John Rigolizzo: Berlin, New Jersey
Farmers grow a lot of things, but money isn’t one of them.
Yet some people seem to think "cash crop" is a literal description rather than a figurative expression, judging from the subject of last week’s meeting of AC21--the acronym for the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture. I addressed the panel during a public session, leaving my farm for a day to do it.
Our country is going broke faster than a roadrunner on hot asphalt. That hasn’t stopped certain sectors of the organic-food industry from demanding special compensation for when trace amounts of biotech ingredients show up in organic fields, suggesting that this poses a serious economic hazard. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has asked AC21 to study the dispute and propose a solution.
This assumes there’s a problem in the first place. The question has to be raised: After all these years of proven technology, why are we still even entertaining the idea of GMO’s vs. the organic production of growing crops?
In my 50-plus years on the farm, I’ve learned a few things – some of them the hard way. I can remember saving our seed stocks because we thought we had something special, only to discover a few years later that the ‘sacred’ strain had gone away anyhow. I remember hundreds of variety trials, cross pollinating the parent stock with little paint brushes in an attempt to get a new hybrid tomato, pepper or sweet corn and then waiting years to get a viable, marketable variety that I could plant on my farm. I also remember the years I hoped we might somehow be able to speed up that process. Now, we can finally grow varieties with traits that sustain our agriculture while providing more nutritious food for our family and yours.
Farmers like me have grown billions of acres of genetically enhanced crops around the world. These remarkable plants have shown themselves to be both safe and popular, fighting weeds and pests so successfully that we’re now growing more food on less land than ever before. And protecting the land, an important natural resource, as we do it!
Yet a handful of outspoken activists are attempting to slow down or ban the use of biotechnology. To support their ideological agenda, they are using the carefully chosen scare word- "contamination"- to describe the presence of biotech particles in non-biotech fields, suggesting that we’re confronting a vicious plague.
Their latest scheme is to demand that Washington establish an elaborate system of payments, to make up for the "contamination" that poses no health hazard to anyone.
Where will the money come from? That’s a good question. Perhaps farmers who use biotechnology will be forced to pay a special fee. Or maybe consumers will face a new tax on grocery-store food with biotech ingredients. Or possibly taxpayers in general will foot the bill. The only certainty is that it will cost a bundle.
We’ve seen this before in agriculture. In 1999, the federal government settled a class-action lawsuit filed by minority farmers, agreeing to pay $1 billion to make up for past discrimination. I followed the story in the news but didn’t examine it in detail, so I don’t have an opinion on the merits of the case. At the time, however, everybody thought it was over and done with.
Then, two years ago, Washington opened the spending spigot once more, committing an additional $1.25 billion to minority farmers who had missed the deadline to join the initial class-action lawsuit. The cost of the original settlement more than doubled and the whole thing reeked of politics.
More of the same may lie ahead. Does anyone doubt that trial lawyers will launch a third attempt to pry loose another billion from taxpayers? They’ve already filed lawsuits on behalf of Hispanic farmers and female farmers, hoping to expand the class of victims beyond African Americans.
The same thing would happen with a system of reparations involving biotechnology. Before long, everybody who grows organic crops--from industrial-scale farmers to backyard gardeners--would feel the urge to file a claim for damages. Costs would spiral out of control, but neither the quality nor the safety of food would improve.
Turnabout is fair play, so biotech growers should seek poetic justice. After all, organic farms often fail to control their weeds. If the seeds from these weeds "contaminate" the fields of biotech farmers, then perhaps the biotech farmers should receive their own reparations.
Of course, that would be ridiculous.
Our trading partners must gaze on in bewilderment. For years, U.S. officials have proclaimed, appropriately, the wonders of biotech crops, encouraging other countries not only to buy what we grow but also to adopt the technology for themselves. And now we find ourselves locked in a destructive internal debate about "contamination."
People say that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Maybe we should add that common sense is the best decontaminant.