- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jack Frost taunted farmers across the Southeast last week with blasts of arctic air that devastated spring crops. Much of this year’s harvest of peaches, apples and berries in Georgia and the Carolinas has been destroyed. Get ready for sticker shock at the supermarket.

Losses to American farmers from frosts average in the billions of dollars annually. Peaches, citrus and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeast. California is also susceptible: A January freeze here cost farmers more than a billion dollars of losses of citrus, avocados and strawberries, and a 1990 freeze caused about $800 million in damage to agriculture and 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.

Farmers fight freeze damage with pathetically low-tech methods, such as burning smudge pots, which produce warm smoke; running wind machines to move the frigid air; and spraying water on plants to form an insulating coat of ice. The only high-tech solution, a clever biotechnology application, was frozen out by federal regulators.

In the early 1980s, scientists at the University of California and in industry devised a new approach to limiting frost damage. They knew 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 very precise biotechnology techniques called “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, which was to be tested in Northern California on small, fenced-off plots of potatoes and strawberries. The regulators reasoned that the naturally occurring, ubiquitous, “ice-plus” bacterium is a “pest” because its ice-nucleation protein promotes ice crystal formation. Therefore, other bacteria intended to displace it would be a “pesticide.”

This is the kind of absurd, convoluted reasoning that could lead EPA to regulate outdoor trash cans as a pesticide because litter is an environmental “pest.”

At the time, scientists inside and outside the EPA were unanimous that the test posed negligible risk. (I wrote the opinion provided 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 just because the organism was gene-spliced.

It is noteworthy that experiments using bacteria with identical traits but constructed with older, cruder techniques require no governmental review of any kind. When tested on less than 10 acres, non-gene-spliced bacteria and chemical pesticides are completely exempt from regulation. Moreover, there is no government regulation of the use of vast numbers of the “ice-plus” organisms (which contain the ice-nucleation protein) commonly blown into the air during snow-making at ski resorts.

Although the ice-minus bacteria proved safe and effective at preventing frost damage in field trials, further research was discouraged by the combination of onerous government regulation, the inflated expense of the experiments and the prospect of huge downstream costs of pesticide registration. As a result, the product was never commercialized and plants cultivated for food and fiber throughout much of the nation remain vulnerable to frost damage. We have the EPA to thank for farmers’ livelihood in jeopardy, jobs lost and inflated produce prices.

That last point illustrates the wide ripple effect — in this case, the public health impact — of such government actions: Higher prices for fresh fruits and vegetables, the demand for which is elastic, reduces consumption, so consumers get less of the anti-oxidant, vitamin and high-fiber benefits that these products afford.

Once again, the actions of EPA regulators have given rise to a situation in which everyone loses. When will they rethink their policies? Probably not before hell freezes over.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was 1989-‘93 head of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology. He is the author of the recent book “The Frankenfood Myth.”

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