(Beyond Pesticides, May 24, 2011) Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a summary order upholding a landmark legal decision requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before approving the planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops. The decision upholds previous court rulings in favor of farmers and conservation advocates in a case on the future commercial uses of GE sugar beets, engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
“Today’s order cements a critical legal benchmark in the battle for meaningful oversight of biotech crops and food,” said Center for Food Safety (CFS) attorney George Kimbrell. “Because of this case, there will be public disclosure and debate on the harmful impacts of these pesticide-promoting crops, as well as legal protections for farmers threatened by contamination.”
CFS, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club, represented by CFS and Earthjustice, challenged the USDA approval in 2008. They argued that GE sugar beets would contaminate organic and non-GE farmers of related crops, such as table beets and chard, as well as increase pesticide impacts on the environment and worsen the current Roundup-resistant “superweeds” epidemic in U.S. agriculture. In September 2009, Judge Jeffrey S. White in the federal district court in San Francisco agreed, and ordered USDA to prepare an EIS assessing these and other impacts, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In August 2010, after a year of vigorous litigation over the proper remedy for USDA’s unlawful approval, the court again agreed with plaintiffs, threw out the USDA’s approval, and halting planting.
Monsanto and other biotech industry intervenors appealed on procedural grounds and, if granted, threatened to undo the earlier rulings. the appeals court order dismisses that appeal and affirmed the lower court’s rulings.
“Dismissal of the appeal confirms that the district court rightly concluded that in this case, as in every other case that has challenged USDA’s oversight of genetically engineered crops, the agency has flouted the law, favoring the interests of Monsanto over those of American people,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. “With every court decision the need for fundamental reform in this area becomes ever more obvious.”
Remarkably, the EIS is only the second USDA has undertaken for any GE crop in over 15 years of approving such crops for human consumption. Both analyses were court-ordered. USDA said it expects to finish the GE sugar beets EIS and have a new decision on commercialization in 2012.
Despite the absence of lawful review or a new agency decision, in summer 2010, USDA and the biotech industry demanded the court allow planting to continue unabated. The district court refused to do so and instead set aside USDA’s approval of the crop based on the agency’s failure to comply with environmental laws. That precedential ruling was also preserved by the appeals court order.
During this case’s appeal, USDA approved 2011-2012 planting of GE sugar beets under the terms of a novel permitting and “partial deregulation” scheme while it conducted the court-ordered analysis. That decision is the subject of separate litigation that is ongoing in the District of Columbia.
Monsanto created “Roundup Ready” crops to withstand its Roundup herbicide (with the active ingredient glyphosate). Growing previous Roundup Ready crops such as soy, cotton, and corn have led to greater use of herbicides. It has also led to the spread of herbicide resistant weeds on millions of acres throughout the U.S. and other countries where such crops are grown, as well as contamination of conventional and organic crops, which has been costly to U.S. farmers.
In March, 2011, attorneys for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Beyond Pesticides, Earthjustice, and farm and environmental groups filed a lawsuit against USDA, arguing that the agency’s unrestricted approval of GE “Roundup Ready” alfalfa is unlawful. In January, 2011, USDA announced plans to fully deregulate GE alfalfa seed, despite contamination risks it poses to both organic and conventional farmers.
Glyphosate is a neurotoxin, irritant, and can cause liver, kidney and reproductive damage. It is also linked to non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In recent news, glyphosate has been identified as a common chemical found in acute agricultural worker poisonings, and linked to intersex frogs.
Genetic engineering is often touted by chemical manufacturers as a way to reduce pesticide usage and increase disease resistance. In reality, it has actually been shown to increase pesticide usage, while disease resistant varieties are still largely in the experimental stages. Most GE crops currently on the market are genetically modified to be resistant to pests and pesticides through the incorporation of genes into food crops from a natural bacterium insecticide (Bt) or the development of herbicide-resistant crops. Thus, there are serious public health and pest resistance problems associated with GE crops. For instance, in a recent study by University of Notre Dame, scientists found that streams throughout the Midwest are contaminated with GE materials from corn crop byproducts, even six months after harvest. The long-term health effects of consuming GE food are still unknown. GE crops are also known to contaminate conventional non-GE and organic crops through “genetic drift” and take a toll on the environment by increasing resistant insects and weeds, contaminating water and affecting pollinators and other non-target organisms.
Currently, there are no regulations requiring GE foods to be labeled as such. The best way for consumers to avoid GE foods is to choose organic products.