The UN's War on Science

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently declared that the global pursuit of scientific endeavors is marked by inequality. Noting that developing countries invest much less on scientific research and produce fewer scientists, Annan warned that the resulting imbalance in the geographic distribution of scientific activity creates problems for both the scientific community in developing countries and for development itself. He 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.

For the UN is supposed to be the watchdog of human rights, the most basic of which is the right to eat. When human rights are compromised, most often it is because people are desperately poor. One contributing factor to this poverty is the inability of people to feed themselves effectively. The UN's mission ought to be self-sufficiency of food production for all. Instead, the self-interest of UN bureaucracies actually prevents the poor from bettering their lives - and even from surviving.

Indeed, the UN's wanton sacrifice of science and technology to its own bureaucratic self-interest creates significant obstacles to innovation that can help the poorest of the poor. In particular, the UN's involvement in the excessive, unscientific regulation of biotechnology, or genetic modification (GM), will slow agricultural research and development, promote environmental damage, and help to bring famine and water shortages to millions in developing countries.

Secretary-General Annan has proven once again (as though we needed further evidence) that talk is cheap. During the past decade, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a "bio-safety protocol" to regulate the international movement of GM organisms. It was based on the bogus "precautionary principle" which dictates that every new technology--including, in the case of GM, an improvement over less precise technologies--must be proven utterly safe before it can be used.

An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proved totally safe--at least, not to the standard demanded by many regulators--the precautionary principle has become a self-defeating impediment to the development of new products. Precautionary regulation shifts the burden of proof from the regulator, who previously had to demonstrate that a new technology was likely to cause some harm, to the innovator, who now must demonstrate that the technology will not.

This shift is ominous, because it frees regulatory bodies to require any amount and kind of testing that they wish. Rather than creating a uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing legitimate risks, the bio-safety protocol establishes an ill-defined global regulatory process that permits overly risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals.

Examples include a five-year-long moratorium on approvals of GM plants throughout Europe, and the rejection of badly needed food aid by several African countries--only because it contains the same GM varieties of grain consumed routinely in North America. Similarly, a task force of the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the UN's World Health Organization and its Food and Agriculture Organization, has singled out only food products made with GM for various Draconian and even bizarre regulatory procedures and requirements.

The Europeans want to stop GM products because the technology was developed in US labs and commercialized by US companies 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.

In July, the full Codex membership approved various procedures and requirements that are more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs or pesticides than to GM tomatoes, potatoes, and strawberries. They include long-term monitoring for adverse health effects and batteries of tests for genetic stability, toxins, allergenicity, and so on.

This regulatory regime will deny to less-developed countries precisely the kind of technology that they need. Overly burdensome Codex standards for GM foods are ominous not only because of their direct effects on research and development, but also because members of the World Trade Organization will, in principle, be required to follow them. These standards will provide cover for unfair trade practices.

Indeed, 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. "If there is a Codex standard," she points out, "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."

Unfortunately, Halloran is right. But the unscientific standards and regulations that she defends in the name of the global public actually harm the environment and public health, stifling the development of environmentally friendly innovations that can increase agricultural productivity, help clean up toxic wastes, conserve water, and supplant agricultural chemicals. UN experts themselves warn that the greatest single threat to the planet's environment comes from the world's burgeoning population and its demand that ever more land be devoted to food production.

Scientists worldwide agree that GM is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and predictable genetic techniques that have been used for centuries, but this exquisite new means to develop plants with higher yields and innovative traits will be blocked by the disincentive of unnecessary regulations. Morally, this is no different from permitting the construction of an unsafe dam or knowingly administering a contaminated vaccine. Countless people will needlessly suffer and die as a result of the arbitrary, unscientific restrictions now imposed on our ability to help them to help themselves. The UN and its secretary-general should be held accountable for this human rights catastrophe.