Coexistence Depends on Neighbors

Capital Press wrote an editorial for their February 10 edition about the recent USDA decisions on alfalfa and sugar beets.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has spent the past several months playing Solomon, seeking to split the difference between farmers who want to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa and organic growers who say the crop puts their livelihood at risk. 

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently completed a court-ordered environmental impact statement on Roundup Ready alfalfa. APHIS found that genetically modified alfalfa is not a crop pest, meaning it poses no threat of contaminating other crops.

APHIS environmental impact statements normally offer two options for the secretary to consider: full deregulation of a crop, or continued regulation. This time, APHIS also proffered a third option that would have prohibited the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa by approximately 20 percent of U.S. farmers (mostly in the West), placed some restrictions on others, and no restrictions on the remaining growers.

Although Vilsack seemed to favor that option as a way to address the concerns of organic farmers, he rightly decided for full deregulation. Selecting the third option would have put USDA in conflict with the Obama administration’s often-stated policy that its regulations would be based on the best available science, as determined by the regulators, not political pressure brought by special interest groups.

The administration could not contend that its regulations will be based on science, and then ignore its own science. It could not carve out an exception for a relatively small group of organic alfalfa growers in this case, then later refuse to carve out exceptions for farmers and ranchers inconvenienced by environmental regulations in other cases.

Vilsack is correct when he says that farmers who grow genetically modified crops and those who don’t must find ways to co-exist.

While the federal government can play a role in encouraging cooperation and coexistence, it will achieve neither by establishing large geographic production zones in which some crops can be grown, and in which others are prohibited. Government regulation should not deny some farmers access to technology that the government has determined to be safe.

Organic growers, and conventional farmers who wish only to grow non-modified crops, have every right to make a buck by providing an unadulterated product to their buyers. Farmers also have the right to take the economic advantages offered by approved genetically modified crops. In the absence of any actual damage, the first group can’t exercise its rights by prohibiting the second from exercising its right. By the same token, the second group must take responsibility if its actions actually damage the other.

It should be something that good neighbors can work out among themselves, and less-than-cooperative neighbors can work out with the help of local courts and existing tort law.

Feeding a growing world

The recent decision by the US Department of Agriculture to permit the use of genetically-advanced alfalfa has provided a starting point for some online activists to spread misinformation about our nation’s food supply. It’s important to keep arguments and opinions grounded in fact and not fear. For example, one recent blog post suggests that the goal of those who seek to produce a safe and sustainable supply of food is, “…the extinction of human health on this planet…” While this charged rhetoric could play a role in driving traffic to the “Jen’s Whole Foods Cooking Blog” – it does nothing to educate the public about the facts.

The plain truth is that United States has the safest, most plentiful, most affordable food supply in the world. We also have the freedom (and the luxury) to choose food products that are branded with “organic,” “natural,” “locally grown,” and other process-verified labels.

But as food prices hit all-time high, now is not the time to discriminate against large-scale agriculture and literally take food out of people’s mouths. Consider that one of the primary drivers of the political unrest in the Arab World right now is a lack of food.

Less than one percent of American cropland is farmed organically. This is because organic practices can’t be implemented on a large enough scale to be considered “sustainable” as in “capable of maintaining their productivity” and “commercially competitive.” Organic practices, while virtuous, only provide food for a small percentage of consumers in developed nations.

While some in our country oppose technology, the simple fact is, we couldn’t feed the 300 million people in this country (and billions of others around the world) without modern agriculture practices. Indeed, biotech crops have been eaten by consumers for more than 15 years by billions of people.

The safety of biotech-derived food products has been thoroughly addressed by the international scientific community. Scientific authorities such as the National Research Council of the National Academies and the American Dietetic Association have concluded that foods with biotech-derived ingredients pose no more risk to people than any other foods. The National Research Council has also documented that, in addition to their safety, biotech crops contribute positively to farm sustainability in the United States, due to their positive environmental impact and economic benefits to farmers.

