I’m referring to the kind of hay fever that makes some people go a little nutty–a little haywire, you might say–around biotechnology.
We saw a few of the symptoms on display at the U.S. Supreme Court last week, during oral arguments in a case involving alfalfa–a forage crop commonly known as hay, appropriately enough. Traces are also beginning to turn up inside Washington’s maze of regulatory agencies. Left untreated, these frivolous lawsuits and bureaucratic bottlenecks hold the potential to stifle agricultural innovation and threaten U.S. food security.
We can’t let that happen–not if we want to keep grocery-store prices in check, boost American exports, and develop the capacity to feed a growing world.
A few years ago, anti-biotech groups realized that they weren’t going to defeat GM crops through scientific research or conventional political channels. So they hired lawyers and started to sue. Their goal is to delay or deny new GM crops from regulatory acceptance and commercial adoption.
Although extensive scientific research has proven biotech crops to be perfectly safe, a lawsuit against GM alfalfa landed before the Supreme Court last week. The good news is that the justices “sharply questioned” a lower court’s injunction on GM alfalfa and “sounded skeptical” of plaintiff claims, according to wire service reports on the oral arguments.
Yet as anybody who studies the Supreme Court will tell you, the content of an oral argument does not necessarily foreshadow the substance of an actual ruling. The justices probably will rule on the alfalfa case by June.
The future of agricultural biotechnology may hang in the balance. With a bad decision, cutting-edge crops will become newly vulnerable to ideological attacks through the legal system. These attacks won’t improve our health–nobody has ever shown biotech crops to be anything other than perfectly safe–but they would make it much more expensive to bring new types of crops to market. The risks would provide a strong incentive for investors to put their money into something other than agriculture.
Even with a favorable ruling, other threats loom. Today, federal regulators take almost 1,200 days to review new types of GM crops–twice as long as they did just two years ago, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization. In 2009, the Department of Agriculture approved only three new biotech crop products, down from an average of five per year a decade ago.
Our international competitors aren’t sitting on their duffs. “The slowdown comes as regulators in rising agricultural powers such as Brazil, Argentina, and China are showing more enthusiasm for genetically modified crops,” reported the Wall Street Journal last week. Last year, Brazil approved nine types of GM crops, up from five in 2008.
So while we’re slowing down, they’re speeding up.
The solution is not to cut corners. We want a world-class regulatory system that makes sure new GM crops merit approval. At the same time, we must prevent the enemies of biotechnology from turning the approval process against us. They would use regulations not to protect farmers and consumers, but to strangle an entire industry. This is what has happened in the European Union, where an insensible and anti-scientific opposition to biotechnology has made European farmers envious of their peers in other countries who now enjoy access to several types of genetically enhanced crops.
Farmers, consumers, and investors need rules that they can count on. Regulations must guarantee our safety and also function at a level of sophistication and objectivity that doom special-interest attacks.
The federal government may in fact need more regulators: USDA has asked Congress to boost its biotech oversight budget by 46 percent, to $19 million. I’m rarely an advocate of bigger government, but this sounds like a wise expenditure, especially if it helps farmers gain faster access to drought-tolerant corn and other promising products.
Every day, biotechnology is a more important part of modern life. Our government’s priorities must keep up with the times.
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)