Plants Are Not Pesticides

Miller Op-Ed in The National Post<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


A New U.S. EPA Rule That Says Pest-resistant Genetically Modified Plants Should Be Regulated Like Pesticides Is Anti-consumer and Anti-environment.

A persistent criticism of the Bush administration, according to polls, is that federal policies too often favour the interests of big business over those of consumers. These criticisms of 'deregulatory' policies usually have been ill-founded, but yesterday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a regulation that is genuinely anti-consumer, anti-environment and anti-farmer. The only beneficiaries will be big agribusiness and the regulators themselves.Ironically, the usual critics of the Bush administration will love it.The practice at issue — the use of gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM), techniques to enhance the intrinsic pest-resistance of crop and garden plants — offers a safe, viable alternative to chemical pesticides, but the testing and commercialization of these plants have been systematically obstructed since 1994, when EPA first proposed to regulate them as though they were dangerous chemical pesticides. These innovative new varieties have already demonstrated their commercial, environmental and public health benefits. An example is GM Bt-cotton, which differs from other varieties by the presence of a single bacterial protein. The protein, made by a gene transferred to the cotton plant by GM techniques, is toxic to certain insects but not to humans or other mammals. The approach is not new: For decades, preparations of live Bt bacteria have been sprayed onto plants by home gardeners and commercial farmers, with an admirable record of both safety and effectiveness.The Bt-cotton is used to control several major pests that account for a quarter of all losses due to pest infestations and cost U.S. farmers more than US$150-million annually. In 1999, states that had a high rate of adoption of Bt-cotton showed a reduction in the need to treat fields with chemical pesticides, from an average of three treatments per acre to about one and a half. Bt-cotton has eliminated the need for more than 2 million pounds of chemical pesticides since it was introduced in 1996.In purely economic terms, the aggregate advantage to cotton farmers nationally — the net value of crops not lost to pests, savings in pesticides and so on — is in the range of US$100- to 150-million per year, but these benefits pale beside the environmental advantages. Three of the chemicals that must be used in much greater amounts on conventional, non-Bt-cotton — endosulfan, methyl parathion and profenos — are thought to have negative effects on birds, fish and other aquatic organisms.The adoption of Bt-cotton and the resulting lessened need for chemical pesticides also reduces occupational exposures to the toxic chemicals by workers who mix, load and apply the pesticides, and who perform other activities that require their presence in the field. Moreover, the smaller the amounts of pesticides that are applied, the less runoff into waterways.Another agricultural threat amenable to these genetic approaches is the growing infestation of California's grapevines by Pierce's disease, a bacterial infection spread by a leaf-hopping insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The introduction of new vines with enhanced genetic resistance to either the bacterium or the insect would be a promising strategy, but attempts to use highly precise and efficient GM techniques have run afoul of the EPA's regulatory policy.The EPA holds the new technology to an inappropriate standard, requiring hugely expensive testing of GM crop and garden plants, such as cotton, corn, tomatoes and grapes, as though they were chemical pesticides — a policy that has been repeatedly condemned by the scientific community. The agency has imposed requirements that could not possibly be met for products of conventionally bred crop plants, and its policies fail to recognize that there are important differences between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals, and genetic approaches to enhancing plants' natural pest resistance.Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe, either to the environment or for humans to eat. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without scientific review or special labelling. Many such products are from 'wide crosses,' hybridizations in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create a plant variety that does not and cannot exist in nature.EPA's policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms that it has galvanized the scientific community, which has repeatedly and unequivocally attacked the agency's approach. Dozens of major scientific societies representing more than 100,000 biologists and food professionals have warned that the EPA policy discourages the development of new pest-resistant crops, prolongs and increases the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, limits the use of biotechnology to larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and handicaps those who overregulate in competition for international markets.EPA's policy acts as a market-entry barrier to seed and biotech companies undertaking gene-splicing research, so big agribusiness has lobbied hard for it. The final regulation emerges at a time when the Bush administration is operating with a skeleton crew, one that includes a completely clueless EPA chief, and deputy Linda Fisher, a former Monsanto senior executive who continues to advance the company's interests.The now final EPA policy ensures that the potential of biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production is tarnished. So is the health of the environment. And so is the reputation of the Bush White House.Henry Miller, MD, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994 and is the author of To America's Health: A Proposal to Reform the Food and Drug Administration. E-mail: [email protected]. Copyright © 2001 The National Post