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Daily News Blog

25
Mar

Trump Administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes Planting of Genetically Engineered Crops in Southeast National Wildlife Refuges

(Beyond Pesticides, March 25, 2020) The Trump administration’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is moving forward with a proposal to grow genetically engineered crops (GECs) on national wildlife refuges in the Southeast United States. The draft environmental assessment allows wildlife to consume pesticide-laden produce, considers chemical-intensive genetically engineered crops no less damaging to the environment than “non-use of GECs,” and permits and escalation of climate change with toxic pesticide use increases. USFW’s proposal fails to mention the success of organic agriculture and consider it as one of the alternative management strategies. The proposal is up for public comment until April 10, 2020.

In 2014, public pressure and lawsuits by environmental groups led to the Obama administration’s decision to phase out GE crops and ban neonicotinoid insecticide use on national wildlife refuges. On August 2, 2018, the Trump administration’s USFWS issued a memorandum that reversed the prohibition. The reversal allows the refuge system to make decisions on the use of GECs and neonics on a case-by-case basis in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is also under attack by the Trump administration. The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, and others quickly challenged the 2018 reversal memorandum with an ongoing lawsuit.

USFWS’ Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) recommends opening up southeast national wildlife refuges to the use of GECs as a support to wildlife. “Most refuges that use agriculture as a management tool do so in cooperation with local farmers in order to meet our habitat and wildlife management objectives,” states the proposal, “In exchange for use of the land, growers leave a percentage of the crops in the field as forage for wildlife.” The Center for Biological Diversity reports that about 44,000 acres of refuge land in the Southeastern Region are used for agriculture, and the most common crops are corn, soybeans, and rice.

Agrichemical companies engineer seeds to tolerate toxic herbicide and insecticide applications. “Roundup ready” seeds, for example, pair with Bayer/Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer product. The active ingredient, glyphosate, is the most commonly used pesticide in the world and a probable human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization.

The draft proposal cites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for regulation as appropriate for environmental protection, but advocates argue that the current regulatory system is insufficient, industry-influenced, full of loopholes, and does not meet NEPA standards. The “treated articles exemption” allows systemic insecticides, like neonicotinoid treated seeds, to be used without regulating or labeling them as required under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

Commodity crop GE seeds such as corn and soybeans are often coated with neonicotinoid insecticides which become endemic to the plant. Neonics are neurotoxic, water-soluble, and linked to deleterious impacts on public health and biodiversity. Neonic-treated seeds are poisonous to migratory birds; a 2019 study in Science found their consumption to be related to reduced weight, delayed travel, and lowered chances of survival. Soon after that study was published, scientists revealed that three billion birds have been lost since 1970 due to compounding factors, such as pesticide use and climate change. EPA does not currently assess adverse effects wrought by widespread use of treated seeds, resulting in pervasive contamination.

“We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis,” says Ben Prater, southeast program director at Defenders of Wildlife. “Industrial agriculture with pesticide-intensive genetically engineered crops has no place on national wildlife refuges dedicated to conservation of our most vulnerable species, including pollinators like hummingbirds, bumble bees and monarch butterflies.”

USFWS’ PEA notes the adverse impact of “commercial pesticides” (and their citations read “neonics”). Remarkably, the authors argue that genetically engineered crops, as opposed to “non-GEC,” use fewer commercial pesticides. “Non-GEC” evidently does not consider research regarding organic agriculture, a $50-billion industry.

“Proposing that allowing GECs would benefit birds on a national wildlife refuge is misleading,” says Barbara Dale, Beyond Pesticides’ Marketing and Public Education Manager. “The use of pesticide-resistant and pesticide-treated seeds will only serve to further poison an already beleaguered environment in a time of cascading crises.”

USFW’s draft proposal names climate change as both an unavoidable threat and a reason to ramp up toxic pesticide use. “Changes in climate are expected to continue to cause a general increase in the expansion of weeds and pests. Adaptive responses will be required to mitigate the potentially adverse impacts of these increases on crop yields and production costs (Backlund et al. 2008, IPCC 2014).”

Advocates argue that adaptive responses to climate change should promote organic agriculture. Not only do organic, no-till practices reduce pollution and wildlife poisoning, they  store carbon more readily than chemical-intensive agriculture. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers disrupt healthy soil microbial communities and hinder carbon-capturing, symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. What more, organic agriculture provides refuge for biodiversity in an increasingly toxic, chemical-intensive landscape, while turning a higher profit for farmers.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a public comment period for its proposal to plant genetically engineered (GE) crops on national wildlife refuges. They will accept input through April 10, 2020. Stay tuned to Beyond Pesticides’ Action of the Week for opportunities to plug into this and other responsive measures, such as Rep. Nydia Velazquez’s H.R. 2854, “To amend the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 to prohibit the use of neonicotinoids in a National Wildlife Refuge, and for other purposes,” and the Saving America’s Pollinator’s Act (SAPA). SAPA would place another layer of review on EPA’s assessments by an independent panel of experts not subject to the influence of the pesticide industry. Under this legislation, experts would consider impacts outside of EPA’s current reviews, including indirect, ecosystem-wide effects to pollinators and their habitat, pesticide synergism, and the availability of alternative products on the market. Click here to tell your rep to join as a cosponsor to SAPA.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: Center for Biological Diversity, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

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