- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

CHIBA, Japan.

“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand,” economist Milton Friedman quipped. That’s certainly true of the international bureaucrats I rubbed elbows with during the recent meeting of a hapless U.N. task force charged with setting regulatory standards for foods obtained with biotechnology. They’re making it harder for anyone, anywhere to produce more varied, safe and nutritious foods economically.

The scope of this exercise, under the auspices of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets food standards on behalf of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), is a long-term exercise in self-indulgent irresponsibility. Now in its eighth year, the task force’s mission is to create new regulatory requirements that apply only to foods made with the newest, most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology — gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM) — while exempting others made with far less precise and predictable conventional technologies.

Having already stifled innovative research on food plants and microorganisms in past years, it is now metastasizing to other areas, such as animals and to plants with enhanced nutritional value.

It is one thing to regulate new foods with traits that are of potential concern, but quite another to regulate merely because a certain technique has been used, especially when that technique is state-of-the-art and superior to its predecessors. It is rather like circumscribing for extra regulation only cars outfitted with disk brakes, radial tires and air bags — and then limiting only those vehicles to a lower speed.

Task force members — including the U.S. delegation — have systematically ignored scientific principles as well as the basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They disregard 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 overlook the fact that in two decades of widespread use, the performance of gene-spliced crops has been spectacular, with farmers enjoying increased yields, decreased use of agricultural chemicals, lower occupational exposures to pesticides and decreased release of carbon dioxide — and that during 15 years of cultivation and consumption, there has not been a single consumer injured or an ecosystem damaged.

Much of this task force meeting was devoted to drafting a guideline for a “food safety assessment” of gene-spliced foods “modified for nutritional or health benefit.” It ensures that almost any important nutritional advance could be blocked by a country for trade or ideological reasons.

Let’s say plant breeders using gene-splicing techniques construct a peanut with deletions in the genes that express allergens, or a new variety of low-gluten wheat appropriate for the sufferers of celiac disease. The new guideline requires regulators to consider whether these alterations — obviously beneficial to sufferers from peanut allergy and celiac disease, respectively could somehow be detrimental to other subpopulations. Could their very slightly lower concentrations of protein cause malnutrition in people who normally consume large amounts, for example?

The question is absurd, of course: Do they expect food producers to do feeding studies in rodents or monkeys, or worse still, in humans? (There’s no remotely similar requirement for conventionally produced new varieties, which are constantly and routinely introduced into the marketplace.) But a regulator could simply say: The requirement is in the Codex guideline, you haven’t met it, tough luck.

Why does the United States collude on this travesty? The representatives of U.S. regulatory agencies offer several rationales: Because virtually every other country has irrational, unscientific regulation, we must follow suit; the task force is really addressing issues of trade, not science; and most important, American industry demands we play along. Unpersuasive on all counts.

The Codex deliberations are not only an affront to sound science but also put the United States at a disadvantage with respect to trade issues. American companies lead in research and development, but their advantage is neutralized if the level playing field created by international regulations is waist-deep in muck.

Moreover, unduly burdensome Codex standards for biotech foods compromise the ability of the World Trade Organization to provide relief from arbitrary or protectionist policies. Codex standards provide cover for unfair trade practices because a country that wishes to block trade in gene-spliced foods for any reason can defend against charges of unfair trade practices simply by remonstrating it is deferring to Codex.

It is true that big agribusiness companies (whose lobbyists flock to the task force meetings) endorse the Codex process. They like regulation when it limits competition and provides a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Eighteenth century economist Adam Smith had them pegged: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

But in the end, encouraging unscientific, excessive regulation is like eating your seed corn: a short-term expedient but a long-term catastrophe, especially for smaller farmers, plant breeders and academic researchers (not represented at Codex). And the big companies have been stung more than once by gratuitous regulation: Inconsequential, unintentional failures to meet regulatory standards can create huge legal liability even in the absence of injury of any kind.

The U.S. officials on the task force continue to pursue unscientific and excessive regulation, although the outcomes consistently sacrifice U.S. interests to those of the European Union and anti-technology nongovernmental organizations (NGOs, which, inexplicably, are permitted full participation in the task force).

American regulators have become surrogates of big agribusiness companies, at the expense of academic research in particular.

Perhaps Monsanto, Syngenta et al.should pay lobbying fees to the government for the efforts a score of civil servants from the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Trade Representative and the Departments of Commerce and State have expended on their behalf. Their efforts certainly haven’t benefited anyone else. Quite the opposite.

As a scientist, I feel embarrassed; as a former regulator, appalled; and as an American taxpayer, violated.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration from 1989 to 1993.


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