An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times about the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals by rock singer Bono (yes, you read that right) was naive and misguided. The minimal successes at improving the health and wealth of the poor he cited have been vastly overshadowed by negative policies and actions by UN agencies.
Underlying the U.N.’s deficiencies is the inability of its leaders to apprehend how their own flawed policies prevent the achievement of their ambitious Millennium Development Goals for 2015, which include cutting hunger and poverty in half, giving all children a basic education, reducing infant and maternal mortality by two-thirds and three-quarters respectively, and reversing the spread of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Chemicals regulation and water policy offer just two examples, among many.
Since the cheap and effective insecticide DDT was effectively banned worldwide at the UN-sponsored 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue have been on the rise. In fact, the huge toll of diseases spread by mosquitoes caused some public health officials to rethink DDT’s use. In 2006, after some 50 million preventable deaths, the U.N.’s World Health Organization reversed course and endorsed the use of DDT to kill and repel malaria-causing mosquitoes. At the time, Arata Kochi, the World Health Organization official in charge of malaria said, “We must take a position based on the science and the data. One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual spraying. Of the dozen or so insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT.”
But policies based on science and data enjoy a short half-life at the United Nations, and last year, with a notable absence of fanfare, WHO reverted to endorsing less effective methods for preventing malaria. In May 2009 the WHO and the UN Environment Program announced that their goal is “to achieve a 30 percent cut in the application of DDT worldwide by 2014 and its total phase-out by the early 2020s, if not sooner.”
As incompetent and anti-social as the UN has been on DDT, it is really drowning when it comes to water issues. Water is in increasingly limited supply in many parts of the world. Shortages make irrigation of crops difficult or impossible and hinder economic development; excessive water extraction lowers ground levels and exacerbates rising sea levels; and poor water quality makes populations vulnerable to water-related diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, viral hepatitis A and typhoid. Some 1.1 billion people still lack access to an adequate supply of drinking water and some 2.6 billion do not have basic sanitation.
Ironically, UN policies and programs themselves prevent the development and use of important tools that could help to conserve water, especially in poorer regions of the world.
Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water consumption — even more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions — so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would allow much to be freed up for other uses. Especially during drought conditions — which currently plague much of Europe, Africa, Australia, South America and the United States — even a small percentage reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian. Gene-spliced, or “genetically modified” (GM), crop varieties can accomplish this, and are widely recognized by agricultural scientists and policy makers as critical to meeting future water shortages.
During the past decade, however, various UN agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have created major regulatory obstacles to partial solutions from plant breeding.
Gene-splicing offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In more than two dozen countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment. Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water utilization that can be transferred into important crop plants. These new varieties are able to grow with smaller amounts or lower quality water, such as water that has been recycled or that contains large amounts of natural mineral salts. Where water is unavailable for irrigation, the development of crop varieties able to grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.
But research is being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation — including by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the FAO/WHO UN agency that sets international food standards, and by onerous, unscientific regulation of field trials under the Convention on Biological Diversity (the “Biodiversity Treaty”). In spite of the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of conventional (but less precise and less predictable) techniques of genetic modification, both entities have established requirements for the products of gene-splicing (whether plants or food derived from them) that no conventionally-modified product could meet.
The UN’s lack of coherence and consistency is bizarre. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization calls on one hand for greater allocation of resources to agriculture, and then makes those resources drastically less cost-effective by gratuitous, unscientific over-regulation of the new biotechnology. The Secretary-General of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization announces that “integrated water-resources management is the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals of securing access to safe water, sanitation and environmental protection,” while an alphabet soup of other UN agencies are making virtually impossible the development of gene-spliced plants that can grow with low-quality water or under drought conditions. The most ambitious goal — “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015 — certainly cannot be accomplished without innovative technology. And that, in turn, cannot be developed in the face of UN-based bans and excessive regulatory barriers.
If Bono were aware of any of this, he might be singing a different song.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was the founding director o f the U.S. FDA’s Office of Biotechnology and is the co-author of “To America’s Health: A Proposal to Reform the FDA.”