- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

STANFORD, Calif.

Jack Frost taunted farmers around the state last week with blasts of arctic air that threatened several of California’s major agricultural areas, from San Diego to the Central Valley and along the coast. The direct losses in citrus alone could approach a billion dollars, with avocados and strawberries also severely affected. Get ready for sticker shock at supermarkets around the country.

Such winter climatic catastrophes are nothing new. A 1990 freeze in California 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. A three-day freeze in 1998 destroyed 85 percent of the state’s citrus crop, a loss valued at $700 million. And in 2002, lettuce prices around the country went through the roof after an unseasonable frost struck the Arizona and California deserts.

Peaches, citrus and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeastern United States. Losses to American farmers are on average in the billions of dollars year in and year out.

Farmers have only pathetically low-tech methods for preventing frost damage to their crops. These include burning smudge pots, which produce warm smoke; running wind machines to move warmer air over the crops; and spraying water on the plants to form an insulating coat of ice. The only proven high-tech solution, a clever application of biotechnology, has been frozen out by federal regulators.

In the early 1980s scientists at the University of California and in industry devised an ingenious 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. How could that be? 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.”

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 was added, only a single gene with a well known-function 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 doing 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 for consumers.

When will the EPA re-think its policies? Probably not before hell freezes over.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, headed the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. Barron’s selected his latest book,”The Frankenfood Myth…” as one of the Best 25 Books of 2004.

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