Sack Vilsack!

Something is very wrong at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The secretary, Tom Vilsack, is letting hypothetical claims by organic farmers–who produce less than 1% of the nation’s farming output–cripple an important and environmentally beneficial technology, the genetic engineering of crop plants.

In December Vilsack announced that the USDA is considering geographic restrictions, as well as minimum separation distances from other crops, on the cultivation of genetically engineered alfalfa. This not only represents a reversal of previous policies; it also signals an abandonment of any claim to a scientific underpinning of regulation. Worse, it is a threat to an entire critical sector of American agriculture. Vilsack wants to let the organic tail wag the biotech dog.

A bit of background is necessary to understand the context of Vilsack’s actions.

Genetically engineered crop varieties must be approved by USDA for marketing. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires federal government agencies to consider the effects that any “major actions” may have on the “human environment.” If an agency concludes that its action will have no significant impact, it issues a relatively brief Environmental Assessment that explains the basis for that decision. But if significant effects are likely, the agency must prepare a comprehensive and voluminous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which details every conceivable effect, runs to hundreds of pages and requires thousands of bureaucrat-hours to prepare.

Because federal courts now interpret the term “human environment” to include effects that are purely economic, social, historical or aesthetic, it is easy for regulators to miss some tangential or unimportant effect or fail to fully document its reasoning on every conceivable impact. Thus, inconsequential paperwork oversights can trip them up, and litigants can seize on these oversights and stop a project in its tracks.

In 2005 the USDA approved alfalfa and sugar beet varieties genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup. USDA scientists evaluated data from hundreds of government-monitored field trials over a period of eight years, along with numerous other studies on the real-world effects of other Roundup-resistant crops, and concluded that commercial use would have no significant environmental impact. They duly prepared Environmental Assessments for each and approved the varieties.

From a scientific perspective, all of this was unnecessary in the first place. The scientific community has long condemned the redundant, dilatory case-by-case regulatory reviews, which are not required for less predictable conventional crops. Nevertheless, a coalition of environmental activists and organic farmers filed lawsuits to rescind the approvals and stop the sale of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beet seeds, claiming that the Environmental Assessments were legally insufficient. Significantly, the plaintiffs did not allege any actual environmental harm, merely insufficient documentation by less than competent USDA bureaucrats.

The lawsuits have been a years-long nightmare for plant breeders, the seed industry and, especially, farmers. Thousands of farmers across the country had planted more than a quarter million acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa by 2007, when a federal judge in San Francisco revoked its approval. That forced USDA to prepare a costly, lengthy Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate concerns about Roundup-resistant weeds and potential effects on organic farmers–concerns that government scientists and regulators had already considered and rejected.

USDA finished its draft EIS a year ago but hasn’t jumped through all the procedural hoops necessary to re-approve the crop. Which brings us to Vilsack’s recent actions.

According to USDA’s environmental review, the alfalfa on which Vilsack wants to impose restrictions was judged substantially equivalent to other varieties without any concerns for regulators, farmers or consumers. But instead of proceeding immediately to permit the alfalfa on the market, the Secretary has invited a veritable Who’s Who of anti-biotechnology activists to suggest ways the product might be approved “with conditions.”

Pollen is disseminated by the wind, and organic farmers and activists have argued that plants on an organic farm cross-pollinated by a neighbor’s genetically engineered crops would no longer be organic and therefore would be denied the higher price such foods command in the marketplace. Therefore, organic producers have demanded mandatory minimum planting distances and even a government-administered fund that would compensate organic farmers who were financially harmed.

For a number of reasons, these claims and demands are specious. First, they ignore the way that “organic” is defined–by Vilsack’s own department. The USDA’s rules for organic production, which bar the use of genetically engineered crops, are based on process, not outcomes. In other words, as long as organic growers adhere to permissible practices and do not intentionally plant genetically engineered seeds, unintentional cross-pollination by genetically engineered plants (or for that matter, the drift of a prohibited pesticide onto their crops) does not cause those crops to lose their organic status.

Second, genetically engineered crops have proved to be superior to organic in numerous ways that benefit humans and the natural environment. Because yields are higher and they require lower inputs, they conserve water and farmland and are more sustainable. They lessen the need for chemical pesticides and make possible more environment-friendly agronomic practices such as no-till farming, which causes less soil erosion and runoff and releases less CO2 to the atmosphere. And genetically engineered grains are less susceptible to infestation by fungi and have lower levels of dangerous fungal toxins than organic grains. Farmers have found them overall to be reliable and cost-effective.

These are just some of the reasons that plant genetic engineering has been the most rapidly adopted agriculture technology in history, expanding worldwide from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to 331 million acres in 2009.

Although Secretary Vilsack deserves the sack, he is not solely culpable. He may have been set up by Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who boasts a long and unsavory history of pro-organic, anti-biotechnology advocacy and actions. While a staffer on the Senate Agriculture Committee during the 1980s, for example, she was instrumental in obstructing the approval of bioengineered veterinary drugs and also in preventing the inclusion of genetically engineered crops under the “organic” rubric. Her record of anti-biotechnology activism constitutes an obvious conflict of interest that should have required her recusal from agbiotech-related deliberations and meetings at USDA. Vilsack’s last action before departing should be to unceremoniously fire Merrigan.

As in all newly elected administrations, President Barack Obama and his minions have made commitments to regulate according to the dictates of science and to act in the public interest. They have failed spectacularly, instead consistently adopting unscientific, anti-technology, anti-business, economy-slowing, job-killing policies. This latest example is one of the most egregious.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA. Gregory Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. They are the co-authors of The Frankenfood Myth.