Blasts of arctic air brought prolonged record-breaking low temperatures last week from the Midwest to the Southeast. In Florida, strawberries, beans, squash and other crops were at risk from extended freezes, but the greatest threat was to the multi-billion-dollar-a-year citrus industry. Get set for sticker shock later this year at the supermarket.
Losses to American farmers from frosts average in the billions of dollars annually. Peaches, plums, citrus and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeast. California is also susceptible: A January 2007 freeze there cost farmers more than $1 billion in losses of citrus, avocados and strawberries, and a 1990 freeze that caused about $800 million in damage to agriculture 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. These include burning smudge pots, which produce warm smoke; running wind machines to move the frigid air; and spraying water on the plants to form an insulating coat of ice. The only 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 that 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 considered the naturally-occurring, ubiquitous, “ice-plus” bacterium a “pest” because its ice-nucleation protein promotes ice crystal formation that damages plants. Therefore, other bacteria intended to displace it would be a “pesticide.” This is the kind of absurd, sophistic reasoning that could lead EPA to regulate outdoor lids on trash cans because they deter or mitigate a “pest,” namely raccoons.
At the time, scientists inside and outside the EPA were unanimous that the test posed negligible risk. (I wrote the Food and Drug Administration’s opinion.) 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 - by both the National Institutes of Health and EPA - only 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 quantities 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’ livelihoods in jeopardy, jobs lost and inflated produce prices for consumers.
That last point illustrates the 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.
This is yet another example of the actions of EPA regulators causing a situation in which everyone loses. When will they rethink their policies? Probably not before hell freezes over.
Dr. Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution” (Praeger Publishers, 2004).