The Biggest Pest

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Agriculture in Northern California, one of the region’s major industries, is under threat from an insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter. These leaf-hoppers carry Pierce’s disease, a lethal bacterial infection of grapevines, citrus, and other plants, for which there is no cure. They have migrated from Mexico and are now causing millions of dollars in damage annually to California’s vineyards.

But the worst is yet to come: The infestation currently threatens the San Joaquin Valley’s 800,000 acres of table, raisin, and wine grapes, and involvement of the premier wine-making regions of Napa and Sonoma cannot be far off.

The meager weapons available to attack the sharpshooter include inspecting plants shipped from areas known to be infested by the insects and spraying chemical pesticides; scientists are also experimenting with a wasp that preys on the glassy-winged sharpshooter. In the long run, however, these methods will likely fail. As Dale Brown, president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, acknowledges, “genetic resistance in the grapevines is where we want to go.” But this definitive solution has been made hugely expensive and impractical by regulatory obstacles erected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

To introduce or enhance resistance to Pierce’s disease in grapevines, one logical approach is to transfer genes that confer that property into grapes from distantly related, noncommercial grapes that possess natural immunity. But conventional grape breeding is a notoriously slow process, and attempts to use more sophisticated and efficient gene-splicing techniques have run afoul of EPA regulatory policies.

The EPA regulates any plant that has been modified with gene-splicing techniques to enhance its pest or disease resistance as though it were a chemical pesticide. This policy flaunts the widespread scientific consensus that gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed, and predictable than other techniques, and that foods from the new, insect-resistant gene-spliced plant varieties have lower levels of contamination by toxic fungi and insect parts than those from conventional varieties. Thus, these gene-spliced varieties not only increase yields and make better use of existing farmland but also are a potential boon to public health. Moreover, by reducing the need for spraying chemical pesticides on crops, they are environmentally and occupationally friendly. Yet the EPA holds gene-spliced plants to an extraordinary standard, even requiring hugely expensive testing as though they were pesticides. These policies are, in effect, a punitive tax on a superior, and badly needed, technology.

Dozens of major scientific societies have condemned the policy, warning that it will discourage the development of new pest-resistant crops, prolong and increase the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, increase the regulatory burden for developers of pest-resistant crops, expand federal and state bureaucracy, limit the use of biotechnology to larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and handicap the United States in competition for international markets.

All these predictions have come true. California is already reaping what the EPA regulators have sown; EPA chief Christine Whitman and her scientifically challenged minions should be held accountable.