Biotech Rider a Threat to Farmers and the Environment

March 25, 2013 | 4:37 pm
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

A short addition to the legislation passed last week to continue the funding of the U.S. government contained a gift for the biotech industry that could hurt the very farmers that the transnational seed companies love to cozy up to. It could also hurt the environment.

The so-called biotech rider (S. 735), attached to the continuing resolution in the U.S. Senate, was designed to override successful lawsuits. It would overturn rulings by the courts that have protected citizens from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) actions that subvert the legal obligations of the agency to protect farmers and the environment.

These federal court decisions have recognized that the industry-friendly USDA has often improperly interpreted its responsibilities as a regulator under federal law. For example, it has failed to adequately protect non-GE farmers, including organic growers, from contamination that can seriously hurt their sales.

Johnsongrass is considered to be one of the world’s worst weeds and is a close relative of sorghum, a major crop in the U.S. and elsewhere. Gene flow from engineered sorghum to johnsongrass in the future could, in some cases transfer genes that could make it an even worse weed. James Henson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

The courts have also recognized that the USDA has not adequately taken into account the predictable development of herbicide resistant weeds, which lead farmers back to tillage that causes soil erosion, have reduced profits in some cases, and probably will lead to a new generation of GE herbicide-resistant crops that depend on more, and more harmful, herbicides like 2,4-D. The infestation of tens of millions of acres of farmland by resistant weeds, and the dramatic increases in herbicide use that have accompanied them, is vindication of the courts’ decisions.

Threat from Contamination

The rider allows for planting of GE crops if any farmer or producer requests it, despite the careful deliberations of the courts, until the USDA addresses the court’s complaints.

Some will argue that because the court override is temporary, and the rider provides that measures will be taken to “…to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects…,” there is little risk.

History tells us otherwise–mitigation measures have been unsuccessful in the past, and are unlikely to be more reliable in the foreseeable future. In the late 1990s the biotech company Aventis assured EPA that it would take measures to keep StarLink corn, a possible allergen, out of the food supply. But within a year, and with plantings that never exceeded one percent of total corn acres, the corn supply was contaminated. The result was hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to farmers in exports, and years of effort and cost to remove StarLink from the food supply.

In 2002, corn produced by Prodigene containing a pharmaceutical gene contaminated soybeans, resulting in the destruction of 500,000 bushels, despite supposedly rigorous provisions to prevent such an occurrence. This corn was grown under a temporary permit in a small field trial.

And in 2006, unapproved GE rice owned by Bayer, probably originating from a small, short-term controlled field trial in Arkansas, was found to have contaminated the U.S. rice supply. That little incident resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost rice exports and farmer lawsuits that continued for years.

There are other examples, but the point is that measures to prevent contamination from short-term planting of GE crops, especially when these crops are grown on a commercial scale, are unreliable. This was clearly affirmed by a report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

Gene Flow

A similar threat exists to the environment in the form of gene flow—the transfer of genes from one organism to another—from crops to wild cousins, or from poorly domesticated cultivated plants like forest trees or grasses grown for lumber, pulp, or biofuel.

Most crop plants can mate with wild relatives, some of which are serious weeds. In the U.S., for example, one of the worst weeds of cultivated rice, wild red rice, can mate with its crop cousin. This could transfer engineered genes, such as for herbicide resistance, to the weeds, making them harder to kill and hurting farmers.

A wild relative of sorghum, johnsongrass, is one of the world’s worst weeds. Wheat is related to jointed goatgrass, which infests millions of acres of the crop, while lettuce is related to the prickly lettuce, and so on.

In fact, gene flow of glyphosate herbicide-resistant creeping bentgrass has already occurred…twice.  This also happened from temporary field trials that were conducted in Central Oregon and nearby Idaho specifically to prevent gene flow! USDA mandated an isolation zone of 900 feet around the trial, but gene flow occurred up to 13 miles from the Oregon site.

And if the engineered gene contains a trait that increases the fitness of the wild plant, very low levels of gene flow, even a single incidence, could result in the permanent escape and spread of the genes. Some of these genes could increase the competitiveness of the weed, making it a bigger problem.

So the history of this technology clearly shows that the assurance of the industry and USDA to prevent gene flow and contamination, even when the GE crops are grown for a short period, are baseless.

And what if USDA reassesses the transgenic crop, at the court’s direction, and then decides that it is indeed too risky? If contamination has occurred, the costs could be very high. As we have seen, it takes years to clean up contaminated seed. And genes that escape to wild relatives, as with creeping bentgrass, are often virtually impossible to eradicate.

A Warning to Other Countries

Beyond the specific implications for the environment or farmers is what the adoption of this rider says about the relentless efforts of the biotech industry to weaken regulations in countries where it operates or is trying to gain a foothold.

It was reportedly introduced anonymously, without accountability. But let me stick my neck out and say that it is highly likely that the biotech industry influenced the introduction and passage of this rider. Monsanto spends more money influencing our government than any other agriculture company. It spent millions, more than any other firm, to defeat the efforts in California to label engineered foods.

Once a country throws open its doors to the biotech industry, it can expect a similar effort to weaken regulations for food safety and environmental protection. The industry will also try to impose favorable legal means of controlling the seed supply, such as buying or partnering with most existing local seed companies and imposing intellectual property laws that give it dominance.

Other countries contemplating welcoming this industry should think long and hard about the implications for their sovereignty over their seed supply, the core of food security.