TCS Daily

United Nations Day of Shame

By Dr. Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko - October 24, 2003 12:00 AM

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently declared that the global pursuit of scientific endeavors is marked by inequality. Noting that developing countries invest much less on scientific research and produce fewer scientists, Annan warned that the resulting imbalance in the geographic distribution of scientific activity creates problems for both the scientific community in developing countries and for development itself. He urged scientists and scientific institutions around the world to resolve this inequity and bring the benefits of science to all.

How humanitarian. How enlightened. How hypocritical.

The UN is supposed to be the watchdog of human rights, the most basic of which is the right to have enough to eat. When human rights are compromised, most often it is because people are desperately poor. One contributing factor to this poverty is the inability of people to feed themselves effectively. The UN's mission ought to be self-sufficiency of food production for all. Instead, the self-interest of UN bureaucracies actually prevents the poor from bettering their lives -- and even from surviving.

Especially on this United Nations Day [October 24], it is scandalous that the UN's wanton sacrifice of science and technology to its own bureaucratic self-interest creates significant obstacles to innovation that could help the poorest of the poor. In particular, the UN's involvement in the excessive, unscientific regulation of biotechnology -- also known as gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM) -- will slow agricultural research and development and promote environmental damage. Ultimately, it could prolong famine and water shortages for millions in developing countries.

Secretary-General Annan has proven once again (as though we needed further evidence) that talk is cheap. During the past decade, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a "biosafety protocol" to regulate the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. It is based on the bogus "precautionary principle" which dictates that every new technology -- including, in the case of, an improvement over less precise technologies -- must be proven utterly 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 many activists and regulators -- the precautionary principle has become a self-defeating impediment to the development of new products. Precautionary regulation shifts the burden of proof from the regulator, who previously 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 cause harm under any circumstances.

This shift is ominous, because it frees regulatory bodies to require any amount and kind of testing that they wish. 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 encourages overly risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals.

Examples include a five-year-long moratorium on approvals of gene-spliced plants throughout
Europe, and the rejection of badly needed food aid by several African countries -- only because it contains the same superior gene-spliced varieties of grain consumed routinely in North America.


Similarly, a task force of the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the UN's World Health Organization and its Food and Agriculture Organization, has singled out only food products made with gene-splicing techniques for various Draconian and even bizarre regulatory procedures and requirements.

Overly burdensome standards for gene-spliced foods are ominous not only because of their direct effects on research and development, but also because they will keep beneficial new crop plants out of the hands of the resource-poor farmers in less developed countries who need them most.

The unscientific, precautionary-principle-driven standards and regulations the UN defends in the name of the global environmental protection 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. Many 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 devoted to food production. But the regulatory regimes promoted by various UN agencies and projects will deny less-developed countries precisely the kind of technology they need, and will prolong the imbalance in scientific activity lamented by Kofi Annan.

The precautionary principle may someday be relegated to the same dustbin of history as "ethnic cleansing" and the "final solution."

Scientists worldwide agree that gene-splicing is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and predictable genetic techniques that have been used for centuries, an exquisite
tool that can help to develop plants with higher yields and innovative traits. Tragically, it is already being blocked by the disincentive of unnecessary regulations.

Morally, this is no different from permitting the construction of an unsafe dam or knowingly administering a contaminated vaccine. Countless people will suffer and die needlessly as a result of the arbitrary, unscientific restrictions now imposed on our ability to help them to help themselves. The UN and its secretary-general should be held accountable for this human rights catastrophe.

Henry Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution,
Stanford University. He was an official at the FDA from 1979-1994 and a member of the OECD Group of National Experts on Biotechnology. Gregory Conko is Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.


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