Sometimes government regulators do things that are not merely misguided but gratuitously stupid. A classic example came last month, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture called for the destruction of at least 13 varieties of petunias with striking hues. These plants don't pose any danger to health or the natural environment. But because they were crafted with modern genetic-engineering techniques, technically they're in violation of 30-year-old government regulations.
These petunias, first developed in the 1980s, were sold around the globe for years without incident. Then in 2015 a Finnish plant scientist noticed bright-orange petunias at a train station in Helsinki. He recalled that such a variety was genetically engineered three decades prior but never commercialized. The scientist took a stem and later confirmed that it contained foreign DNA—a corn gene that confers the vivid color and a tiny sequence of DNA from a virus that turns on the newly-inserted gene.
He tipped off Finnish regulators, who notified their counterparts in Europe and North America. Since no government had issued permits to sell these varieties, the result was a petunia purge. Untold numbers of beautiful and completely harmless flowers and seeds were destroyed. The USDA said the flowers could be burned and the seeds ground up.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has long regulated the importation and interstate movement of "plant pests," which can include plants, bacteria, fungi, viruses and more. If someone wants to introduce a plant or other organism included on the USDA's pest list into the field, a permit is required. If the organism isn't on the list, it can be introduced without government approval.
But for a quarter-century, this process has had an evil twin: a regime focused exclusively on plants altered or produced with the most precise genetic-engineering techniques if they contain even a snippet of DNA from a plant pest. The original concept of a plant pest, something known to be harmful, has been tortured into a new category: a "regulated article." For decades the definition of this category has required virtually every genetically engineered plant to undergo a lengthy case-by-case review, regardless of potential risk. An edible plant can take longer.
If a researcher wants to perform a field trial with a regulated article such as the forbidden petunias, he must submit extensive paperwork to the Agriculture Department. After conducting tests for years at many sites, the developer can then submit a large dossier of data and request "deregulation" by the USDA for cultivation and sale.
These requirements make genetically engineered plants extraordinarily expensive to develop and test. On average, each costs about $136 million, according to Wendelyn Jones of DuPont Crop Protection. This probably is why the developers of the genetically engineered petunias never commercialized them legally. At around $5 for 5,000 seeds, there is no way to recover the regulatory costs.
The USDA's discriminatory treatment of genetically engineered plants ignores science. Plants always have been selected by nature and bred by humans or mutated to create new varieties with enhanced resistance to insects, disease, weeds, herbicides and environmental stresses. Grain yields in particular have increased dramatically over the past 50 years. Like the contraband petunias, plants have also been modified for qualities attractive to consumers, such as seedless watermelons.
Government should regulate similar products or activities in a similar way, and the degree of oversight should be proportionate to risk. For new varieties of plants, risk is a function of such characteristics as toxicity or weed-like qualities. It doesn't matter how a new gene is introduced. What's important is whether that gene's expression confers risk on other organisms or natural ecosystems. The only new gene expressed in the Helsinki petunias imparts a unique orange hue—harming no one—but the Agriculture Department subjects such plants to extensive and burdensome regulation.
Since it's illegal to sell the genetically engineered petunias without a permit, regulators have told vendors to destroy them. I have a better idea. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue should instruct his subordinates to invoke "enforcement discretion" and not take action against the sellers. Or he can ask growers to donate the flowers to cancer wards in pediatric hospitals. There's a difference between petunias and plutonium.
Dr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was founding director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology.