Monday, November 17, 2003

The United Nations is supposed to be a watchdog of human rights, but it needs watching itself. It has been denying people, especially the poor, the right to feed themselves, buy from others and use their land as they wish. The inhabitants of less developed countries are literally dying as a consequence.

Not through happenstance, but systematically, the United Nations has been sacrificing science, technology and sound public policy to its own bureaucratic self-interest, thereby obstructing technological innovation that could help the poorest of the poor. In particular, it is involved in the excessive, unscientific regulation of biotechnology — also known as gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM).

This regulation slows agricultural research and development and promotes environmental damage. It can also prolong famine and water shortages for millions.

During the past decade, delegates to the U.N.-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a “biosafety protocol” to regulate the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. It is based on the bogus “precautionary principle” that dictates that every new product or technology — including, in this case, an improvement over less precise technologies — must be proven completely safe before it can be used.

An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proved totally safe — at least, not to the standard demanded by many activists and regulators — the precautionary principle has become a self-defeating impediment to the development of new products. Precautionary regulation shifts the burden of proof from the regulator, who previously had to demonstrate that a new technology was likely to cause some harm, to the innovator, who now must demonstrate that the technology will not cause harm under any circumstances.

This shift is ominous, because it frees regulatory bodies to require any amount and kind of testing that they wish. Rather than creating a uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing legitimate risks, the biosafety protocol establishes an ill-defined global regulatory process that encourages overly risk-averse, incompetent or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals.

Examples include a five-year-long moratorium on approvals of gene-spliced plants throughout Europe, and the rejection of badly needed food aid by several African countries — only because it contains the same superior gene-spliced varieties of grain consumed routinely in North America. Similarly, in July the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the U.N.’s World Health Organization and its Food and Agriculture Organization, singled out only food products made with gene-splicing techniques for various Draconian and even bizarre regulatory procedures and requirements.

Overly burdensome standards for gene-spliced foods are ominous not only because of their direct effects on research and development, but also because they will keep beneficial new crop plants out of the hands of the resource-poor farmers in less developed countries who need them most.

The unscientific, precautionary-principle-driven standards and regulations the U.N. defends in the name of global environmental protection actually harm the environment and public health, stifling development of environmentally friendly innovations that can increase agricultural productivity, help clean up toxic wastes, conserve water, and supplant agricultural chemicals. Many U.N. experts themselves warn that the greatest single threat to the planet’s environment comes from the world’s burgeoning population and its demand that ever more land be devoted to food production. But the regulatory regimes promoted by various U.N. agencies and projects will deny less developed countries precisely the kind of technology they need.

Scientists worldwide agree that gene-splicing is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and predictable genetic techniques that have been used for centuries, an exquisite tool that can help to develop plants with higher yields and innovative traits. Tragically, its use is already being blocked by the disincentive of unnecessary regulations.

Morally, this is no different from permitting the construction of an unsafe dam or knowingly administering a contaminated vaccine. Countless people will suffer and die needlessly as a result of the arbitrary, unscientific restrictions that prevent us from helping the poor to help themselves. The U.N.’s leaders should be held accountable for this human-rights catastrophe, and the precautionary principle should be relegated to the same dustbin of history as Germany’s “final solution” and Serbia’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Henry I. Miller is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and was a Food and Drug Administration official from 1979 to 1994. Gregory Conko is director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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