I laughed out loud when I read the headline last week: “USDA reports 115 infractions of biotech rules.”
If I hadn’t known any better, those words might have startled me. But then that’s the point of so many headlines – to startle the uninformed.
Here’s a more honest way the same story might have been headlined: “USDA reports 7,287 cases of biotech compliance.”
Doesn’t sound nearly as interesting, does it? Yet it has the virtue of being more accurate. The real headline–i.e., the startling one–reminded me of something Winston Churchill once said in the British Parliament, “I should think it hardly possible to state the opposite of the truth with more precision.”
Here’s what really happened. Last week, the USDA said that it had conducted 7,402 field tests with companies and research universities that have been working in the area of genetic enhancement since 1990. The government uncovered 115 regulatory infractions, meaning that the rate of compliance was 98.4 percent.
Our goal always should be 100-percent compliance, but let’s keep things in perspective – topping 98 percent is pretty darn good. If this were a science test, the biotech industry would earn a grade of A for its efforts.
The anti-biotech activists must be sorely disappointed. They had lobbied for the release of these numbers on the false hope that they would show poor stewardship on the part of the biotech industry. But they’ve done just the opposite.
What’s more, these very occasional infractions in many cases weren’t even uncovered by the government–they were reported to the government by the companies. This is powerful testimony to the biotech industry’s commitment to reasonable regulation. Consumer confidence in the latest agricultural technologies is tied directly to public confidence in the U.S. regulatory system, and that’s why the regulators encounter such impressive levels of cooperation from producers.
Biotech developers want the federal government’s seal of approval so much that when they make a mistake, they tell. It’s like the kid who hits a baseball through his neighbor’s family-room window and decides to knock on the front door rather than run away–he knows that doing the right thing now avoids bigger trouble later on.
Even more comforting than the rarity of infractions and the willingness to admit mistakes is the fact that the 115 violations never posed any threat to human health anywhere. No person was ever in danger from one of these inadvertent errors–and the environment was never at risk, either.
Only eight of the incidents were substantial enough to result in fines. So here’s another way of looking at the numbers: Field tests showed violations less than 2 percent of the time, and they showed violations leading to fines about one-tenth of 1 percent of the time.
Now there’s a snoozer of a headline: “USDA field tests don’t lead to fines 99.9 percent of the time.”
Most of the USDA infractions were decidedly minor, such as planting the seed one day later than the permit identifying a one month planting period allowed. In the world of biotech regulations, these are parking tickets.
Of the eight fines–let’s call them the speeding tickets–the smallest was for $500 and the largest for $250,000. That big fine was slapped on Prodigene last year for accidentally mixing a few shreds of GE corn stalks with a half-million bushels of soybeans. Again, nobody’s health was ever at risk–and those soybeans were destroyed before they reached the marketplace. (And it may be worth noting that even if they had reached the marketplace, they still would have been harmless.)
Because biotechnology is advancing so rapidly, USDA created a Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) within its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) a little more than a year ago. Just last week, USDA announced the establishment of a dedicated compliance and enforcement unit within the BRS.
This may sound like one of bureaucracy’s alphabet-soup overkill concoctions. In reality, it’s good news for farmers, because it means the government is keeping pace with the scientific advances that will help us secure our livelihood and feed the world in the 21st century.
Over the next decade, these fields will undergo thousands–and maybe tens of thousands–of more tests. This is as it should be. And it gives us a goal: How about hitting 99 percent compliance next time?
I can see the media headline now: “USDA reports imperfection among biotech developers.”