Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled once and for all to allow unrestricted planting of Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets. This announcement puts an end to a long court battle to force the USDA to uphold the law — a battle that some anti-GMO advocates might call Pyrrhic.
We covered the GMO sugar fracas extensively last month, but here’s a quickie review: The USDA was forced to perform a court-ordered environmental review of the GMO sugar beet seed and to restrict planting by farmers until the review was finished. As it happens, this was a review that the USDA had failed to complete back in 2008 when it had allowed farmers to begin using the seed. This failure was in violation of law and was the grounds for the court’s intervention after several consumer groups filed suit. And though the agency flouted a court-ordered halt to planting out of concern about a sugar shortage, they did ultimately comply with the judge’s order to finish a full review.
The ruling came out of the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the division in charge of regulating genetically modified food. And, as if to stress the fact that the process is complete and GMO sugar beets are totally in the clear, the USDA declared in the announcement that “this is APHIS’ final regulatory determination in this matter.” So back off, people!
The review was released last month so there was little that was surprising in the final announcement. But the language that APHIS used this week explains a lot about federal policy on GMOs. As the agency put it:
After completing both a thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) and plant pest risk assessment (PPRA) … APHIS has determined that, from the standpoint of plant pest risk, RR sugar beets are as safe as traditionally bred sugar beets.
In other words, the only grounds on which the USDA judges risks with GMOs are their threat to turn into a “pest plant,” i.e. a plant that could cause trouble for other crops. What about all the other potential risks GMOs represent — health, ecological, economic, etc.? Well, the fact is that Congress has never written a law designed to regulate genetically modified food; GMO regulation has been shoehorned into existing law (by then-Vice President Dan Quayle, no less). And the controlling regulations for GMOs are the USDA’s “plant pest” rules.
This fact allows the USDA to keep the bar for approval very low — and it’s a bar that every GMO seed ever submitted for approval has managed to clear.
The sad truth is that GMO sugar beets are probably far safer than what’s coming down the pike. For instance, we’ve known that Agent Orange Corn — corn modified to tolerate the toxic and volatile pesticide 2,4-D — is close to winning USDA approval. Then, in early in July, the USDA indicated that Agent Orange Soy is on the way to approval, as well.
These last two GMO evil twins may be the genetically modified straw that finally breaks farmers’ backs, especially organic farmers and other non-GMO-using conventional farmers. On top of the risks from the seed itself, farmers will need to confront the fact that 2,4-D is notorious for drifting miles away from the farms on which it is used. Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott found a recent example of how bad the drift can get:
This past June, in California, a farmer who sprayed 1,000 acres of pasture with 2,4-D inadvertently damaged 15,000 acres of cotton and a pomegranate orchard, Western Farm Press reports. The drift reached as far as 100 miles away from the sprayed land.
One hundred miles! If 2,4-D use increases the way many think it will if USDA follows through on its intention to approve the two genetically modified crops, stories such as the one above will become commonplace. Yet despite the danger of drift and because of the growing scourge of superweeds — weeds resistant to Monsanto’s RoundUp pesticide — many farmers will be tempted to use the 2,4-D-resistant corn and soy. It beats abandoning a field to giant, resistant pigweed!
Because the USDA can only regulate these seeds in terms of whether or not they will interfere with other crops (thanks, Dan Quayle!) the agency likes to behave as if its hands are tied. This is what George Kimbrell of the advocacy group Center for Food Safety described to me a few months back as a claim of “regulatory incompetence.” Here’s his reaction at the time:
We strongly disagree with USDA’s claims of regulatory impotence … [This claim is]contrary to the statute and Supreme Court, in addition to being extremely bad policy. USDA’s job is to protect all farmers and the environment, not just biotech special interests.”
Well, the USDA won’t do that unless Congress forces it to. As for Congress, the Senate recently rejected an attempt to attach a GMO labeling law to the farm bill, and the Tea Party-controlled House is more likely to legislate mandatory GMO consumption than it is to give the USDA powerful tools to regulate it. So no help there.
At this point, the only hope is empowering consumers — and California, with its GMO labeling referendum on the November ballot, may be coming to the rescue. Although the media battle over the ballot measure has barely begun, Prop 37, as it’s being called, is leading comfortably in the polls. Political blogger Kevin Drum, who lives in California, has a rule of thumb that a referendum has to have support of around 65 percent at the start of a campaign to maintain its majority by election day — which is exactly where the proposition is polling now.
Once consumers have the opportunity to see just how much GMO food they’re eating, it will be up to them to make different choices (or not). But if they do start to avoid buying foods with the GMO label, farmers may discover that the “simplicity” of GMO agriculture is no longer worth it.
And now, because you’ve made it to the end of the post, you deserve to watch a fun Sesame Street segment about sugar beets from the ’70s.