TCS Daily

The UN's Bizarre War on Biotech

By Dr. Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko - December 18, 2002 12:00 AM

The United Nations' abject failure to get Iraq to adhere to the Security Council's post-Gulf War resolutions might lead to a war that is costly to the United States and its allies and devastating to Iraq. But for a large portion of the world's population, UN failures in the economic and regulatory arenas will be far more damaging in the long run: The UN's self-serving involvement in excessive, unscientific biotechnology regulation will slow agricultural research and development, promote environmental damage and bring famine and to millions in developing countries.

In Montreal two years ago, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a "biosafety protocol" for the regulation of international movement of gene-spliced organisms. It was based on the bogus "precautionary principle," which dictates that every new technology - including, in the case of gene-splicing, an improvement over less precise technologies - must be proven safe before it can be used. An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proved totally safe - at least, not to the standard demanded by anti-technology extremists - the precautionary principle creates prodigious obstacles to the development of new products.

Precautionary regulation shifts the burden of proof from the regulator, who once had to demonstrate that a new technology was likely to cause some harm, to the innovator, who now must demonstrate that the technology will not. Under this new standard of evidence, regulatory bodies are free to arbitrarily require any amount and kind of testing they wish.

Thus, rather than creating a uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing legitimate risks, the biosafety protocol establishes an ill-defined global regulatory process that permits overly risk-averse, incompetent, and corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals. One example is a several-year-long moratorium on approvals of gene-spliced plants throughout Europe.

Canada, which in April 2001 signed the treaty of which the biosafety protocol is a part, faces a dilemma over whether to ratify the protocol itself (which becomes law after ratification by at least 50 nations). It would permit Canada to restrict biotech exports from other countries - at best, a dubious, anti-trade option, because along with the United States and Argentina, Canada is one of the world's three major producers of agricultural biotech products. Even worse, the protocol would provide resources for "capacity-building initiatives," or regulatory apparatuses, in developing countries that would enable them to restrict Canada's own biotech product exports. Jacqueline Duckering, of the Saskatchewan-based Ag-West Biotech, Inc. (a non-profit venture funded by Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food to support local biotech enterprises) posits that Canada's support for the biosafety protocol would be self-destructive: "We would be paying for our own guillotine!"

Another ongoing example of the UN's malign influence is a task force of the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the United Nations' World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, which is moving relentlessly towards circumscribing only food products made with gene-splicing for various Draconian and even bizarre regulatory procedures and requirements.

The Europeans want to stop gene-spliced products because the technology was developed in U.S. labs and commercialized by U.S. companies that were financed by American capital. They are aided by radical environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are permitted to participate in Codex meetings, and which are ideologically opposed to new technology.

The Codex task force is en route to codifying various procedures and requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs or pesticides than to gene-spliced tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries. They include long-term monitoring for adverse health effects and batteries of tests for genetic stability, toxins, allergenicity, and so on.

Among the most egregious is something called "traceability," an array of technical, labeling and record-keeping mechanisms to keep track of a plant "from dirt to dinner plate", so that consumers will know whom to sue if they get diarrhea from gene-spliced prunes, and providing, in the words of the anti-biotech European Commission delegate, "a tool governments can use to remove products from the market".

The prospect of unscientific, overly burdensome Codex standards for gene-spliced foods is ominous, because members of the World Trade Organization will, in principle, be required to follow them, and they will provide cover for unfair trade practices. Jean Halloran, of the anti-biotech group Consumers International, characterized Codex standards as a legal defense against WTO challenges to countries that arbitrarily interfere with trade in biotech foods. "The Codex is important because of the WTO. If there is a Codex standard, one country cannot file a challenge [for unfair trade practices] against another country which is following the Codex standard. But when there is no Codex standard, countries can challenge each other on anything."

These unscientific regulations and standards actually harm the environment and public health, stifling the development of environmentally friendly innovations that can increase agricultural productivity, help clean up toxic wastes, conserve water and supplant agricultural chemicals. UN experts themselves warn that the greatest single threat to the planet's environment comes from the world's burgeoning population and its demand that ever more land be brought into food production.

Yet, an important answer - developing more productive plant varieties - will be blocked by the disincentive of unnecessary regulations on gene-splicing. Morally, this is no different from permitting the building of an unsafe dam or knowingly administering a contaminated vaccine. The UN and its Secretary General should be held accountable.

Henry Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994 and is an adviser to the US delegation to the Codex Alimentarius Commission task force on biotech foods. Gregory Conko is Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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