Henry I. Miller

During two years of deliberations by the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology, the Europeans and some nongovernmental organizations have trampled United States interests. The participants—including the U.S. delegation—have willfully ignored scientific principles and the basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They have also disregarded the scientific consensus that the new biotechnology, gene-splicing, is a refinement of older, traditional techniques of genetic modification. They have moved deliberately toward circumscribing gene-spliced food products for various Draconian and even bizarre regulatory requirements that will impair the competitiveness of these products in the marketplace and limit their use.

Derailing the development of gene-spliced foods is precisely the agenda of many of those on the task force, and the reason is clear. As Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg has observed, the products of agricultural biotechnology have been “developed mostly in U.S. laboratories, widely adopted by U.S. farmers, and pushed out onto the world market by U.S. companies with the support of the U.S. government” [italics added]. In other words, agricultural biotechnology is an icon of American technological success and supremacy, and our trading partners intend, therefore, to punish it. 

The Codex task force is en route to codifying various procedures and requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs and pesticides than to new, improved varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, and strawberries. These standards include long-term monitoring for adverse health effects and batteries of tests for composition, genetic stability, toxins, allergenicity, and so on. None of the foods modified by less precise, less predictable traditional techniques—which constitute virtually the entire diet of Europeans and Americans—could (or should) meet these standards. 

The prospect of unduly burdensome Codex standards for gene-spliced foods is ominous—both for the prospects of the technology itself and for U.S. hopes of World Trade Organization relief from European protectionism—because members of WTO will, in principle, be required to abide by those standards. In other words, the standards will provide cover for unfair trade practices, because with these measures in place, a country that wishes to block trade in gene-spliced foods for any reason can defend against charges of unfair trade practices simply by remonstrating that it’s deferring to Codex. 

These unscientific regulations and standards will harm the environment and public health by stifling the development of innovations that can increase agricultural productivity and supplant agricultural chemicals. Experts at the United Nations and in academia have warned 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 brought into food production. Yet an important answer—developing more-productive plant varieties—will be blocked by hugely expensive regulation of gene-spliced techniques. 

Although efforts should be made to reassure the public that gene-splicing techniques are in fact safer than more-traditional methods of genetic modification, excessive regulation is not the way to do so. As the president of a U.S. national consumer organization testified a decade ago to a federal investigative panel, “For obvious reasons, the consumer views the technologies that are most regulated to be the least safe ones. Heavy involvement by government, no matter how well intended, inevitably sends the wrong signals. Rather than ensuring confidence, it raises suspicion and doubt.” 

Regulation should focus on real risks and should not be triggered by the use of one technique or another. If the current Codex approach is adopted, the costs of biotechnology R&D will be greatly (and unnecessarily) inflated. The result will be essentially irreversible constraints on innovation and trade. It is moot whether there exists a level playing field, if it is knee-deep in mud. No agreement at all would be a far better outcome than one whose flaws are as manifest and pernicious (and permanent) as in the Codex proposals. 

The U.S. delegation to Codex must adopt a position that is clear and unequivocal: The regulation of foods derived from the new biotechnology must make scientific and common sense. The stakes are too high for rational regulatory policy to be compromised either by protectionism or by bureaucratic irresoluteness.

by Henry Miller is a Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Stanford, Calif., and an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology.