That grim joke crossed my mind last week when I read the news that biotech crops won’t be taking root in Britain after all.
You may recall that just three weeks ago I was celebrating the British government’s long overdue decision to let farmers in the United Kingdom grow a particular kind of biotech enhanced corn. The move suggested that Britain was ready to abandon the politics of fear and follow Spain in becoming the second European country to permit the large-scale growth of genetically enhanced crops.
But now everybody’s had a chance to read the fine print–and it turns out the British are imposing so many onerous regulations on the newly approved corn that its maker, Bayer CropScience, has decided not to release it at all. What initially looked like a victory for individual farmers and sound science has been turned into a Kafka-like defeat.
British environmental minister Elliot Morley defended the government’s charades this way: “We always said it would be for the market to decide the viability of growing and selling GM once government assessed safety and risk.”
If only! The British government did in fact assess safety and risk–over the course of 15 years of field trials and four years of large-scale evaluations. It determined that this strain of biotech corn is safe and risk-free. But now regulators have imposed so many strangling restrictions that the corn won’t ever make it to market. Bayer says the corn is now “economically non-viable.”
This turn of events brings to mind something Ronald Reagan once said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
With help like this, who needs hindrances?
Call it death by regulation. Under Britain’s harsh rules, farmers would have been required to plant the crops exactly as scientists did, as if they were running experiments rather than running businesses. What’s more, Bayer would have been held liable for any unintentional crossbreeding between biotech plants and non-biotech plants in neighboring fields. That sounds like a trial lawyer’s dream come true.
“New regulations should enable GM crops to be grown in the UK–not disable future attempts to grow them,” said a Bayer spokesman in the Financial Times.
By caving into a fear-mongering lobby of anti-biotech activists, the British government is telling its farmers that they must step aside while the rest of the world moves forward. Europe is a continent of old cultures and aging demographics–and its views on science and technology unfortunately belong in another century.
There is simply no evidence anywhere that biotech crops are anything but safe and risk-free. Up-and-coming nations like China and India know this and are determined to take advantage of all science can offer them. It may not be long before their agricultural know-how passes Europe’s. Here in the United States, we’ve embraced biotechnology so completely that nearly half of all corn acres and 90 percent of all soybean acres will grow genetically-enhanced plants this summer, according to figures recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A huge irony is that Britain’s Food Standards examined organic corn meal products last year and found high concentrations of fumonisin, a cancer-causing residue left behind when fungus infects ears of corn. Every brand of organic corn meal that was tested for fumonisin failed–the government had to yank all of them from the food chain. Biotech crops, of course, are much less susceptible to this kind of contamination.
Biotech crops deserve a chance to succeed in Britain and the rest of Europe–and consumers there deserve a chance to decide whether they want to utilize these products. But, before they can be accepted or rejected in the marketplace, the bureaucrats need to step out of the way and let them make it to market.