This Truthout investigative report was written by Mike Ludwig.
For years, biotech agriculture opponents have accused regulators of working too closely with big biotech firms when deregulating genetically engineered (GE) crops. Now, their worst fears could be coming true: under a new two-year pilot program at the USDA, regulators are training the world’s biggest biotech firms, including Monsanto, BASF and Syngenta, to conduct environmental reviews of their own transgenic seed products as part of the government’s deregulation process.
This would eliminate a critical level of oversight for the production of GE crops. Regulators are also testing new cost-sharing agreements that allow biotech firms to help pay private contractors to prepare mandatory environmental statements on GE plants the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering deregulating.
The USDA launched the pilot project in April and, in November, the USDA announced vague plans to “streamline” the deregulation petition process for GE organisms. A USDA spokesperson said the streamlining effort is not part of the pilot project, but both efforts appear to address a backlog of pending GE crop deregulation petitions that has angered big biotech firms seeking to rollout new products.
Documents obtained by Truthout under a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal that biotech companies, lawmakers and industry groups have put mounting pressure on the USDA in recent years to speed up the petition process, limit environmental impact assessments and approve more GE crops. One group went as far as sending USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack a timeline of GE soybean development that reads like a deregulation wish list. [Click here and here to download and read some of the documents released to Truthout.]
The pilot program is named the NEPA Pilot Project, after the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which mandates that agencies prepare statements on the potential environmental impacts of proposed actions by the federal government, such as deregulating transgenic plants. On July 14, USDA officials held a training workshop to help representatives from biotech firms (see a full list here) to understand the NEPA process and prepare Environmental Reports on biotech products they have petitioned the USDA to deregulate.
Regulators can now independently review the Environmental Reports and can use them to prepare their own legally mandated reviews, instead of simply reviewing the company’s petitions for deregulation. The pilot project aims to speed up the deregulation process by allowing petitioning companies to do some of the legwork and help pay contractors to prepare regulatory documents and, for its part, the USDA has kept the pilot fairly transparent. A list of 22 biotech seeds that could be reviewed under the pilot program includes Monsanto drought-tolerant corn, a “non-browning” apple, freeze tolerant eucalyptus trees and several crops engineered to tolerate the controversial herbicides glyphosate and 2,4 D.
Activists say biotech firms like Monsanto are concerned only with profit and routinely supply regulators with one-sided information on the risks their GE seeds – and the pesticides sprayed on and produced by them – pose to consumers, animals and the agricultural environment. (The Natural Society recently declared Monsanto the worst company of 2011.) Bill Freese, a policy expert with the Center for Food Safety (CFS), told Truthout that the NEPA pilot gives already powerful biotech companies too much influence over the review process.
“It’s the equivalent of letting BP do their own Environmental Assessment of a new rig,” Freese said.
Monsanto Goes to Court
Freese and the Center for Food Safety have been on the frontlines of the battle to reform the USDA’s regulatory approval process for GE crops. The group was a plaintiff in recent lawsuits challenging the deregulation – which basically means approval for planting without oversight – of Monsanto’s patented alfalfa and sugar beets that are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide. Farmers can spray entire fields of Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” crops with Roundup to kill unwanted weeds while sparing the GE crops, but in recent years, some weeds have developed a tolerance to glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient. The cases kept the crops out of America’s fields for years and prompted biotech companies to put heavy pressure on top USDA officials to streamline and speed up the deregulation process, practically setting the stage for the NEPA pilot underway today.
Under NEPA, agencies like the USDA must prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) to determine if the proposed action, such as deregulating a transgenic organism, would have an impact on the environment. If some type of significant impact is likely, the agency must then prepare a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to explore potential impacts and alternative actions. NEPA requires an EIS for actions “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” Preparing a full impact statement for a biotech plant implies the government does not think GE crops are safe and the biotech industry has routinely butted heads with environmentalists while attempting to convince regulators and consumers otherwise. In the Monsanto beets and alfalfa cases, the CFS and other plaintiffs argued that the USDA should have prepared an EIS, not just a simple EA, before deregulating both Monsanto crops.
Photo from Big Grey Mare via flickr
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