TCS Daily

EPA's Space Odyssey

By Henry I. Miller - October 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Many have already forgotten the relentless eco-babble and the environmental policy excesses that emanated from Vice-President Al Gore's office during the Clinton years. After then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced that environmental concerns henceforth would be "in the mainstream of American foreign policy" -- co-equal with national security and economic issues in U.S. foreign relations -- Gore enlisted the resources of the intelligence community. John Deutch, director of the CIA and the coordinator of all U.S. intelligence activities, signed on. "I intend to make sure that 'environmental intelligence' remains in the mainstream of U.S. intelligence activities. Even in times of declining budgets we will support policymakers." (Too bad he didn't pay more attention to anti-terrorism intelligence.)

In that speech, Deutch also alluded specifically to using CIA assets to determine whether foreign companies were gaining unfair competitive advantage "by ignoring environmental regulations." I wrote at the time that that evoked images of American spooks using spy satellites to photograph the contents of recycling bins. Little did I know how close I would be to the mark. The EPA has just announced a scheme that would let it monitor gene-spliced crops from space. Experiments will begin next Spring to ascertain whether satellite surveillance can distinguish conventional from gene-spliced corn.

Is there something particularly sinister or worrisome about gene-spliced crops -- in particular, corn that has been engineered for enhanced resistance to predatory insects? Is it potentially toxic, or more invasive than conventional corn? Does it have a history of stealing lunch money from children as they pass the fields en route to school?

Actually, none of these things. The corn is wholesome, it is as well behaved as any other variety, and it has eliminated the need for millions of pounds of chemical pesticides. So why the attempt to monitor it, at tremendous effort and expense? Well, this is one of those examples of government intervention creating the need for more government intervention to correct a distortion it itself caused in the first place.

The project originated out of concern that overuse of gene-spliced varieties of so-called Bt-corn (which contain a newly-introduced bacterial protein that confers resistance to insects) could result in the development of resistant insects, reducing the usefulness of the approach. (Insects usually develop resistance ultimately to conventional pesticides, so it would not be unexpected to find resistance to Bt as well.) For that reason, the EPA required that farmers who plant Bt-corn maintain a "refuge" of conventional (insect-susceptible) corn on 20 percent of their acreage. However, the EPA suspects that as many as one-fifth of farmers are not adhering to the refuge requirement.

But here's the hooker: In spite of a substantial rate of likely non-compliance, USDA-funded researchers have found no insect resistance to Bt-corn or Bt-cotton at all, in spite of their cultivation on more than 25 million acres worldwide. (And even if insect resistance to Bt crops were to appear, this would not raise a safety issue, but would indicate only compromised effectiveness of the Bt protein. Historically, when insects become resistant to one product or method, farmers move on to another.)

The requirement for refuges remains, however and, undeterred by the data, the EPA is determined to use overhead surveillance to measure compliance. (Presumably, the next step will be to call in air strikes from the nearest fighter squadron on farmers who are in violation.)

The pivotal issue here is not whether farmers are adhering to the refuge requirements, or what is the best way to measure regulatory compliance. It is that the very basis of the EPA's regulatory policy towards gene-spliced plants and foods is unscientific and nonsensical. The EPA holds gene-spliced plants to a higher standard than other similar crop and garden plants, requiring the hugely expensive testing -- as though they were chemical pesticides -- of varieties of corn, cotton wheat and tomatoes that have been genetically improved for enhanced pest- or disease-resistance. The policy fails to recognize that there are important differences between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals, and genetic approaches to enhancing plants' natural pest and disease resistance.

EPA's policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms that it has galvanized the scientific community. A consortium of dozens of scientific societies representing more than 180,000 biologists and food professionals published a report warning that the policy will discourage the development of new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, increase the regulatory burden for developers of pest-resistant crops, limit the use of biotechnology to larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and handicap US companies competing in international markets. All of these warnings have come to pass.

Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe either to the environment or for humans to eat. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without scientific review or special labeling. Many such products are from "wide crosses," hybridizations in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create a plant variety that does not and cannot exist in nature. For example, Triticum agropyrotriticum is a new man-made "species" which resulted from combining genes from bread wheat and a grass sometimes called quackgrass or couchgrass. Possessing all the chromosomes of wheat and one extra whole genome from the quackgrass, T. agropyrotriticum has been independently produced in the former Soviet Union, Canada, United States, France, Germany and China, and is grown for both forage and grain.

Gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed and predictable than other techniques, and can better exploit the subtleties of plant pathology. For example, unlike conventional chemical pesticides, Bt-corn is highly specific; it produces a protein toxic to corn borer insects, but not to people or other mammals.

Another advantage of Bt-corn is that it not only repels pests, but is less likely to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. That, in turn, significantly reduces the levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, gene-spliced corn is not only cheaper to produce but is a potential boon to public health. Moreover, by reducing the need for spraying chemical pesticides on crops, it is environmentally friendly.

Yet, regulatory agencies have regulated gene-spliced foods in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way. They have imposed requirements that could not possibly be met for conventionally bred crop plants. Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted, superior, gene-spliced crops are exhaustively, repeatedly (and expensively) reviewed before they can enter the field or food supply. In the T. agropyrotriticum example above, this chaotic mixture of genes is unregulated, but if a single gene were transferred from quackgrass to wheat with highly precise, gene-splicing techniques, the product would elicit an extensive and hugely expensive regulatory regime. This is a discrepancy that cannot be reconciled. Policy makers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation: that the degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be commensurate with the risk.

What we need is not to punish those who develop and market insect resistant, chemical pesticide-replacing, low-fungal-toxin, potentially more healthful corn, but to regulate as science and common sense dictate. Regulation would then cost less, offer greater benefits to the consumer and the environment, and stimulate innovation.

The EPA should turn its satellite surveillance to something more constructive, like checking on whether people are putting the right stuff into recycling bins.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 1979-94 he was an official at the FDA.

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