- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Wars have been fought over politics, economics, territory, ethnic origin, race, religion and national pride. We may soon have to add a new reason: water, which is in increasingly short supply — and sought after — worldwide.

More than a third of the world’s population lives in regions where water is scarce, and unless we take radical action immediately, in 50 years half will be living with shortages, depleted fisheries and polluted coastlines and groundwater. This could lead to violent confrontations over water sources, according to a study announced last month, a study sponsored by several international groups, including two United Nations organizations.

Waste and inadequate management are the main culprits behind growing water shortages, particularly in poverty-ridden regions, and the study proposes ways to reduce by half the projected water need to grow food in rain-fed and irrigated areas for an additional 2 billion to 3 billion people.

But the proposals amount to no more than vague, sweeping, pie-in-the-sky remedies typical of U.N. agencies — “reform the state to improve the governance of water,” and “deal with tradeoffs and difficult choices,” for example. Certainly, they provide no roadmap for how to get from here to there. And, not surprisingly, the report ignores the fact U.N. agencies have made workable solutions more elusive.

Conspicuously absent is any mention of the need for new, gene-spliced crop varieties, thought by agricultural scientists to be critical to meeting future water shortages. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water consumption — even more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions. So introducing plants that grow with less water could free much of that essential resource for other uses. Especially during drought conditions — which plague much of Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and the United States — even a small percentage reduction in water used for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.

However, during the past decade, various U.N. agencies, including the two that sponsored the current report on water usage — the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — have created major regulatory obstacles to using gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification or GM.

Gene-splicing offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States and at least 17 other countries, farmers use gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact. Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water utilization that can be transferred into important crop plants. These new varieties can grow with smaller amounts or lower-quality water, such as water recycled or containing large amounts of natural mineral salts.

Where water is unavailable for irrigation, the development of crop varieties able to grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.

Aside from new varieties requiring less water, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly. Because much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown — that is, after most of the water required to grow a crop has already been applied — using gene-spliced varieties with lower post-harvest losses in yield means the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same amount of food. We get more crop for the drop.

But research is hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental overregulation — including by the U.N. agency that sets international food standards, and by onerous, unscientific regulation of field trials under the CBD. In addition, a technical working group of the U.N. Environment Program is considering whether to recommend a moratorium on all field testing and commercialization of gene-spliced trees. That would be a devastating blow to efforts to preserve biodiversity and to prevent deforestation worldwide.

The U.N.’s periodic warnings of dire, impending shortages of water belie its actions, that are not only harmful to health and exacerbate water shortages 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 and excessive regulatory barriers.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization calls for greater allocation of resources to agriculture, and then makes those resources drastically less cost-effective by gratuitous, unscientific overregulation of the new biotechnology.

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 a veritable alphabet soup of 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.

The regulation of gene-splicing (among other critical technologies and products) is a growth industry at the U.N., one that regularly defies scientific consensus and common sense. The result is vastly inflated research and development costs, less innovation, and diminished exploitation of superior techniques and products — especially in poorer countries, which need them desperately, as the most recent U.N. report makes clear.

Journalist Claudia Rosett has asked “whether in this age of fascist movements, terror tactics, and weapons of mass murder, we can afford the indulgence of coddling as our leading global institution this sorry excuse for what was meant to be an honest forum for free and peace-loving nations.” We cannot.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology, 1989-93. Barron’s selected his most recent book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

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