- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

Scandals, incompetence and profligacy at the United Nations are hardly news these days, but many of the organization’s worst transgressions are hidden from public view. Among the worst examples are the organization’s attempts to police all manner of scientific, technological and commercial activities.

The U.N.’s regulation of various chemicals applied to agriculture and food production is among its most egregious failures. Consider, for example, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which took effect in 1989. In essence, this is an agreement to limit or phase out various chemicals, and although it stipulates that “measures taken to protect the ozone layer from depletion should be based on relevant scientific knowledge, taking into account technical and economic considerations,” appropriate balancing of all these factors has been lacking.

One chemical on the Montreal Protocol hit-list is methyl bromide (MB), an important pesticide used to control harmful insects, rodents, pathogens and weeds. Used by a large cross-section of the world’s agriculture producers, it is an essential tool for pest control. (If you have ever eaten a commercially-grown strawberry from California, chances are you have methyl bromide to thank.)

Methyl bromide is being phased out, in spite of the absence of any proven alternative and its importance to farmers and food producers — and the fact that it is an effective new way to kill anthrax spores.

The U.S. EPA will soon release figures showing that the volume of methyl bromide being held in inventories is at a four-year low and the product available to the market is at an all-time low. The reason is the restrictive and arbitrary approach that the U.S. EPA has taken in reviewing and granting critical use exemptions (CUEs), which are allowed under the terms of the Montreal Protocol.

In the CUE process, the U.S. government (that is, the EPA) nominates uses and volumes on behalf of American companies and must effectively persuade the international committee that there is, in fact, a critical need. Depending on the EPA to represent the interests of industry is like asking Dick Cheney to advise Nancy Pelosi on political strategy. Moreover, ceding to a foreign entity the right to make U.S. domestic regulatory decisions is insidious, as is the wording in U.S. law that permits CUEs only “to the extent consistent with the Montreal Protocol.”

U.S. stakeholders have applied for CUEs for certain volumes of MB every year since 2002, but the EPA has conveyed requests for much smaller amounts. This is not surprising, given the consistently scientifically-challenged actions of the EPA, whose actions have been more a concession to European Union eco-babble than protection of U.S. interests.

More than 40 commodity and trade associations have argued for more rational, liberal policies toward MB. They have requested, for example, that field inventories be maintained at relatively high levels to provide a safety net in case of an interruption of production of the product. Such an interruption could result in a significant decrease in the supply and lead to skyrocketing prices for fresh fruits and vegetables, which in turn, would lead inevitably to less consumption of these healthy foods, and even to insect and rodent contamination of many processed foods.

Meanwhile, industry, growers and researchers continue to search for suitable alternative products. (The USDA estimates that more than $120 million has been spent over the last 10 years, with no replacement found.) Proposed alternatives are insufficiently effective, cost too much, or have unacceptable environmental impacts or human health concerns.

Those most affected by the phase-out have attempted to get the EPA to press the U.N. for a more practical approach to the CUE process. Specifically, they want CUEs to be granted for more than one year and production levels frozen at 30 percent of the 1995-98 baseline production while scientists (both government and private sector) evaluate the impact of methyl bromide on the ozone layer and search for an alternative.

Regulators have made the process a nightmare for those who produce or need MB, but ironically, even if all manmade methyl bromide were eliminated, more than 80 percent of the current volume would still be released into the atmosphere.

How is that possible? Simple: The chemical occurs naturally. Oceans, salt marshes, and the burning of biomass are a few of the sources of natural methyl bromide. Thus, we have rigid U.N. rules that will engender economic uncertainty and possibly significant harm to farmers and consumers — but without commensurate benefit to the environment or human health. This is an example of regulators focusing on something because it’s convenient — and because radical environmentalists want it — even if the effort affords little benefit and makes little sense.

We must consider, too, the corruption and malfeasance that often accompany U.N. regulation. Recently, an official working with the U.N.-funded Methyl Bromide Phase-Out Project was arrested in Malawi, accused of embezzling $70,000 worth of fuel coupons bought from BP Malawi.

The methyl bromide story is just the tip of a vast iceberg of anti-consumer, anti-business regulation at the U.N. The organization, once exalted by Harry S. Truman as “The Parliament of Man,” is now the scourge of man, and of international trade.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Barron’s selected his most recent book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

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