CHIESA: Farmers can still farm during biotech lawsuits

July 13, 2013 

Here in the Central Valley, we are no strangers to the conflicts that exist between farmers and government regulations.

Water shortages, land use agreements, permits, you name it; it would appear that agricultural and governmental interests are more comfortable as adversaries than they are working together.

However, there is an example where Congress and the Executive branches have worked together to benefit farmers: a provision included in Section 735 of a 2013 budget amendment, signed into law by President Barack Obama, called the Farmer Assurance Provision.

The provision gives farmers like me the ability to protect our livelihoods — at least temporarily — from the seemingly endless onslaught of legal assaults mounted by opponents of biotechnology-improved crops.

The FAP authorizes the USDA to permit farmers to continue growing and harvesting their crops while "nuisance lawsuits" over regulatory technicalities and paperwork play out. This gives farmers a guarantee that the crops they plant will continue to be grown, subject to appropriate interim conditions set by the government, while those disputes are resolved.

As the former president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and a current Stanislaus County supervisor, I am well-versed in the problems facing Central Valley farmers. One of the most difficult aspects of working the land is mitigating uncertainty.

This is exactly why farmers depend on provisions like the FAP. It provides clear guidelines so we may proceed with the planting process with assurance. Bio-enhanced crops are becoming more and more prevalent in California and it is essential that farmers at least have the option of planting them without the fear of baseless reprisals.

The seeds in question are only those which have been subjected to rigorous USDA testing and found to be safe for both consumption and the environment. These seeds go through multiple government agencies for scientific and regulatory review.

Those who rail against biotech firms fail to recognize this fact. Instead, they file repeated and senseless litigation against the USDA over federal technicalities. And this political grandstanding can come at the cost of farmers' livelihoods.

In 2010, a solitary district court judge in Oregon ordered sugar beet farmers to pull their newly planted seed crops from the ground to comply with legal proceedings, but the order was successfully appealed and overturned. Had the court order not been overturned, 95 percent of the sugar beets in the country would have been in jeopardy in addition to the following year's production.

The FAP protects farmers by ensuring that such actions don't occur in the first place and still allows the government to retain oversight: The secretary of Agriculture already has authority to address relevant concerns regarding any biotech seed trait, and the FAP explicitly leaves that authority in place.

A number of agricultural organizations have recognized the inherent protections FAP provides the farming community, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance and the national associations of wheat, cotton, sugar beet and corn growers. Former USDA Secretaries John Block and Mike Espy, and several state secretaries and commissioners of agriculture, agree that the FAP is a necessary protection.

Enhanced seeds are used extensively and produce much of the reliable, high quality food for which the United States is known. This includes the vast majority of corn, soybean and cotton crops, which all have been improved by biotechnology to be resistant to disease, pests, herbicides, drought etc.

These groups understand the simple premise behind the provision: Because so much of the agricultural industry relies on these crops, the FAP is vital in protecting our food supply and our economy from activists who will stop at nothing to prove a political point.

Everyone, including anti-biotech activists, is entitled to their opinion. This is mine: The FAP helps farmers throughout the Central Valley and California. I encourage our representatives in Congress to preserve this protective measure so we may continue to provide consumers the products we all rely on day-to-day without fear.

Chiesa is a farmer.

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