As self-appointed regulator-wannabe of much of what goes on in the world, the United Nations has become a profoundly negative influence.
While its best known interventions — attempts to attain and maintain international peace and comity — too often are exercises in lowest-common-denominator diplomacy that progresses at a glacial pace, the U.N.’s essays into public health and environmental protection frequently are wrong-headed, self-serving and disastrous.
Underlying the U.N.’s deficiencies is the inability of its leaders to apprehend the relationship between wealth creation and public and environmental health — and between their own flawed policies and the inevitable failure of their ambitious Millennium Development Goals. The U.N. agencies’ trumpeting supposed successes and promulgating lofty goals on World Health Day today serve only as a reminder of the organization’s abject failures.
The complicity of many U.N. agencies in the unscientific, ideological and excessive regulation of biotechnology — also known as gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM) — has prevented critical advances in agricultural and pharmaceutical research and development. 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 U.N.-based Convention on Biological Diversity have negotiated and implemented 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,” which dictates that every new product or technology must be proven completely safe before it can be used.
Many other U.N. agencies have gotten into the anti-biotech act. A task force of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program 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 that have been used for centuries. Thousands of greenhouse and field studies, as well as widespread commercialization in almost a 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 reduces pesticide use by scores of millions of pounds annually (as well as the frequency of pesticide poisonings), and saves millions of tons of topsoil from erosion.
The 2001 U.N. Environment Program’s Persistent Organic Pollutants Convention, which stigmatizes the insecticide DDT as one of the world’s worst pollutants, is a regulatory atrocity. It places virtually insuperable obstacles in the way of the use of the chemical by developing countries, many of which are plagued by malaria, West Nile virus and other insect-borne diseases.
Not only do U.N. officials dismiss scientific evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness and relative safety of DDT, they also fail to take into consideration the inadequacy of alternatives or to appreciate the distinction between its large-scale use in agriculture (which has been discontinued) and more limited application for controlling carriers of human disease.
A complete prohibition on DDT usage is tantamount to withholding antibiotics from patients with infections; it is mass murder, and the U.N. is a co-conspirator in the deadly campaign against the chemical’s use.
Another example of the U.N.’s willingness to adopt extreme positions occurred at last year’s annual World Health Assembly, the policy-making body of the World Health Organization, at which 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 in 2004 in hospitals in France, and one in New Zealand, supposedly from formula contaminated by bacteria. The stories are tragic, but even if true, hardly constitute an epidemic.
The resolution proclaims that infant formula is not sterile and “may contain pathogenic microorganisms” that 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.” It calls for a warning label and 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. 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 had carried explicit information about storage, preparation and handling. The resolution appears not to have been motivated by legitimate concerns about the product in question, but rather by the anti-corporate bias that pervades the U.N. and its supporters. The label’s misleading warning about dangerous pathogens discourages the use of formula in situations where it is needed.
How ironic that the slogan for this year’s World Health Day is, “Working together for health,” because 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. One goal, for example, aims to reverse the spread of malaria and several other infectious diseases by 2015, while the U.N. Environment Program bans DDT, an effective and inexpensive intervention against malaria.
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 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 over-regulation 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 U.N.’s 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 with low-quality water or under drought conditions.
T.S. Eliot could have had the U.N. in mind with his observation, “Hell is the place where nothing connects.”
Regulation is a growth industry at the U.N., but the approach taken 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.
I think we need yet another Millennium Development Goal: Stop genocide-by-regulation at the U.N.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993.