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The United Nations is being accused of all manner of criminality and corruption these days, ranging from sexual assaults by peacekeepers in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Congo to self-dealing in the Iraq oil-for-food program. But an even greater scandal at the UN is receiving less publicity: For years, the agency has systematically promoted policies that block the use of safe, effective new technologies that could help solve some of the world's most pressing public health and environmental problems.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
One example is the UN's involvement in the excessive regulation of biotechnology—also known as gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM)—which has slowed agricultural and pharmaceutical research and development. Ultimately, GM products could alleviate famine and water shortages for millions, and even lead to the development of vaccines incorporated into edible fruits and vegetables.
During the past decade, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity have negotiated a "biosafety protocol" to regulate the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. A travesty against sound science, the document is based on the so-called "precautionary principle," which dictates that every new product or technology must be proven completely safe before it can be used.
An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proven totally safe—at least, not to the standard demanded by activists and regulators—the precautionary principle has become an impediment to the development of new products.
Other UN agencies have gotten into the act. In 2003, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the World Health Organization and its Food and Agriculture Organization, singled out only food products made with gene-splicing techniques for draconian restrictions.
Yet scientists worldwide agree that gene-splicing is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and predictable genetic manipulation techniques that have been used for centuries. Thousands of greenhouse and field studies, as well as widespread commercialization in a half-dozen advanced countries, have shown that the risks of gene-spliced plants and foods are minimal. Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops has reduced pesticide use by tens of millions of pounds annually, and saves millions of tons of topsoil from erosion.
Another example in the same vein is the 2001 United Nations Persistent Organic Pollutants Convention, which stigmatizes the insecticide DDT as one of the world's worst pollutants, and makes it exceedingly difficult for developing countries—many of which are plagued by malaria, West Nile virus and other insect-borne diseases—to use the chemical.
As others have noted, over the last few decades, millions of lives have been lost to mosquito-borne illnesses—lives that might have been saved with DDT. The UN must be regarded as a co-conspirator in the deadly campaign against the chemical's use.
Another example: Last month in Geneva, at the 58th World Health Assembly—the World Health Organization's policy-making body—a resolution was adopted that supposedly reflects concern about potential bacterial contamination of powdered infant formula. According to the WHO, two low-weight babies died last year in hospitals in France and one in New Zealand, supposedly from formula contaminated by bacteria. The stories are tragic, surely, but hardly an epidemic, even if true.
The resolution notes that infant formula is not sterile and "may contain pathogenic micro-organisms" such as Enterobacter sakazakii or Salmonella, which are thought to have been a cause of infection and illness in pre-term and low birth-weight infants, and "could lead to serious developmental [damage] and death." The resolution calls for health care workers and parents, particularly those caring for infants at high risk, to be informed about the "potential for introduced contamination" and the need for safe preparation, handling and storage of infant formula. Also, "where applicable," this information should be "conveyed through an explicit warning on packaging." Finally, it concludes that babies should be breast-fed exclusively for six months and calls for precautions in preparing formula for those at high-risk, such as pre-term, low birth-weight or immune-deficient infants.
But infant formula already carries explicit information about storage, preparation and handling. The main effect of any new warning label about dangerous pathogens will be to simply discourage the use of formula in situations where it is needed. In truth, the resolution appears not to have been motivated by any actual concern for the product in question, but rather by the anti-corporate bias that pervades the UN. This same bias, along with the perks of becoming the world's "bio-police," motivates the anti-GM crusade.
Taken in isolation, none of these examples might qualify as a UN scandal on par with oil-for-food. But the overall effect is indeed appalling. The United Nations, a body supposedly dedicated to bettering the lives of people everywhere, is systematically discouraging the use of products and technologies that can do just that.