Risk assessment is a formal process used in making risky projects safer. It’s required in jumbo jets and hospitals, in large scale engineering projects like bridges, and in nuclear plants. Risk assessment is also required by the European Union for Oxitec to continually export GMO mosquito eggs from the UK to Florida, but the company hasn’t provided it.
Risk assessment provides answers to three separate questions: What can go wrong? How likely is it to happen? And what are the consequences of it happening. A *quantitative* risk assessment puts a number on the probability of each bad thing happening. These numbers should be based on field testing.
Instead of quantitative risk assessment Oxitec has provided a series of “expert opinions,” all from its own studies, which say that every risk has a “low probability.” The most important risks have had no field testing at all, such as the risk of Oxitec’s artificial DNA contaminating the food chain, entering human beings through biting, changing the environment, spreading disease, or causing other competing species to overtake the GMO mosquitoes.
Quantitative risk assessment is necessary because, without it, a small series of unforeseen events can lead to very large consequences. Risk assessment was not part of the planning process for Chernobyl, leading to huge releases of radiation and permanent contamination of vast areas, now uninhabitable for centuries. This was was permitted because the engineering process did not tie the “low risk” of an accident with the high consequences of having one in an unshielded building.
Risk assessment played a part in the Fukushima nuclear distaster, too, where it showed the limits of man’s ability to predict the future. An over reliance on the engineers’ estimates of “low probability” lead to the construction of sea walls which were insufficient to keep out water during the large tsunami, resulting in power outages longer than the risk assessment had foreseen and the meltdown of three reactors.
Nature can be only partly understood through risk assessment, not completely. She has proven repeatedly that she’s not under man’s control in all cases. A substance like artificial DNA is a prime candidate for unforeseen consequences as it enters the unpredictable natural world, never to be recalled. Oxitec’s hired-man promises of “low risk” are not enough to overcome the very high price we would pay if any part of this technology goes wrong.