Co-Authored by Colin O'Neil, Regulatory Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety
The agricultural biotech industry -- well, let's call it what it really is: the chemical industry -- has gone on the offensive as never before with a set of slippery policy riders to the House Farm Bill. It's a new low even for an industry that has spent years and tens of millions of lobbying dollars trying to dismantle the basic safeguards that stand between a regulated, healthy food supply and the profit margins chemical industry executives pine for. If passed, these riders would undermine the few laws that are currently in place to protect farmers' rights, our health and our environment from the many adverse impacts of genetically engineered (GE) crops.
Waking to the news this morning that the bill reported out of committee late last night with this suite of riders perfectly intact should give everyone interested in a safer, more secure food supply (and U.S. economy, for that matter) a definite chill, even during these incredibly hot July days. Why? Because one important question has become very real: Will Congress let the chemical industry write its own rules?
Deliberately buried in the House Agriculture Committee's voluminous discussion draft of the 2012 Farm Bill, these significant changes to the Plant Protection Act (PPA) -- one of the few statues that regulate GE crops -- will counter the gains that have been made to protect our food supply and the farmers who grow it. The provisions (Sections 10011, 10013 and 10014) would force the rushed commercialization of GE crops, create a backdoor approval for Dow's "Agent Orange" corn and eliminate any meaningful review of the impacts of these novel crops.
Science and time have shown that GE crops cause significant harm to agriculture and the environment. The overwhelming majority of these novel crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicides, such as Monsanto's Roundup, and have dramatically increased overall herbicide use by 382 million lbs. This spike has, in turn, caused an epidemic scourge of herbicide-resistant superweeds. And they have caused repeated transgenic contamination of non-biotech crop, costing farmers and businesses billions of dollars, as well as permanent contamination of the wild.
Federal courts have ruled for farmers, businesses and public interest plaintiffs numerous times, holding that USDA had violated federal law when approving GE crops by failing to adequately consider and regulate their harms. But rather than address these continued failures, the chemical industry's allies in Congress are trying to change the law via the Farm Bill. The logic being: if you can't win the game, change the rules.
These changes, if allowed to become law, would have numerous negative impacts and outlaw responsible governance. For example, one proposed rider would outlaw any review of GE crops' impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other environmental laws. This suite of "biotech riders" would have a devastating impact on our country's protection of endangered species. It would also outlaw review by any agency other than the USDA. As a result, the potential impacts of GE crops, including increased pesticide use, on endangered species and other wildlife would not be assessed by our expert wildlife agencies, allowing a GE crop approval to go forward, even if it would cause the extinction of a protected species. Such changes in regulation leave our protected wildlife populations in severe jeopardy and undermine the agencies working hard to ensure their survival. Instead, USDA would only be required to perform narrow, newly established cursory environmental analysis. It even goes so far as to prohibit the Department from using any funds to conduct any additional environmental analyses, even if a federal judge deems such analyses necessary.
To make matters worse, the proposed riders include several means for "backdoor" approvals of GE crops. One rider would allow potentially dangerous GE crops to be commercialized without necessary safety assessments by establishing deliberately impossible deadlines for USDA to meet. Under this provision, if USDA fails to review and approve a GE crop within the short agency deadline, an immediate "default" approval and commercialization would be granted. Thus commercialization of novel GE crops could occur without any agency analysis, let alone any approval, taking place. This new one-year deadline to approve or deny an application (with an optional 180-day extension) will put unreasonable pressure on the Department and will undoubtedly impact its willingness to even attempt rigorous risk assessments.
It's no secret -- our federal agencies are underfunded and already swamped with the important task of reviewing and assessing new industry products, including GE crops. To suggest that approval of new crops that are resistant to toxic pesticides -- like 2,4-D and Dicamba -- should occur "automatically," without a thorough environmental and economic analysis, is absurd. It flies in the face of farmers' basic rights to grow their crop of choice, be protected from transgenic contamination and not be subjected to chemical drift from the use of ever-increasingly higher levels of toxic herbicides.
But it doesn't stop there. The riders also open up a proposed second backdoor approval opportunity for GE crops that have gone through an initial public comment period and are currently under review by the USDA. Under this condition, if USDA is unable to approve or deny a crop application within 90 days of the Farm Bill passage, then the crop would be deemed approved. That's right. If USDA can't get through the process on schedule -- a schedule created to make sure they won't -- then all the safeguards come down and a new GE crop enters the public sphere without a regulatory roadblock in its way.
And if that doesn't sound serious enough for you, consider the fact that one of the crops that this could apply to is Dow's 2,4-D corn. Some know it better as "Agent Orange" corn, a GE crop engineered to withstand exposure to one of the chemicals in the infamous Vietnam-era herbicide. There's no doubt about it, the deadlines would be impossible to meet given the volume of public and scientific comments the Department receives (the agency received over 350,000 on the proposed Dow corn approval alone) and the number of applications currently being considered.
Conventional (non-biotech) and organic farmers, as well as grain handlers, grain millers and processors have already suffered substantial economic losses in the past due to transgenic contamination from GE crops. If these proposed provisions become law, the Secretary of Agriculture may be unable to prevent costly contamination episodes, like Starlink corn or Liberty Link rice, which result in market rejection, loss of foreign and domestic markets and untold millions of dollars in lost revenue to farmers and the food industry.
But the chemical interests thought of that, too. They've inserted a rider that would compel USDA to establish an extremely controversial national policy for the "low-level presence" of GE material in crops, setting for the first time an acceptable level of GE contamination in non-GE crops in the U.S. The disassociation of the chemical industry's priorities from reality is almost inexplicable. Consumer demand for GE-free foods is higher than ever, both in the U.S. and abroad. Any policy that intentionally allows for GE material in crops and does nothing to prevent contamination of conventional and organic crops poses serious and irreversible economic harm to thousands of farmers, handlers, food processors and manufacturers. And beyond that, this illogical and unreasonable policy would severely impact the capability to export U.S. agricultural products to vital foreign markets that have restrictions on GE material in food.
American agriculture is at a crossroads. The mere fact that these riders are actually under discussion in today's House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill mark-up session is a testament to the changed reality we are facing. Far from moving closer to a safer, healthier and better regulated food supply, we're all witness to an attempted shift away from those principles -- delivering our regulatory and decision-making powers over U.S. agriculture into the hands of industry. It's a scary scenario.
So, will Congress let the chemical industry write its own rules? For the sake of all American farmers, consumers and the environment, let's hope the House Agriculture Committee and other members of Congress will see the true intent of these riders and strike them from the Farm Bill before more damage is done.