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Good Food, Bad Science

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Why the UN’s approach to gene-spliced foods is hopelessly flawed.

Good Food, Bad Science

CHIBA, JAPAN—During his first months as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton denounced the UN Development Program for its “unacceptable” funding of Palestinian propaganda and publicly identified “countries who are in a state of denial” about the need for UN reform. He told a reporter that he felt “a little like Rod Serling has suddenly appeared and we’re writing episodes from ‘The Twilight Zone.’”

I’m having a similar experience in Japan, as a member of the U.S. delegation to a UN task force meeting on biotechnology-derived foods. The task force is a creature of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets food standards on behalf of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization. Now in its eighth year, the mission of the task force is to create new regulatory requirements that apply only to foods made with the newest techniques of biotechnology—namely gene-splicing, or genetic modification—while exempting others made with far less precise and predictable technologies.

The performance of gene-spliced crops has been spectacular: increased yields, decreased use of agricultural chemicals, lower occupational exposures to pesticides, and reduced emissions of carbon dioxide.

It is one thing to regulate new foods with traits that are of potential concern, but quite another to regulate new foods merely because a certain technique has been used, especially when that technique is state-of-the-art and superior to its predecessors. It is rather like regulating only cars outfitted with disk brakes, radial tires, and air bags—and then restricting only those vehicles to a lower speed limit. Put another way, Codex approaches food made from organisms modified with gene-splicing techniques as though food producers, consumers, and regulators had no previous experience with genetic variation among cattle, chickens, apples, tomatoes, rice, and other products that comprise our diet. In fact, with the exceptions of fish, shellfish, wild game, wild mushrooms, and wild berries, virtually everything in our diets has been genetically improved by one technique or another.

The members of this task force—including the U.S. delegation—have systematically ignored scientific principles as well as the basic axiom that regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They disregard the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension (or refinement) of traditional techniques of genetic modification, and that it does not warrant discriminatory 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, lower occupational exposures to pesticides, and reduced emissions of carbon dioxide—and that there has not been a single consumer injured or ecosystem damaged. This record is all the more impressive when we consider that North Americans alone have consumed more than a trillion servings of gene-spliced foods.

The recent Codex meeting was replete with ironies. It began with greetings from a senior Japanese health official who touted the importance of biotechnology-derived foods, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own country has not permitted a single one to be grown or marketed. (Which, incidentally, is why a Hawaiian gene-spliced papaya costs less than two dollars in San Francisco, while one that is virtually identical, but conventionally modified, costs more than $15 in Tokyo.)

Another, more portentous irony is that Codex makes a mockery of the UN’s own Millennium Development goals, especially the first and most ambitious: “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015. That cannot be accomplished without innovative technology, and there won’t be innovative technology if it is regulated excessively and stupidly.

Unduly burdensome Codex standards for biotech foods are not only an affront to sound science and an obstruction to research and development; they also compromise the ability of the World Trade Organization to provide relief from arbitrary or protectionist policies. Any country that wishes to block trade in gene-spliced foods—for any reason—can defend against charges of unfair trade practices simply by citing Codex.

Much of the recent task force meeting was devoted to drafting guidelines for a “food safety assessment” of gene-spliced foods that have been “modified for nutritional or health benefit.” These guidelines ensure that almost any important nutritional advance could be blocked for reasons of ideology or trade protection. 

The members of the UN task force have systematically ignored scientific principles as well as the basic axiom that regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk.

Let’s suppose that, using gene-splicing techniques, plant breeders construct a peanut with deletions in the genes that express allergens, or a new variety of low-gluten wheat appropriate for the sufferers of celiac disease. The new guidelines require regulators to consider whether these alterations, which would obviously benefit people with peanut allergies and celiac disease (gluten intolerance), could somehow be detrimental to other sub-populations. For example: Could their slightly lower concentrations of protein cause malnutrition in people who normally consume large amounts of peanuts and wheat, respectively?

This is absurd. The differences between the conventional and new varieties would be minuscule, and there’s no remotely similar requirement for conventionally produced foods. But a regulator could simply say, “The requirement is in the Codex guidelines. If you haven’t met it, tough luck.”

Big agribusiness companies (whose representatives flock to the task force meetings) endorse the Codex process. During the meetings, industry lobbyists literally whisper in the ears of the U.S. government officials, trying to eke out small concessions for their own narrow interests. At the end of the previous meeting of the task force, Michael Phillips, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Association, conceded to me that the outcome was “as stupid as you think it is, but we got what we needed.”

Big companies like stringent regulation if it limits competition and provides their products with a sort of "Good Housekeeping seal of approval." The legendary economist Adam Smith had their mind-set pegged over two centuries ago, when he wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

But in the end, encouraging unscientific, excessive regulation is like eating your seed corn: a short-term expedient but a long-term catastrophe, especially for smaller farmers, plant breeders, and academic researchers (who are not represented at Codex).  Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation has raised costs to levels that “exclude the public sector, the academic community, from using their skills to improve crops,” according to Dr. Roger Beachy, director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. In effect, Codex and other UN regulatory initiatives have created a playing field that is tilted against the brightest scientists and the most innovative companies.

American regulators have become shills for big agribusiness companies, at the expense of academic research and even their own policies. The approach of Codex is incompatible with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policies, which are the most scientifically defensible approach to biotech regulation in the world. Yet Dr. Eric Flamm, a senior FDA bureaucrat and the head of the U.S. delegation to Codex, is unfazed by the inconsistency. He says that delegation members represent the United States, not their own agencies.

At Codex, American bureaucrats from a veritable alphabet soup of federal agencies are working to promote unscientific and excessive regulation, even though the outcomes consistently sacrifice U.S. interests to those of the European Union and anti-technology NGOs (which, inexplicably, are allowed full participation in the task force). What makes this exercise particularly absurd is that American taxpayers provide about a quarter of the UN’s base budget. But the biggest losers are undoubtedly the inhabitants of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere who suffer from extreme hunger and indigence. As Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg has written, “If this new technology is killed in the cradle, these farmers could miss a chance to escape the low farm productivity that is helping to keep them in poverty.” Pity the Codex crowd doesn’t seem to care.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, molecular biologist, and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration from 1989 to 1993. Barron’s selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth," as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

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