(Beyond Pesticides, February 9, 2009) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently soliciting comments on Monsanto’s second application to extend its experimental use permit for soybeans genetically engineered (GE) with the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This will be the new administration’s first test on how it handles the issues surrounding GE crops. Among a number of concerns regarding GE crops, crops engineered to contain Bt threaten the long-term efficacy of Bt, which is an approved insecticide in organic farming.
Monsanto’s permit on these GE soybeans was first granted by EPA in September 2007 and then extended in April 2008. Under the permit, plantings are permitted through July 31, 2009. Monsanto is requesting to extend the experimental program until December 31, 2010 and amend it by conducting tests with up to 0.466 pounds of Bt Cry1Ac protein in soybeans on 1,362 acres, according to the February 4th Federal Register notice. The testing trials will take place in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, and Virginia. Following the review of the application and any comments and data received in response to this solicitation, EPA will decide whether to issue or deny the EUP request, and if issued, the conditions under which it is to be conducted. Any issuance of an EUP will be announced in the Federal Register. Comments must be submitted by March 6, 2009.
There is some debate on what President Obama’s new administration’s position will be on GE crops as there is no reference to this issue on the White House website, www.whitehouse.gov. There are, unfortunately, signs that make some worry. For instance, during the presidential election, Obama responded to ScienceDebate2008’s questions on a number of issues, including GE, in which he stated, “Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods, abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice. And, according to the article “Obama’s Team Includes Dangerous Biotech ”˜Yes Men,’” published in the Huffington Post, President Obama’s new Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was “co-creator and chair of the Governors’ Biotechnology Partnership in 2000 and in 2001 the Biotech Industry Organization named him BIO Governor of the Year.”
Yet, there is still a chance for the promised change with President Obama’s new EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. In her recent testimony at her Senate confirmation hearing and open letter to EPA employees, Ms. Jackson pledges a return to scientific integrity and agency transparency. Environmental groups, which have been frustrated by years of unresponsive regulators, hope that Ms. Jackson’s EPA will use this promise of scientific integrity and transparency to increase protections for human health and environment that have been ignored, removed, or spent years in the system waiting for action.
Many feel the incorporation into food crops of genes from the natural bacterium, Bt, or the development of a herbicide resistant crop, as an approach to pest management is short sighted and dangerous. GE crops have encountered resistance from advocates throughout the world with concerns of insect resistance, superweeds, contamination of other plants from the same species through pollen drift, impact on human health, wildlife and other non-target organisms, soil contamination, hidden allergens, religious and moral considerations, antibiotic resistance, and unreasonable business contracts with farmers. A recent report by organic group the Soil Association, concludes that yields of all major GM varieties are equivalent to, or less than, those from conventional crops.
On November 10, 2008, the Austrian government released a report of long term research showing GE corn fed to mice significantly reduced their fertility over three to four breeding cycles within one generation. Similar effects were found in mice fed GE corn and bred over four generations. Roundup Ready crops, which are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s best selling herbicide Roundup (active ingredient glyphosate) have been a boon to Monsanto’s profits, but not without environmental costs. Currently grown Roundup Ready crops include soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beets. The crops’ resistance to glyphosate enables the use of the herbicide during the growing season without harming the crop itself. Glyphosate is now the number one herbicide in the United States. This has serious implications for public health and the environment, as glyphosate has been linked to cancer, reproductive effects, kidney and liver damage, and skin irritation; it is neurotoxic and toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. Increased herbicide usage has also led to resistant varieties of “superweeds.” Over 70% of all GE crops are altered to be herbicide-resistant.
More and more GE crops are being grown around the world. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications reports that biotech crops grew by 30 million acres, or 12 percent, in 2007 for a total of 282.4 million acres worldwide. Also astounding is the fact that 2 million more farmers planted biotech crops last year to total 12 million farmers globally. Notably, 9 out of 10, or 11 million of these farmers, are resource-poor farmers. In fact, the number of developing countries (12) planting biotech crops surpassed the number of industrialized countries (11), and the growth rate in the developing world was three times that of industrialized nations (21 percent compared to 6 percent.)
The long-term environmental effects of GE crops are largely unknown, and this was the premise of a recent successful lawsuit that Beyond Pesticides joined with other environmental and consumer groups. In September, a federal court upheld a ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa. The Court determined that the planting of genetically modified alfalfa can result in potentially irreversible harm to organic and conventional varieties of crops, damage to the environment, and economic harm to farmers.
Environmental and public health groups believe that, at a very minimum, labeling as a means of identifying products that contain genetically engineered ingredients are critical and complete regulatory review of all GE crops, which is currently not the case. Organic agriculture does not permit GE crops or the use of synthetic herbicides, and focuses on building the soil—minimizing its effect on climate change.