The UN's War Against Innovation

The UN's War Against Innovation

Miller Op-Ed in Tech Central Station
November 15, 2005

The leadership of the United Nations is truly the gang that can't shoot straight. Even if the recent incidents of corruption and profiteering—exemplified by the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal—are anomalies, as defenders of the UN would have us believe, it is hard to explain away the anti-social outcomes of business as usual. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

Secretary General Kofi Annan professed recently that he hoped concern for "intellectual property" wouldn't "get into the way" of producing and distributing drugs for a potential avian-flu pandemic. In other words, companies that make drugs and vaccines should abandon their intellectual property at Mr. Annan's whim. This kind of hostility to property rights, which is precisely the reason we now have a shortage of vaccines and drugs to confront the potential pandemic (as well as other epidemics that occur regularly), is only one manifestation of the inability of UN officials to understand the relationship between public policy and innovation.

 

Nothing the UN has inflicted on innovation and research and development is worse than its record on biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production. The work of the UN's Task Force on Biotech Foods (which operates under the auspices of something called the Codex Alimentarius Commission, itself a creature of the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization) continues to be no more than bureaucratic slapstick—in which American taxpayers and scientists are getting the pies in the face. No serious, coherent defense of its work is even remotely possible. Its scope is unscientific, and its projects largely pointless and gratuitous. It more closely resembles a Marx Brothers film than a serious international negotiation.

 

U.S. Government and private resources expended on the meetings of this Codex task force, which have gone on for years, are not insignificant (there were no fewer than 15 representatives of various American government departments and agencies at a task force meeting this autumn in Japan), and they are poorly and unconstructively spent.

 

Why unconstructively? Because the more "successful" are the projects of the task force, the more entrenched becomes unscientific and discriminatory regulation that is an obstacle to wider diffusion and to public acceptance of the new biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production. In other words, the work of the task force ignores the Rule of Holes: When you're in a hole, stop digging!

 

The collaboration of U.S. Government agencies in the work of the task force is especially repugnant, because the comments of our delegation have continued to reinforce and perpetuate the unscientific and insupportable scope of the exercise—only those foods made with the most precise and predictable technologies are circumscribed for discriminatory standards and treatment. At the September task force meeting, USDA bureaucrat Bernice Slutksy, the official U.S. Delegate, went out of her way repeatedly to remind the participants that only recombinant DNA-modified products are encompassed by the work of the task force. Unwittingly or otherwise, she was doing the bidding of the EU and other regulatory reactionaries. Not only is this scope unwise and unscientific, but it conflicts explicitly with overarching <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />U.S. policies published in 1986 and 1992. The work of the task force is directly detrimental to farmers, consumers, academic researchers and industry, and it will make nearly impossible future evolution of domestic policies toward a more scientific and less regulatory approach.

 

The collusion of the U.S. government in this and other UN projects on biotechnology regulation violates the social contract between civil servants and the public. Bureaucrats are granted lifetime tenure, in return for which they are supposed to resist external pressures and make decisions that are dispassionate, rational and in the public interest. But this collection of bureaucrats has failed miserably to do that.

 

How ironic that the two UN agencies involved in this debacle are the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, which should be expending every available resource—every bureaucrat-hour and every dollar, Euro, peso and pound—on coping with the outbreak of avian influenza that is spreading over much of the planet and threatening a human pandemic, and on the care and feeding of the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan. Instead, they perseverate endlessly about foods made with superior genetic techniques. Especially memorable at the task force meeting in Japan were the repeated entreaties from Jorgen Schlundt, the head of the WHO department concerned with food safety, zoonoses [diseases that spread from animals to humans] and infectious diseases, who from his honored position on the dais kept exhorting the group to consider biotech foods' ethical concerns. He was more like a John Cleese character in a silly Monty Python skit than an official entrusted with serious international responsibilities.

 

But that is what we have come to expect from the United Nations: Stupidity, incompetence, self-interest and utter cluelessness (which should offer a lesson about entrusting to the UN anything critical concerned with an avian flu pandemic). The organization does score high on political correctness, however, and the wine cellars in their commissaries are reputed to be excellent.

 

The U.S. Government should pull the plug on this task force—for the good of food biotech, in the interest of sound public policy, and to save the United Nations from itself. More generally, federal officials should pursue projects only if they will benefit American interests -- and oppose and reject those that don't. They should adhere to the simple principle that no agreement is better than one that damages the long-term interests of the United States. And here's a novel, overarching concept: Government leaders should lead.

 

As a federal official myself for more than 17 years, I am familiar with the bureaucratic traditions of inertia and unwillingness to admit when you've made a mistake, so I have little expectation that the regulators on the delegation from USDA, EPA and FDA will do the right thing without prodding. But the interested observers and participants inside and outside the government who are concerned with trade issues, who understand the folly of achieving a level playing field that is hip-deep in mud, or who possess a modicum of common sense, could be a force for revisiting U.S. participation in the work of the Codex task force on biotech foods.

 

It is evident that the Executive Branch agencies will need plenty of pressure to turn them around on this no-brainer issue. Interested stakeholders who have relationships with influential members of Congress should urge them to apply it.

 

It has been said that we get the government we deserve. Where did we fail?