The debate around food production is always lively, and one that should be had. Consumers deserve information that’s based on scientific research so they can form opinions based on facts, not fear. And, if a technology is based in science, has been deemed safe, is environmentally-friendly, and helps farmers feed world’s growing population, why isn’t it worth pursuing?

If you want to read more on this issue, also read the article Let’s Restart the Green Revolution by the WSJ.

Let’s Restart the Green Revolution

The Wall Street Journal ran another editorial related to the coexistence issue, this one on the heels of last week’s USDA announcement to deregulate biotech alfalfa, and the pending announcement on sugar beets: 

FEBRUARY 2, 2011
By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.

Food prices are up, and output and productivity is falling behind. Not enough attention is being placed on regulation-induced stagnation.

The U.N.’s food price index has hit an all-time high. Food price hikes are widely understood to be a trigger of Egyptian upheavals in a country that imports a large share of its grain. Some blame Ben Bernanke. Some blame the Chinese for gobbling up too much of the world’s resources. Not enough attention is focused on the forces of stagnation loose in our world. Agricultural output has been falling behind population growth for almost two decades, and so has productivity.

In a small way, consider the Obama Agriculture Department’s decision last week to throw up its hands and finally permit the planting of bio-engineered alfalfa.

Alfalfa is the country’s fourth biggest crop. Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, modified to resist the weedkiller glyphosate (known by the trade name Roundup), have been in the market for a decade. Roundup Ready alfalfa raised no new issues, and yet in 2007 a court found a wholly new excuse to block planting. The USDA hadn’t produced an “environmental impact statement” to consider the economic impact on “organic” alfalfa growers.

To be sure, these growers were about to be inconvenienced. The bio-engineered trait would likely turn up in their crops. The standard of genetic purity they need to meet to satisfy their health-food customers would become that much harder.

But organic alfalfa represents about 1% of the market. Functionally, it is not different from bio-engineered alfalfa. Only the label is different. “Organic” alfalfa is fed to “organic” cows so consumers can splurge on milk that says “organic” on the label.

Shoppers have every right to indulge themselves in this fashion, and farmers to make a buck meeting their need. But should other farmers be stopped from planting a new seed just because it would complicate their niche marketing strategy? When the gauze of environmental correctness is peeled away, the battle here isn’t about much more than keeping organic alfalfa (also known as hay) cheap so organic dairy operators will be less tempted to substitute another feed.

A similar lawsuit threatens to halt planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets, which account for nearly half of U.S. sugar production. Perhaps the best answer, brutal as it might seem, was offered by a beet farmer in Oregon. He told NPR that since the engineered beet had been found to be safe, if a neighboring farmer has “organic” customers who prefer to believe otherwise, “it would be in his interest to educate them.”

It’s too bad when change upsets somebody’s livelihood, but these lawsuits seek to award organic farmers a civil right not to have their high-end, advertising-created market segment disturbed by industrial progress. Tom Vilsack, the Obama agriculture secretary, twisted and turned for weeks trying to reconcile the interests of organic and mass-market alfalfa farmers. In the end, he gave up and made the right decision: The organic farmers will have to adjust to a reality that has shifted a little bit against them.

The world needs more such decisions.

When some hear the word “regulation,” they imagine government rushing to the defense of consumers. In the real world, government serves up regulation to those who ask for it, which usually means organized interests seeking to block a competitive threat. This insight, by the way, originated with the left, with historians who went back and reconstructed how railroads in the U.S. concocted federal regulation to protect themselves from price competition. We should also notice that an astonishingly large part of the world has experienced an astonishing degree of stagnation for an astonishingly long time for exactly such reasons.

Greece has destabilized the entire European monetary system because its government borrowed more than it could afford. But the flipside is an economy that can’t afford its debts because it has been buried under anticompetitive rules, guilds and monopolistic privileges that make enterprise all but illegal.
A few hundred miles to the south, Egyptian protestors clamor for “freedom” when American television reporters are present. But “food” has been the chant across North Africa since before the beginning of the year, in Algeria, where several protestors were killed, and in Tunisia where an autocrat chose to make his exit.

