Give Annan the boot

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Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will head a new group intended to achieve a “green revolution” in African agriculture. The effort is largely bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates. If past performance is any indication, the only things likely to become greener are the numbered bank accounts of Mr. Annan and his cronies.

Lest anyone forget, Mr. Annan’s tenure as U.N. secretary-general was marked by unprecedented corruption (including the Iraq oil-for-food debacle), incompetence and profligacy. The organization lacked any semblance of accountability and was (and is) populated by sleazy second-raters chosen for positions under a kind of nationality-based affirmative action program.

How ironically appropriate were Mr. Annan’s remarks in announcing his new position as head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, established with an initial $150 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation: “Africa should rely on African solutions — local labor, seeds and markets — without seeking imported biotech ‘magic bullets’ or the promise of more open foreign markets.”

“We are not embarking on a major genetically modified exercise,” he continued.

Such technophobia should come as no surprise. During Mr. Annan’s tenure, the United Nations conducted a virtual war on biotechnology, also known as gene-splicing or genetic modification (GM) — and the results were catastrophic, especially for poor nations. Many U.N. agencies were complicit in the unscientific, highly politicized and excessive regulation of biotechnology that has prevented critical advances in agricultural and pharmaceutical research and development.

Gene-spliced products could alleviate famine, water shortages and disease for millions, and even lead to development of edible vaccines incorporated into fruits and vegetables. But during the last decade, delegates to the U.N.-based Convention on Biological Diversity have negotiated and carried out a regressive “biosafety protocol” to regulate the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. A travesty that flies in the face of sound science, this regulatory scheme is based on the bogus “precautionary principle,” dictating every new product or technology must be proven completely safe before it can be used.

Many other U.N. agencies have got into the anti-biotech act. A technical working group of the U.N. Environment Program is considering whether to recommend a moratorium on testing or commercialization of gene-spliced trees. Such a suggestion is absurdly antisocial — and shockingly anti-environment. Plant biologists are engineering trees to grow more rapidly (to combat deforestation); require lower inputs; resist pests, diseases and drought; and to enhance output traits that afford greater efficiency for uses such as making paper.

A task force of the U.N.’s Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program under the auspices of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, has singled out only food products made with gene-splicing techniques for draconian and unscientific restrictions that conflict with the worldwide scientific consensus that gene-splicing is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and predictable genetic manipulation techniques used for centuries. Thousands of greenhouse and field studies, as well as widespread commercialization in more than a dozen advanced countries, have shown the risks of gene-spliced plants and foods are minimal, their benefits proven and their future potential is extraordinary.

Yet another U.N. Codex group is discussing mandatory labeling for foods that contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants. That could spell disaster for gene-splicing applied to foods (as happened in Europe).

Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops reduces pesticide use by scores of millions of pounds annually (as well as the frequency of pesticide poisonings) and, by making possible more no-till farming, saves millions of tons of topsoil from erosion and reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

The U.N.’s actions are rife with contradictions and conflicts that not only are harmful to health, but also make a mockery of the organization’s own overblown Millennium Development Goals. The most ambitious objective, “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015, certainly cannot be accomplished without innovative technology — which, in turn, cannot be developed in the face of bans, excessive regulatory barriers and bureaucracies.

The Food and Agriculture Organization calls on one hand for greater allocation of resources to agriculture, and then makes those resources less cost-effective by gratuitous, unscientific overregulation of the new biotechnology.

An important way to “reduce child mortality,” another goal, would be to produce pediatric vaccines cheaply in gene-spliced edible fruits and vegetables, but there is near-hysteria at Codex, the United Nations‘ food standards agency, over conjectural food-safety problems with this approach.

The secretary-general of the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization announces that “integrated water-resources management is the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals of securing access to safe water, sanitation and environmental protection,” while other U.N. agencies are making virtually impossible the development of gene-spliced plants that can grow under drought conditions or with low-quality water.

Regulation is a growth industry at the United Nations, one that regularly defies scientific consensus and common sense. The result is vastly inflated R&D; costs, less innovation, and diminished exploitation of superior techniques and products — especially in poorer countries, which need them desperately.

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