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Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation
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Posted: July 2014

“Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation”
Craig Holdrege

This report, published in 2013 by the European Environment Agency, looks at human interventions that are based on science and technology and have had profound effects on human and environmental health. The report presents case studies of “instances where early warnings existed but no preventive actions were taken” (p. 9) — for example, lead in gasoline, tobacco, mercury in fish, DDT. It also addresses emerging issues, such as genetic engineering in agriculture, where there are now early warnings, and where it is still possible to intervene before we are confronted with “late lessons.” The report is divided into five sections:

  • Lessons from health hazards
  • Emerging lessons from ecosystems
  • Emerging issues
  • Costs, justice and innovation
  • Implications for science and governance

Individual chapters can be downloaded and read independently of one another. A total of 20 cases studies are presented.

Noteworthy is a chapter on “false positives”: 88 cases were investigated in which it had been claimed that no actual risk was present even though risk had been presumed. This analysis of those studies found that only four of those 88 cases were in fact false positives. “Overall, the analysis shows that fear of false positives is misplaced and should not be a rationale for avoiding precautionary actions where warranted. False positives are few and far between as compared to false negatives and carefully designed precautionary actions can stimulate innovation, even if the risk turns out not to be real or as serious as initially feared” (p. 17).

One chapter of the book explicitly addresses GM crops. It deals with agricultural innovation, contrasting the “top-down” approach (currently applied to GM herbicide-resistant crops) with a “bottom-up,” agro-ecological approach. But much is to be learned from the other chapters as well, since they provide a larger historical perspective on technological innovation. For example, several studies describe examples in which “assertions that ‘no evidence of harm’ have been interpreted as ‘evidence of no harm’” (p. 674), a conflation that one repeatedly encounters in the GM literature.

Based on what can be learned from the other case histories, the report concludes in reference to genetically modified crops:

The critical late lesson that may be emerging from GM crops is not the evidence of harm — the early indications of harm are just emerging — but the persistence of the same institutional patterns that led to the old late lessons already learned from asbestos, benzene and BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease”]. In these cases, weak risk assessment standards were implemented that prevented identifying the harm and taking precautionary action. To avoid this old lesson, the appropriate application of the precautionary approach to risk standards would help ensure we are not repeating the same error with GM crops, and thus avoid a late lessons case in the making. (p. 470)

“Late Lessons From Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation.” European Environment Agency (EEA), Report 1/2013. doi:10.2800/73322. Available online: There you can download the following pdf documents:

  • Full report (764 pages)
  • Summary of report (48 pages)
  • Individual chapters
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