What’s the most sustainable way to grow the food we eat? If you think the answer is always local and organic, you may be surprised by a new study from England’s most prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society. This highly anticipated report says there’s much we can learn from organic practices, but it embraces the use of science and technology for producing more food on less land.
Importantly, the Royal Society says that protecting the environment in the 21st century will require the adoption of sophisticated agricultural technologies including biotechnology and genetically modified crops. That’s welcome news for America’s farmers and consumers. For most of the last two decades the U.S. has been the undisputed leader in the development and adoption of biotech crops.
Ironically, as an increasing number of farmers in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America take up these innovative varieties, burdensome regulations here at home have raised development and approval costs and kept many potentially important products from reaching the market.
Opponents have even turned to courts to slow down the introduction of new varieties. Two years ago a group of activists and farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming the department’s scientists didn’t follow, to the letter, a law called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when they approved a biotech crop called Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Roughly 5,500 farmers in 48 states have planted more than a quarter million acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa, which has been modified to resist an herbicide called glyphosate. But a federal district judge in San Francisco determined that new seeds can’t be sold until USDA completed an environmental impact assessment as required by NEPA.
Critics have been merciless in accusing USDA of neglecting the environment. How did an oversight like this happen?
USDA’s own rules require an extensive, multiyear environmental assessment before the department can approve a biotech crop variety for marketing. So, the department’s scientists assumed that review would be sufficient. However, federal courts have held that the assessment required by NEPA must examine not just ecological impacts but economic ones as well.
Concerns Over Cross-Pollination
Far from being an environmental lapse, this case has been about economics from the start. Among the main complaints of the farmers who brought the lawsuit is that Roundup Ready alfalfa could affect their ability to use glyphosate for other purposes. If even one or two conventional plants are unintentionally cross-pollinated by herbicide-resistant alfalfa, farmers may not be able to rely on glyphosate herbicides to clear their fields before the next planting. Instead, they’d have to use a different herbicide or dig the plants out of the soil with hoes or a shovel.
Some organic farmers are also concerned that cross-pollination could jeopardize the organic certification for their crops. But USDA had already considered the possibility of this kind of out-crossing and found that it would happen less than once in every 100,000 plants. And, in any event, organic production rules state that unintentional cross-pollination with a biotech plant does not cause an organic one to lose its organic status.
These hardly seem like the kind of pressing ecological concerns Congress had in mind when it enacted NEPA. But a frivolous lawsuit like this was the only way to stop thousands of additional farmers from planting new varieties that scores of scientific bodies have concluded to be safe for consumers and the environment.
Fortunately, Roundup Ready alfalfa seed should soon be available again. The USDA issued its environmental impact statement (EIS) in December, and it states unequivocally that biotech and conventional alfalfa can co-exist peacefully. The EIS is now open for public comment, which can be submitted at http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=APHIS-2007-0044-0253.
This conclusion doesn’t come as a surprise to plant breeders and farmers. After all, breeders have for decades been using conventional methods to develop herbicide-resistant wheat, rice, canola, sunflowers, and many other crops. Farmers long ago developed common sense methods for keeping the herbicide-resistant trait from crossing into other crops or weeds.
That’s important because these varieties have been a huge boon to farmers, consumers, and the environment. Farmers use herbicide resistant crops to produce higher yields with lower inputs and reduced environmental effects. And they enable more environment-friendly, no-till farming practices that prevent topsoil erosion and reduce run-off into streams and lakes.
Furthermore, because glyphosate is not harmful to anything but plants and biodegrades quickly once it’s sprayed, the Environmental Defense Fund calls it among the most ecologically benign herbicides ever developed. Merely switching from older herbicides to glyphosate yields substantial environmental benefits.
That’s one big reason why farmers the world over have made biotech crops the most rapidly adopted farming technology in history. Biotech varieties with herbicide resistance and other traits are now grown on over 300 million acres by more than 13 million farmers in 25 countries.
Nonetheless, the Center for Food Safety has launched a campaign to continue delaying the use of Roundup Ready Alfalfa by submitting anti-biotech comments on the environmental impact statement to the USDA. It has become clear that crop biotechnology holds substantial promise for improving the foods we eat and lightening agriculture’s environmental footprint. It’s a shame that farmers’ ability to use this sophisticated tool is being held hostage by a perverse campaign that exploits loopholes for political gain.