USDA Reform: Help Rural America by Freeing Scientific Innovation.

Author:Maxham, Amanda
 
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Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requested public comment on proposed measures to "improve efficiencies" at the department. Those measures mainly would reorganize the USDA by merging some agencies and shuffling boxes around its organizational chart. It would also establish a Rural Development

Innovation Center (RDIC) to "identify and develop new tools to better serve rural communities in achieving prosperity."

Perhaps the changes will make life better for farmers and other rural residents in some ways. But if the USDA really wants to promote prosperity in rural America, it should pare back the excessive regulations that have been constraining agricultural innovation for the last three decades.

Consider the USDA's questionable certification of "organic" products, which has been discussed in these pages previously. (See "The USDA's Meaningless Organic Label," Spring 2016.) Because the "organic" designation doesn't reflect any difference in food safety or healthfulness, and because the requirements for earning the "USDA Organic" label are wholly arbitrary--not to mention the USDA's questionable effectiveness in correctly identifying which products meet those requirements--consumers and producers of organic products would likely be better served by private certification regimes that would respond to market demands rather than political whims.

Another example, also previously discussed in these pages, would be a drastic relaxation--if not an outright repeal--of USDA and Food and Drug Administration regulations that inhibit the development and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (See "The USDA's Anti-Science Activism," Summer 2011.) The longstanding scientific consensus is that GMOs pose no more (and often less) risk to human health and the rest of the planet than organisms created through largely unregulated traditional techniques. Permitting broader use of genetic modification would open the way for developing both animals and plants that require fewer inputs, are more healthful and environmentally friendly, and would make land that would have been needed for agriculture available for other uses.

Likewise, the once-promising sector of "biopharming," which uses genetic engineering techniques to induce crops such as corn, rice, and tobacco to produce high concentrations of high-value pharmaceuticals, is moribund as a result of USDA regulation. Not surprisingly, few companies or other potential sponsors are willing to invest...

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