I have no idea how to say that in Latin, but I do know that the future of agriculture in the Tarheel State may make many traditional farming practices as obsolete as the dead language of the Romans.
That’s happening around the world, as farmers adopt biotechnology because it increases their yields and helps the environment. Although biotech crops were introduced for commercial use just a decade ago, somewhere this spring a farmer planted the world’s one-billionth acre of genetically enhanced crops. Biotechnology is rapidly becoming the ‘new conventional’.
North Carolina is on the cutting edge of this transformation. Today, North Carolina farmers routinely plant 3 million acres of biotech enhanced cotton, corn and soybeans to fight crop loss from pests and weeds. Even further in the vanguard are a test plot in Washington County and a legislative effort in Raleigh to protect farmers from anti-biotech activism.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted permits for the biotechnology company Ventria to plant 75 acres of government-regulated biotech rice in Washington County. The crop has been enhanced to include special proteins that occur naturally in mother’s milk and saliva. If scientists and regulators like what they see, the rice eventually could find multiple uses – including supplying the ingredients for the sports drinks that basketball player’s sip during Duke-N.C. games.
There are many other possible applications. The rice also could boost the nutrition found in baby formula and help combat the deadly diarrhea wracking infants in developing countries.
The bottom line is that this is an exciting new technology with both commercial and humanitarian uses. We should all hope that those 75 acres in Washington County meet or exceed expectations, both for the sake of North Carolina farmers as well as the consumers around the world who will benefit from what they might grow.
Unfortunately, biotechnology has its enemies and antagonists. Although they’ve experienced some success in Europe (sparking a major trade dispute between the EU and most of the rest of the world), they haven’t achieved much in the United States.
Their failures haven’t come from a lack of effort, however–and they’ve established a worrisome beachhead here in California, where several counties and localities have banned biotech crops. The activists have lost more battles than they’ve won, but they’ve also enjoyed enough success to remain encouraged.
The bad news is they may begin to target new places, such as Washington County. The good news is that North Carolina has been warned.
That’s why the bill in Raleigh is so important. It will give the state board of agriculture the sole authority to regulate and ban plants–meaning that North Carolinians will still have the regulatory protections they want but that localities won’t become vulnerable to anti-biotech activism, as they have in California.
This law is an important precaution–a step worth taking now. One organization, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration, has already voiced objections to the regulated test plot. The supporters of biotechnology should answer their concerns, but also remain aware of the fact that activists in California and elsewhere often ignore scientific evidence that the broader public accepts.
North Carolina farmers themselves–even those who have no plans to grow biotech crops–are proving to be quite sensible about Washington County’s rice. Organic growers sometimes worry that genetically enhanced pollen will enter their fields, but the rice plot almost certainly won’t have this effect because the regulators and breeders watching over it have established aggressive controls to contain pollen.
“It’s a virtual impossibility,” said Wade Hubers, on the possibility that the biotech rice will find its way into his fields, in an interview with the Winston-Salem Journal. Hubers is an organic farmer who plants corn and soybeans 12 miles away from the biotech rice.
So maybe that old motto should stay the same: North Carolina really is friendly to biotechnology, rather than just seeming so. This will be especially true if Raleigh gives its farmers an additional safeguard against those who want to halt innovation.
Ted Sheely raises cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios and garlic in the San Joaquin Valley and lives in Lemoore, California. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology, a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, Iowa, formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology