Time to ban coffee? How values dictate our use of precaution

Originally published on 16 May 2014 under the cryptic title: Normative Reflux. Given that IARC is about to declare coffee as carcinogenic, I think we need to play with the fallacy that, on the basis of a mere hazard assessment, we need to act as risk managers and organise a ban on all coffee products!
Surely people are not that stupid … but I am not sure about IARC!

The Risk-Monger is not against precaution (he is a very cautious person), but he feels that it is not a risk management tool. The biggest problem he has is that precaution is a normative concept, often misused by people with interests. In my last blog, I looked at how laying down the precaution gauntlet leaves a residue that one is guilty – a negative perception of a technology that cannot be overcome.

Activists campaigning for precaution claim they represent a “public” that often want to believe certain risks are unmanageable (GMOs, pesticides, chemicals …) and must be eliminated. They come up with fact-light stories and anecdotal evidence to reinforce their bias (bees, endocrine disruption, low-dose responses), and as the benefits of these risks are not always evident, they convince themselves that their precautionary decisions are benevolent. At the same time, this “public” generally accept risks where the perceived benefits are high (cars, mobile phones, solar panels) and do their best to ignore scientific evidence that may interfere with their preconceptions or comfortable lifestyle. Precaution is normatively applied (valuing certain benefits and rejecting others), usually called up for all of the wrong reasons. As a risk management tool, precaution is absolutely worthless (unless your goal is to frighten and deceive decision-makers). Let’s take an example.

Ban coffee now!

If we were to apply the precautionary principle with integrity, then the first action we must perform is to take coffee off the market. Past students of mine will recall an unforgettable character from my lectures: a radical activist who runs a campaign to ban coffee. His argument is as follows:

  • There are over 1000 chemicals in a cup of coffee of which we have only tested a few dozen, many of which are highly carcinogenic to rats (yes natural chemicals are also chemicals and also carcinogenic).
  • To further Bruce Ames’ data, we would ingest more toxins from a single cup of coffee than all of the pesticide residues we would take in from a full year of fruit and vegetable consumption (that’s right – one innocent cup of coffee).
  • Women are told not to drink coffee in their first trimester of pregnancy because of the increased risk of miscarriage.
  • Many studies have shown that men who drink more than three cups a day (for many of us, that means by around noon-time!), substantially increase their infertility risks and lower their sperm motility. The Risk-Monger has already included coffee in a list of natural endocrine disruption terror suspects.
  • The coffee roasting process increases dioxins and carcinogens and let us not forget that the chemicals used in the decaffeination process are some of the same that we use in dry cleaning (Food Babe, are you listening?).
  • As a drug, caffeine is more dangerous than nicotine (something that is challenging the anti-e-cigarette movement) and is also addictive.
  • As well as cancer, coffee has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, liver and kidney problems and depression.
  • Fair-trade coffee is unimaginable (but we like to pretend) given how coffee plantations irreversibly radically transform ecological and economic systems in developing countries.

Banning coffee would be a no-brainer if we were serious in our methodology for using the precautionary principle. But we don’t, and no civil society group is running a campaign against coffee (cynics would say that is because no one would fund any activist group to take away our “Morning Joe”). Why not?

It is not because coffee is natural (so is tobacco). I believe the main problem is normative – we see the benefits of coffee, and this value imbalance allows us to selectively ignore evidence or search for facts to reinforce our bias (there are some health benefits from coffee as well). This is what I call: Normative Reflux – all the crap that we regurgitate to try to convince us that one risk is perfectly acceptable and another is not, based not on research and evidence but on what we want to believe. The truly ridiculous are those who chose to drink organic coffee for health reasons – God bless them!

Coffee is an easy example. If we were serious about precaution, we would also severely restrict or eliminate the use of cars for personal transport and mobile technologies (cell phones, wifi, base stations …). But the benefits blind us to any risks. In these cases, if it were taken and applied seriously (and not for some anti-industry, anti-technology activist motivation) the precautionary principle would be invoked, but the popular values and benefit/market demands drown out any balance.

Normative reflux creates a bias – we want to believe something and we recalibrate the evidence or our research objectives to reconfirm our predispositions. The Risk-Monger has been particularly concerned with what he calls sustainability bias. As our finite resources are channelled into environmental follies we want to believe are sustainable (solar panels, electric cars, organic food …), this normative reflux is not only leaving a bad taste in developing countries, but also among the poor in wealthy countries (Germany is willfully creating a sub-population of energy disenfranchised).

So how should we deal with these threats to health and the environment? Not with precaution but a proper risk management tool.

Risk management or uncertainty management?

Precaution is not risk management but rather an uncertainty management tool – when uncertain and fearful, remove the source of the problem (ban the pesticide, GMO or chemical) and accept living without the benefits (food security, innovation, reduced resource demands …). I have given this example before: if we want certainty in financial risk-taking, we put our money in a savings account (at a present rate of less than 1%, we give up any potential benefits). This is uncertainty management (certainty preserved, benefits don’t matter). Against this, risk management involves reducing our exposure to hazards in a manner that allows us to feel a certain degree of safety (again, a normative concept) while still being able to enjoy the benefits – we would spread our investments, hedge and take profits when things get frothy.

The risk management tool used in such circumstances (by risk managers in the nuclear and chemical industries, but evidently not by risk managers in the European Commission) is called ALARA – As Low As Reasonably Achievable. When the benefits are great, it is what we do to manage risks – reduce our exposure to hazards to as low as reasonably achievable. Risk managers put handrails next to stairways (we don’t ban stairways and do everything on the ground floor). It is reasonable (and ALARA is a question of determining what is reasonable) rather than a black or white approach.

Should we ban coffee, cars and mobile phones under a rationally consistent application of the precautionary principle? That would almost be as absurd as the idea of banning pesticides, chemicals and GMOs. So where should precaution come in vis-à-vis the risk management process? Definitely not as a first reflex as we have seen with the EU bee precaution fiasco, but rather as a decision of last resort. If there are risks and the benefits are identified, the risk managers must try to reduce the risks to as low as reasonably achievable.

  • For example, if the automotive industry can reduce CO2 and pollutant emissions in the production and use phase (including the CO2 emissions caused during the manufacturing of electric cars) to a reasonable level, then there is no need to ban cars. Over time, technology could make lower levels more reasonable (the continuous improvement part of product stewardship). This is occurring, but not fast enough given that we all enjoy our cars and thus exclude the threat of precaution.
  • A contrary example, the mobile phone industry, in rushing out 4G technologies, have not reduced EMF exposures, but rather increased them, at a time when evidence is being collected to indicate potential health risks. As the industry has abandoned ALARA, the only alternative would be to impose precaution and ban cell phones. Our normative reflux makes such a risk management decision impossible – even stopping teenagers from sticking these radiation cancer sticks into their ears comes across as too difficult. This is a risk management fail.

As for coffee, there is much to do if we took the role of risk management seriously (warning labels on cups? Coffee substitutes?) – but maybe we can meet over a tea to discuss that one!

Image source: This site, My Organic Recipes, is interesting as they swear by coffee (the more the better) to prevent cancer, but provide no sources.

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