I’m not sure whether Goldwyn was being serious or merely offering his best impersonation of Yogi Berra. Whatever the truth, his comment is an excellent illustration of the point that some people don’t know how to move on.
The same cannot be said of the U.S. Department of Agriculture–or at least the USDA folks in charge of regulating biotech enhanced crops. They’ve just announced their intention to update rules that were first put in place 17 years ago. “As science and technology advance, we want to have a regulatory framework that keeps pace,” said Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman.
This is a welcome decision that comes at a good time.
In 1987, when the original rules went into effect, biotech crops seemed like science fiction. Today they’re a fundamental part of reality. Last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications(ISAAA), genetically enhanced crops were cultivated on nearly 68 million hectares worldwide–15 percent more than the year before and the seventh consecutive season for a double-digit rate of increase.
Biotech crops are here to stay because they contribute to larger and healthier harvests, cleaner fields, and protect the environment. Modernized regulations will help our government maintain high levels of public confidence in food safety.
When it comes to biotech crops, the key difference between the United States and Europe isn’t simply that Americans favor them and Europeans don’t–it’s that we Americans have a much stronger faith in the ability of our food inspectors to guarantee that what we eat is healthy and safe. As a result, Americans have reaped substantial benefits from developing and applying the latest agricultural biotechnology advancements.
We’ll continue to do so by updating federal rules and sticking to a few common-sense principles that have allowed us to achieve so much already. The most important will be making sure our decisions are based on sound science rather than anxious speculation.
Speculation, of course, can be a useful tool if it helps scientists figure out their next set of research questions. But it becomes counterproductive when mixed with pessimism and trepidation–which is exactly what has happened in Europe, with its so-called precautionary principle poisoning all kinds of innovation. European regulators have mastered the art of forgetting what they know and embracing what they fear.
In the United States, by contrast, we’ve done an outstanding job of keeping a close watch on the development of biotech crops. Since 1987, the USDA has overseen more than 10,000 individual field trials on a broad number of different kinds of plants–and it has approved more than 60 of them for commercial use. (The vast majority of the rest have not moved on because the promise they’ve shown in the lab or in someone’s imagination doesn’t bear fruit when they’re actually planted and studied.)
USDA is proposing a “multi-tiered, risk-based” approach to regulating biotech enhanced crops and plans to utilize plenty of public input. I see this as a positive step, even though the hysterical enemies of biotechnology may be expected to seize upon it with gusto. Whenever a genetically enhanced crop comes up for regulatory approval, they’ll declare that an ecological apocalypse is at hand.
But they’ll be wrong–and the hard data coming out of an updated regulatory system will prove it. I’m confident that the more we think about the environment in the context of biotech crops, the better biotech crops are going to look. After all, that’s been the history of these crops since the beginning.
I could go on and on about how biotech plants are reducing pressure to convert wilderness into farmland as our global population of 6 billion people continues to grow. Instead, let me simply cite a letter recently sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair by 150 of the world’s top scientists, including DNA co-discoverer James Watson and World Food Prize winner Gurdev Khush: “GM crops are providing farmers with cost-effective means of controlling pests while using less pesticides and reducing the impact of agriculture in the face of increasing environmental pressures.”
The public has been invited to comment on the updated regulations until March 23. I’m sure it wasn’t intended, but there’s a kind of poetry in that deadline. Coming three days after the spring equinox, it’s a time when many people in America start to see their own environment begin to turn green again.