An Unnecessary Technology Crossroads
Jan 26, 2011
President Obama says he wants to wipe out burdensome federal regulations. So why is a member of his cabinet on the verge of forcing new rules on farmers that would raise food prices, destroy jobs, and threaten scientific innovation?
Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appeared before a Congressional committee and tried to explain a plan to limit the freedom of farmers who choose to plant GM crops. “We are also at a crossroads with the Department’s ability to handle the demands of industry and producers,” he testified.
Actually, it’s Vilsack himself who is at a crossroads. He has determined he must decide between farmers who want to use 21st-century technologies to produce enough food for a growing world and those who prefer to focus on a niche market of organic products for high-end consumers.
That’s a false choice. If his boss in the White House means what he says about regulation, this shouldn’t be a choice at all.
Alfalfa lies at the heart of the controversy--not the Our Gang character with the cowlick hair that pointed straight up, but the forage crop that helps dairy cows keep their milk pure and inexpensive.
Just as modern science has transformed the farming of corn and soybeans--the vast majority of U.S. corn and soybean growers select biotech varieties--so has it transformed the farming of alfalfa. GM alfalfa produces a weed-free harvest. Dairy farmers need access to weed-free alfalfa to insure the milk produced by their cows tastes better and grocery-store prices remain reasonable.
There’s a separate market for expensive organic products--and now the special interests behind it are insisting that they can’t coexist with biotechnology. They’re lobbying the Department of Agriculture to impose special restrictions on GM alfalfa. Under Vilsack, the federal government may ignore science and tell farmers where they can and cannot grow GM crops.
This is outrageous. If Vilsack proceeds, he will fail to perform what may be his most essential role: serving as a high-profile advocate for American agriculture. He must assure consumers that GM alfalfa and other biotech crops are indispensable tools in the fight to keep food prices low and feed the world.
GM crops are one of the most vetted technological products in history. GM alfalfa passed all the regulatory tests. They have never hurt a human being, animal or the environment. If Vilsack starts to regulate against them, however, he will effectively surrender to the propaganda campaigns of anti-biotech political activists. He has a responsibility to say what he knows is true: Biotech crops are safe.
Another important difference, of course, is cost: Organic production is much less efficient than conventional modes. This inefficiency is what leads to premium prices in grocery stores.
If Vilsack refuses to speak these truths, then he is derelict in his duty as Secretary of Agriculture.
He’s also at conflict with the latest commitments of his own administration. “When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them,” promised President Obama in the State of the Union address on Tuesday. The president went even further in the Wall Street Journal last week, when he warned of regulations that fall “out of balance, placing unreasonable burdens on business--burdens that have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs.”
The president went on to describe the absurdity of treating the artificial sweetener saccharin as a dangerous chemical. “If it goes in your coffee, it is not hazardous waste,” he wrote. “The EPA wisely eliminated this rule last month.”
Ironically, the enemies of biotech alfalfa warn about “contamination” of the food supply. But it’s like the president says: If it goes in your milk, it is not hazardous waste.
First Lady Michelle Obama is doing her best to educate Americans about food and nutrition. Her husband says that he would like to ease the regulatory burden that Washington places on the rest of the country.
Why is Tom Vilsack headed in a completely different direction?
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over 20 years. Mr. Horan volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member. www.truthabouttrade.org