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October 01, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 17)

No Frost Fix Thanks to Feds

Crop Damage Due to Freezing Could Be Mitigated If Not for Overzealous Regulators

  • It is noteworthy that experiments using bacteria with identical traits but constructed with older, cruder techniques require no governmental review of any kind. When tested on less than 10 acres, nonengineered bacteria and chemical pesticides are completely exempt from regulation. Moreover, there is no government regulation of the use of vast quantities of the ice-plus organisms (which contain the ice-nucleation protein) commonly blown into the air during snow-making at ski resorts.

    Although the ice-minus bacteria proved safe and effective at preventing frost damage in field trials, further research and commercialization were discouraged by the combination of onerous government regulation, the inflated expense of doing the experiments, and the prospect of huge downstream costs of pesticide registration. As a result, the product was never commercialized, and plants cultivated for food and fiber throughout much of the nation remain vulnerable to frost damage. We have the EPA to thank for farmers’ livelihoods in jeopardy, jobs lost, and inflated produce prices for consumers.

    That last point illustrates the ripple effect—in this case the public health impact—of such government actions: Higher prices for fresh fruits and vegetables, the demand for which is elastic, reduces consumption, so consumers get less of the antioxidant, vitamin, and high-fiber benefits that these products afford.

    EPA’s flawed approaches to biotechnology regulation, which date from the 1980s, are ancient history, but there is a modern-day angle. Lynn Goldman, the EPA’s chief pesticide regulator during the Clinton administration, defended and publicly misrepresented her agency’s policies toward biotechnology.

    Responding to an article in Science, she wrote in a letter to the same journal that it was inaccurate to contend that the EPA “regulates or singles out for special treatment products because they are created using” genetic engineering; she remonstrated that “EPA’s activities reassure the public concerning biotechnology products.” 

    Goldman was wrong on both counts. As noted above, the use of genetic engineering techniques for anything that falls within the regulatory definition of a “pesticide”—even when that definition is tortured to claim jurisdiction—triggers case-by-case review, which is not necessary for small-scale field trials for other pesticides, regardless of risk.

    As to reassuring the public, a more defensible view of biotechnology regulation was expressed by the president of the consumer-advocacy group Consumer Alert: “For obvious reasons, the consumer views the technologies that are most regulated to be the least safe ones. Heavy involvement by government, no matter how well intended, inevitably sends the wrong signals. Rather than ensuring confidence, it raises suspicion and doubt.”

    Well, Goldman, who never met a regulation she didn’t like, is back in government as an Obama political appointee, this time as a senior science advisor at the FDA. Yet another example of the Washington tradition that no bad deed goes unrewarded.

    Another nexus of history and current events is that Jeremy Rifkin, antibiotechnology fanatic, was recently on the talk-radio circuit touting a new book. It was Rifkin’s lawsuit that first delayed the field trials of the ice-minus bacteria almost 30 years ago and offered a foretaste of the mindless, irresponsible activism to come.

    The EPA’s discouragement of development of a product that can prevent or mitigate frost damage is yet another example of the actions of regulators creating a situation in which everyone loses. When will they rethink their policies and let science and common sense show the way?  Probably not before hell freezes over.

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