- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

CHIBA, Japan.

John Bolton, the blunt and controversial U.S. ambassador to the U.N. has promised “to advance American interests and ideals at the United Nations.” In his first two months, Mr. Bolton has denounced the U.N. Development Program for its “unacceptable” funding of Palestinian propaganda and publicly identified “countries who are in a state of denial” about the need for U.N. reform. He told a reporter he feels “a little like Rod Serling has suddenly appeared and we’re writing episodes from ‘The Twilight Zone.’ ”

I had a similar experience in Japan as a member of the U.S. delegation to a U.N. task force on biotechnology-derived foods — a creature of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets food standards for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO).

The very scope of this exercise — which has gone on for five years and shows no signs of abating — makes no sense. It is concerned with regulatory requirements only for foods made with the newest, most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology — gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM) — while exempting others made with far cruder and less predictable technologies, including irradiation mutagenesis and hybridization. It is one thing to regulate novel foods with traits of potential concern, but quite another to regulate merely because a certain technique was used.

The Codex scope of work completely ignores that past problems with unexpected food toxicity in new plant varieties — two varieties each of squash and potato, and one of celery — due to the imprecision of conventional plant breeding. (Note no food modified by traditional techniques — that is to say, virtually the entire diet of Europeans and Americans — could (or should) meet the Codex standards for gene-spliced foods.) It is rather like circumscribing for extra regulation only cars outfitted with disk brakes, radial tires and air bags — and then limiting only those to a lower speed.

I’ve participated in these kinds of negotiations and meetings for more than a quarter-century, but never before have I had feeling the inmates were running the asylum. This Codex travesty is rife with irony and hypocrisy.

First, the conference was opened by Japan’s vice-minister for health, labor and welfare, who extolled the virtues of biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production. However, his government has approved not a single food plant, fruit or vegetable for sale in Japan. In San Francisco, a gene-spliced, virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya costs about $3 per kilo. Because Japan won’t accept the gene-spliced variety, they import only conventional Hawaiian papayas (mostly from trees infected with papaya ringspot virus, which diminishes yields) — and these cost about $30 a kilo.

Second, during the plenary, the European Community’s delegation sanctimoniously lectured other nations on how to regulate gene-splicing technology. Considering that gene-spliced plants are virtually nonexistent in Europe thanks to ill-conceived, unscientific overregulation and squabbling among EU governments, this is rather like the Colombian government telling others how to stop drug trafficking.

Third, during five years of task force negotiations, the participants — including the U.S. delegation — have willfully ignored scientific principles and the basic axiom that regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They have also disregarded the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of older, traditional techniques of genetic modification and does not warrant discriminatory, excessive regulation. They have overlooked the fact that during almost two decades of widespread use, the performance of gene-spliced crops has been spectacular, with farmers enjoying increased yields, decreased costs of agricultural chemicals, and lower occupational exposures to pesticides. Environmental benefits likewise have been stunning, with less chemical runoff into waterways and greater availability of no-till farming techniques that reduce soil erosion.

Fourth, many who attended this meeting seem completely ignorant of the appropriate context of new and conventional biotechnology, unaware that —except for fish and wild game, berries and mushrooms — virtually all foods in our diet are derived from organisms somehow genetically improved.

Fifth, this Codex project (which operates on behalf of the U.N.’s FAO and WHO, remember) makes a mockery of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals — especially the first and most ambitious: “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015. That can’t be done without innovative technology; and there won’t be any if it is regulated excessively and stupidly.

Finally, the Codex deliberations are disastrous politically. Unduly burdensome Codex standards for biotech foods compromise World Trade Organization ability to provide relief from arbitrary or protectionist policies. Codex standards provide cover for unfair trade practices: A country wishing to block trade in gene-spliced foods for any reason can defend against unfair trade charges simply by remonstrating it’s deferring to Codex.

Biotech research and development applied to agriculture already are moribund in the public (university) sector, little better in industry, and dead and buried in the developing world. It’s time to stop the hemorrhaging. Our government should withhold funding from United Nations agencies and other international bodies that institute, collude or cooperate in any way with unscientific policies. Flagrantly unscientific regulation should become the “third rail” of American foreign policy.

Uncompromising? Aggressive? Likely to ruffle feathers? Yes. But it’s an appropriate stance, when facing virtual annihilation of entire research and development areas, disuse of a critical technology, further disenfranchisement of poor countries and disruption of free trade. Let’s get public policy out of “The Twilight Zone” before it’s too late.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, 1989-1993. He is an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the Codex task force on biotech foods. Barron’s selected his book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

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