Inside Track–Cloudy Horizons in a Brave New World: Miller and Conko FT Op-Ed

Published in the Financial TimesMarch 7, 2000<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

These are tough times for agricultural and food biotechnology, but its regulators are active and thriving. This is no coincidence. In Europe, there is widespread public and political opposition to importing grains grown from genetically modified seeds. Governments have imposed moratoriums on commercial-scale cultivation of plants. GM foods have been banished by big supermarket chains. Vandalisation of field trials by environmental activists is frequent – and largely unprosecuted. In the US as well, regulators have imposed strict, unscientific rules on agricultural and food research that hinder product development. But the regulatory coup de grace has been delivered by the United Nations. In late January, under the 1992 Biodiversity Treaty, agreement was reached in Montreal on a UN-sponsored “biosafety protocol” – that is, regulations that will erect trade barriers against agricultural products developed with gene-splicing techniques. Six important agricultural exporting countries known as the Miami Group – that includes Canada and the US – had threatened to walk out of the negotiations because their farmers rely extensively on GM crop plants and export them widely. In the words of Tim Galvin, a US negotiator, “no deal is better than a bad one”. If only they had stuck to that principle. Walking away from this anti-competitive, anti-consumer agreement would have been preferable to the result: an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all regulatory system for GM products based solely on the way they are developed, regardless of how safe or dangerous individual products may be. Unnecessary and unpredictable regulation invariably discourages use of a technology, so this situation is a prescription for disaster. The regulations will deprive scientists, farmers and food companies of research tools, and consumers of additional choices in the marketplace. More than 1,000 scientists from around the world recently signed a declaration supporting the use of agricultural biotechnology, reflecting the scientific consensus that the regulation of GM techniques should be based on the biological characteristics of individual products, not on the methods used to develop them. And, in spite of opposition from antibiotech activists, tens of thousands of food products from GM organisms have been consumed routinely and safely for more than 15 years. But GM's ideological opponents, joined now by the UN, have chosen to ignore these facts. The agreement has less to do with legitimate concerns about the environment and more to do with trade protectionism and anti-science fearmongering. The regulations are based on the “precautionary principle”, the conviction that every new technology should be proven absolutely safe before people can use it. This erects an almost insurmountable barrier against new products because nothing can be proved totally safe – at least, not to the standard demanded by anti-technology extremists. Focusing only on the possibility that new products may pose theoretical risks, the precautionary principle necessarily ignores the fact that new products often reduce or eliminate existing risks. GM techniques, for example, can significantly increase the availability and nutritional value of foods, and reduce their price, thus alleviating the huge problem of global malnutrition. Applying the precautionary principle to these advances will exact a substantial human toll. Biotechnology is burdened with an ill-defined global regulatory process that permits risk-averse, incompetent or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle. In this way, what George Orwell called “vague fears and horrible imaginings” can be elevated above scientific evaluation, even when the products in question are obviously safe and will benefit the environment and human health. Such harmful regulation could easily have been opposed on principle. But the Miami Group nations ultimately capitulated. They were more interested in striking a deal that would appease both the environmental movement and the agribusiness industry. Under the deal, food crops intended for processing such as raw corn, soya beans and canola (rape seed) are still subject to unscientific regulatory hurdles but are exempt from the case-by-case approval mechanism that governs other products. In protecting some US and Canadian farmers, however, the Miami group sacrificed the interests of academic researchers, small and innovative companies, and consumers. Now corn and soya bean farmers, for example, will know ahead of time whether a shipment of their grain will be accepted overseas, but a new variety of iron-fortified rice to be field tested at a university field station, or a pest-resistant strain of millet to be grown by village farmers, will be delayed by (gratuitous) regulatory reviews. What was needed, but lacking, in Montreal was the political will to insist on policies that make scientific sense and protect consumer choice. The only winners from these new rules are government regulators, who will enjoy new-found power and resources, and anti-science extremists, who have succeeded in reducing the new biotechnology to a mere shadow of its potential. Those who negotiated this agreement have made a mockery of free trade and, in a moral, if not legal sense, committed crimes against humanity. Henry I. Miller is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.