*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]
AGRICULTURE is a science. Agriculture is also a profession, a community, a way of life, a hobby, a necessity, a passion, an industry and, as the word itself implies, a culture.
Agriculture is many things to many people, but it is one thing to all people: our basic source of sustenance and resources on this planet.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, by and large, bears the burden of regulating and promoting this vital backbone of our society and economy.
Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to the House Agriculture Committee about the challenges of regulating biotechnology in food and crop production.
The key challenge facing USDA in general and its Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in particular is the convergence of a rapidly growing population and a rabidly vocal opposition to any and all forms of biotechnology.
"The rapid adoption of (genetically modified [GM]) crops has coincided with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GM products, resulting in real, practical difficulties for some non-GM producers to meet the need of their markets," Vilsack told the committee, citing claims and allegations by organic activists that GM crops contaminate nearby or adjacent non-biotech fields.
"These conflicts have produced ongoing litigation and resulted in uncertainty for producers and technology innovators," Vilsack said. "We are at a crucial juncture in American agriculture where the issues causing the litigation and uncertainty must be addressed so that the potential contributions of all sectors of agriculture can be fully realized."
Vilsack is correct about the necessity of dealing with both the issue of biotech controversy and, more importantly, the issue of improving the efficiency of USDA's biotech approval process.
Vilsack pointed out that GM sugar beets were granted non-regulated status in March 2005, and the case is still in litigation in federal court.
"The procedural legal challenges related to GM sugar beets and GM alfalfa have taken years," Vilsack noted. "APHIS made its initial decision to deregulate GM alfalfa in June 2005, yet here we are nearly six years later with the process not yet concluded.
"As these cases continue, the market uncertainty increases, and those involved in agriculture lack sufficient guidance for planning and determining how to react or which products to use," he added.
While my criticism of Vilsack has always been frank, I credit the secretary for accurately explaining and understanding the problem at hand.
"The combination of an increased number and complexity of the (deregulation) petitions combined with the time-consuming litigation has really slowed us down," Vilsack said. "I fear that if we don't address these issues comprehensively, innovation will be discouraged, not encouraged."
A key constituent of this Administration, and of key USDA leaders in particular, is the vocal minority vehemently advocating organic production at the exclusion of any modern production technology or trait.
Vilsack's challenge, however, is that he knows too well that he cannot abandon modern production agriculture and have any hope of feeding an additional 100 million Americans in 30 years. What does a politician do when wedged between an immoveable object and an unstoppable force?
Straddle the fence.
A case in point: Roundup Ready alfalfa.
"In addition to the draft environmental impact statement's (EIS) two alternatives of either granting or denying non-regulated status, the final EIS examined a third alternative that was included in the response to ideas presented during the comment period," Vilsack told Congress about the biotech alfalfa case. "This third alternative analyzes the impacts of establishing geographic restrictions and isolation distances for GM alfalfa's production, and it mirrors a healthy and productive conversation (among) GM, non-GM and organic interests that is already underway in the industry and that continues to evolve."
In other words, they'll consider approving Roundup Ready alfalfa, but only if we can do so in a way that completely mollifies our environmental and organic activist friends.
By backing away from a strict, solid, science-based approach to deregulating biotechnology, USDA risks introducing a highly subjective, highly political element into what should be a completely objective, fact-centered process -- and it does so to our peril.