In his final State of the Union address, President Obama took the long view, focusing on the future and naming several critical arenas for change. Over dinner afterwards, my family shared what we each liked (or didn’t like) about the address. I certainly agreed with the President’s points about the need to “reduce the influence of money in politics” and ensure that “the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations.”
But given this, I was all the more disappointed to hear no mention of plans to rein in the power and influence of corporate agribusinesses like Monsanto and spearhead the critical work of fixing our broken food system.
America’s family farmers and farmworkers are struggling. Our soil is exhausted, our pollinators dying. Children in rural communities are getting sick from pesticides drifting from fields, contaminating our water and showing up in our food. Like many, I find myself wondering why, in the 21st century — with all the knowledge we have — we're still growing food with cancer-causing, brain-harming pesticides.
While the imperative to fundamentally transform our food and farming system did not make it into his State of the Union address, President Obama did start asking a few questions about GMOs last year. I hope he's ready to hear some honest answers.
What the White House (says it) wants to know
Five months ago, the White House issued a memorandum to the heads of USDA, EPA and FDA, instructing the three agencies to engage in a public process to revise our antiquated, 30-year-old guidelines for regulating genetically engineered (GE) products. The memo noted that the 1986 “Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology” was in need of an update, not having been reviewed since 1992.
An honest, open public conversation about how to regulate GMOs — and the hazardous pesticides that go with them — is desperately needed and decades overdue. So I’m glad the White House is finally asking questions, and we welcome this opportunity to respond.
But I’m also worried. I suspect that neither the White House nor the three agencies in charge of safeguarding our food and farming system really want to know what we have to say.
For one thing, the White House memo stated that its primary objectives are "to ensure public confidence in the regulatory system and to prevent unnecessary barriers to future innovation and competitiveness..." (emphases added).
What this tells me off the bat is that the White House has its priorities backwards. The primary objective should be to establish a coherent high-functioning regulatory system that protects the public interest: the health of our children, families and communities; the livelihoods of farmers and farmworkers; the integrity of our increasingly contaminated ecosystems. Public trust and confidence would then readily follow.
“It’s not working”
But since you asked, Mr. President, our frank assessment is that the so-called “Coordinated Framework” for biotech regulations is not working. Put simply, USDA, EPA and FDA have failed to protect the public from harm.
Aided by USDA’s consistent refusal to regulate herbicide-resistant GE seeds, the unchecked expansion of GE crops has driven an increase of hundreds of millions of additional pounds of herbicides. Most of the increase comes in the form of Monsanto's RoundUp, with an active ingredient (glyphosate) now classified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. This chemical is now ubiquitous in the air and water of our rural communities.
Meanwhile, over 60 million acres of farmland have become infested with RoundUp-resistant “superweeds,” causing frustrated farmers to resort to even more hazardous cocktails of chemicals, a vulnerability that pesticide companies are only too eager to exploit.
USDA’s rubber-stamping of Dow’s 2,4-D resistant crops last year — along with EPA’s swift approval of Dow’s “Enlist Duo” herbicide (containing both glyphosate and 2,4-D, a drift-prone herbicide linked to cancer, birth defects and neurological harm) — is a case in point (EPA’s recent reversal notwithstanding).
Trapped on an ever-accelerating pesticide treadmill and often unable to access non-GMO seed when they want it, U.S. farmers are finding precious little help from USDA in transitioning to safer, healthier agroecological farming.
For its part, EPA relies mostly on studies from the pesticide industry, ignores key epidemiological research, declines to investigate possible synergistic effects (when two or more active ingredients are combined in a product such as Enlist Duo), and discounts the cumulative impacts of real-life exposures, including the repeated applications that occur in herbicide-resistant GE systems.
As for food regulation, what many people don't realize is that FDA neither conducts safety testing of GE foods nor requires industry to do so, justifying this negligence by accepting product manufacturers’ un-scientific determination that they are “generally recognized as safe.”
In sum: Our regulatory system is a great success when it comes to granting industry wishes, but an utter failure in terms of protecting the health, livelihoods and well-being of the people.
Time for an overhaul
Our message to President Obama is loud and clear:
If you really want to restore our trust and confidence in “the system,” then instruct your agencies to start putting public interest ahead of corporate profits. Establish a regulatory system that ensures that genetically engineered organisms, the pesticides intended to be used with them and the biotechnological processes used to develop them are rigorously tested and assessed by independent scientists. If there’s evidence of harm, take decisive action. Exercise precaution. Our health, our communities and our lives matter more than Monsanto’s bottom line.