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OP-ED: Feds freeze frost antidote

Blasts of arctic air brought prolonged record-breaking low temperatures last week from the Midwest to the Southeast. In Florida, strawberries, beans, squash and other crops were at risk from extended freezes, but the greatest threat was to the multi-billion-dollar-a-year citrus industry. Get set for sticker shock later this year at the supermarket.

Losses to American farmers from frosts average in the billions of dollars annually. Peaches, plums, citrus and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeast. California is also susceptible: A January 2007 freeze there 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 2002, lettuce prices around the country went through the roof after an unseasonable frost struck the Arizona and California deserts.

Farmers fight freeze damage with pathetically low-tech methods. These include burning smudge pots, which 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, has been frozen out by federal regulators.

In the early 1980s scientists at the University of California and in industry devised an ingenious new approach to limiting frost damage. They knew that a harmless bacterium which normally lives on many plants contains an "ice nucleation" protein that promotes frost damage. Therefore, they sought to produce a variant of the bacterium that lacked 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 kind. Using very precise biotechnology techniques called "gene splicing," the researchers removed the gene for the ice nucleation protein and planned field tests with ice-minus bacteria.
 
 

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