New Challenges, New Failures: The U.N.


The way in which scientific endeavors are pursued globally is marked by clear inequalities, said United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in a recent editorial. Noting that developing countries spend much less on scientific research and produce fewer scientists, Annan warned that this unbalanced distribution creates problems for both the scientific community in developing countries and for development itself. He further urged scientists and scientific institutions around the world to resolve this inequity and bring the benefits of science to all.

How humanitarian. How enlightened. How hypocritical.

In fact, for a large portion of the world’s population, the U.N.’s wanton sacrifice of science and technology in the name of its own bureaucratic self-interest creates significant obstacles to innovation in less-developed countries. In particular, the U.N.’s involvement in excessive, unscientific biotechnology regulation will slow agricultural research and development, promote environmental damage, and bring famine and water shortages to millions in developing countries.

The secretary general has proved—again—that talk is cheap.

Three years ago in Montreal, delegates to the U.N.-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a “biosafety protocol” for the regulation of the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. It was based on the bogus “precautionary principle,” which dictates that every new technology—including, in the case of gene-splicing, an improvement over less precise technologies—must be proven safe before it can be used. An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proven to be totally safe—at least, not to the standard demanded by many regulators—the precautionary principle sets up enormous obstacles to the development of new products.

Precautionary regulation shifts the burden of proof from the regulator (who once had to demonstrate that a new technology was likely to cause some harm) to the innovator (who now must demonstrate that it won’t). Under this new standard of evidence, regulatory bodies are free to arbitrarily require whatever amount and kind of testing they wish.

Thus, rather than creating a uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing legitimate risks, the biosafety protocol in fact establishes an ill-defined, global regulatory process that permits overly-risk-averse, incompetent, and corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals. Examples include a several-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 gene-spliced varieties of grain consumed routinely in North America.

Another ongoing example of the U.N.’s malign influence is a task force of the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food-standards program of the United Nations World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, which is moving relentlessly toward limiting food products made with gene-splicing with various Draconian and even bizarre regulatory procedures and requirements.

The Europeans want to stop gene-spliced products because the technology was developed in U.S. labs, commercialized by U.S. companies, and financed by American capital. They are aided by radical environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are permitted to participate in Codex meetings and which are ideologically opposed to new technology.

The Codex task force is on its way to codifying various procedures and requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs or pesticides than to gene-spliced tomatoes, potatoes, and strawberries. These include long-term monitoring for adverse health effects, and batteries of tests for genetic stability, toxins, allergens, and so on. This pernicious process will likely be completed in July—making still less available the kind of technology that is essential to less-developed countries.

The prospect of unscientific, overly burdensome Codex standards for gene-spliced foods is ominous, because members of the World Trade Organization will, in principle, be required to follow them—and because they will provide cover for unfair trade practices. Jean Halloran, of the anti-biotech group Consumers International, characterized Codex standards as a legal defense against WTO challenges to countries that arbitrarily interfere with trade in biotech foods. “The Codex is important because of the WTO. If there is a Codex standard, one country cannot file a challenge [for unfair trade practices] against another country which is following the Codex standard. But when there is no Codex standard, countries can challenge each other on anything.”

These unscientific regulations and standards actually harm the environment and public health, stifling the development of environmentally friendly innovations that could increase agricultural productivity, help clean up toxic wastes, conserve water, and supplant agricultural chemicals. U.N. experts themselves have warned that the greatest single threat to the planet’s environment comes from the world’s burgeoning population and the need for ever more land to be brought into food production.

Yet an important solution to these problems—developing more productive plant varieties—will inevitably be blocked by the disincentive of unnecessary regulations on gene-splicing. Morally, this is no different from permitting the building of an unsafe dam or knowingly administering a contaminated vaccine. The U.N.—and the secretary-general — should be held accountable.