These upheavals got their start in a telling way. A street vendor in central Tunisia set himself afire as a protest after being harassed by police for trying to make a living selling vegetables without a permit. The nature of the modern regulatory state everywhere is to be hard on those trying to do anything new. In this way at least, the quaking North African regimes have been thoroughly modern.

BIO Applauds USDA Decision to Deregulate Biotech Alfalfa

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced January 27th that it will fully deregulate a variety of biotech alfalfa (so called “Roundup Ready” or “RR” alfalfa, which is genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyophosate).  

This decision comes after a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS)conducted by USDA analyzed the potential environmental impact of RR alfalfa, and concluded that it is safe and does not represent a plant pest risk.  

Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), issued the following statement in response to the USDA announcement:  

“Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s decision is based on sound science and two decades of regulatory precedent.  Most importantly, this announcement restores the principle of farmer choice and allows growers to move forward with decisions about spring planting. 

“This action also supports President Obama’s pledge to support science-based decision-making and to steer away from policies that create barriers to economic growth.  In order to increase jobs, grow the industry and bring new products to market, the U.S. government’s regulatory review of biotech products needs to be more efficient. 

“The innovations brought about by agricultural biotechnology over the years allow growers to produce more food, feed and fiber on less land, often with significant environmental benefits.  Biotechnology can help crops thrive in drought-prone areas, can improve the nutrition content of foods, can grow alternative energy sources and can improve the lives of farmers and rural communities around the globe.  

“We welcome the Secretary’s commitment to expand U.S. agriculture, to keep pace with the latest scientific developments, and to take into account the needs of all producers and all types of production. We hope this will help pave the way for new technologies in the pipeline.”  

Unlocking the Economic Potential of Biotechnology

By 2050 population growth is expected to translate into a 70 percent increase in global demand for food. Add the estimated 27 percent decline in global productivity expected due to climate change, and it is clear that the demand for food production will become more critical in the coming decades.

Countries that depend on rain-fed agriculture will be especially vulnerable. Crop models for Sub-Saharan Africa have indicated that in 2050, average rice, wheat, and maize yields will decline by up to 14 percent, 22 percent, and 5 percent, respectively.

But there are rays of hope as we go towards 2050. The potential for agriculture in Africa is great. African countries can use their own experiences, indigenous knowledge and traditional methods, as well as the many talents of their people to adopt and adapt the best of what science has to offer in new technologies.

An essential lever for raising agricultural productivity is increasing investments in science and technology. An important lesson of the 1960s “Green Revolution” was that agricultural research could contribute decisively to spurring agricultural growth. Countries that simultaneously adopted the technology and increased their investments in agricultural research have maintained and even accelerated their rate of productivity and growth. New technologies – like biotechnology, conservation tillage, drip irrigation, integrated pest management, and new multiple-cropping practices – have improved the efficiency and productivity of agricultural resources over the last decade. Around the world some 14 million small and resource poor farmers in the developing world have already benefited from biotechnology crops.

In a 2008 survey of the global impact of biotech crops, the global net economic benefits to biotech crop farmers was $9.2 billion dollars, divided roughly equally between developed and developing countries. In South Africa, for example, biotech maize, soybean, and cotton are estimated to have enhanced farm incomes by $383 million dollars. In other areas of the world, the technology has changed the lives of farmers and raised incomes in a matter of years. In India, conservative estimates for small-scale farmers have indicated that the use of biotech cotton has increased yield by 31 percent, decreased insecticide application by 39 percent, and increased profitability by 88 percent, equivalent to $250 U.S. dollars per hectare. With the advent of enhanced tools, such as drought-resistant corn and disease-resistant bananas, those who have paved the way for the technology will reap even further economic benefits.

