Examining zero-tolerance policies

Zero-tolerance policies and agriculture go together like Kate Gosselin and Dancing With the Stars. They are both a train wreck and don't make much sense.

Many anti-agriculture and anti-business activists often take zero-tolerance stances on policies impacting the ag industry. Several examples include the European Union’s zero-tolerance import policy on genetically modified crops, EPA’s previous attempt at a no-spray drift policy and an attempt by some to eliminate atrazine use.

In all three examples, the reality of a zero-tolerance policy is unrealistic and a bit absurd. These policies are typically initiated by emotional arguments rather than scientific information. The EU's blockage of genetically modified products remains a conundrum to the U.S. to this day. Its policies, initially enacted more out of fear of the unknown and a loyalist idealism to unadulterated agriculture, has morphed into a protectionistic trade tactic. However, slowly, the EU’s zero-tolerance policy is being eroded as the EU realizes it is missing out on trade with the rest of the world and as large trading countries demand food without regard to whether it is genetically modified or not. It is likely that real-world economics will eventually bring the EU into the global arena and leave its zero-tolerance policy in the dust.

An example of an attempted zero-tolerance policy occurred a few years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency tried to enact a zero-spray drift policy in agriculture. Fortunately the ag industry responded and was able to educate the agency on how impossible that standard would

be to implement and enforce in the real world. The original proposal included no spraying if the wind blew at 10 mph or more. Many state officials and ag retailers came forward saying there were only a handful of days of the year when the wind blew less than 10 mph in their areas, which sent EPA back to reconsider its position.

Despite the failure of the zero-tolerance drift policy a few years ago, EPA has returned to the issue of spray drift again. In November 2009, EPA issued spray drift guidelines aimed at reducing drift. Although the policy falls short of declaring a zero-tolerance policy, some critics in the industry feel it comes dangerously close. The new guidelines spell out more specific ways to reduce drift, but many wonder if the ultimate goal isn't to achieve zero spray drift. The only difference now is that it’s not called a zero-tolerance drift policy.

EPA has also recently become concerned over atrazine, prompting a reassessment even though the agency had re-approved it in 2006 after stringent testing. The new reassessment was sparked by anti-business activists that recruited local water systems in Illinois to sue Syngenta, hoping that the court would institute a zero-tolerance policy. When testing was done on the water in question, the results indicated the water did not violate EPA's strict guidelines for average concentrations, posing no health risks. Negative claims were accepted by companies and lawyers who buy into anti-chemical hysteria. Actions such as this perpetuate the public’s fear of production agriculture.

Production agriculture is a dynamic, science-based industry that operates within real-world parameters. Although food and how it is produced is an emotional issue to everyone who consumes food, agriculture continues to struggle with scientific vs. emotional public relations.

This industry needs to have rules and science-based parameters intact for everyone to follow because zero-tolerance policies are not helpful and often make the lives of our farmers, retailers and crop consultants much harder than need be.