The Precautionary Principle is an approach to managing possible risks where scientific understanding is incomplete, as expressed in the Declaration of the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (1992):

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”

The precautionary principle is one of the underlying principles of all EU legislation on the environment, and much of that related to public health. However, its interpretation in the international arena is highly varied and controversial. We reviewed how it was applied in eight directives or regulations, and seven court or council decisions, to see whether the application was consistent between them and followed Commission guidance.

Key Facts

    • There was considerable variation in the application of the precautionary principle in primary legislation, ranging from ‘weak’ (requiring good evidence of potential harm and using ‘softer’ regulation, such as codes of practice) to ‘strong’ (acting on less evidence and imposing stringent action, such as product bans)
    • The decisions of the European Court and the Council tended to be more consistent and to follow the Commission Guidance.

Impact of our research

The results were discussed at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture Dinner Debate in Brussels in October 2015 and presented at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture in June 2016. Since then, the European Commission has invited tenders for a further project reviewing the issue more widely, including the use of the precautionary principle in policy formation.

Why the research was commissioned

There has been very little empirical research on how the precautionary principle is used in practice. Much of the existing research focuses on philosophical and legal debates about how it should be applied. In other publications, authors advocating a particular point of view use selected cases to support their arguments. We sought to examine the evidence about the ways in which the precautionary principle was used in a diverse set of cases without a prescribed view of the correct interpretation, although the Commission guidance was used as a benchmark for comparison.

Why Cranfield?

Cranfield was invited by Syngenta to carry out the study because of a previously published paper examining whether one aspect of the Drinking Water Directive related to pesticides was consistent with the precautionary principle. The client insisted that we should have complete academic freedom to produce a paper that would pass peer review for publication, in order to further the debate on the issue.

Related content:

Garnett, K., Parsons, D.J., 2016. Multi-case review of the application of the precautionary principle in European Union law and case law. Risk Analysis, 37 (3), 502–516. (open access)