By Mike Ludwig
30 August 2013
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Environmental advocates are once again suing the Obama administration to stop the farming of genetically engineered crops in national wildlife refuges, this time in five refuges in four Midwestern states.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court, the environmental groups charge that the US Fish and Wildlife Service unlawfully entered into farming contracts to grow genetically engineered crops at national wildlife refuges in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois without completing an environmental impact review required by federal law.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed farming on national wildlife refuges for decades, and environmentalists claim agriculture has harmful impacts on wildlife, biodiversity and native grasses in the refuges. In recent years, farmers have switched to genetically engineered crops - also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs - that are altered to produce or be resistant to pesticides.
Environmentalists are specifically concerned about Monsanto-brand GMOs that are engineered to tolerate the company's Roundup herbicide, which can be sprayed over entire fields to kill weeds while sparing the GMO crops. Widespread use of Roundup has been linked to outbreaks of herbicide-resistant weeds and increased pesticide use. Environmentalists also fear the herbicide could pollute waterways and harm ecosystems in the wildlife refuges.
This is the fifth lawsuit challenging GMOs in national wildlife refuges. In the recent years, lawsuits filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Center for Food Safety on similar grounds have stopped the US Fish and Wildlife Service from farming GMOs at refuges in 12 Northeastern states and at 25 refuges in eight Southeastern states.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on an environmental impact assessment of farming genetically engineered crops at refuges in the Southeast so it can re-establish its farming programs in the region. The federal agency says it uses farming as a "wildlife management tool" that helps meet conservation objectives for waterfowl and other species.
In the past, PEER has alleged that support for farming on wildlife refuges goes all the way up to the White House as the Obama administration struggles to boost GMO exports while European consumers and their governments grow increasingly leery of importing American transgenic food. In 2011, a PEER investigation revealed that the White House had formed special biotech agriculture working group made up of top-level officials from every federal agency involved in agricultural trade and beyond. Members of the working group were asked to weigh in on the environmental assessments of GMO farming on national wildlife refuges.
Internal emails show that a lobbyist with the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a lobby group heavily funded by Monsanto and other GMO purveyors, emailed a senior White House science policy analyst about the legal challenges to GMO farming on wildlife refuges.
PEER claimed the communication was evidence of "collusion" between the White House and the biotech industry as part of an effort to boost the image of GMO farming worldwide, but the White House has withheld portions of the email, arguing that it contains proprietary business information.
In 2011, a Truthout investigation revealed that BIO and other industry groups had put mounting pressure on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to speed up the regulatory approval of new GMO crops. BIO warned the USDA that preparing rigorous environmental impact reviews of each crop would slow the approval process and threaten America's dominance in international agriculture markets.