“That morning I squeezed every orange and it felt like a wet sponge – I knew I lost the whole crop,” said Natalia Derevianko, a small farmer in the tiny Florida town of Archer, somewhere in the void between Orlando and Tallahassee.
Florida’s peninsular climate offers farmers an opportunity to grow high-value fruit crops in the winter months when much of the rest of the country is blanketed in snow. On Jan. 30, this season’s valuable crop of citrus, peaches, and avocados was rapidly growing on precocious fruit trees. By midnight, however, farmers watched the mercury plunge in a rare Arctic blast, plunging overnight temperatures to near 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Familiar with the drill, they scrambled to activate overhead irrigation, hoping the warm well water would protect fruit, or in some cases, save whole trees from frigid death.
As the sun broke the horizon on the Sunshine State, the damage was assessed – many farmers throughout the state lost fruit, discovered damaged branches and buds, and in some cases lost entire trees that will take years to replace.
“We stripped every strawberry we could and covered the plants in hay, then we put the barbecue grill, smoker and patio heater in the high tunnel with the tomatoes, cranked them to high and hoped the plants would survive the night – but no doubt, we will lose production in 2022,” Derevianko said.
To counter a rare freeze, Florida’s farmers have to reach deep into archaic solutions – tarps, smudge pots, irrigation, bonfires … whatever it takes to add a degree or two to the still, ambient air. Too often, it is a losing battle.
Frost and freezing damage to crops is not unusual; it costs American farmers billions of dollars annually. Peaches, plums, citrus, and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeast, but California is also susceptible: A freeze there in January 2007 cost farmers more than $1 billion in losses of citrus, avocados, and strawberries, and a 1990 freeze that caused about $800 million in damage to agriculture resulted in the layoff of 12,000 citrus industry workers, including pickers, packers, harvesters, and salespeople. In 1989 a Christmas freeze in Florida ended citrus production on many generational farms and ushered in an era of farmland becoming transformed into subdivisions. In 2002, lettuce prices around the country spiked after an unseasonable frost struck the Arizona and California deserts.
Technology could mitigate much of the damage, but government regulation has placed obstacles in the way of innovative solutions. Those obstacles illustrate what innovators are up against, and how flawed, unscientific public policy prevents science and technology from realizing their potential.
As mentioned earlier, farmers’ tools for preventing frost damage are pathetically low-tech. Methods include burning smudge pots to produce warm smoke; running wind machines to move the frigid air; and spraying water on the plants to form an insulating coat of ice. The only high-tech solution – a clever application of biotechnology discussed below – has been frozen out by federal regulators.
In the early 1980s, scientists in the agbiotech industry and at the University of California, Berkeley, devised an ingenious approach to limiting frost damage.
The bacterium Pseudomonas syringae is present on many plants, and contains an “ice nucleation” protein that promotes frost damage, and crystallization of ice at 2 degrees Celsius. It would then exploit this damage as part of its infection cycle. These scientists decided, therefore, to produce a genetically engineered mutant of P. syringae that lacks the ice-nucleation protein, reasoning that spraying this variant bacterium (dubbed “ice-minus”) on plants might prevent frost damage by displacing the common, ice-promoting bacteria. Using very precise recombinant DNA, or “gene-splicing,” techniques, the researchers removed the gene for the ice-nucleation protein and planned field tests with the ice-minus bacteria, to see whether it would actually prevent frost damage under real-world conditions.
So far, so good. Then the government stepped in.
The Environmental Protection Agency classified the innocuous ice-minus bacterium, which was to be tested in northern California on small, fenced-off plots of potatoes and strawberries, as a pesticide. The rationale was that because the naturally occurring, ubiquitous “ice-plus” bacterium promoted frost damage, and was, therefore, a “pest,” other bacteria intended to mitigate its effects would be considered a pesticide. This is the kind of absurd, sophistic reasoning that could lead the EPA to regulate outdoor trash can lids as a pesticide because they deter or mitigate the actions of a “pest” – namely, raccoons.
At the time, scientists inside and outside the EPA unanimously agreed that the test posed negligible risk. (I wrote the analysis submitted by the Food and Drug Administration.) No new genetic material had been added – only a single gene whose function was well known had been deleted – and the organism was obviously harmless. Nonetheless, the field trial was subjected to an extraordinarily long and burdensome review – by both the National Institutes of Health and EPA – only because the organism had been genetically modified with recombinant DNA techniques. There are natural, ice-minus mutants of P. syringae, but because the gene for the ice-nucleation protein is not completely deleted, the mutation isn’t permanent.
It is noteworthy that small-scale field trials using bacteria with identical traits but constructed with older, cruder techniques require no governmental review of any kind. When field tested on less than 10 acres, non-engineered bacteria and chemical pesticides are completely exempt from regulation. Moreover, there is no government regulation at all of the vast quantities of the “ice-plus” organisms, which contain the ice-nucleation protein and that are commonly blown into the air to promote snow-making at ski resorts.
Although the ice-minus bacteria proved safe and effective at preventing frost damage in field trials, further research and commercialization were discouraged by the combination of onerous government regulation, the inflated expense of doing the experiments, and the prospect of huge downstream costs and the stigma of pesticide registration. As a result, the product was never commercialized, and plants cultivated for food and fiber throughout the nation remain vulnerable to frost damage.
We have the EPA to thank for farmers’ jeopardized livelihoods, lost jobs, and inflated produce prices following winter and spring frosts. This point illustrates the ripple effect – in this case the public health impact – of such government actions. The demand for fresh fruits and vegetables is elastic, so higher prices reduce consumption, which causes consumers to get less of the antioxidant, vitamin, and high-fiber benefits afforded by these products. Especially in these times of pandemic-driven disruptions in parts of the food supply chain, the last thing we need is an irresponsible, unscientific government policy that lowers yields and lessens farmers’ resilience.
The ice-minus bacteria simply emulate what plants do on their own in a limited way. Plants produce proteins that slow ice crystallization, forcing water from tissues so that ice crystals are less likely to form. Thus, ice-minus bacteria would be another biological solution to help plants do what they already do – resist cold temperatures in order to survive.
The EPA’s creating disincentives to the development of a product that can prevent or mitigate frost damage is yet another example of the actions of regulators creating a situation in which everyone loses. Will regulators rethink their policies and be guided by science and common sense? Probably not before hell freezes over.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.