U.S. Government Allowing Genetically Engineered Crops on Wildlife Refuges

The U.S. government has been allowing the planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops on over 50 National Wildlife refuges throughout the country, allegedly to help  promote the exporting of GE crops, according to an investigation of emails obtained by an environmental ‘watchdog’ group.

Corn Creek Springs at Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada
Corn Creek Springs at Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

The spread of genetically engineered or modified crops such as soy, corn and more recently, alfalfa, has been causing a good deal of controversy in recent months and years. Most of this concern has been confined to commercial agricultural usage (especially in Europe), impacts on organic farming, and scattered reports of GE (genetically engineered) crops having escaped into the wild — possibly altering existing ecosystems through genetic exchange between GE crops and wild-type plants.

Additionally, Monsanto’s “Roundup ready” crops (those genetically engineered for resistance to the herbicide) have garnered increased public scrutiny and concern. A recent report (see the Planetsave article Monsanto’s Roundup Really DOES Cause Birth Defects, New Report Finds) has also linked glyphosate (the main chemical in Round-up) with birth defects

But now comes news via a recent Truthout.org investigation of government emails between administration officials and agribusiness industry executives, concerning the on-going planting of GE crops in over 50 wild life refuges throughout the U.S. The  rationale for this effort — as described in the emails – is “habitat restoration” where Roundup ready crops are planted so as to survive the spraying of Roundup on invasive weeds,  and thus maintain and/or rebuild vegetation cover, presumably.

For many years the US Fish and Wild Life Service has allowed farming on refuge lands in the belief that such farming helps develop native grasslands and provides food for animal species. But apparently, this has opened the door for the  “farming” of GE crops as well.

In early 2011,  the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and its allies successfully halted the planting of GE crops in US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife refuges in northeastern states through a lawsuit settlement. Based upon emails released under FOIA requests, PEER claims the Obama administration is working with the biotech industry to continue this practice, and further, to shield GE plots in refuges from future legal challenges.

The effort by industry lobbying group BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) appears to be targeting the White House Office of Science and Technology which recently also formed the inter-agency White House Agricultural Biotechnology Working Group. It is alleged by watchdog groups that the Working Group has joined forces with BIO to promote and increase GE seed and crop exports to other nations.

However, it is not clear how much political influence BIO has with the White House. To date, the Obama administration has made no public statements of record indicating its position and intent with these GE crop plantings.

According to the emails, BIO has been seeking official comments (from members of the Working Group) concerning the new environmental assessments of recent GE crop plantings on refuge lands across the country. Presumably, favorable assessments will help the government (and the industry) defend against future litigation over their use. They may also serve an additional economic purpose for agribusiness.

The Working Group is comprised of officials from State Department, the Justice Department, the Office of Budget and Management, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A top official for the wildlife refuge system (in a statement published in the Truthout article) asserts that: “GE crops restore habitats in ways that conventional crops cannot. Crops that are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides (such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soy) provide beneficial ground cover and the herbicides can be sprayed across entire fields, killing only unwanted weeds, but sparring the GE crops.”

With virtually no public hearings/announcements, or independent  environmental impact assessments, many conservation groups and experts are now debating whether this is sound land management or a “dangerous ecological experiment.”

Pelican Island was the nation's first wildlife refuge
Pelican Island was the nation's first wildlife refuge

One skeptic of this rationale points to recent efforts in the Hoh Rain Forest (State of Washington)  to “restore” salmon habitat by poisoning the invasive Japanese knotweed with ground injections of imazapyr and glyphosate. Without an adequate environmental impact assessment and chemical life-cycle analysis, it is not known to what extent water quality is affected by the disintegration of chemically poisoned vegetation.

And members of PEER assert that the government is not really interested in habitat restoration. Quoting from the Truthout article:

‘ “These plans are based on the curious notion that wildlife benefit from having the small slivers of habitat set aside for them covered by genetically engineered soybeans. To boost US exports, the Obama administration is forcing wildlife refuges into political prostitution.” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch of the program in an earlier press release. ‘

PEER further claims that the long-standing Fish and Wildlife policy only allows for GE crops in wildlife refuges if they are found to be essential for some ecological or land management purpose. This proviso is used by some European countries as evidence that GE crops are not environmentally sound.

According to some critics, this is all part of a giant public relations campaign to make GE crops  look “beneficial to wildlife”, thus polishing the industry’s tarnished image in the eyes of the world.

Despite the efforts to forestall future legal challenges, conservation groups still have strong legal foundations for pursuing lawsuits to stop the practice. The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, apart from providing guidelines and directives for the management of all areas with the refuge system, also established the standard of “compatibility” which requires that all usage of refuge lands be determined to be compatible with the purposes for which any individual refuge was established.

(Comment: Clearly, the purposes for refuges are not to promote the positive public images of global agribusinesses. But if the industry can show long-term benefit to habitat restoration, it could makes its case.).

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 amended the aforementioned Act and further strengthened and clarified this standard by providing a new, statutory mission statement and directive that the U.S. refuge system be managed as a national system of lands and waters for the conservation of wildlife and maintaining the biological integrity of ecosystems.

Thus, if the planting of GE crops and or the use of glyphosate on them can be shown to place this “biological integrity” at risk, then there is strong grounds for a lawsuit to stop the practice before it expands further.

Finally, there is also the venerable Endangered Species Act of 1973 which has so far provided the extensive, legal means of protection for endangered species; in addition to listing of species eligible for protection, the Act also includes penalties for harming endangered animals and mandates review and compliance obligations for various Federal agency programs.

Read the full Truthout article ‘Emails Show White House Promotes Genetically Engineered Crops in Wildlife Refuges’

See a List of National Wildlife Refuges of the United States

Note: the images in this article are not meant to represent known refuges with GE crops, rather, they are meant to be representative of the refuge system in general.

Photos: USFWS

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