TCS Daily

California Wine vs. Two-Legged Pests

By Henry I. Miller - August 17, 2004 12:00 AM

California is under attack by parasites, of both the six-legged and two-legged variety. The former are glassy-winged sharpshooters, leaf-hopping insects that are among the state's most insidious agricultural pests. They carry Pierce's disease, a lethal bacterial infection of grapevines and other major crops, for which there is no cure. The two-legged parasites are the activists and regulators who are making safe, effective new agricultural technologies unavailable in California.

The infestation, which has been creeping northward inexorably from Mexico, threatens the San Joaquin Valley's 800,000 acres of table, raisin and wine grapes and has been found in Santa Clara, Monterey and Solano counties. Inevitably, the nearby premier winemaking regions of Napa and Sonoma will be next. A January 2004 report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture offered this dire assessment: "Counting only grapes, the disease now threatens a crop production value of $3.2 billion and associated economic activity in excess of $33 billion. Other crop and ornamental plant resources such as almonds ($897 million) and susceptible species of citrus ($1.07 billion), stone fruits ($905 million), and shade trees are also at risk."

Ironically, this peril to California agriculture has been aggravated by federal and local regulatory policies that have been condemned repeatedly as unscientific, anti-farmer and anti-consumer. These policies prevent the newest and best techniques of biotechnology from being applied to the genetic improvement of grapes.

The meager weapons currently available to attack the sharpshooter are part of a state-federal program that pays for the inspection of plants shipped from areas known to be infested by glassy-winged sharpshooters and for the testing of potential chemical and biological control agents.

In the long run, however, detection and control are doomed to fail. As acknowledged by Dale Brown, president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, "Genetic resistance is where we want to go."

There are several ways to introduce or enhance the resistance to Pierce's disease in new variants, or varieties, of grapevines. One logical approach is to transfer genes that confer resistance into California's grapes from distantly related, non-commercial grapes that possess natural immunity. But conventional grape breeding is a notoriously slow and uncertain process, and attempts to use the more sophisticated and efficient gene-splicing techniques have run afoul of EPA and local regulatory policies. So does the approach of University of Florida researchers who have patented a group of resistance genes that are a synthetic version of those found in a variety of organisms. (And so also does another gene-splicing trick that could permit new vines to bear fruit years earlier than usual.)

The EPA discriminates against gene-spliced varieties, by regulating even more stringently than chemical pesticides any plant that has been modified with gene-splicing techniques to enhance its pest- or disease-resistance. This policy, which has been attacked repeatedly by the scientific community as unscientific and irrational, has badly damaged agricultural research and development. It flouts the widespread scientific consensus that gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed and predictable than other techniques. New gene-spliced varieties can not only increase yields, make better use of existing farmland and conserve water, but -- especially for grains and nuts -- are a potential boon to public health, because the harvest will have lower levels of contamination with toxic fungi and insect parts than conventional varieties. Moreover, by reducing the need for spraying crops with chemical pesticides, they are environmentally and occupationally friendly.

Agbiotech's potential is proven. A decade ago, an epidemic of papaya ringspot virus had virtually destroyed Hawaii's $64 million a year papaya crop, but by 1998 biotech researchers provided virus-resistant varieties that have preserved the industry.

Yet, the EPA holds gene-spliced plants to an inappropriate, extraordinary standard, requiring hugely expensive testing as though these plants were highly toxic chemicals. In effect, these policies impose a hugely punitive tax on a superior, and badly needed, technology.

There is an even worse threat than the feds to the use of new, environmentally-friendly, disease- and drought-resistant plant varieties: local referendum issues that ban any and all cultivation of gene-spliced plants, the prototype of which was the idiotic Measure H passed in Mendocino County in March.

These ballot measures, which are introduced and promoted by misinformed, misguided activists, are logically inconsistent, in that their strictures are inversely related to risk: They permit the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise, less predictable techniques, but ban those made with highly precise and predictable ones. Most important of all, they block sophisticated genetic approaches to the eradication of blights such as sudden oak death, phyloxera and powdery mildew, as well as Pierce's Disease.

This perversion of logic - and of California's too-liberal (in the non-political sense) referendum process -- turns science-based regulation on its head. It makes as little sense as would a ban on radial tires and disk brakes on automobiles.

Although such decisions are democracy at work, that is no guarantee that the outcomes are wise, in the public interest, or even tenable in the long run. Let us not forget that in 1897 the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed House Bill 246, a measure that redefined the calculation of the value of pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

California is just beginning to reap the bitter harvest that the parasitic activists and regulators have sown. Their anti-social agenda should be exposed, and they should be held accountable.

Henry Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the author of "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution" (Praeger Publishers, 2004). He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993.


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