Langer: Agriculture's Future Is Steeped in Science

As you stroll down the aisle of the supermarket in the coming days, take a moment to think about the products around you and ask yourself, what makes them safe to eat? What makes them healthy? And how is there enough food for everyone at affordable prices?

[IMGCAP(1)]Quite often, the answer is science. Farmers, developers and manufacturers have spent millions of dollars in improving the products we eat each day, to ensure they are as safe as possible while making them more accessible and affordable on our grocery shelves.

Pasteurization has been keeping milk and dairy products safe for more than a century. Other products have small traces of preservatives to keep them on store shelves longer and some food is even irradiated to destroy microorganisms and bacteria.

Scientific advances in agriculture have also proven essential for increasing food and crop production. By 2050, there will be more than 9 billion people to feed worldwide. To meet this demand, food production will need to double. In 1930, the average farmer was able to feed 10 people. Today, through the development of agricultural technology, the average farmer feeds 155 people.

Genetically modified crops are the economically sound and environmentally safe answer to increasing food production — specifically herbicide-resistant crops. Farmers who plant herbicide-resistant crops are able to achieve higher crop yields while lowering their input costs. They are able to conserve fuel because herbicide-resistant crops need little to no tilling. Less tilling means fewer till-damaged crops, which equals more product for market.

The Department of Agriculture is currently reviewing the case of Roundup Ready alfalfa, an alfalfa plant resistant to Roundup herbicide, which was introduced to the market in 2005 and is used largely as hay for farm animals, including the cattle that provide the dairy and meat we eat each day. Fighting weeds is vitally important, especially in an alfalfa plant's first year of growth, when the seedlings are easily outmaneuvered for water, nutrients and space by weeds that grow stronger and faster. By planting RRA, farmers can generate higher quality hay, which enables dairies to produce more milk per ton of alfalfa feed.

But some people who oppose this technology are trying to stop the seeding of RRA, based on the misinformed argument that genetically modified organisms will contaminate organic crops and end organic agriculture. It is an argument that ignores the scientific conclusion, reached after years of recorded use without incident — confirming that RRA and organic alfalfa can coexist without the threat of cross-contamination.

It is essentially impossible for the genetic material from RRA hay to contaminate a conventional or organic hay field. Alfalfa hay is typically harvested before flowering, because the feed quality and market value drops rapidly after the blooms appear. It takes five weeks after flowering for ripe seed to form, and harvesting of the organic crop anytime before the ripe seed forms effectively eliminates any risk of genetic contamination. Scientists have estimated that the likelihood of gene flow from one hay field to another — on the high end — to be less than 0.001 percent.

The Federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded last December that RRA poses no danger to human health or to the environment. The USDA, which is completing its review of the environmental impact of RRA following an open comment period, needs to make its final decision based on science and the available data.

Organic activists are making the same unsubstantiated claims about other products designed to be more efficient and cost-effective for consumers. They also want to block the production of Roundup Ready sugar beets. Of sugar beets in the United States, 95 percent are genetically modified to withstand herbicide. Efforts to shut down the RR sugar beets planting would cost 5,800 jobs and $283.6 million in farming revenue.

Setting a precedent of rationality is all the more reason for the USDA to focus on the science as it makes a final decision on RRA. American jobs are at stake, as well as the ability for each of us to feed our families in this difficult economic time. Unscientific claims must not be allowed to justify rejecting a product that makes our food friendlier to the environment and the family budget.

Andrew Langer is president of the Institute for Liberty.

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