has changed since the first volume of Late Lessons was published. Technologies are now taken up more quickly than before, and are often rapidly adopted around the world. This means risks may spread faster and further, the report says, outstripping society's capacity to understand, recognise and respond to these effects in time to avoid harm.

The report recommends the wider use of the 'precautionary principle' to reduce hazards in cases of new and largely untested technologies and chemicals. It states that scientific uncertainty is not a justification for inaction, when there is plausible evidence of potentially serious harm.

Such a precautionary approach is nearly always beneficial - after analysing 88 cases of supposed 'false alarm', report authors found only four clear cases. The report also shows that precautionary actions can often stimulate rather than stifle innovation.

Key recommendations

-Science should acknowledge the complexity of biological and environmental systems, particularly where there may be multiple causes of many different effects, the report says. It is increasingly difficult to isolate a single agent and prove beyond doubt that it causes harm. A more holistic view taking many different disciplines into account would also improve the understanding and prevention of potential hazards.

- Policy makers should respond to early warnings more rapidly, the report says, particularly in cases of large scale emerging technologies. It proposes that those causing any future harm should pay for the damage.
- Risk assessment can also be improved, the report says, by embracing uncertainty more broadly and acknowledging what is not known. For example, 'No evidence of harm' has often been  often misinterpreted to mean 'evidence of no harm' when the relevant research was not available.
- The report calls for new forms of governance involving citizens in choices about innovation pathways and risk analysis. This would help to reduce exposure to hazards and encourage innovations with broader societal benefits. Greater interaction between business, governments and citizens could foster more robust and diverse innovations at less cost to health and the environment.

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Item 2

Hungry for innovation: from GM crops to agroecology

David A. Quist, Jack A. Heinemann, Anne I. Myhr, Iulie Aslaksen and Silvio Funtowicz

Innovation's potential to deliver food security and solve other agriculture-related problems is high on the agenda of virtually all nations. This chapter looks at two different examples of food and agricultural innovation: genetically modified (GM) crops and agroecological methods, which illustrate how different innovation strategies affect future agricultural and social options.

GM crops are well suited to high-input monoculture agricultural systems that are highly productive but largely unsustainable in their reliance on external, non-renewable inputs. Intellectual property rights granted for GM crops often close down, rather than open up further innovation potential, and stifle investment into a broader diversity of innovations allowing a greater distribution of their benefits.

Science-based agroecological methods are participatory in nature and designed to fit within the dynamics underpinning the multifunctional role of agriculture in producing food, enhancing biodiversity and ecoystem services, and providing security to communities. They are better suited to agricultural systems that aim to deliver sustainable food security than high external input approaches. They do, however, require a broader range of incentives and supportive frameworks to succeed. Both approaches raise the issue of the governance of innovation within agriculture and more generally within societies.

The chapter explores the consequences of a 'top-down transfer of technology' approach in addressing the needs of poor farmers. Here innovation is often framed in terms of economic growth in a competitive global economy, a focus that may conflict with efforts to reduce or reverse environmental damage caused by existing models of agriculture, or even deter investment into socially responsible innovation.

Another option explored is a 'bottom-up' approach, using and building upon resources already available: local people, their knowledge, needs, aspirations and indigenous natural resources. The bottom-up approach may also involve the public as a key actor in decisions about the design of food systems, particularly as it relates to food quality, health, and social and environmental sustainability.

Options are presented for how best to answer consumer calls for food quality, sustainability and social equity in a wide sense, while responding to health and environmental concerns and securing livelihoods in local small-scale agriculture. If we fail to address the governance of innovation in food, fibre and fuel production now, then current indications are that we will design agriculture to fail. 

 


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