Political Relevance

The precautionary principle has been adopted in a variety of forms at international, European Union, and national level. It is applied across an increasing number of national jurisdictions, economic sectors, and environmental areas. It has moved from the regulation of industry, technology, and health risk, to the wider governance of science, innovation, and trade. As it has expanded in scope, so it has grown in profile and authority. In particular, as Article 174(2) in the EC Treaty of 2002, precaution now constitutes a key underlying principle in European Community policymaking. The 2000 Communication on Precaution of the European Commission provides evidence for the high significance that the precautionary principle has gained as a guiding policy of the European Union in areas such as environmental, consumer, and health protection. The document states in the first section: ''Applying the precautionary principle is a key tenet of its policy, and the choices it makes to this end will continue to affect the views it defends internationally, on how this principle should be applied'' (European Commission, 2000: 3). As Elisabeth Fisher (2002) pointed out, the communication specifies also some of the major conditions and requirements for applying the principle. There are two conditions mentioned: ''The measures, although provisional, shall be maintained as long as the scientific data remain incomplete, imprecise or inconclusive and as long as the risk is considered too high to be imposed on society'' (European Commission, 2000: 21). In addition to the presence of remaining uncertainty, the EU communication lists the condition that the risk must be too high to be imposed on society. This relates to the requirement ofproportionality that has been stated as one of the major requirements of applying the principle.

In the aftermath of a series of formative public health controversies, economic calamities, and political conflicts (such as those involving BSE and GM crops), precaution is of great salience or importance in may fields including the regulation of ecosystem interventions. Since the application of the precautionary principle has been associated with stricter and more rigid regulations, environmental groups have usually rallied around the precautionary approach, while most industrial and commercial groups have been fighting for the assessment-based approach Again, the issue is not resolved, and the debate has become even more pronounced with the defeat of the European Community in the WTO settlement of hormones in beef.The European Community failed in providing sufficient evidence that the precautionary approach could justify the restriction of imported beef treated with hormones.

It is interesting to note that the assessment-based approach has been widely adopted by the official US regulatory bodies while the precautionary approach has been widely advocated by the EU regulatory bodies. There are, however, also numerous elements of precautionary approaches interspersed into the actual practices of US regulatory agencies, just as there are judgments about magnitudes of risk in the actual practices of regulators in the EU. A strict dichotomy between 'precautionary' in Europe and 'assessment based' in the US is therefore too simple to describe actual practice.

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