The UN's Biotech for Food Scandal

The UN's Biotech for Food Scandal

Miller Op-Ed in Tech Central Station
September 28, 2005

<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />CHIBA, Japan -- John Bolton, the blunt and controversial U.S. ambassador to the UN, has promised "to advance American interests and ideals at the United Nations." During his first two months on the job, Bolton has denounced the United Nations Development Program for its "unacceptable" funding of Palestinian propaganda and publicly identified "countries who are in a state of denial" about the need for UN reform. He told a reporter that he feels "a little like Rod Serling has suddenly appeared and we're writing episodes from 'The Twilight Zone.'"<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

I'm having a similar experience in Japan as a member of the US delegation to a UN task force on biotechnology-derived foods. The group is a creature of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets food standards on behalf of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO).

 

The very scope of this exercise -- which has gone on for five years and shows no signs of abating -- makes no sense. It is concerned with regulatory requirements only for foods made with the newest, most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology -- while exempting others made with far more crude and less predictable technologies, including irradiation mutagenesis and hybridization.

 

For example, the task force has selected as one of its new projects, "Food Safety Assessment of Food Derived from [Gene-Spliced] Plants Modified for Nutritional and Health Benefits." This scope of work completely ignores that past problems with unexpected food toxicity in new plant varieties -- in two varieties each of squash and potato, and one of celery -- have resulted from the imprecision of conventional plant breeding. There is a broad scientific consensus that the precision of gene-splicing makes the accidental introduction of toxins or anti-nutrients into new foods far less likely. (Note that no food modified by traditional techniques -- that is to say, virtually the entire diet of Europeans and Americans -- could (or should) meet the existing Codex standards for biotech foods.) It is rather like circumscribing for extra regulation only automobiles outfitted with disk brakes, radial tires and air bags -- and then limiting only those to a lower speed.

 

I've participated in these kinds of negotiations and meetings for more than a quarter-century, but never before have I had the same feeling that the inmates were running the asylum. This Codex travesty is rife with irony and hypocrisy.

 

First, the conference was opened by Japan's Vice-Minister for Health, Labor and Welfare, who extolled at length the virtues of biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production. However, his government has approved not a single food plant, fruit or vegetable for sale in Japan. In San Francisco, a gene-spliced, virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya costs about $1.25 per pound. Japan won't accept the gene-spliced variety, so they import only conventional Hawaiian papayas (mostly from trees that have been ravaged by the papaya ringspot virus, which diminishes their yield) -- and the cost in Tokyo is about $15 dollars a pound! (This vignette was less like "The Twilight Zone" and more like the British comedy, "Yes, Minister!")

 

Second, during the plenary the European Community's delegation sanctimoniously lectured the other nations on how to regulate biotechnology. Considering that biotech applied to agriculture is virtually nonexistent in Europe thanks to ill-conceived, unscientific over-regulation and intractable disagreements among European countries, this is rather like the government of Columbia instructing others on how to stop drug trafficking.

 

Third, at the same time that medical experts around the world are fearful of a pandemic of influenza that could kill tens of millions and disrupt the world's economy, the senior WHO representative kept lobbying the task force to work on "ethical considerations" of gene-spliced organisms. This bizarre concern about the "ethics" of a sweeter melon or pest-resistant potato is rather like worrying about flossing your teeth when you're in the path of a Category 5 hurricane.

 

Fourth, during five years of negotiations by this task force, the participants -- including the U.S. delegation, now headed by a senior USDA official -- have willfully ignored scientific principles and the basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They have also disregarded the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of older, traditional techniques of genetic modification, and that it does not warrant discriminatory, excessive regulation. They have overlooked the fact that during almost two decades of widespread use, the performance of gene-spliced crops has been spectacular, with farmers enjoying increased yields, decreased costs of agricultural chemicals, and lower occupational exposures to pesticides. The environmental benefits likewise have been stunning, with less chemical runoff into waterways and greater availability of no-till farming techniques that reduce soil erosion.

 

Fifth, many who attended this meeting appear to be completely ignorant of the appropriate context of new and conventional biotechnology, unaware that with the exception of fish and wild game, berries and mushrooms, virtually all of the foods in our diet are derived from organisms that have been genetically improved in some fashion. It is pathetic -- and a cruel misuse of resources -- to see representatives here from countries like Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Lesotho, Nepal and Laos clamoring for "capacity building" to regulate gene-splicing. Shouldn't the priorities of poor countries be nutritional deficiencies, infectious diseases, occupational safety, and the lack of childhood vaccines and clean water, rather than the discriminatory, gratuitous regulation of a superior agricultural technology that UN-based regulation already has made too expensive to be applied widely to developing countries' crops?

