May 7, 2010
April was an eventful month for genetically engineered (GE) crops, with release of a National Research Council report and litigation developments, plus a news story on the concern of scientists about Roundup Ready crops, whose use has resulted in the application of massive volumes of glyphosate herbicide to the nation’s farmland.
On April 13, Reuter news service posted an article with scientists’ concerns about the harm to soil quality from prolonged use of the herbicide glyphosate. The article featured long-term research conducted by Robert Kremer with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and others, whose papers were published in the European Journal of Agronomy in 2009.
Adverse effects of glyphosate included toxicity to beneficial soil microorganisms, stimulation of detrimental disease-causing microorganisms, and impaired nutrient uptake by non-target plants, including crops intended to benefit from glyphosate weed control. In addition, repetitive and dedicated use of glyphosate has resulted in selection of glyphosate-resistant weeds in countries around the world. These adverse effects were documented in a wide array of conventional and transgenic agroecosytems, including plantation, orchard and row crop systems.
On April 14, the National Research Council’s Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources issued a report entitled The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States. The Committee preparing the report was charged with looking at farm level economic, environmental, and social effects of widespread adoption of GE crops on all farmers, not just those growing GE crops.
The report purports to look at the effects of agricultural biotechnology from the view of the farmer but because the study limits itself to peer-reviewed published papers, the farmer’s view is largely absent. In addition, the report limits its comparisons primarily to the “sustainability” of large-scale, monoculture conventional row crop production versus large-scale, monoculture GE row crop production without considering more diversified cropping systems.
The report acknowledges that the biotech seed industry can use the privilege granted under U.S. patent law to block research use of patented GE seeds. It includes a reference to a 2009 comment letter from 26 corn insect researchers to EPA that states “ . . . as a result of restricted access [to GE seed], no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and its interactions with insect biology.” But the report itself buries the issue in a discussion of the structure of the seed industry and farmer decisions.
In contrast, a 2009 editorial in Scientific American clearly highlighted that only the studies assessing GE seed performance approved by the biotech seed companies see the light of a peer-reviewed journal and charged that the biotech seed companies have blocked from publication selected studies that did not show positive results from the use of GE crops.
The NRC report’s Introductory Summary and Findings states that: (1) comprehensive evidence on soil quality, biodiversity, water quality and quantity, and air quality is sparse; (2) recent information on economic evidence is sparse; and (3) there has been relatively little research on the ethical and socioeconomic effects of the adoption of agricultural biotechnology at the farm or community level.
In our view, the committee preparing the report would have better served both farmers and the public by concluding its task at that point, with a call for adequate research and the revision of patent law that allows GE seed companies to restrict independent research on patented GE seed.
The New York Times also referenced the NRC report in an article published on May 4 that focused on major and growing weed resistance problems with Roundup Ready crops.
On April 15, a jury in Arkansas awarded $47.9 million, including $42 million of punitive damages, to a group of Arkansas farmers who claimed they were harmed in 2006 when an experimental stock of GE rice, engineered to resist the herbicide Liberty Link, was found throughout commercial rice stocks. The Liberty Link rice was not approved for any commercial markets. Rice growers sued the GE seed producer Bayer Cropscience, claiming economic harm from the drop in rice prices and lost sales following USDA’s announcement that commercial rice stocks were contaminated with the Liberty Link rice. After the announcement, the European Union demanded that rice shipments be tested for the Liberty Link GE traits and Japan banned sales of all rice from the U.S.
The farmers sought the punitive damages based on their claim that Bayer had acted maliciously by not announcing the contamination of commercial rice stocks as soon as the company knew of it. Bayer is appealing the jury verdict.
This case was the fourth case among dozens of cases that have been filed by U.S. rice farmers against Bayer Crop Science. Awards in three other cases decided against Bayer CropScience so far have totaled $4.5 million.
On April 27, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Monsanto Company v. Geertston Seed Farms. A California federal court had ruled that the USDA violated the law by approving the commercialization of Monsanto Roundup Ready GE alfalfa without preparing a full Environmental Impact Statement addressing numerous potential impacts. The court vacated the USDA decision to “de-regulate” the GE alfalfa for commercial sale and use and imposed a nationwide injunction limiting the planting of the GE alfalfa. Monsanto appealed the decision to impose this injunction to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the injunction. Monsanto then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision on the appeal is expected this summer.
The U.S. Solicitor General filed a brief and argued on behalf of USDA that rather than imposing a nationwide injunction, the trial judge should have deferred to USDA’s less restrictive planting and growing conditions for GE alfalfa, pending completion of the EIS.
Amicus briefs supporting the Geerstons were filed by organic groups, including the Organic Farming Research Foundation, by conservation and wildlife groups, by the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, by the states of California, Massachusetts and Oregon, and by the Union of Concerned Scientists and individual scientists.
The transcript of the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court and the briefs filed in the case are posted on the ScotusWiki website.