Happenings in America

February 2012

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
While in Europe, BASF and Monsanto were throwing in the GM towel (see HAPPENINGS IN FRANCE and HAPPENINGS IN GERMANY - February 2012), on the other side of the pond, regulators have been very busy smoothing the GM path.

Goaded by mounting pressure from the biotech industry and its allies to speed up GM approvals, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working on plans to “streamline” the process. The USDA's problem is that GM crop producers are demanding that it get moving to deregulate the backlog of pending petitions for their GM seed, but the law is demanding that it consider the environment before it does so.

Under US law, the USDA must prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) of GM crops. If something “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” emerges from this assessment, the department must then prepare a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to explore the potential impacts and alternative actions. The need for an EIS for a plant implies the government does not think the crop is safe. NGO challenges to USDA attempts to deregulate GM alfalfa grass and GM sugar beet without preparing anything more than an EA ended in the Supreme Court which ruled it must prepare a full EIS.

The biotech industry reaction to these legal demands has been to issue threats of economic and political doom:
  • the US biotech agriculture industry would be crippled if it had to wait for the USDA to prepare an EIS for every GM crop deregulation
  • it would send out the 'wrong' message that the US thinks GM isn't safe which would make approvals by other trading partners virtually impossible
  • it would threaten America's economic dominance in the agricultural biotech market
  • it would make the positions taken by the Bush and Obama administration in supporting GM look hollow
  • it would allow Brazil and China to overtake the US as world leaders in biotechnology ...
The most interesting threat was that to require an EIS for each GM product would amount to a de facto moratorium. This is essentially the same complaint which America took, successfully, to the World Trade Organisation, in order to force its GM crops into Europe. So, the precedent set short-sightedly by the USA for others means it can't easily implement safety laws for itself either.

In order to please everyone, the USDA is trying to streamline the preparation of the mandatory environmental consideration. To this end, it has introduced two trial schemes. One involves new cost-sharing agreements which allow biotech companies to contribute to the cost of hiring private contractors to prepare environmental statements on their GM plants. The second involves training workshops to help biotech firms to conduct environmental reviews of their GM products and to prepare Environmental Reports. The regulators can then independently review these Environmental Reports and use them to prepare their own legally mandated assessments, instead of simply reviewing the company's petitions for deregulation of GM crops. Thus, the petitioning companies themselves will do some (most?) of the legwork needed and will help pay for it.

This sounds remarkably like a scheme to enable the government to dictate the necessary contents of GM Environmental Reports to the biotech industry so that the industry can submit the Reports back to the same body which dictated them in the first place so long as the industry pays for the privilege. Then everyone's kept happy: the government and biotech industry are in cahoots so as to get their own way while doing what the courts have ordered, the court is seeing its instructions obeyed, and the consumers are getting the environmental safety consideration they demanded. An even more sceptical view is that the whole scheme is little more than an extension of what was already happening: internal e-mails have revealed that Monsanto helped the USDA in conducting the original EA for GM alfalfa grass before it was approved for the first time in 2005.

The purpose of the two pilot schemes, as explained by the USDA secretary, is to facilitate the biotech industry's ability to create “high quality and defensible documents to better inform our regulatory decisions”. It seems the focus is not so much on ensuring the safety of the environment as on avoiding the legal challenges such as those sparked off by GM alfalfa grass and GM sugar-beet. As the Center for Food Safety policy expert commented, the organised collusion between government and industry “highlights the need for a culture change at the USDA. Regulators should be concerned about the safety of new GE products, not ensuring American exports compete with Brazil and China”.

A list of 22 biotech seeds could be reviewed under these pilot processes. These include the world's first 'drought-tolerant' GM corn (this doesn't work any better than existing, cheaper, regionally-adapted, conventional varieties, but might be muscled-in by Monsanto to replace them anyway), factory-friendly non-browning apples, environmentally-unfriendly anti-freeze eucalyptus trees, and several agent-orange (2,4-D) tolerant staple food crops.


Somehow, the happenings in America always seem to be PR-centric on on the surface with a hidden agenda underneath. What is clear is that the US administration is still not taking GM safety seriously, and is still firmly under the thumb of the biotech industry.

If you have friends or relatives in the US, they might be interested to compare and contrast what is happening in Europe and America, and even have a word with their representative about the biotech-industry tail wagging the administrative dog in their homeland.

  • Mike Ludwig, under Industry Pressure, USDA Works to Speed Approval of Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Crops, Truthout, 12.12.11
  • Tom Philpott, USDA Greenlights Monsanto's Utterly Useless New GMO Corn, Mother Jones, 23.01.12

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