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EXCLUSIVE: Under Industry Pressure, USDA Works to Speed Approval of Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered Crops

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In the alfalfa case, the CFS and its co-plaintiffs claimed the crop could have significant impacts by crossbreeding and contaminating conventional and organic alfalfa with transgenes. They also argued the crop would increase the use of herbicides and promote the spread of herbicide-tolerant weeds known as “super weeds.” A federal district court agreed and vacated the USDA’s original approval, halting plantings across the country. Monsanto challenged the decision and the alfalfa case landed in the Supreme Court in 2010.  The high court overturned an injunction preventing farmers from planting the alfalfa, but also ordered the USDA to prepare an EIS and issue another deregulation decision. The sugar beet case ended in similar fashion and the USDA recently released a draft EIS on the crop, which is expected to be deregulated in early 2012.

Monsanto won the right to sell its GE alfalfa seed in February 2011, but the lengthy and expensive legal battle captured the attention of food lovers and agriculturalists across the country. Americans debated the potential dangers of GE crops and the merits of the regulatory system that is supposed to protect farmers and consumers. As documents unearthed by a Truthout FOIA request reveal, the biotech industry did not sit idly by as activists challenged the regulatory status quo.

Mounting Pressure

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is a powerful group that represents dozens of biotech companies such as Monsanto, BASF and Bayer, and has spent more than $67 million lobbying Congress since 2000. In April 2010, BIO sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack as the Monsanto alfalfa case made its way through the courts. BIO warned Vilsack that the American biotech agriculture industry could be crippled if the legal precedents required the USDA to prepare an EIS for every GE crop up for deregulation:

With 19 deregulation petitions pending with more on the way, requiring an EIS for each product would amount to a de facto moratorium on commercialization and would send an unprecedented message that USDA believes that these products do have an environmental impact, when in fact most do not. Any suggestion by USDA that biotechnology plants as a category are likely to cause significant adverse effects on the quality of the human environment (i.e., require an EIS) would make approvals by other trading partners virtually impossible …

BIO claimed that such a policy would be an “over-reaction to the current judicial decisions” and would threaten America’s economic dominance in the agricultural biotechnology market. Such a policy, BIO representatives stated, would send a message to European countries that American regulators believe GE crops impact the environment, making approvals of GE crops by the European Union “virtually impossible” and allowing “Brazil and China to surpass the United States as world leaders in biotechnology.” BIO also claimed that more rigorous assessments would “undercut” positions consistently take by the Obama and Bush administrations on the safety of biotech agriculture.

Vilsack received similar letters requesting the USDA continue relying on EAs instead of EISs to deregulate GE crops from the Americas Soybean Association and the American Seed Trade Association. Both groups worried that an increase in oversight – precipitated by the more in-depth impact evaluation – could back up approvals for years. The soybean association included in its letter a pipeline chart of 25 GE soybean varieties it “expected” to be approved for commercialization within a decade.

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Photo from Big Grey Mare via flickr

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4:10PM PST on Jan 4, 2012


9:53PM PST on Dec 19, 2011

horrible news, thanks for telling the world

9:52PM PST on Dec 19, 2011

horrible news

7:51PM PST on Dec 19, 2011

We each need to take more responsibility for our own health and the results of our own actions. How can I expect big pharma, big ag, big oil to be honorable when I am not? (Yes, I have my foibles.) I need to know what I am putting into my body, what I am doing to my earth, and I need to take care of myself. We need to stop supporting those who are killing us.

3:43PM PST on Dec 19, 2011

The USDA has often shown too much favoring to big industries. But it is also difficult for them because their laws are so weak with so many loopholes that big industries can work around. The USDA needs stronger laws and people who will enforce them justly.

1:15PM PST on Dec 19, 2011


11:33AM PST on Dec 19, 2011

Fox guarding the chicken coop?

This whole GMO thing is extremely scary to me as is the fact that Corporations are now people and most likely will buy their freedom from dissenters

7:28AM PST on Dec 19, 2011

If it wasn't so scary this situation would be a good plot for a comedy or something.

6:22AM PST on Dec 19, 2011

Attention Bio Companies:

Greed makes you blind. Our bodies were not designed to purge the chemicals you spray on the fields. Cancer and other aliments are running ramped because of you. Eventually you will pay the price also. Your money will do you no good. The sins you have rained upon the planet will prevail. Unless you have another planet at your disposal. I suggest you stop the insanity.

5:07PM PST on Dec 18, 2011

Thank you

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