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October 01, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 17)

No Frost Fix Thanks to Feds

Crop Damage Due to Freezing Could Be Mitigated If Not for Overzealous Regulators

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    Henry I. Miller, M.D.

    In much of the world, consumers’ morning glass of orange juice is going to become more expensive. Think of the price increase as a tax that benefits no one, but emanates from government stupidity.

    As a result of the January freeze that badly damaged Florida’s oranges (as well as other fruits and vegetables) in March, Florida-based Tropicana was forced to raise its prices on some containers of orange juice and shrink the package size of others to pass along higher costs. By July, the price of orange juice on the commodity markets had more than doubled from the price in early 2009.

    Frost damage to crops is not unusual; losses to American farmers average in the billions of dollars annually. Peaches, plums, citrus, and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeast. California is also susceptible: A January 2007 freeze there cost farmers more than $1 billion in losses of citrus, avocados, and strawberries, and a 1990 freeze that caused about $800 million in damage to agriculture resulted in the layoff of 12,000 citrus industry workers, including pickers, packers, harvesters, and salespeople. In 2002, lettuce prices around the country went through the roof after an unseasonable frost struck the Arizona and California deserts.

    Technology can mitigate much of the damage—or, more accurately—it could have, had not government regulation placed obstacles in the way of innovative solutions. Those obstacles illustrate what innovators are up against and how flawed, unscientific public policy prevents science and technology from spurring a robust recovery from the recession.

    Currently, farmers attempt to prevent frost damage with pathetically low-tech methods. These include burning smudge pots to produce warm smoke; running wind machines to move the frigid air; and spraying water on the plants to form an insulating coat of ice. The only high-tech solution, a clever application of biotechnology, has been frozen out by federal regulators.

    In the early 1980s, scientists in industry and at the University of California devised an ingenious new approach to limiting frost damage. They knew that a harmless bacterium, which normally lives on many plants, contains an “ice nucleation” protein that promotes frost damage. Therefore, they sought to produce a variant of the bacterium that lacked the ice-nucleation protein, reasoning that spraying this variant bacterium (dubbed “ice-minus”) on plants might prevent frost damage by displacing the common, ice-promoting kind. Using gene splicing, the researchers removed the gene for the ice nucleation protein and planned field tests with ice-minus bacteria.

    Then the government stepped in, and that was the beginning of the end.

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified as a pesticide the obviously innocuous ice-minus bacterium that was to be tested in northern California on small, fenced-off plots of potatoes and strawberries. The regulators considered the naturally occurring, ubiquitous, “ice-plus” bacterium a “pest” because its ice-nucleation protein promotes ice-crystal formation that damages plants. Therefore, according to their reasoning, other bacteria intended to displace it would be a “pesticide.” This is the kind of absurd, sophistic reasoning that could lead EPA to regulate outdoor trash can lids as a pesticide because they deter or mitigate a “pest”—namely, raccoons.

    At the time, scientists inside and outside the EPA were unanimous that the test posed negligible risk. (I wrote the analysis submitted by the Food and Drug Administration.) No new genetic material had been added, only a single gene whose function was well known had been removed, and the organism was obviously harmless. Nonetheless, the field trial was subjected to an extraordinary long and burdensome review—by both the National Institutes of Health and EPA—only because the organism was genetically engineered.

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