Why is the White House Backing Genetically Engineered Crops?

07/26/2011
SustainableBusiness.com News

In an effort to boost exports, the White House has entered into a joint venture with the agricultural biotechnology industry to remove barriers to the spread of genetically engineered (GE) crops, even on national wildlife refuges, according to documents posted last week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

PEER has filed a law suit against the White House Trade Representative, Office of Management & Budget (OMB) and the State Department to force release of documents detailing their partnership with industry.

PEER says recent lawsuits underline the incompatibility of GE crops with refuge habitats, which has strengthened objections from GE-averse nations. The Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), whose most prominent member is GE-giant Monsanto, asked the White House for assistance in overcoming these barriers.

In late 2010, the White House formed an interagency "Agriculture Biotech Working Group" consisting of over 35 officials from 10 agencies to promote GE agriculture.

This Working Group includes officials from the White House and its OMB, Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Trade Rep. It also has officials from State, Justice, Agriculture, EPA and FDA.

A central task of this Working Group is to legally insulate GE crops on refuges from further litigation, PEER says. Initially, it tried to pressure the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which operates the National Wildlife Refuge System, to rescind its Ecological Integrity Policy, which forbids GE planting unless found to be essential to accomplishing a refuge purpose. Working with BIO, these officials then helped prepare environmental assessments to start paving a legal path for GE plantings on 75 refuges in 30 states.

"With all the environmental challenges facing this country, why is the White House priority putting wildlife refuges under the thumb of Monsanto?" asks PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed last week's Freedom of Information Act suits. "It is frankly depressing that the top White House official for ecosystem recovery is hustling genetically altered soybeans on slivers of land set aside for wildlife."

PEER has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to most of the agencies in the Working Group. The suits target three key agencies which have not turned over any documents. PEER has obtained fragmentary documents including a January 14, 2011 email from Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes relaying pressure from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that refuges were "not being consistent in supporting genetically modified crops."

PEER says the agencies are withholding records that show:

"We are on the ground floor of our climb to reach answers to these questions," adds Douglass, who is pursuing further record releases from the other agencies involved. "One thing we do know is this Biotech Working Group exhibits the opposite of the transparent, science-based decision-making we were promised from this administration."

Increasingly the only seed available to U.S. farmers, especially for corn and soybeans, is GE. Ironically, it is the ubiquity of GE agriculture that FWS offers as the main reason it must allow these crops on refuges.

In Related News...

The decline of the monarch butterfly is being partly blamed on the rise of genetically engineered crops, reports the New York Times

As recently as a decade ago, milkweed, the only plant which monarchs lay their eggs on and their larvae can eat, were considered common weeds on farms across the country.

Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" crops  contain a bacterial gene that allows them to withstand Roundup or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, allowing farmers to kill the weeds without harming the crop.

Because they make weed control much easier, GE crops have been widely adopted by farmers. This year, 94% of soybeans and 72% of corn being grown in the US are Roundup Ready,  according to the Department of Agriculture.

Milkweed has disappeared from at least 100 million acres of these row crops, as have all the other native perennials that are commonly considered "weeds" - but which actually support our bee, bird and beneficial insect populations.

Organic food advocates in California are working to put an initiative on the electoral ballot in 2012 to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

The USDA, which the Obama Administration filled with Monsanto supporters, is allowing the industry to determine the safety of its own crops.