The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service did a huge disservice to science, wildlife and modern agriculture last month, when it banned the planting of genetically modified crops in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
“We make this decision based on a precautionary approach to our wildlife management practices,” wrote James Kurth, head of the refuge system, on July 17, according to the Associated Press.
Did you catch the key word? It’s one of the most loaded terms in the vocabulary of regulation: “precautionary.”
On the face of it, “precautionary” sounds reasonable. While crossing the street, it makes sense to take a “precautionary approach.” Better safe than sorry.
In the jargon of government, however, “precautionary” carries a special meaning. When bureaucrats speak of a “precautionary approach”—or the “precautionary principle,” which is a more common way to put it—they’re usually trying to justify the suppression of a new idea or technology as too hazardous.
We all want sensible regulations, of course. Yet we also know that regulations are often insensible, thwarting the interests of the public they’re supposed to serve. Have you ever filled out a pointless form? Or wondered if it’s a crime to remove a mattress tag? And don’t get me started on the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to control the amount of dust that farmers kick up as they drive their tractors.
For all of these inconveniences, however, the United States has avoided the predicament of Europe, where the “precautionary principle” has become a powerful force to strangle innovation. This is why Europe remains so far behind the United States, Canada, Brazil and many other countries in the area of agricultural biotechnology. Over there, obsolete regulations continue to oppose new technologies, even though the safety of GM foods is settled science.
Mr. Kurth’s “precautionary approach” raises an alarm: He’s not speaking the language of science or common sense, but rather adopting a bad phrase that has bedeviled Europe.
We don’t need it here. Our trade negotiators don’t need it either. Banning GM crops in certain areas is no way to persuade China, Japan, and other countries to accept our food exports.
It may seem odd that the chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System should feel the need to say anything at all about farming. Crops aren’t “wildlife” and a cultivated field is no “refuge.”
Farmers plant GM crops in some wildlife refuges with a specific purpose: They are better for the animals and the environment. The stronger stalks and larger corn ears provide more food for the wildlife during the deep snows of winter.
Yet Kurth has introduced a new prejudice into America’s web of farming regulations. He has granted the presumption that GM crops are too novel, too mysterious, and too risky to allow their use in some of the country’s most pristine spaces. He can cite no actual science to back up his bias—but then, the “precautionary approach” never has been about science. It’s about emotion defeating reason and fear trumping evidence.
If Kurth believes that GM crops pose a threat, he should have the gumption to say so plainly and present his evidence—and not hide behind words like “precautionary.”
The evidence in support of the health and safety of GM crops is in fact overwhelming. That’s why the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences—among many other groups—have supported the spread of biotechnology in agriculture.
Let me introduce another piece of evidence, from the very system that Kurth oversees: the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, near Des Moines in my home state of Iowa. It’s the country’s largest recreation of a tallgrass prairie ecosystem—thousands of acres that look as they did when settlers arrived in the 19th century, complete with a thriving herd of buffalo.
This wildlife refuge thrives alongside biotechnology. In some areas, farmers grow GM corn and soybeans on one side of the road while badgers, elk, and pheasants wander around the other. The crops and animals coexist, in a model we should admire and emulate rather than doubt and dread.
The solution is simple: Let’s throw precaution to the wind.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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