Although best-known for its peace-keeping in areas of conflict — where it enjoys a mixed record, at best — the U.N.'s agencies, programs, commissions and international agreements have a dismal record of accomplishment, especially while acting as the world's regulator-wannabe for all manner of products, processes and activities.
The U.N. regularly panders to activists and, not coincidentally, adopts policies that expand its own scope and responsibilities. Science and free market principles routinely get short shrift. U.N. programs and projects inevitably become an exercise in politics, spin and international horse-trading.
Many parts of the U.N., including the Environment Program, World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, have been particularly incompetent at regulating the newest techniques of genetic engineering (AKA "genetic modification") applied to agriculture.
For example, during the early 2000s, delegates to the U.N.-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity, a creature of the U.N. Environment Program, negotiated the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to regulate the international movement of organisms genetically modified with the newest, most precise techniques, which they dubbed "living modified organisms," or "LMOs" — a synonym for genetically modified organisms, or "GMOs."
The protocol 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.
Rather than creating a uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing legitimate risks, the U.N.'s Cartagena Protocol established an amorphous global regulatory process that encourages overly risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or denying approvals.
It has become a self-defeating impediment to the development of new and better products and, ironically, has stymied the U.N.'s ambitious efforts to reduce poverty and famine and to increase food security and longevity.
An eminent academic plant biologist who has been "in the trenches" developing these products for decades (and who requested anonymity), had this to say about the Protocol's unscientific approach:
Why LMOs are the only technology deemed worthy of their own International protocol is beyond me. And of all the threats that biodiversity faces, why one of the smallest ones was singled out for obsessive oversight while all bigger threats were ignored is also beyond me. Limiting the advance of the traditional low-yield agricultural frontier into mega-biodiverse forests or curtailing excessive pesticide use would have been far more successful strategies for biodiversity preservation.
To be clear, there is a broad and longstanding consensus that genetic modification is a seamless continuum of techniques, the newest of which – which are the focus of stultifying regulation — are more precise and predictable than their predecessors. As long ago as 1989, a comprehensive report from the U.S. National Research Council concluded about the safety of modern techniques:
Crops modified by molecular and cellular methods should pose risks no different from those modified by classical genetic methods for similar traits. As the molecular methods are more specific, users of these methods will be more certain about the traits they introduce into the plants.
My correspondent is also bitter about the lost opportunities:
Genetically modified crop adoption — and the benefits thereof — would be far greater and more extensive today if it had not been stopped by the precautionary, ridiculous, excessive and totally unscientific requirements all too often imposed by various interpretations of the Cartagena Protocol.
The U.N.'s involvement in the excessive, unscientific regulation of genetic engineering has slowed agricultural research and development, promoted environmental damage, and prolonged famine and water shortages for millions in less-developed countries.
Morally, this is no different from permitting the construction of an unsafe dam or knowingly administering a contaminated vaccine. Countless people have suffered and died needlessly as a result of the arbitrary, unscientific restrictions that prevent research in wealthier countries from helping the poor to help themselves.
Finally, illustrating the utter cluelessness of U.N. bureaucrats about the damage wrought by the Cartagena Protocol, the U.N. Environment Program is seeking articles about various aspects of it to "celebrate" its 15th anniversary! Why? "The articles will form part of a media campaign to increase the visibility of the Protocol."
The U.N. reveals, once again, its audacity and poor judgment. And offers a reminder of why the United States should cut its contributions to this feckless organization to the bone.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.