Unfortunately, farmers in Vermont will suffer from long-lasting troubles if the state legislature resolves to pass a harmful bill that restricts access to vital new technologies.
The so-called “Farmer Protection Act,” which the Vermont House may take up as early as next week, does absolutely nothing to protect farmers. Instead, it is a backdoor attempt to prevent them from joining the biotech revolution that is improving agricultural practices all over the world.
Despite the fear-mongering tactics of its enemies, biotechnology on the farm is no cause for alarm. Groups ranging from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to the National Academy of Sciences here in the United States have endorsed its adoption. They recognize that these crops lower costs and increase yields for farmers as well as protect the environment and make it possible for small-time growers to keep planting (the majority of biotech farmers live in the developing world).
Most important of all, however, is this: Biotech crops are perfectly safe. They have never caused a single person anywhere to sneeze, let alone become sick. For all practical purposes, they are no different from conventional crops.
And they’ve also made us rethink the meaning of “conventional.” In 2005, biotechnology passed an important milestone as an unknown farmer planted and harvested the world’s one billionth acre of gene-enhanced crops. Today, most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States have been genetically improved to fight off harmful bugs and weeds. It might be said that biotech is the new conventional. It’s progressive and ordinary at the same time.
Like farmers all over America, farmers in Vermont are embracing biotechnology because it makes sense both for them and for consumers. The anti-biotech legislation in Montpelier, however, aims to deny farmers the freedom to choose biotech.
The proposed law would hold seed companies liable if biotech pollen winds up in fields where it is not intended. This is just plain silly: It’s like those cities that think they can crack down on violence by suing gun companies rather than arresting actual criminals. (When it comes to fighting crime, I’d prefer to see fewer lawyers in court and more cops on the beat.)
Farms don’t exist in hermetically-sealed environments–they’re in the wide-open outdoors, and sometimes pollen from one field makes it into another. That’s what nature intended pollen to do: float from place to place, allowing plant species to spread and prosper. To think otherwise is the ultimate in anti-environmentalism because it refuses to understand or respect the ways of nature.
We already take common-sense steps to keep pollen drift to a minimum. Farmers use trees to create buffers and windbreaks. Neighboring farms make sure they know who is planting what as well as when and where they’re planting it. Farmers can address the matter of pollen drift without filing lawsuits or running to politicians for help.
Ultimately, however, we must recognize that there’s no such thing as crop purity–and that some amount of pollen drift inevitably will occur. The one thing we must not do is panic. After all, there’s no reason to be afraid of biotechnology. Moreover, no organic farmer has ever lost his or her USDA certification because of pollen drift.
If we’re going to become irrationally obsessed with tiny amounts of biotech pollen wafting into non-biotech fields, then turnabout is fair play. Non-biotech fields are much more susceptible to parasitic weeds. These unwelcome plants absorb water and nutrients that help crops stay healthy and reach their potential. They are a scourge to farmers everywhere.
Should there be a law to protect biotech farmers from the weed pressure they face if they happen to live near an organic farmer who doesn’t use modern pesticides? Weeds pollinate; their pollen drifts. Maybe someone should propose a “Biotech Farmer Protection Act.”
This is absurd, of course. Farmers should have the freedom to choose their own methods, whether they’re organic or biotech or something else. But if the anti-biotech crowd has its way in Vermont, watch for tit-for-tat politics to arrive in Montpelier. This is certainly not in the interests of farmers, no matter what they plant. It’s not in the interests of anybody, really–except maybe for lawyers.
That’s one New Year’s resolution I think we all can agree on: Let’s have more crops and fewer lawsuits.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org) a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.