Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

GE foxes invited to guard USDA henhouse

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shocked the American public with its hasty approval of three highly controversial GE crops in a row (alfalfa, sugar beets and ethanol corn). In doing so, the agency effectively thumbed its nose at U.S. federal courts and spit in the face of consumers and farmers alike. Now, USDA has apparently decided that getting sued for ignoring U.S. environmental laws is getting to be too much of a hassle. So they've come up with a new plan: why not let Monsanto evaluate the potential harms of its new transgenic products? It’ll be so much quicker this way. And save USDA a lot of money.

The two-year pilot program allowing GE developers to conduct their own environmental assessments for USDA is an “experiment” to improve its systems, says USDA. Tom Philpott calls it a craven way out.

Conflict of interest – ya think?

USDA currently has responsibility for assessing the potential environmental impacts of new genetically engineered (GE) crops. The assessment — which is supposed to happen before the agency decides whether or not to approve commercial release of the seeds — is required by our National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA was enacted in 1970 for the express purpose of preventing damage to the environment and enriching our understanding of the ecosystems and natural resources within our country. But that was then.

The reality is that USDA has fallen into the habit of skipping over the environmental study part of its job, and approving GE crops as a matter of course. For these failures of duty, USDA has been nailed in federal court. Yet the agency persists in ignoring court decisions, as we saw last month when it approved the planting of GE sugar beets before completing the court-ordered environmental impact study.

The pilot program will not only help move crops through the process more quickly, but the added resources will also help the documents hold up in court —Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization USDA's latest “experiment” to hand environmental review of GE crops over to their manufacturers is intended to speed up the process and improve quality while reducing costs, according to the official note in the Federal Register. Certainly putting patent holders in charge seems likely to help the agency get through its backlog (over 20 GE crops await approval and industry is getting antsy). But "improve quality?" I wouldn't count on it. "The conflict of interest is laughable — but we're not laughing" says Kristina Hubbard at the Organic Seed Alliance.

Better accounting

Really we should be requiring more — not less — rigorous and transparent reviews of these untested transgenic creations, by independent experts and affected stakeholders. We need  assessments of their immediate and long-term health, economic and environmental impacts, comparisons of GE versus other options (agroecological and conventional non-GE farming methods, for example), and calculation and public discussion of the costs of so-called “externalities” (e.g. costs typically borne by communities and the environment rather than by the manufacturers and patent-holders).

We have a right to know, and our public agencies have an obligation to provide this information.

A rigorous environmental review will cost something — and those costs can and should be paid by the manufacturers. There are ways to do this that aren’t captured in advance by corporate interests (for example, by having applicants make payments into an independently managed trust fund that would cover the cost of an expanded environmental review process).

Whatever the costs of a thorough review, I wager it’ll cost far less than the irreversible environmental harms likely to follow from reckless approvals, the threats to biodiversity posed by GE pollution, the economic losses from GE contamination that farming families face, and the as-yet-unknown scale of health harms reverberating through our food system.

What if Monsanto et. al. had to pay for all the things that go wrong when they get their way? Now that would be an experiment worth trying!

Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii

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