Politics & Policy

Free America’s Farmers

Dan Roberts inspects his corn crops during the harvest in Minooka, Ill., in 2014. (Jim Young/Reuters)
Ill-considered regulations make food more expensive without solving the problems they’re meant to address

It’s silly season down on the farm, with journalists, juries, cities, states, and the whole continent of Europe striving to outdo each other in a newly found interest in farm policy. In November, California voters will weigh in on animal husbandry, opining as to the proper way to raise livestock. The measure, called the Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act and backed by the Humane Society of the U.S., will most likely pass. After all, Nabisco recently caved to public pressure and changed the box containing its animal crackers to remove the iconic circus cages. Barnum’s Animals now appear ready to stampede off the box and trample a small two-legged cookie consumer. If it is no longer permissible to picture a circus, then the smart money would have to say that an act to prevent “cruelty” to farm animals is likely to succeed.

Farmers in California will have four years to change the way they raise animals. The changes won’t be limited to California, since the state already has inspectors visiting livestock farms in Missouri and elsewhere checking for compliance with previous California animal-welfare initiatives. So far, there isn’t any organized opposition from farming interests, farmers being more realistic about elections than activists are about farming, but several animal-welfare groups are opposing the measure because it doesn’t go far enough. To those involved in the production of food, the idea that HSUS isn’t radical enough is both frightening and a cause for schadenfreude. If it is true that every revolution eats its own, then bon appétit.

Jurors in North Carolina felt the need to get involved in the fun, rewarding nearly half a billion dollars to plaintiffs in a nuisance suit against a large North Carolina hog producer. Pigs stink, but pig farming is hardly new in places such as rural North Carolina, and it has always been an honorable way to make a living. Not anymore, now that 12 angry noses have essentially banned the raising of pigs in one of the leading agricultural states in the nation.

Meanwhile, the EU has adopted a policy that regulates the new plant-breeding technique CRISPR in the same way the EU regulates biotechnology — which is to say they’ve banned the use of CRISPR. The new technology allows the manipulation of genes that already exist in the plant genome. CRISPR is more precise than, but scientifically no different from, the mutagenesis used for decades in both conventional and organic agriculture. In order to protect plant varieties used in organic farming, the EU has been forced to draw a distinction between CRISPR and mutagenesis that is without a scientific difference. So the thousands of uncontrolled mutations resulting from bombarding seeds with nuclear radiation will be permitted, but the EU won’t allow the manipulation of single plant genes by the precise and predictable methods of CRISPR.

By essentially banning CRISPR, Europe has banned the future, sentencing European food production to the backwaters of technology and guaranteeing that farmers on some of the most productive farmland in the world will no longer be competitive. The U.S. has not gone quite as far down that path, but in its last days, the Obama administration took regulatory steps that will slow the adoption of CRISPR technology here. Because Canada and parts of South America have been more friendly to the technology, the U.S. is in danger of exporting the future to our neighbors to the north and south.

Europe, Ontario, and Maryland have all banned neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides closely related to nicotine (what could be more natural than that?), because of perceived harm to bees. Europe has seen declines in the yields of canola of up to 20 percent since the ban, with average canola yields declining 4 percent across the continent.

A 4 percent decline in yields may seem like a small price to pay to save pollinators. Unfortunately, the older insecticides that have taken the place of neonics are toxic to bees as well. Not only that, but these older pesticides kill beneficial insects and increase the risk to applicators. It’s clear that the ban has hurt yields and resulted in higher prices for consumers, but it is not at all clear that the environment has been improved.

A jury in California, surveying the public-policy environment surrounding the production of food, has asked the world to hold their beers while they award a cancer victim $289 million because he was exposed to Roundup, the ubiquitous herbicide. Roundup (or glyphosate) is perhaps the least toxic herbicide in agriculture’s toolbox. Every regulatory body across the world (except one, the International Agency for Research on Cancer) that has studied the compound has found it safe. The scientific consensus around the safety of Roundup is strong. Even though the IARC’s conclusion has been roundly criticized, it’s important to remember that the agency places Roundup in the same cancer-risk category as coffee.

The Environmental Working Group, a leftist activist organization, released a study on the heels of the Roundup verdict reporting that Cheerios and other popular cereals contain trace amounts of the herbicide. This is not news, as the federal government monitors pesticide residues in both organic and conventional foodstuffs and has long reported trace amounts of various pesticides in both. Those reported levels are overwhelmingly safe, as were the levels reported in the EWG “study.” So, faced with the prospect that its study wasn’t the least bit interesting, the EWG created its own definition of what might be hazardous, a level 100 times more strict than the levels followed by actual regulatory agencies using actual scientific evidence. Journalists reacted as they always do to EWG publicity stunts, repackaging the press release in even more breathless tones. Thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto were filed as a result of the IARC’s finding that Roundup was as dangerous as coffee, and the EWG report will no doubt play a prominent role as those cases move forward.

Shortly after the Roundup decision, General Mills removed the “100% Natural” claim from its Nature Valley Granola Bars after being sued by the Organic Consumers Association and other food groups. “Natural” is whatever food marketers say it is, but it clearly does not include trace amounts of Roundup. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving company, since General Mills previously reformulated Cheerios to remove genetically engineered vitamins. Vitamin deficiencies are more harmful to human health than any danger from genetic engineering, which is approximately zero, but never mind. To stay ahead of the food police is exhausting and clearly beyond the capabilities of traditional food companies.

The alternatives to Roundup are older pesticides that are more toxic to both nature and the farmers applying them. Farmers without effective pesticides must control weeds by hand. As it turns out, we are in the midst of a real-life experiment on the feasibility of hand weeding, because certain classes of weeds have developed resistance to Roundup in certain areas. Farmers in the affected areas are spending $100 an acre for crews to cut the weeds by hand. The math is pretty simple, and impossible. With 230 million acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton grown in the U.S. each year, that’s an increased cost of $23 billion for hand weeding f pesticides are banned entirely. In order to get the job done in about 60 days, U.S. agriculture will need a workforce of 6 million people willing to do boring, repetitive, and dangerous work for $15 an hour. We have no realistic alternative to a system that depends upon technology to feed our population. Any jury, regulatory agency, or journalist examining the perceived dangers of Roundup should do that math, but none of them ever do.

Ignorance of agriculture is a badge worn proudly by the industry’s critics, with each outrage discovered by muckraking journalists, “precautionary principled” regulators, and marauding jurors being more frightening than the last. No one ever asks actual farmers what the alternatives will be. As bad as Roundup, genetically engineered seeds, and intensive, industrialized agriculture may be, the alternatives are likely to be worse. If all risks are weighed in a vacuum, if no costs are assigned to any public policy, if agriculture is to be forced into the past at warp speed without any attention paid to the careful science and centuries of experience that have led to our present way of growing and marketing food, then we can look forward to a bleaker, hungrier, and more expensive future.

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