Regulating Interference


That’s how a lot of farmers are reacting to last week’s decision by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to deregulate GM alfalfa: He came up with the right answer, but the way he got there was all wrong.

So although he deserves partial credit, this was no A+ performance.

The good news is that farmers who choose to plant genetically enhanced alfalfa won’t have to put up with burdensome federal regulations that try to dictate what they can grow and where they can grow it. Instead, USDA has acknowledged the truth of science: GM alfalfa, as Vilsack put it during a press conference, “is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa.”

Alfalfa growers now will enjoy access to a 21st-century technology. Consumers will benefit in all sorts of ways, from food that costs less to milk that tastes better.

The problem is that Vilsack let politics hijack the regulatory process. He very nearly capitulated to a small group of outspoken activists who think that the retrograde methods of organic farming should take precedence over just about every other form of agriculture, including highly productive methods that are essential if we’re serious about keeping people fed and food prices in check. These militants insisted that Washington enforce their unreasonable demands through job-killing and innovation-stifling rules of the very sort that the Obama administration recently has claimed to disavow.

Vilsack said that he wanted to create a way for GM alfalfa farmers and non-GM alfalfa farmers to coexist without resorting to litigation. This was bizarre because farmers who grow different kinds of the same crop already know how to coexist without interference from lawyers or bureaucrats.

Almost every winter, I get calls from neighbors who ask what type of corn I’m planning to grow in fields next to theirs. They aren’t nosy–they’re just trying to make decisions about where to put their own seed corn. I’ve grown alfalfa in the past and I’m certain that neighbors who plant this crop can work together without any help from federal overseers.

If Vilsack had accepted the junk-science claims of activists who say that biotech crops threaten to “contaminate” organic fields, he would have established the principle that GM crops are always suspect, even when there’s no evidence to suggest that they should cause any concern. This would not have decreased litigation, as Vilsack argued. Instead, it would have encouraged organic farmers to sue their non-organic competition. Legislators, regulators and judges would be wise to recognize statutorily that pollen flow is a force of nature, not the opportunity for frivolous legal action.

Preventing unnecessary lawsuits is important, but it’s hardly the only issue at stake. When it comes to biotechnology, the world is watching us. The United States should convince other nations to let their farmers use the tools of modern science. On a humanitarian level, we must encourage developing countries to adopt practices that thwart hunger and malnutrition. On an economic level, we must persuade our trading partners that the food Americans produce is safe to purchase and eat.

One thing is certain: If our own USDA begins to express unscientific fears about biotech, so will people in other countries.

Here at home, the battle over biotechnology will rage on. Because Vilsack revealed himself as susceptible to political pressure from special interest groups, farmers will have to keep a close eye on USDA and a series of upcoming decisions. Vilsack’s agency soon will rule on GM sugar beets and a type of GM corn used in biofuels. It can choose to let farmers grow safe and healthy crops approved through a science-based regulatory system–or it can appease those who would pervert the institutions we’ve built.

The enemies of biotechnology won’t quit. They haven’t even given up on alfalfa. They’re already threatening more litigation: “All farmers should be on notice that we will be suing again,” warned one of them, according to AgriPulse.

Now they’ll have to allege that the USDA’s 47-month, 2,300-page environmental impact statement on GM alfalfa is not adequately comprehensive.

Our first line of defense should be to insist that they show their work.

John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois. He serves as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology.

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck operates a corn and soybean farm in western Champaign County, Illinois. He served on the Global Farmer Network Board of Directors, and is a former Chair. John currently serves as Chairman and President of the GROWMARK Board of Directors-a farm supply and marketing cooperative that operates principally in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ontario.

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