That’s roughly what has happened to farmers who plant alfalfa. Fortunately, the Supreme Court now has an opportunity to undo this costly mess.
I’ll be the first to admit that growing alfalfa isn’t as glamorous as flipping through the air on a snowboard. Really, it’s not.
Yet farmers have lost an incredible product, thanks to a collection of special-interest groups, trial lawyers, and activist judges who have conspired to limit access to a promising technology.
Americans everywhere are paying a price, even if they don’t realize it.
Several years ago, plant scientists developed Roundup Ready alfalfa, a genetically enhanced form of this staple forage crop. The plant was a gold-medal performer: It delivered a better product at a lower cost. GM alfalfa even helped the environment because it eliminated the need for certain herbicides and encouraged practices that fight soil erosion.
But it wasn’t on the market for long. Just as satisfied farmers were discovering the huge advantages of GM alfalfa, anti-biotech organizations lawyered up, filed a lawsuit, and found a court that was willing to block further planting. Since 2007, farmers haven’t been allowed to grow GM alfalfa.
The plaintiffs claimed that GM alfalfa had not jumped through enough regulatory hoops. This was nonsense: The Department of Agriculture already had analyzed and approved GM alfalfa. Government agencies in Canada, Japan, and South Korea also have signed off on the crop.
What’s more, after the seeds were commercialized, GM alfalfa went through two full growing seasons. Nobody presented a shred of evidence to show that these plants were anything but a boon to farmers and consumers.
A U.S. District Court in California nevertheless intervened. It ordered the federal government to run more tests and issued an injunction that prevented commercial plantings.
So GM alfalfa went through a new round of evaluations–and USDA determined, once again, that there’s no reason why farmers shouldn’t enjoy the freedom to grow this remarkable crop. As long as GM alfalfa remains tied up in legal red tape, however, neither farmers nor consumers will enjoy its benefits.
The case now sits before the Supreme Court. A good ruling not only would endorse USDA’s finding, but also would insist that in the future, plaintiffs must present scientific evidence of a threat before they can make regulators reopen closed cases.
American agriculture is a story of modernization. Hybrid seeds, efficient fertilization, reliable tractors, affordable fuel, and better irrigation have lifted rural areas out of poverty. They have allowed farmers to achieve food security for the United States and also to export much of what they grow. If activists had fought these improvements with the zeal that they now bring to their legal assaults on biotechnology, farmers would be poorer and food would be more expensive.
Biotechnology is merely the latest in a long line of innovations–one whose remarkable potential is both scientifically proven and substantially unrealized. Taking full advantage of what it offers will require sensible regulations, not kowtowing to special-interest groups that have an ideological and anti-scientific hatred of biotechnology.
GM alfalfa is unrivalled in its ability to fight weeds. It requires fewer chemical sprays and generates more tons per acre. It results in a higher-quality product because improved weed control means less contamination. Too much thistle and bindweed can make animals sick. If crop farmers can grow GM alfalfa, then dairy farmers will enjoy an option that allows them not to worry about the presence of weeds in their hay bales.
The court case is about far more than alfalfa. If anti-biotech activists can get an injunction against safe products whenever they feel like it, without having to show any evidence of harm, they’ll throw a monkey wrench into agricultural innovation. Their mischief will meddle with everything we plant and harvest.
For farmers, no freedom is more fundamental than the right to choose what they grow. Mine, like most farms today is a legacy business so believe me, I am responsible for sensible decisions. Sensible regulations are appropriate, but not insensible attacks on a system that has made American agriculture the envy of the world.
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org)