TCS Daily

The UN at 60

By Dr. Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko - July 5, 2005 12:00 AM

The United Nations, now celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of its charter, is not aging well. Its officials are being accused of all manner of criminality and corruption, ranging from sexual assaults by peacekeepers in the Congo to self-dealing in the Iraq oil-for-food program.

But an even greater scandal at the UN is receiving less publicity: For years, its agencies and programs systematically have been promoting regulations and policies that block the use of safe, effective new technologies that could help solve some of the world's most pressing public health and environmental problems.

One example is the complicity of several U.N. agencies in the unscientific, ideological and excessive regulation of biotechnology -- also known as gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM) -- which has slowed advances in agricultural and pharmaceutical research and development.

Ultimately, gene-spliced products could alleviate famine and water shortages for millions, and even lead to the development of vaccines incorporated into edible fruits and vegetables. But during the past decade, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a regressive "biosafety protocol" to regulate the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. A travesty against sound science, the document is based on the bogus "precautionary principle, which dictates that every new product or technology must be proven completely 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 activists and regulators -- the precautionary principle has become an impediment to the development of critical 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 harm, to the innovator, who now must demonstrate that the technology will not cause harm under any circumstances. Even worse, it overestimates hypothetical risks, while discounting proven benefits.

Other U.N. agencies have gotten into the act. In 2003, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the World Health Organization and its Food and Agriculture Organization, singled out only food products made with gene-splicing techniques for draconian restrictions. Yet scientists worldwide agree that gene-splicing is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and predictable genetic manipulation techniques that have been used for centuries. Thousands of greenhouse and field studies, as well as widespread commercialization in a half-dozen advanced countries, have shown that the risks of gene-spliced plants and foods are minimal, their benefits proven and their future potential extraordinary.

Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops has reduced pesticide use by tens of millions of pounds annually (as well as the frequency of pesticide poisonings), and saves millions of tons of topsoil from erosion.

Another example in the same vein is the 2001 United Nations Persistent Organic Pollutants Convention, which stigmatizes the insecticide DDT as one of the world's worst pollutants, and makes it exceedingly difficult for developing countries -- many of which are plagued by malaria, West Nile virus and other insect-borne diseases -- to use the chemical.

Not only do U.N. officials dismiss scientific evidence demonstrating the effectiveness and relative safety of DDT, they also fail to take into consideration the inadequacy of alternatives and to appreciate the distinction between its large-scale use in agriculture and more limited application for controlling carriers of human disease.

In recent decades, scores of millions of lives have been lost to mosquito-borne illnesses -- lives that might have been saved with DDT. The UN must be regarded as a co-conspirator in the deadly campaign against the chemical's use.

Another example occurred in May, at the 58th World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization's policy-making body. The delegates adopted a resolution that supposedly reflects concern about potential bacterial contamination of powdered infant formula. According to the WHO, two low-weight babies died last year in hospitals in France, and one in New Zealand, supposedly from formula contaminated by bacteria. The stories are tragic, surely, but hardly an epidemic, even if true.

The resolution notes that infant formula is not sterile and "may contain pathogenic microorganisms" such as Enterobacter sakazakii or Salmonella, which allegedly have been a cause of infection and illness in pre-term and low birth-weight infants, and "could lead to serious developmental [damage] and death." The resolution calls for health care workers and parents, particularly those caring for infants at high risk, to be informed about the "potential for introduced contamination" and the need for safe preparation, handling and storage of infant formula. Also, "where applicable," this information should be "conveyed through an explicit warning on packaging."

Finally, it concludes that babies should be breast-fed exclusively for six months and calls for precautions in preparing formula for those at high-risk, such as pre-term, low birth-weight or immune-deficient infants.

But infant formula already carries explicit information about storage, preparation and handling. In truth, the resolution appears not to have been motivated by any actual concern for the product in question, but rather by the anti-corporate bias that pervades the UN. This same bias, along with the perks of becoming the world's "bio-police," motivates the anti-biotech crusade. In this case, the effect will be that the recommended warning label about dangerous pathogens will discourage the use of formula in situations where it is needed.

Taken in isolation, these examples of bureaucratic bias and political correctness at the UN may not seem to be on a par with the oil-for-food debacle and its coverup, but they are particularly insidious because they result not from aberrant behavior, but from a defined and "proper" process of policy-making. Never mind that the overall effect is utterly appalling: The poor get poorer and sicker, and many more suffer and die. Why should U.N. officials not be held accountable?

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDAs Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1994. Gregory Conko is the director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their book, The Frankenfood Myth, was chosen by Barrons as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004. 


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