African researchers are already working on the next generation of biotech crops that will have a wider array of benefits for farmers, like drought tolerance, nitrogen-use efficiency, and salt tolerance to help address shifting environments due to climate change. But second generation biotech crops will go beyond benefits to the farmer. Work is underway in crops, like cassava and rice, to increase their vitamin, mineral, and protein content, benefitting the consumer as well.

So we know what technology can do. The question is what has been keeping it out of the hands of those who could benefit from it? In many cases misinformation has made people fear a process and its products. However, the real obstacle is the lack of functioning regulatory systems that would allow countries to make their own decisions about the safety of these products. Biotechnology-produced crops have been assessed for safety in all regions of the world – from the European Union to Japan to Brazil to Burkina Faso. Not to adopt biotechnology because of unfounded claims after more than 15 years of safe use and proven benefits would be to unnecessarily narrow an African farmer’s agricultural potential. It is one of the tools, which, when paired with the right incentives, can enable Africa’s farmers and businesses to close the productivity gap.

But those incentives must have political will behind them. Technology alone is not the answer. To make use of the potential of biotechnology, science-based regulatory systems must be established. I call upon those who have the ability to do so to put in place such sound policies, based on science, and to take full advantage of what investment in agricultural science and technology can do for African farmers and economies.

Several African countries have already adopted the policies and regulatory frameworks needed to support the responsible and safe use of biotechnology. I applaud their courage and foresight to move forward. With increased political will, strong research support, and biosafety policies and regulations that empower the use of the technology, African countries can revolutionize their agricultural sector. What’s more, they can squarely look those in the eye who maintain that crop technology leads to lost markets, and ask them to explain why the expanding economies of the world are exactly those that are developing and using biotechnology.

To those who fear monopolies and multinational ownership of the food supply, I say promote competition, don’t stifle innovation. It is clear that economic growth will be achieved by those countries that are innovators in agriculture and that take the leap of faith needed to invest in their farmers, which is an investment in their future.

Congressional Leaders Warn USDA on GE Alfalfa Proposal

U.S. Representative Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting the department to return to a science based regulatory system for agriculture biotechnology and to deregulate without conditions genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa.

In the letter, the members point out that while science strongly supports the safety of GE alfalfa, USDA’s actions politicize the regulatory process and could set a harmful precedent for open pollinated crops in the future:

January 19, 2011

The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:

Recently, the Department convened a forum of stakeholders to discuss alfalfa co-existence. The issue has generated a significant amount of controversy and emotion with implications for the future of agricultural biotechnology in the United States and around the world. Since 1996, the innovation and adoption of agricultural biotechnology has not only brought significant environmental benefits, it has likewise contributed to higher yields, greater production, and higher profitability for U.S. farmers. Each year, new products are brought to market under the oversight of a science based regulatory process that has no equal in the world. This “Coordinated Framework” between the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) combines each agency’s professionalism and expertise.

The forum followed the release of a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates the potential environmental effects of deregulating genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. While the final EIS concluded that GE Alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, it nonetheless contained a significant departure from existing policy since it includes a third option to grant non-regulated status to the product with geographic restrictions and isolation distances. These options had not previously been published in either the draft or final Environmental Assessment nor the draft EIS. This is the first time these measures would be included in a regulatory decision where the crop did not pose a plant pest or health risk. The solitary reason for the “conditions” would be to interfere in planting decisions based on the risk of economic harm due to pollen drift.

As you acknowledge, the science strongly supports the safety of GE alfalfa. The National Environmental Policy Act was specifically written to address the potential impacts of regulatory decisions on the environment. The Act is neither designed nor well suited to manage or determine the economic relationships in the agriculture sector. The third alternative steps beyond the scope of the Act and is a poor substitute for existing options available for farmers to amicably resolve the concerns regarding co-existence of agriculture biotechnology, conventional and organic crops.

