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IPN Opinion article
Poor nutrition affects a fifth of the world’s population and contributes to more than half of all deaths associated with infectious diseases in children under five in low-income countries. Fortunately, technology offers a way of lessening the terrible impact of malnutrition on the health of the world’s poor.
Gene-spliced (sometimes called “genetically modified,” or GM) staple crops offer real hope to less developed countries. The increased yields and hardier, pest- and drought-resistant traits of these genetically improved varieties allow farmers to produce better crops with increased nutritional value and yields and lower post-harvest losses. But this promise could come to nothing if the deliberations of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (the joint FAO/WHO foods standards agency) continue in their current counterproductive vein. Unfortunately, the debate over these gene-spliced crops has been hijacked by interest groups pushing their own unsound, destructive agendas.
The members of this task force – including the representatives of the U.S. government – systematically ignore scientific principles and the basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk.
With so many clear benefits and safety amply demonstrated, why does the United States, the economic engine behind all UN projects, participate in this travesty? Why does the United States collude on this travesty? The representatives of U.S. regulatory agencies offer several rationales: Because virtually every other country has in place irrational, unscientific regulation, we must follow suit; the task force is really addressing issues of trade, not science; and most important, American industry demands that we play along.
Unpersuasive on all counts.
They disregard the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of older, traditional techniques of genetic modification, and that it does not warrant discriminatory, excessive regulation. They overlook the fact that during two decades of widespread use, the performance of gene-spliced crops has been spectacular, with farmers enjoying increased yields, decreased use of agricultural chemicals, and lower occupational exposures to pesticides. Better crop yields, more plentiful food, better nutrition and better health all follow.
It is one thing to regulate novel foods with traits that are of potential concern, but quite another to regulate merely because a certain technique has been used, especially when that technique is state-of-the-art. It is rather like circumscribing for extra regulation only cars outfitted with disk brakes, radial tires and air bags – and then limiting only those vehicles to a lower speed.
The Codex deliberations are disastrous not only scientifically and economically, but also create unduly burdensome standards for biotech foods. Any country wishing to block trade in gene-spliced foods can cite the Codex standards for legitimacy. Because that provides protection from charges of unfair trade practices, unscientific Codex standards . compromise the ability of the World Trade Organization to provide relief from arbitrary or protectionist policies.
Although a narrow segment of U.S. industry – big agribusiness, whose lobbyists flock to the Codex task force meetings -- endorses the Codex process, food companies and others regard it as a lose-lose situation. The encouragement of excessive, unscientific regulation is a short-term expedient but a long-term catastrophe, especially for smaller farmers in low-income countries, plant breeders and academic researchers (who are not represented at Codex).
During the meetings of the Codex task force, regulators have acted as shills for big agribusiness, which created its own Frankenstein’s monster during the 1980s by demanding sui generis, excessive regulation of agricultural and food biotechnology. Their plan was to create high barriers to entry into the marketplace by agbiotech start-ups and seed companies and then to roll back regulatory requirement when the competition had been eliminated; but that “regulatory rescue” strategy has failed.
All attempts to rationalise or liberalise regulation at Codex task force meeting was handily neutralized by the EU, its members and surrogates, further illustrating the futility of the undertaking. Even as the EU vitiated any possible value of the various agenda items during its interventions, its delegate continually reminded the group that nothing emanating from Codex would in the least affect EU policies, procedures or approvals.
As the interventions from the EU and United States ping-ponged back and forth, agribusiness lobbyists literally were whispering in the ear of the U.S. government representatives, trying to eke out small concessions for their own narrow interests (and their end-of-the-year bonuses). At the end of the task force meeting, Michael Phillips, vice-president of the Washington D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), frankly admitted to me that the outcome “is as stupid as you think it is, but we got what we needed.” The representatives of agribusiness were unapologetic about the burden that the unscientific regulations place on academia, conceding that it will be virtually impossible ever to revisit the inaccurate assumptions that drive the work of the Codex task force.
How can we fix this? As the economic engine behind all UN projects, it falls to the United States , whose dues fund about a quarter of the UN’s base budget, to take the lead. The U.S. (and other progressive nations) should cut off funding and all other assistance to foreign governments, UN agencies and other international bodies that implement, collude, or cooperate in any way with unscientific regulatory policies. In addition, members of the U.S. delegation must be guided by the principle that no agreement is better than one that moves us backwards.
Uncompromising? Aggressive? Yes -- but justified in the face of the virtual annihilation of entire areas of research and development, under-use of a critical technology, unnecessary hunger and disease, disenfranchisement of poor countries, and disruption of free trade.