The Obama administration is struggling to follow through on promises with regard to health care and climate change because of a Republican party that seems to have no interest in constructive efforts to solve problems for the American people. But the Republicans are not the only “Party of No” that will make it difficult for Obama to deliver on his promises. Soon after he came to office, the President gave a speech to the National Academy of Sciences pledging to have an administration that supports and listens to science (something that was notably lacking during his predecessor’s term). The scientific community was very encouraged, but we also knew that many of Obama’s supporters are themselves highly selective in their support of science, and so it would take some real courage to follow through on the pledge. Nuclear power is the most prominent ”test case” underway, but there is a much less publicized ”politics vs science” test underway right now for the USDA.
The Question Before The USDA
The question is: will the USDA authorities allow a permit for Arborgen to conduct field tests including flowering for a GMO Eucalypus hybrid? These are trees that have been genetically engineered to be tolerant enough to frost to someday become a new bioenergy and pulp crop for the Southeastern US. The purpose of the test is to get real-world data on an important question: does this new crop have any potential to become an invasive species? Invasiveness is a very real phenomenon, but what we already know about these trees suggests that invasiveness is very unlikely.
This particular hybrid is widely grown in Brazil and has shown no tendency to spread outside of the plantations on which it is grown. This tree has also been modified so that it does not make pollen. The hypothesis that this tree will be a well-behaved crop is quite reasonable, but in science you test your hypothesis. That is what these field tests are intended to do – on a small scale (300 acres over 7 states) and with close monitoring. If the trees show a tendency to spread, it would not be hard to get rid of them on this scale. The USDA is not being asked to make a final determination about whether to allow this to become a commercial crop, it is just being asked for permission to do the next logical scientific step. The second public comment period on this question recently closed, so now it is up to the regulators to decide.
Opposition To The Permit
Vocal opposition to this test has arisen from the expected set of environmental groups who uniformly oppose any application of biotechnology to crops. These are the same groups who have been warning of dire threats from GMO crops for more than a decade. The fact that their predictions of disaster have not happened after 14 years and billions of acres of GMO planting, seems to have no effect on their opinion or on the ominous tone of their rhetoric. Even more than the Republicans, they are simply in the “No Business.” And its a good business at that! In a society where very few people have any involvement in farming or forestry, and in a society which understands very little about the science of genetics, it is possible to generate a substantial donation income based on the cause of GMO opposition. These groups have actually been successful many times at blocking GMO commercialization.
Why This Is A Much Bigger Issue Than One Permit Request
In this case, the “Party of No” uses arguments that boil down to this: “There is not enough data to decide if these trees could become a weed, therefore you shouldn’t do the experiment to get the data to decide if the trees could become a weed.” Because this is their logic, this seemingly minor USDA decision actually takes on a far greater importance and is a very significant test of the Obama administration’s science policy.
The Precautionary Principle
The voice of the “No” industry is, in effect, asking the USDA to adopt the “precautionary principle” (which is the direction that the Europeans have gone). That principle says, “if there is an unknown regarding environmental or health risk of some new technology, then it must be avoided as a matter of precaution.” Once the precautionary principle is adopted, it has a severe chilling effect on technological innovation. It is a “risk avoidance” strategy rather than a “risk management” strategy.
What Is At Stake?
One of the reasons that the US is such a leader across a wide variety of technology platforms is because we have traditionally been willing to thoughtfully manage risk, not just avoid it. The “No industry” and their supporters consider suppression of new technology to be a good outcome because they distrust virtually any money-generating activity (except of course fund raising for themselves). For the USDA to give-in to this anti-technology, anti-science, anti-innovation cadre would be a terrible precedent and a complete violation of the spirit of Obama’s science speech. It won’t be easy being a USDA regulator because these organizations have the financial wherewithal and inclination to heap up lawsuits. It is sad that we seem to be moving to “regulation by litigation.” That will serve us just about as well as a Senate that routinely filibusters.
These trees would be a desirable diversification option for landowners in the deep South who grow Loblolly Pine today. They can be harvested much sooner than the other forest options, and they produce more biomass. They take less bleaching chemicals for pulping. They would be an excellent option for renewable electricity generation, and could eventually be tapped for biofuel. It is definitely worth doing a careful test to get the data to decide if this is something that could be safely grown on a large scale.
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