Former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, who heads the inquiry into corruption in the United Nations’ defunct oil-for-food program, has just issued a sobering interim report. He concludes that the program was “tainted, failing to follow the established rules of the organization,” and that “political considerations intruded.” But the U.N.’s problems don’t stop at Oil-for-Food–as if that weren’t enough. Those of us who study ongoing U.N. agencies’ deliberations on regulatory issues find obvious and egregious flaws in them, even when they do follow established rules.
The U.N.’s systematic sacrifice of science, technology, and sound public policy to its own bureaucratic self-interest obstructs technological innovation that could help the poorest of the poor. In particular, the U.N.’s involvement in the excessive, unscientific regulation of biotechnology–also known as gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM)–slows agricultural research and development and promotes environmental damage. Ultimately, it could prolong famine and water shortages for millions in less-developed countries.
During the past decade, delegates to the U.N.-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a “biosafety protocol” to regulate the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. It is based on the bogus “precautionary principle” which dictates that every new product or technology–including, in this case, an improvement over less-precise technologies–must be proven completely safe before it can be used.
An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proved completely safe–at least, not to the standard demanded by many activists and 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 cause harm under any circumstances.
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 U.N.’s biosafety protocol establishes an ill-defined global regulatory process that encourages overly risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals.
Examples include a six-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 superior gene-spliced varieties of grain consumed routinely in North America.
Other U.N. agencies have gotten into the act. In 2003 the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food-standards program of the U.N.’s World Health Organization and its Food and Agriculture Organization, singled out only food products made with gene-splicing techniques for Draconian and even bizarre regulatory procedures and restrictions–regulatory requirements that cannot be met by conventionally produced foods, which are made with less-precise and predictable technology.
Overly burdensome standards for gene-spliced foods are ominous not only because of their direct effects on research and development, but also because they will keep beneficial new crop plants out of the hands of the resource-poor farmers in less-developed countries who need them most. Scientists worldwide agree that gene-splicing is merely a refinement, or improvement, over less-precise and predictable genetic techniques that have been used for centuries, an exquisite tool that can help to develop plants with higher yields and innovative traits. Thousands of greenhouse and field studies, as well as widespread commercialization in a half-dozen advanced countries, have documented that the risks of gene-spliced plants and foods are minimal, their benefits palpable, and their future potential extraordinary. Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops annually reduces pesticide use by tens of millions of pounds and saves millions of tons of topsoil from erosion.
In less-developed countries like China and South Africa, the few available gene-spliced plant varieties have increased crop yields, raised the incomes of resource-poor farmers, and reduced occupational exposure to chemical pesticides. Wider adoption and diffusion of gene-spliced crops could improve human nutrition, reduce the amount of land and water needed to produce food, and spare ecosystems from fragmentation and development. But these advances are being drastically limited by the unscientific, hugely burdensome, U.N.-based regulatory regimes.
The precautionary-principle-driven standards and regulations the U.N. defends 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, supplant agricultural chemicals, and reduce the contamination of grain by fungal toxins.
Many U.N. 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. But the regulatory regimes promoted by various U.N. agencies and projects deny less developed countries precisely the kind of technology they need.
How do such travesties of regulation arise? Through a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” process in which self-interested participants move a flawed proposal through the approval process, all the while pretending that it makes sense. But although the process appears to be transparent, it is corrupt. The U.N. uses coercion to induce countries to sign on to agreements to regulate gene-splicing excessively, such as the Cartagena Protocol and the Codex standards. For example, the United Nations Environment Program has distributed scores of millions of dollars to help developing countries set up infrastructure for “building capacity for assessing risks, establishing adequate information systems and developing expert human resources in the field of biosafety.”
But as Harvard’s Calestous Juma has said, this is like offering swimming lessons to inhabitants of the Sahara Desert. The UNEP program’s “capacity building” applies only to the regulation of gene-spliced products, and many of the countries for which the project is intended lack virtually any regulation of acknowledged high-risk activities, such as public transport and dangerous occupations, and their expenditures on public health are woefully inadequate. It is not unusual in poor tropical countries, for example, to observe pre-teens performing welding or using dangerous machinery, with no protective gear and wearing only shorts or a loincloth. Malaria, schistosomiasis, and bacterial and viral diseases that have been all but eradicated from industrialized countries remain epidemic in many underdeveloped nations. Surely the U.N.’s largesse would be spent much more productively if it were allocated to address any of these more important problems.
The UNEP’s cynical offers of bribes to get countries to ratify its regulations offer Faustian bargains to less-developed nations. They receive small grants up front, but in the long-term, unscientific, excessive regulation of this promising new technology–and the resulting uncertainty among innovators about their ability to conduct research and market products–ensures that the biotechnology revolution all but passes them by. Such strategies–on which the U.N. bureaucrats publicly congratulate themselves–are outrageous.
Morally, this is no different from permitting the construction of an unsafe dam or knowingly administering a contaminated vaccine. Countless people will suffer and die needlessly as a result of the arbitrary, unscientific restrictions that prevent us from helping the poor to help themselves. The U.N.’s leaders should be held accountable for this human-rights catastrophe, and the precautionary principle should be relegated to the dustbin of history.