BBC Radio 4's Analysis: Risky Business was broadcast on Thursday, 11 December, 2003 at 20:30 GMT.
Could there be a hidden danger?
Are we being too careful for our own good?
You may not have heard of the "precautionary principle" yet, but for campaigners and policy makers concerned with environmental and consumer safety it is something of a buzz phrase.
It has no single agreed definition, but in its strongest form it means that, where there is a possibility of irreversible harm, a lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for inaction.
Thus, the Stewart Inquiry into mobile phone safety found no evidence of ill-health effects from radiation yet recommended that children's use of mobile phones should be limited.
Similarly, across the European Union, companies will be required to prove the safety of around 100,000 chemicals currently in use even in cases where there is no evidence to suggest they pose a threat to human health or the environment.
Since the BSE crisis of the 1990s, when scientists failed to predict the dangers posed to humans from beef infected with mad cow disease, politicians have understandably been more willing to take public anxieties seriously, even in the face of reassurances from the scientific elite.
But if the evidence of scientists cannot be trusted, how do politicians choose which products to subject to the precautionary approach? Subjecting every technology to the precautionary principle would be prohibitively expensive - the farm scale evaluations of just three GM crops have cost £5 million. Should public suspicion, sometimes ill-informed and misplaced, be a reason to put a new technology on hold?
Furthermore, whilst the precautionary principle might save us from a repeat of the BSE crisis, is there a danger it will impose other costs? Might our fear of the new and the hi-tech mean we miss out on the development of potentially life-saving and life-enhancing innovations?
Presenter Diane Coyle speaks to leading policy makers and academics in the fields of risk, consumer safety and the environment.
Michael Meacher, former UK Environment Minister
Dr John Graham, the US government's chief scientific regulator
Caroline Lucas, a Green member of the European Parliament
Dr Paul Drayson, a biotech entrepreneur
Adam Burgess, Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and a Culture of Precaution, pub. August 2003 Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0521520827
David Gee, Brian Wynn, Andy Stirling and Malcolm MacGarvin (Editors), The Precautionary Principle in the 20th Century: Late Lessons from Early Warnings. Pub. 15 April, 2002, Earthscan. ISBN: 1853838926
Dr Neil A. Manson, Formulating the Precautionary Principle, published in the journal Environmental Ethics, Vol. 24, Fall 2002.
Julian Morris (Editor), Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Pub. 19 September, 2000, Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN: 0750646837
Presenter: Diane Coyle
Producer: Innes Bowen
Editor: Nicola Meyrick