The UN vs. Technology

With diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS ravaging the world's poor—and perhaps a flu pandemic in the offing—the United Nations' celebration today of World Health Day might seem grimly appropriate. But the UN's record on health during its six decades has been a profound disappointment. Among its most egregious failures are some relatively obscure policy disasters of its own making. Much like its attempts to attain (and maintain) international peace and comity, the UN's forays into public health and environmental protection have frequently been wrong-headed and self-serving. While occasional rays of rationality shine through, these are too often eclipsed by countless other UN programs that work at cross purposes. The UN's policies and actions are rife with contradictions that make a mockery of the organization's own ambitious Millennium Development Goals. For example, the Sixth Goal aims to begin reversing the spread of AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis by 2015. Because malaria alone causes or contributes to three million deaths every year, conquering that scourge should be a high priority. But the UN Environment Program prevents the most effective and inexpensive intervention: DDT.Because the impacts of malaria are most severe in poor tropical countries, the use of cheap and effective insecticides for mosquito control is the only practical way to combat the disease. However, chemicals regulation under the UN's Persistent Organic Pollutants (or POPs) Convention puts the most appropriate insecticide, DDT, out of reach. DDT is only minimally toxic to humans, and spraying small quantities around the doorways and window frames and on the walls of buildings kills and repels malarial mosquitoes, creating a protective shield for people. (Such spraying techniques minimize chemical residues in the environment.) And because it persists after spraying, DDT is superior to other pesticides now in use, some of which are highly toxic.Many other insecticides lack the capacity to irritate mosquitoes, and they become deactivated within an hour or two, making them vastly more expensive and less useful than DDT. The need to spray other insecticides repeatedly—especially in marshlands and forests, where mosquito-breeding areas are large—drives up costs and depletes public coffers. But UN regulators who have banned DDT fail to take into consideration the inadequacy of such alternatives. Though DDT is not totally banned by the POPs Convention, the agreement has made it nearly impossible to manufacture or ship. And countries that do use it risk losing essential public health funding from the UN and other organizations. The stigmatization of DDT causes death from malaria and other insect-borne diseases of untold numbers of inhabitants of tropical countries each year and exacts a huge economic toll.The UN seems to have marginalized efforts to reduce or eliminate malaria. Instead, its World Health Organization (WHO) often expends resources in poor countries to fight the plagues of the industrialized world, such as obesity and even failure to wear seatbelts while riding in automobiles. But obesity is hardly epidemic among the roughly half the world's population subsisting on less than two dollars a day, and anyone who has ridden in a taxi through the streets of cities like Delhi, Nairobi, or Bangkok can tell you that unfastened seatbelts are far from the biggest traffic safety problem in the developing world.Among the UN's regulatory transgressions, few initiatives have inflicted worse damage on human health, the environment and technological innovation than the UN's regulation of biotechnology-enhanced, “gene-spliced,” or “genetically modified,” crops and foods. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, delegates made commitments to foster the introduction of gene-spliced products into less developed nations, and to promote the transfer of advanced biotechnology capacity from industrialized countries to developing ones. For the past 14 years, however, signatory nations have only erected barriers to biotech development. For example, the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity, which acknowledged that biotechnology could be used to improve food security, health care, and environmental protection in developing countries, has itself been perverted with the addition of an unscientific (in fact, anti-scientific) “Biosafety Protocol” that expressly limits such technology transfer.A long-standing scientific consensus and thirty years of experiments confirm that gene-splicing techniques are essentially a refinement, or extension, of often-used but less precise and predictable conventional breeding techniques—not unlike improving automobile performance and safety with radial tires and anti-lock brakes. But the Biosafety Protocol creates a senseless and scientifically unjustified global oversight apparatus that restricts and imposes onerous regulatory burdens on the products of this newest, most precise technology. Worse still, the UN has distributed largess to the tune of tens-of-millions-of-dollars in order to “encourage” developing governments to ignore more pressing health problems and to sign on to the regulations mandated by the Biosafety Protocol. As former Convention on Biological Diversity head Calestous Juma has said, introducing regulation without promoting the development of technology is “like offering swimming lessons to inhabitants of the Sahara Desert.” The program squanders scarce resources on the regulation of gene-spliced products that pose negligible risk, despite the fact that most of these countries lack virtually any regulation of acknowledged high-risk activities, such as public transport or dangerous occupations – and, of course, their expenditures on public health are woefully inadequate.Fortunately, the World Trade Organization (WTO)—a decidedly non-UN body—has made some efforts to eliminate the worst biotech regulatory abuses. But the UN apparatchiks and anti-technology NGOs have devised a strategy to circumvent the WTO. Another UN program, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which establishes food standards and is operated jointly by the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization, has created a biotech task force to extend to food regulation the anti-technology regulatory approach of the Biosafety Protocol. Under international trade law, national regulation that is in accord with a Codex standard is permissible under WTO rules. That neutralizes the potential impact of the WTO, the only international force that acts on behalf of rational, science-based policies.The perverse efforts of both the Biosafety Protocol and the Codex task force, which prevent the wider diffusion of a superior technology for agriculture and food production, are directly detrimental to farmers, consumers, academic researchers, and industry worldwide. The Protocol imposes counterproductive regulation of field trials and cross-boundary movements onto compliant nations; and Codex standards, in effect, extend into international trade law similar restrictions on food products. Biotechnology regulation is a growth industry at the UN. Throughout the organization, in program after program and project after project, the UN's approach continues to defy scientific consensus by devising burdensome new regulatory requirements and procedures that apply only to the pseudo-category of gene-spliced organisms and products derived from them. This turns the logic of regulation on its head: In the UN's distorted world of regulatory oversight, there is an inverse relationship between regulation and the degree of risk. This policy contradicts the first, and most ambitious, UN Millennium Development Goal—to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. That goal will not be accomplished without innovative technology—which, in turn, cannot be developed in the face of excessive regulatory barriers and bureaucracies.Ironically, the techniques of the new biotechnology could be widely applicable and beneficial—and supportive of so many of the UN's supposed aspirations. For example, one important way to “reduce child mortality,” the fourth Millennium Development Goal, would be to produce childhood vaccines cheaply in gene-spliced edible fruits and vegetables. But there is near-hysteria at Codex over conjectural food-safety problems with this approach. And the Secretary-General of the UN's World Meteorological Organization announced that “integrated water-resources management is the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of securing access to safe water, sanitation and environmental protection,” while other UN agencies are making virtually impossible the development of gene-spliced plants that can grow with low-quality water or under drought conditions. As Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg has observed, 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.” “If this new technology is killed in the cradle,” he adds, “these farmers could miss a chance to escape the low farm productivity that is helping to keep them in poverty.”To be sure, there are many individuals within the various UN bodies who understand the need for science and technology but who fear to speak out, or are overruled. Their marginalization within their agencies and programs illustrates just how perverse and corrupt the UN's policymaking has become. Senior UN officials regularly pay lip service to science and technology, to be sure, but they seem entranced by the notion of creating regulatory bureaucracies for virtually everything that happens on the planet—witness the recent attempt to gain control over the Internet, for example.The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the catchy alliterative phrase “defining deviancy down,” by which he meant that we can become so jaded, so used to intolerable behavior that we begin to tolerate it. That phenomenon seems to have colored the prevailing view of the UN: Because we have come to expect incompetence, self-interest, and political correctness, we no longer resent the flow of taxpayer dollars to fund it, or think to demand more. We need change, both in the UN's performance and in our own attitudes toward this organization that began with such great promise but has failed so utterly.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />