By Theodora Filis,
It has been 12 years since the world’s first GM crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, was commercially approved, and hundreds more GM varieties were granted deregulation status. The global area of GM crops has reached 102 million hectares, according to industry sources, though this has been strongly contested around the world.
In August 2006, a federal district judge in Hawaii ruled on the first case involving GMOs – drug-producing GM crops. The judge in this case ruled that the USDA violated the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act in allowing drug-producing GM crops to be cultivated throughout Hawaii, and failing to conduct even preliminary investigations on environmental impact prior to the approval of planting.
The plaintiffs were the Center for Food Safety, KAHEA (The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance), Friends of the Earth, and the Pesticide Action Network, North America.
The defendants were the US Secretary of Agriculture and administrators of the USDA.
In all cases involving GMOs, the USDA was found to have overlooked the law and disregarded health and environmental concerns in their approvals of the GM crops.
Before approving any GM crop, the USDA is required to conduct proper environmental impact statements (EIS). Despite years of GM crop approvals, the agency has never once actually completed an EIS — that is until the 2007 court ruling that required it to for GM alfalfa.
After being legally challenged in 2007 over its initial approval of GM alfalfa, the USDA was ordered by a federal court to complete a proper EIS, and Monsanto was ordered to stop planting GM alfalfa until it could be proven that its ‘Frankencrop’ was safe for the environment and humans.. The USDA completed the EIS in late December, and it actually revealed very serious problems with GM alfalfa, including the widespread damage it will cause through cross-pollination.
However, despite the clear evidence that GM alfalfa is highly problematic and unfit for approval, USDA chief Tom Vilsack went ahead and approved it anyway.
“We expect Monsanto to force-feed people genetically engineered (GE) crops – that’s its business model,” said Paul Achitoff, attorney for nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. “We hoped for better from the USDA, which has much broader responsibilities.”
Now, the USDA plans to experiment with a new way of evaluating bio-tech crops for potential commercialization. Under the agency’s new two-year pilot project, bio-tech developers would conduct their own environmental assessment of transgenic crops or pay contractors to perform the analysis. Currently, officials at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are responsible for the studies.
Federal environmental law requires the agency to complete such reviews before deregulating bio-tech crops.
The goal of the new pilot program is to make the process more timely and efficient, according to APHIS. The approach has met with support from the bio-tech industry, which wants to reduce delays in the approval of transgenic crops. Many worry the program will result in biased and inaccurate environmental reviews.
Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization said, 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.
“A big deterrent to future lawsuits would be if USDA were to win some of them,” Batra said. “The more information the department has, the better case they can make.”
In recent years, biotech opponents have won lawsuits claiming the agency violated environmental law by inadequately supporting its decision to deregulate transgenic alfalfa and sugar beets.
By allowing biotech developers to conduct their own environmental assessments, the process becomes subject to conflicts of interest, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center For Food Safety and a biotech opponent.
“It’s like asking BP to write an assessment of an offshore drilling operation,” he said.
The pilot program basically treats the environmental review process as a “rubber stamp” for getting biotech crops to market more quickly, said Freese.