Even if we had perfect information on the environmental impacts of industrial chemicals and processes, determining the appropriate levels of regulation would be extremely difficult. In our modern economy, all of us are willing to accept some level of risk, some health and environmental impacts, in order to elevate our material standard of living. In essence, there is no "zero impact" equilibrium, unless we envisage some type of pre-industrial age (and even then it is debatable).
Determining the appropriate level of regulation is made exponentially more difficult in a world of tremendous uncertainty about the impacts of even the most ubiquitous industrial chemicals. Our current state of knowledge with respect to most chemicals is extremely low; even what we do know is taken mainly from questionable animal research and we know virtually nothing about the synergistic effects of hundreds of chemicals swimming around our bloodstreams and our ecosystems over decades.
Faced with this great uncertainty, different types of regulatory schemes have developed. The U.S. model puts more of the onus on those who think a chemical or process poses a risk to prove that it does, while in the E.U. the onus is more on the producers to prove that compounds of processes are safe; the E.U. model is based more on the "precautionary principle."
As Mark Schapiro’s excellent work has demonstrated, the E.U. model seems to be paying dividends not only with respect to health and environmental safety, but also economically; as the E.U.’s market share grows, companies around the world are ratcheting up their environmental standards in order to meet stricter E.U. guidelines. In turn, the E.U. now is much more influential in setting world standards than the U.S., which used to be the leader. This is a great development that environmentalists and economists should take not of: high environmental standards can be compatible with increased trade, productivity, and market share.
The E.U. system still relies on a benefit-cost calculus at some level; those chemicals which offer the greatest benefit to industry and the least risk to society (but still greater than zero) are banned or limited much less than those chemicals whose benefits are less and whose risks much more apparent. But there is no doubt that the scale in the E.U. is weighted more heavily to public and environmental safety.
In my view, this is how it should be; in our modern and wealthy age, with our great propensity for innovation, we should be quicker to limit potentially damaging products and processes and insist on the development of cleaner and safer alternatives.
The general logic that differentiates the U.S. and the E.U.’s regulatory approaches is also expressed in attitudes with respect to GMO foods. The U.S. is a much greater proponent of GMOs and U.S. consumers are much less concerned about their potential impacts than our European counterparts, who continue to push for bans and much greater limitations.
But in this instance I think the U.S. perspective may actually be more in line with the evidence. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, the world’s leading agricultural think tank, the potential for beneficial uses of GMOs justifies their continued development and experimentation. IFPRI has a statement on GMOs that makes clear that safety concerns are legitimate and require serious monitoring and protocols, but that the technology has the potential to aid in sustainable agriculture and poverty alleviation.
While the U.S. would be wise to adopt more of the European approach to industrial chemicals, I think the E.U. would be wise to set aside their ideological opposition to GMOs and take a more measured approach.