Since the development of civilization and government, there has always been a struggle between the will of an individual and the will of a greater power. People remain in this debate today, positioning themselves along the sides lines of either individual liberty or collective direction. Asking which position is correct may be the wrong question, though. Rather let us look at the effects of these stances.
Take food adulteration, for example.
With a burgeoning populous, massive demand for food, and whole economies being built around agriculture and food production, it seems natural that government should be involved. But to what extent? In an article titled, “The Political Science of Adulteration” by Jonathan W. Emord, this question is approached. With growing involvement of politics in food, Emord worries if we can hope to see freedom over regulation.
A Changing Paradigm in Food
As Emord outlines, in both Europe and the United States, governments are now taking a preemptive position to food. They are slowly transitioning the scientific, toxicological definition of adulteration to something of more political substance. This has led to some substances becoming unavailable to consumers despite 1000+ year use.
Paracelsus: “Poison is in everything”
Fundamentally, this movement challenges the long held truism of the Paracelsus Principle. This states that “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or remedy.” Simply put, dose determines toxicity, not the substance’s inherent quality. It was from this “scientific verité”, as Emord puts it, that people looked at food toxicity as something that the government would have to prove itself; the dosage that would result in harm would need to be determined before any restrictions were placed on one’s food.
At the forefront, we see that while threats may still exist in food – say, peanuts, a food known for the prevalence of allergens – it was up to the person to decide what to eat. The inherent risk of disease, toxicity, or some other unseen and unavoidable harm was taken to be something of chance, but chance one individually chose. Besides, conclusive proof of food safety is difficult to come by anyways (let alone conclusive proof for anything).
Precaution: If Poison is in it, don’t allow it
Precaution take a different stance on this subject, and it is the philosophy that Emord is worried is beginning to take over. Precaution doesn’t leave room for the inconclusive nature of science, for example. As Emord explains, this view “holds the enormous body of inconclusive science concerning the relative risk of commonly consumed nutrients and foods and inherently vulnerable territory, warranting government controls and restrictions.”
What that means for consumers is less and less of what may have been available for thousands of years. (Raw milk is a great example.) This precautionary principle, then, can be used to justify the banning or restricting of goods to the public. And indeed it is – the principle was included in 1992 Earth Summit as Principle 15.
To Emord, the adoption of principles like these clearly represents a shift away from food freedom in Europe and the United States. What’s more, this is a story that only ends with more and more regulatory forces making their in the home and cupboard.
Finding a Middle Ground on Food
So, which is correct – the Paracelsus Principle or the Precautionary Principle? The correct answer is indeed elusive.
Many say it’s best not to deal in total absolutes, so perhaps neither is correct and some issues require precaution while others do not, or at least to a much lesser degree. Raw milk, for example, has been around for thousands of years – so perhaps the Paracelsus principle should apply. But what about GMOs – being around for roughly two decades, maybe the Precautionary Principle should apply. But that seems like one could simply and arbitrarily pick and choose which principle to abide by.
Instead, there’s got to be a middle ground, or at least more of a middle ground. What really must happen is people must advocate for the food rights they want. Otherwise, while the food you eat is supposed to be healthy, it may be devoid of the levels of nutrients you need, simply because the precautions governments see the need to take.
Oh, how politics gets into everything.