 

Sixth, this project of Codex (which operates on behalf of the UN's FAO and WHO, remember) makes a mockery of the UN's Millennium Development Goals -- especially the first, and most ambitious: "to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" by 2015. That can't be accomplished without innovative technology, and there won't be innovative technology if it is regulated excessively and stupidly. FAO calls on one hand for greater allocation of resources to agriculture, and then makes those resources less cost-effective by gratuitous over-regulation of the new biotechnology. (Another UN initiative that has vitiated agricultural biotechnology is the "biosafety protocol" of the UN-based Convention on Biological Diversity, but that's another story.)

 

Other Millennium Goals inevitably will be compromised, directly or indirectly, by this Codex project (and by the "biosafety protocol" of the CBD). An important way, for example, to "reduce child mortality," the fourth goal, would be to produce childhood vaccines cheaply in edible fruits and vegetables, but there is near-hysteria at Codex over conjectural food-safety problems with this approach. Moreover, when the impoverished of the world are forced to spend more than necessary to grow or obtain food, fewer resources are available for other public health and environmental needs. As Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg has noted, the continued globalization of this sort of "highly precautionary regulatory approach" to gene-spliced crops will cause the "the biggest losers of all [to be the] poor farmers in the developing world," and "if this new technology is killed in the cradle, these farmers could miss a chance to escape the low farm productivity that is helping to keep them in poverty.

 

How about this for an additional Millennium Goal: Stop genocide-by-regulation by UN bureaucrats.

 

Finally, this sort of charade is exceedingly destructive to public sector research and development: Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation has raised costs to levels that "exclude the public sector, the academic community, from using their skills to improve crops," according to Dr. Roger Beachy, the director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. In effect, Codex and other UN regulatory initiatives have created a level playing field that is hip-deep in muck, a disadvantage to the best, brightest and richest in the field -- namely, American academics and companies.

 

The Codex deliberations are also disastrous politically. Unscientific, unduly burdensome Codex standards for biotech foods compromise hopes of World Trade Organization relief from protectionist policies in Europe and elsewhere. Codex standards provide cover for unfair trade practices, because with them in place, 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 that it's deferring to Codex.

 

So why is the United States going along with this travesty? At a meeting of our delegation, the representatives of USDA, EPA and FDA offered the following rationales: Because virtually every other country has in place irrational, unscientific regulation, we must, too; and anyway, we're really addressing trade, not scientific, issues. Most important, they said, American industry demands that we play along.

 

It is true that U.S. industry (dozens of whose lobbyists attended the Codex task force meeting, either as part of the U.S. delegation or as independent NGOs) reluctantly endorses the Codex process. Paul Green, from the Washington-based North American Grain Export Grain Association, seemed to represent the consensus of American industry, "We're trying to make the best of a lose-lose situation." But encouraging bad regulation is like eating your seed corn: a short-term expedient, a long-term catastrophe.

 

As a scientist, policy wonk, former federal regulator and taxpayer, I find the United States's complicity in this corrupt UN-based activity profoundly disturbing. American officials now regularly participate in and encourage these anti-scientific debacles, and the United States provides 22 percent of the base budget of the UN. Moreover, at this Codex task force meeting, U.S. officials tried (with little success, fortunately) to cozy up to their counterparts in the European Community delegation; on regulatory issues, that is tantamount to the Department of Justice collaborating with the Mafia on the implementation of the Federal Witness Protection Program.

 

John Bolton and Condi Rice take note: Thanks in large part to flawed public policy, agbiotech already is moribund in the U.S. (and international) public sector, little better in industry, and dead and buried in the developing world. It's time to stop the hemorrhaging. The United States should cut off funding and all other assistance to foreign governments, United Nations agencies, and other international bodies that implement, collude, or cooperate in any way with unscientific policies. Flagrantly unscientific regulation should become the "third rail" of American foreign policy.

 

U.S. government delegates to international bodies such as Codex, Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, United Nations Environment Program and UNESCO should be directed to defend rational, science-based policies, and to work to dismantle politically motivated, unscientific restrictions.

 

Uncompromising? Aggressive? Likely to ruffle feathers? Yes -- but justified in the face of the virtual annihilation of entire areas of research and development, disuse of a critical technology, further disenfranchisement of poor countries, and disruption of free trade.

 

Let's get public policy out of The Twilight Zone before it's too late. (Cue Twilight Zone theme music.)