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Column: Regulations - a pesky weed in farmers' crops

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Column: Regulations - a pesky weed in farmers' crops
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

By DAVE LADD, RDL and Associates

WOODBURY — Throughout history, the need for an abundant, reliable, and affordable food supply has been at the heart of social and political stability. Governments recognize that food security is a national security priority.

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But many nations lack the resources to grow enough food for their people. U.S. agriculture has stepped in to fill that void — ensuring that people around the world have access to safe and affordable food.

As U.S. farmers strive to produce that food, they must do so within the context of enhanced technology and the role it plays in food security. By 2050, the world will need 100 percent more food, with 70 percent of it coming from enhanced-efficiency technology. These practices increase crop yields, help reduce the environmental impact of agricultural practices, and can create crops that are tolerant of poor environmental conditions, like drought or excessive weeds.

Clearly, the challenges of feeding a growing population on a fixed land base, as well as increasing competition for water and other natural resources, have significant ramifications for food security both domestically and abroad.

Minnesota plays a prominent role in feeding a hungry world. Over the past 10 years, Minnesota’s agricultural exports have nearly doubled. This decade of bumper crops produced by the North Star State has helped America’s total exports in the sector reach a record $145 billion.

But all is not well “down on the farm.” American agriculture is under attack from rapidly advancing weeds, and the current generation of weed-control systems is no longer as effective as it once was. Weeds have adapted to the class of herbicide that’s been in use for the past 13 years. Consequently, they’re reducing soybean yields by as much as 50 percent.

We can’t afford to lose this struggle with herbicide-resistant weeds. But federal regulators have been slow to review new technologies that promise to halt the weed outbreak — and further improve farming efficiency.

It’s time to break that regulatory impasse and bring to market the advancements in farming technology that can keep America’s — and Minnesota’s — agricultural engine humming.

One such tool — the Enlist Weed Control system — would be among the first new weed-control systems to hit the market in more than a decade. Enlist combines an herbicide with genetically engineered seeds that can tolerate that herbicide. The end result? The product can kill weeds without harming crops.

Yet Enlist has been bogged down in the federal regulatory process for nearly four years — even though it builds on proven approaches to weed control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it would conduct another regulatory review, thus delaying the weed-control system’s release for at least one more year.

Meanwhile, America’s foreign competitors are bringing new weed-control systems to market. Canada has already approved Enlist for use. That puts our farmers at a significant disadvantage relative to their neighbors across the border.

The delay also has a deleterious impact on the environment. Effective weed-control systems allow farmers to cultivate crops without tilling their land. This prevents soil erosion and dramatically reduces carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, no-till farming enabled by effective weed control has already reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by nearly 15 million pounds. To generate the same kind of impact, we’d have to remove 6.5 million cars from the road.

If, however, weed-control systems don’t work as intended — and farmers have to deal with weeds through more labor-intensive tilling — then those significant environmental benefits cannot be realized.

Environmental regulations must be protective of the public’s health. But they must also be based upon the best available scientific information that has been subject to peer review. Regulations should be cost-effective, objective, and designed to balance the economic viability of farm operations with the protection of natural resources and other community interests.

The regulatory review process must be transparent, and regulations must be administered in a practical manner so as to prevent undue hardship for farmers — a principle that appears to be lost on federal officials as they needlessly extend the review process for technological advancements such as Enlist.

Excessive regulations and bureaucratic delays are threatening to strangle American agriculture. Such inaction is not in the best of interests of Minnesota’s — or the nation’s — economy.

Dave Ladd is a former agricultural policy adviser to Sen. Rod Grams and currently serves as President of RDL and Associates.

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