The proposed third alternative is equally troubling due to the precedent it will set for open pollinated crops in the future. For example, with 86 percent of the corn crop and 93 percent of cotton planted to biotech varieties last year, the decisions made in the context of alfalfa will be felt across the country. Further, the implications of such decisions could potentially hinder the future development of varieties necessary to address the growing needs to produce more food, fiber and fuel on the same amount of land with fewer inputs.

It is unfortunate that those critical of the technology have decided to litigate and as you rightly point out that courts may unwisely interfere in normal commerce. However, the alternative you propose and include in the EIS is equally disturbing since it politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority and indeed Congress’ intent in the Plant Protection Act (PPA). The PPA requires the Secretary to make a scientific determination if the product under review is a plant pest (7 U.S.C. 7711(c)(3)). If the final decision is that the product is not a plant pest, nor would the movement of the product in question impose the risk of dissemination of a plant pest, then USDA has no authority to impose further restrictions (7 U.S.C. 7712(a)).

We support a conversation between those supportive and critical of agriculture biotechnology. However, suggestions that aspects of the conversation thus far have been taking place with the regulated entity under duress by the regulator are of equal concern. Decisions should be based on science with other factors more appropriately considered in the market place. Our government fought diligently to preserve the integrity of science based decision making in the World Trade Organization and the success in that body should not be so casually set aside.

We appreciate your attention to our concerns and look forward working with you on this important issue.

Very truly yours,

U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss
U.S. Senator Pat Roberts
U.S. Representative Frank Lucas

“Nuisance Litigation” Threatens Farmer Progress

John Block, former Secretary of Agriculture and now Senior Policy Advisor for Olsson, Frank, and Weeda, released a radio commentary late last week dealing with USDA’s proposed “compromise” on alfalfa deregulation in effort to achieve enhanced coexistence among farmers:  

Hello everybody out there in farm country. This radio commentary is brought to you by the Renewable Fuels Association, Wal-Mart Stores, Monsanto, and John Deere. They are all friends, supporters, and allies of a healthy farm economy and prosperous rural America. Thank you. 

And now for today’s commentary – 

I remember as a boy hoeing weeds in our corn fields and pulling weeds in the bean fields. I recall the plant damage that our corn suffered from root worms and corn borer. Along came biotechnology and genetically engineered seeds. The weeds are gone and the corn stands straight and strong. 

We have been successfully utilizing this remarkable technology to increase our farming efficiency and productivity for nearly 20 years. We have 60 million acres of GE corn and soybeans in the United States. 

Environmental groups can’t stand to see modern agriculture prosper. They would like for us to farm as we did when I was a boy. 

Two lawsuits threaten our industry – beets and alfalfa, and that’s just the beginning. The Center for Food Safety sued USDA back in 2006 to stop the distribution of a Roundup Ready alfalfa. After all these years with no hint of harm from GE crops, no danger to humans or livestock, the USDA appears to be unwilling to issue a stamp of approval for Roundup Ready alfalfa. This nuisance litigation has USDA frozen in place. Secretary Vilsack seems to be trying to pacify the anti-biotech activist crowd by suggesting that perhaps there could be a minimum planting distance between GE alfalfa and organic alfalfa. 

This is the “camel’s nose under the tent.” Can you just imagine all of the tiny organic gardens all over the country that could threaten all of our GE crops? Not just alfalfa or sugar beets but corn, soy bean, cotton, on and on. The regulatory result could be devastating. 

The anti-biotech crowd refuses to acknowledge the scientifically proven safety of biotech crops. They don’t care. They don’t care if our food output could be cut by 1/3 or more. They ignore the inevitable surge in the cost of food and global starvation that could occur. 

Write, call, E-mail your Congressmen and your State Ag Commissioner, unless you want to go back to farming as I did as a boy. 

In closing, I would encourage you to access my website which archives my radio commentaries dating back 10 years and will go back 20 years when complete. Check on what I said back then. Go to www.johnblockreports.com.