Last June, I went to Washington, D.C., to petition my representatives in person, on their turf. The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), as part of its Advocacy Day, invited its members to meet with policymakers and educate them on issues important to the seed industry. One focus of our visit was explaining the latest breeding techniques revolutionizing the way new plant varieties are now created.
I joined meetings with the Senate and House Agricultural Committees, the bodies that advise senators and congressmen on agricultural policy. These are smart people, well-informed on the larger issues in agriculture, yet mostly unaware of the intricacies of the seed business. We explained to both committees how plant breeding is being transformed by dramatic advances in genomics, the cloud, big data and analytics, the same things shifting horizons in all dimensions of our daily lives.
Precision-breeding technologies, like genome sequencing, marker-assisted breeding and gene editing are now commonly used to expedite traditional breeding and enable breeders to work with greater accuracy and speed, compared to the centuries old plant-and-pray approach to developing new varieties, which required decades of trial and error (mostly error).
We told lawmakers that these technologies should not be suffocated by regulations, but embraced and promoted to help plant breeders create new varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers that can withstand extreme environmental conditions and feed more people with less land and resources, make our food fresher and more flavorful and even help organic farmers (yes, these breeding technologies are compatible with organic farming).
Heavy-handed law-making, driven largely by GMO fears, could stifle innovation and block small- and mid-sized companies and universities from improving our food supply.
Washington Legislators Ask Good Questions
Conversations about food seem harder these days, maybe because just 2 percent of Americans live on farms. City folks — including politicians — don’t really understand where food comes from.
At barbecues, I often get caught up explaining the differences between, say, heirloom and hybrid tomatoes, pointing out that hybrids are not GMOs, even if breeding them may involve biotechnologies like marker-assisted selection, and that hybrids have benefits heirlooms lack, both for growers (disease resistance, increased yield) and consumers (increased sweetness). It wasn’t necessarily easier to explain this to policymakers in D.C., but at least they asked good questions and appeared genuinely interested to hear directly from real people engaged in agriculture — not professional lobbyists.
Washington, D.C., may seem like an imposing place, but average folks can walk right into the belly of the beast, state their case directly to a lawmaker and be heard (I received a more balanced hearing than I do at most barbecues). Our nation’s capital is the turf of average citizens, including those in the horticulture industry, who have the right to advocacy. We should exercise it as often as we can.