By John Rigolizzo Jr.
Weeds drove me out of the sugar-beet business. Now lawsuits threaten to do the same to others.
A number of years ago, I tried to farm sugar beets here in New Jersey. They're not a big crop in my state, but a few of us decided to put them to the test.
The weeds won. We just couldn't keep them out of our fields. They choked the life out of our sugar beets.
The result might have been different if we had enjoyed access to biotechnology -the kind radical activists are working to strangle through the red tape of litigation.
It probably shouldn't have surprised me that weeds and lawsuits are so much alike.
At any rate, my inability to grow sugar beets isn't a big deal for me personally. I raise all kinds of crops and will survive without those.
Yet farmers in other parts of the country won't fare as well. Neither will consumers, even though most of them have no idea that ideologically driven attorneys are toiling to increase the cost of their food.
Sugar beets account for about half of America's sugar production, but they are, in fact, a minor crop. They are grown on about a million acres of farmland. The men and women who grow them are like me -family farmers who are trying to make ends meet on their own farms.
To survive, they need access to modern technology. That's why so many of them adopted genetically modified (GM) sugar beets when they went on the market in 2005. This year, 95 percent of all sugar beets planted in the United States were the result of biotechnology. These improved crops enable sugar-beet farmers to fight off weeds. Yields go up, and production costs go down. This makes it easier for farmers to pursue their livelihood as well as pass on a portion of the savings to consumers. GM sugar beets help keep food prices in check.
Americans eat food derived from biotech-enhanced ingredients every day. The vast majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are GM products, and they have been for years. After passing through the Department of Agriculture's science-based regulatory process, sugar beets were well on their way to joining them.
Yet a collection of anti-biotech activists didn't like this outcome. So they decided to sue. They were too afraid to take on corn or soybeans -truly major crops in the United States. Like schoolyard bullies who steal lunch money from little kids, they went after small-scale sugar-beet farmers.
In August -on Friday the 13th, as it happened -a judge issued one of those mixed rulings in which there are no clear winners or losers. He ordered Agriculture to subject GM sugar beets to an environmental assessment, a process that could take two years. Plaintiffs didn't win the outright ban they had sought. Farmers avoided that awful fate but will have to suffer through an aggravating delay.
It's still possible to plant GM sugar beets, but only under severe restrictions that will have the practical effect of forcing many farmers to drop biotechnology while Agriculture performs its court-mandated study.
This is terribly frustrating. Imagine buying a brand-new iPhone only to be told a few weeks later that most of them can't be used because a judge says they have to go through a new product review that probably won't result in any improvements.
That's the plight in which sugar-beet farmers find themselves. Yet the activists aren't even happy with this much. They've already filed a brand-new lawsuit to stop sugar-beet farmers from using any biotechnology at all.
The enemies of biotechnology don't have science on their side. Over and over again, research has shown that GM crops are safe for widespread planting and mass consumption. They're actually superior to non-GM crops because they enable us to produce more with less. They are the very essence of sustainable agriculture.
The risk is that activist groups will hurl so much litigation at minor crops such as sugar beets that the scientists and entrepreneurs who create and market new agricultural products will begin to fear that the costs outweigh the benefits. Research and development will cease. Farmers and consumers will pay a steep price.
We can't let that happen -not if we care about the fate of family farms, the cost of food and the American tradition of innovation.
We can't let the weeds and the lawsuits prevail.
John Rigolizzo Jr. is a farmer in southern New Jersey and a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology.