(Beyond Pesticides, August 23, 2013) Beyond Pesticides, along with upwards of 150 U.S. farm and food businesses and organizations, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calling on the department to strengthen their oversight of field trials of experimental, genetically engineered (GE) crops. The letter comes in response to the USDA’s announcement in May 2013, that unapproved GE wheat developed by Monsanto was discovered in a farmer’s field in eastern Oregon. GE material drifts and contaminates non-GE and organic fields, economically crippling these farmers.
The letter, which was addressed to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, is supported by food and farming organizations calling for tighter regulations and oversight of GE crops, particularly for experimental field trials. “Current U.S. policy includes neither mandatory contamination prevention measures nor an adequate system for monitoring the success of containment following trials,” charged the Organic Seed Alliance and the Rural Advancement Foundation International in a recent press release.
Many of these farmers and members of these groups require this oversight to protect their very livelihoods. “Annually, we use over 10 million pounds of organic wheat,” said Steve Crider, government and industry liaison for Amy’s Kitchen. “Therefore, the integrity of non-GMO wheat is essential to our continued success as a business. ”˜GMO-free’ is what our customers demand and expect, both domestically here in the U.S. and our extensive export program abroad into Asia, the E.U., and the Middle East markets we serve.”
The letter was sent to USDA in late July and as a follow up groups met with Secretary Tom Vilsack last week in Washington D.C. to discuss the concerns laid out in the letter. The groups asked that USDA “fix its rubber-stamp approach to GE crops” and continued that “improvements in regulations and oversight must start at the field trial stage.”
Courtney Rowe, USDA spokeswoman told Reuters that the meeting between Mr. Vilsack and the groups was productive. “We are currently carefully reviewing the concerns and information shared with us and will be responding in full in the near future,” Ms. Rowe said.
Groups await USDA’s response to their requests which include the following:
- “USDA should halt new approvals of GE wheat field trials at least until the Oregon contamination investigation is complete.
- USDA should fully implement recommendations made by investigative bodies and Congress that aim to improve field trial oversight.
- USDA should publish a final report detailing the department’s investigation into the Oregon wheat event, including sampling and testing methodologies.
- Before approving field trials, USDA should have the appropriate tools in hand to test for unapproved GE traits in cases of suspected and confirmed contamination events.
- USDA should require mandated containment protocols for all GE crop field trials.”
USDA says, in a conversation with Reuters, that it has in fact strengthened its oversight of biotech crop field trials in recent years. Since 2007, USDA has increased the number of inspections by about 200 inspections per year, from 500 inspections in 2007 up to 700 this last year. Additionally, the department has improved training for monitoring compliance with test protocols.
However, GE contamination of non-GE crops is not isolated to the wheat fields in eastern Oregon. Biotech rice developed by Bayer to resist herbicides, was found in food supplies in 2006, despite being unapproved for human consumption. The event crippled more than 7,000 long-grain rice producers, as Japan and the European Union (EU) restricted the importation of U.S. rice, causing rice prices to plunge. Bayer CropScience announced in 2011 that it would pay up to $750 million to settle claims. Similarly, corn contaminated with unapproved GE traits was found in U.S. corn crops in 2005 and 2006. Clearly, the problems with regulatory oversight of GE crops are not restricted to the recent event in Oregon; the letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack highlights the issues.
In addition to the economic harm, the growth of GE crops also has severe negative impacts on the environment. A recent study by researcher Charles Benbrook, Ph.D. shows that GE crops have significantly increased pesticide use and weed resistance, contrary to industry claims that the technology would reduce herbicide applications. As weed resistance increases, growers have started to look towards other chemically intense methods to fight weeds. The explosion of GE crops has also been linked to a decline in pollinator populations.
For more information on the environmental hazards associated with GE technology, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering webpage. The best way to avoid genetically engineered foods in the marketplace is to purchase foods that have the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic Seal. Under organic certification standards, genetically modified organisms and their byproducts are prohibited. For many other reasons, organic products are the right choice for consumers.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.