Farmers: Beware Drought, Pestilence, and the EPA

Friday, July 30, 1999

In a radio address last fall, President Clinton urged Congress to give American farmers billions in emergency aid to rescue them from concurrent crises of drought, flooding, and decreased export markets.

“This year flood and drought and crop disease have wiped out entire harvests,” Clinton said. But he neglected to mention the biggest pest of all: federal regulation that denies farmers important tools for increasing productivity and competitiveness.

It took years for the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate a new strain of Sinorhizobium meliloti, an innocuous and useful soil microorganism that should not have required regulatory review at all. Sinorhizobium is perfectly safe to humans, animals, and the environment and enables certain plants (alfalfa, peas, and soybeans, among others) to use nitrogen from the air as a nutrient. It has been sold in the United States for more than a century. The new strain boosts the yield of alfalfa hay grown in poor-quality soils and reduces the need for the application of nitrogen fertilizers, affording farmers a bottom-line bonus of at least $15 an acre.

Even worse, in 1994 the EPA announced a policy that subjects crop and garden plants genetically modified for enhanced pest resistance to regulatory review on a case-by-case basis and that regulates them as though they were pesticides. This regulatory albatross from EPA chief Carol Browner (with the active collaboration of Vice President Al Gore and his staff) is particularly gratuitous, unscientific, and bizarre. New varieties of plants like tomatoes, apples, and marigolds are now regulated more stringently than chemicals similar to DDT or sarin. Especially at universities and small companies, the EPA’s “plants are pesticides” policy has discouraged the application of the new biotechnology to enhance agricultural productivity and reduce the use of agricultural chemicals (both of which would increase farmers’ profits).

The regulatory policies of the Department of Agriculture likewise treat the new biotechnology in a discriminatory way, making agricultural biotech products more expensive to develop and more vulnerable to attack by antitechnology activists. The USDA continues to impose unnecessary and hugely expensive field-test designs and other requirements on plants that have been improved with the most sophisticated and precise genetic techniques.

For example, gene-spliced plants being shipped or cultivated cannot be mixed with plants modified in other ways (which includes virtually all cultivated crop and garden plants), and all living plants must be destroyed at the completion of the field trial. The effect is to make a field trial with a gene-spliced plant ten to twenty times more expensive than the same experiment performed with a plant that has identical properties but that was modified with less precise genetic techniques.

Under new EPA regulations, new varieties of plants like tomatoes, apples, and marigolds are now regulated more stringently than chemicals similar to DDT or sarin.

The Clinton administration’s regulatory policies consistently disregard the extraordinary safety record of plant breeders and the fact that literally millions of new varieties of genetically modified, but not gene-spliced, plants are field-tested each year without governmental oversight or strictures. The average plant breeder of corn, soybean, wheat, or potato, for example, may put into the field fifty thousand new, discrete genetic variants a year, many or all of which may be the product of “wide crosses,” hybridization in which genetic material has been transferred across natural breeding barriers. Add to this the absence of reports of adverse outcomes in any of the more than six thousand field trials of gene-spliced plants that have been performed worldwide, all of which would have been controlled with standard plant breeding practices. (And note that in 1998 more than 50 million acres of commercial gene-spliced crops were planted in the United States alone.)

Academic and commercial researchers have cooperated patiently with regulators for a decade. Databases filled with redundant findings of “no adverse effect” have been diligently created to assuage largely fictitious “public concern” about testing. National and international scientific organizations have repeatedly addressed the question of whether there are unique risks associated with gene-spliced organisms, with congruent conclusions: Gene-spliced plants are not inherently risky and, compared with other plants, do not present any special risk of gene transfer or other potential problems.

Despite the absence of reports of adverse outcomes in any of the thousands of field trials that have been performed worldwide, the government still imposes costly and unwarranted regulations on gene-spliced plants.

The challenges that confront American farmers will not go away. There is an immediate and critical need for “supertrees” to meet accelerating lumber and paper requirements and for food crops with pest and disease resistance, greater drought and salinity tolerance, and enhanced nutrient content.

There is also a strategic need for small, entrepreneurial biotechnology companies that can translate advances made in academic and government laboratories into tangible products and technologies for farmers and consumers. New advances in agriculture can provide all this and more, but they are imperiled by unscientific, costly policies that discourage academic researchers, inhibit research and development, marginalize small businesses, and, ultimately, deprive the marketplace of innovative products.

The president’s proposal to spend billions bailing out the farmers is yet another example of the government pretending to cure problems it caused in the first place.