Courtesy of the polar vortex, unseasonably cold temperatures came to a broad swath of the country, from Texas to Maine, last week, causing frost damage to crops and ornamental plants. (And snow in New York City's Central Park on May 9). Cherry and other fruit trees are particularly susceptible, and losses could be substantial.
Frost damage to crops is not unusual; it causes American farmers to lose billions of dollars annually. Peaches, plums, citrus, and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeast, but California is also susceptible: A freeze there in January 2007 cost farmers more than $1 billion in losses of citrus, avocados, and strawberries, and a 1990 freeze that caused about $800 million in damage to agriculture resulted in the layoff of 12,000 citrus industry workers, including pickers, packers, harvesters, and salespeople. In 2002, lettuce prices around the country spiked after an unseasonable frost struck the Arizona and California deserts.
Technology could mitigate much of the damage, but government regulation has placed obstacles in the way of innovative solutions. Those obstacles illustrate what innovators are up against, and how flawed, unscientific public policy prevents science and technology from realizing their potential.
Currently, farmers' tools for preventing frost damage are pathetically low-tech. Methods include burning smudge pots to produce warm smoke; running wind machines to move the frigid air; and spraying water on the plants to form an insulating coat of ice. The only high-tech solution – a clever application of biotechnology discussed below – has been frozen out by federal regulators.
In the early 1980s, scientists in the agbiotech industry and at the University of California, Berkeley, devised an ingenious approach to limiting frost damage.
There is a harmless bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae, which lives on many plants, and contains an "ice nucleation" protein that promotes frost damage. These scientists, therefore, decided to produce a variant of the bacterium that lacks the ice-nucleation protein, reasoning that spraying this variant bacterium (dubbed "ice-minus") on plants might prevent frost damage by displacing the common, ice-promoting kind. Using very precise recombinant DNA techniques, the researchers removed the gene for the ice-nucleation protein and planned field tests with the ice-minus bacteria, to see whether it would actually prevent frost damage under real-world conditions.
So far, so good. Then the government stepped in.
The Environmental Protection Agency classified the innocuous ice-minus bacterium, which was to be tested in northern California on small, fenced-off plots of potatoes and strawberries, as a pesticide. The rationale was that because the naturally occurring, ubiquitous "ice-plus" bacterium promoted frost damage, and was, therefore, a "pest," other bacteria intended to mitigate its effects would be considered a pesticide. This is the kind of absurd, sophistic reasoning that could lead the EPA to regulate outdoor trash can lids as a pesticide because they deter or mitigate the actions of a "pest" – namely, raccoons.
At the time, scientists inside and outside the EPA unanimously agreed that the test posed negligible risk. (I wrote the analysis submitted by the Food and Drug Administration.) No new genetic material had been added – only a single gene whose function was well known had been deleted – and the organism was obviously harmless. Nonetheless, the field trial was subjected to an extraordinarily long and burdensome review – by both the National Institutes of Health and EPA – only because the organism had been genetically modified with recombinant DNA techniques.
It is noteworthy that small-scale field trials using bacteria with identical traits but constructed with older, cruder techniques require no governmental review of any kind. (There are natural, ice-minus mutants of P. syringae, but because the gene for the ice-nucleation protein is not completely deleted, the mutation isn't permanent.) When field tested on less than 10 acres, non-engineered bacteria and chemical pesticides are completely exempt from regulation. Moreover, there is no government regulation at all of the vast quantities of the "ice-plus" organisms (which contain the ice-nucleation protein) that are commonly blown into the air during snow-making at ski resorts.
Although the ice-minus bacteria proved safe and effective at preventing frost damage in field trials, further research and commercialization were discouraged by the combination of onerous government regulation, the inflated expense of doing the experiments, and the prospect of huge downstream costs and the stigma of pesticide registration. As a result, the product was never commercialized, and plants cultivated for food and fiber throughout the nation remain vulnerable to frost damage. We have the EPA to thank for farmers' jeopardized livelihoods, lost jobs, and inflated produce prices following winter and spring frosts.
That last point illustrates the ripple effect – in this case the public health impact – of such government actions. The demand for fresh fruits and vegetables is elastic, so higher prices reduce consumption, which causes consumers to get less of the antioxidant, vitamin and high-fiber benefits afforded by these products. Especially in these times of pandemic-driven disruptions in parts of the food supply chain, the last thing we need is a government policy that lessens farmers' resilience and lowers yields.
The EPA's discouragement of development of a product that can prevent or mitigate frost damage is yet another example of the actions of regulators creating a situation in which everyone loses. When will regulators rethink their policies and be guided by science and common sense? Probably not before hell freezes over.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.