The USDA of Europe
May 17, 2013
By Tim Burrack: Arlington, Iowa
When Americans speculate that the United States is "becoming Europe," we don’t mean that our art museums are getting a lot better.
Instead, we worry about the encroachments of a growing bureaucracy that is smothering freedom and innovation.
Last Friday, in an unexpected announcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took an unfortunate step toward Europeanization when it delayed the approval of two crops that will help farmers control weeds and produce more food. The decision didn’t receive much immediate attention outside the agricultural press, but it sent a troubling signal about the future of farm technology that should concern all Americans.
At the heart of the controversy lie a couple of time-tested herbicides: dicamba and 2,4-D. Scientists have figured out a way for staple crops such as corn, soybeans, and cotton to resist these chemicals, which means that farmers can control weeds without hurting the plants they’re trying to grow.
This is hardly a radical development. As the USDA acknowledged last week, these herbicides "have been safely and widely used across the country since the 1960s." My father was using 2,4-D even before that, in the 1950s. It was the first herbicide he ever applied to his fields. It’s also one of the top ingredients in the weed-and-feed formulas that Americans apply to their lawns and gardens.
So why the sudden delay? Environmentalists complained that the introduction of these new crops will lead to the overuse of the two herbicides. This claim is at best unproven. Farmers certainly must pay attention to the development of herbicide resistance in weeds, but the answer to this problem is the advent of new technologies that keep us one step ahead of weed adaptations.
In other words, these new crops are part of the solution—and keeping safe products away from farmers just makes it harder for us to grow the food our country needs.
Farmers rely on effective methods of crop protection, including weed control. With them, we can grow more food on less land—and thereby reduce the pressure to convert wilderness into farmland. Environmentalists ought to join farmers in search of new conservation technologies, not oppose us in their safe implementation.
Of greater concern to me is the fact that the Center for Food Safety had threatened to sue the USDA if it didn’t perform an environmental impact study on its own initiative. These traits had already been under review by USDA for 3 years with no evidence of potential harm to humans or the environment. Using litigation to slow down or ban a safe product should concern all of us!
Farmers lose either way. The USDA’s bad decision means that these new crops won’t go on the market and be available to me and other farmers next year, as previously planned. Now we’ll have to wait until 2015 at the soonest. This postponement may not sound like much, but it contributes to a disturbing trend. In the United States, it’s becoming harder and harder to introduce new agricultural technologies.
America has led the world in boosting crop yields. Food is safer, more abundant, and more affordable than ever before. Rather than cheering on our ingenuity, however, bureaucrats increasingly want to hold it back.
We’re watching a major slowdown in new crop approvals. We’ve gone from leading to it now taking the United States three times as long as Argentina and Brazil to approve a new technology. The U.S. is going backwards while Brazil and Argentina are moving forward by effectively using internationally agreed upon science-based regulations. Innovation in agriculture technology has always has been one of the American farmer’s great advantages over his food-producing competitors. Now we’re handing it away, and for no good reason.
We need to return to sensible, science-based regulations—not shifting sands and unpredictable decrees from bureaucrats.
Europe already has traveled far down this fateful path. Its embrace of the "precautionary principle" has made it all but impossible to approve agricultural innovations, stifling the continent’s biotech industry. European farmers envy Americans, who can plant genetically modified crops. USDA’s decision on herbicide-resistant plants suggests that they may not be so envious in the future.
Earlier this year, the British writer Samuel Gregg published "Becoming Europe," a book on economic and cultural trends in the United States. He urged Americans to reject Europeanization and embrace their freedom-loving heritage. He also quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century Frenchman who studied our country: "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."
So here’s a message for USDA’s bureaucrats: Waste no time in repairing your crop-protection fault.
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). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.