BURRACK: Sowing the seeds of farm failure

Weeding out crop innovation is hurting U.S. agriculture

When Americans suspect that the United States is “becoming Europe,” we don’t mean that our art museums are getting a lot better.

Instead, we worry about the encroachments of a growing bureaucracy that is smothering freedom and innovation.

In an unexpected announcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month took an unfortunate step toward Europeanization when it delayed the approval of two crops that will help farmers control weeds and produce more food. The decision didn’t receive much immediate attention outside the agricultural press, but it sent a troubling signal about the future of farm technology that should concern all Americans.

At the heart of the controversy lie a couple of time-tested herbicides: dicamba and 2,4-D. Scientists have figured out a way for staple crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton to resist these chemicals, which means that farmers can control weeds without hurting the plants they are trying to grow.

This is hardly a radical development. As the Agriculture Department acknowledged recently, these herbicides “have been safely and widely used across the country since the 1960s.” My father was using 2,4-D even before that, in the 1950s. It was the first herbicide he ever applied to his fields. It’s also one of the top ingredients in the weed-and-feed formulas that Americans apply to their lawns and gardens.

So why the sudden delay? Environmentalists complained that the introduction of these crops will lead to the overuse of the two herbicides. This claim is at best unproven. Farmers certainly must pay attention to the development of herbicide resistance in weeds, but the answer to this problem is the advent of technologies that keep us one step ahead of weed adaptations.

In other words, these new crops are part of the solution — and keeping safe products away from farmers just makes it harder for us to grow the food our country needs.

Farmers rely on effective methods of crop protection, including weed control. With them, we can grow more food on less land and thereby reduce the pressure to convert wilderness into farmland. Environmentalists ought to join farmers in search of conservation technologies, not oppose us in their safe implementation.

Of greater concern to me is the fact that the Center for Food Safety threatened to sue the Agriculture Department if it didn’t perform an environmental-impact study on its own initiative. These traits already had been under review by the department for three years with no evidence of harm to humans or the environment. Using litigation to slow down or ban a safe product should concern all of us.

Farmers lose either way. The Agriculture Department’s bad decision means that these new crops won’t go on the market and be available to me and other farmers next year as planned. We will have to wait until 2015 at the earliest. This postponement may not sound like much, but it contributes to a disturbing trend. In the United States, it’s becoming harder and harder to introduce agricultural technologies.

America has led the world in boosting crop yields. Food is safer, more abundant and more affordable than ever before. Rather than cheering on our ingenuity, however, bureaucrats increasingly want to hold it back.

We are watching a major slowdown in crop approvals. The United States used to be the leader, but now takes three times as long as Argentina and Brazil to approve a technology. Innovation in agriculture technology always has been one of the American farmer’s great advantages over his food-producing competitors. Now we are giving it away, and for no good reason. The United States is going backward while Brazil and Argentina are moving forward.

We need sensible, science-based regulations — not shifting sands and unpredictable decrees from bureaucrats who seem unmoved by the needs of farmers and consumers.

Europe already has traveled far down this fateful path. Its embrace of the “precautionary principle” has made it all but impossible to approve agricultural innovations, stifling the Continent’s biotech industry. European farmers envy Americans, who can plant genetically modified crops. The Agriculture Department’s decision on herbicide-resistant plants suggests that they may not be so envious in the future.

British writer Samuel Gregg this year published “Becoming Europe,” a book on economic and cultural trends in the United States. He urged Americans to reject Europeanization and embrace their freedom-loving heritage. He also quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century Frenchman who studied our country: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

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