September 18, 2014
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approved three new genetically engineered (GE) crops for commercial sale in a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) Record of Decision (ROD) published on the agency’s website on Tuesday, September 16.
APHIS approved three petitions from Dow AgroSciences to grant nonregulated status to a 2,4-D-resistant corn plant and two resistant soybean plants. The agency received roughly 10,000 comments on the draft EIS, and has received petitions in opposition to the deregulation signed by approximately 240,000 people. Now that the crop varieties have been approved, the 2,4-D herbicides to be used in conjunction with the crops must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before the products hit the market.
The use of 2,4-D-resistant crops could lead to a 200 to 600 percent increase in 2,4-D herbicide use nationwide by 2020. This is particularly troubling in light of a recently published U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study showing that pesticide concentrations in a majority of the country’s rivers and streams in urban, agricultural, and mixed-land use watersheds currently exceed aquatic-life benchmarks. APHIS did not consider increased herbicide use in its analysis, explaining that it will fall under EPA review.
New Study on GE Crops Now Underway
The approval comes as experts and members of the public presented a wide range of viewpoints earlier this week at the first public meeting for a new National Research Council (NRC) study on GE crops.
Over the course of the two-day meeting hosted September 15-16 at the National Academy of Science (NAS) in Washington DC, the 18-person provisional committee heard from 20 experts, including plant scientists, social scientists, and newspaper reporters. Members of the public were also able to provide comments to the committee, either in person, writing, or via telephone, during a public comment period. See the full list of speakers on the official meeting agenda.
The study, Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects, will attempt to provide clarity and inform public discourse regarding the debate on GE crops, particularly in light of growing GE skepticism and a push to label food products with GE ingredients. The NRC expects to complete the study by early 2016.
The committee, comprised of university faculty members and interest group representatives like The Nature Conservancy and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, received input on public health impacts, herbicide resistance, and field contamination relating to GE crops.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Director of Sustainable Agriculture at the Center for Food Safety, urged committee members to consider the value of GE crops through a larger frame, questioning how GE crops could impact progress toward sustainable agriculture. He also raised concerns about intellectual property surrounding GE seeds and its impact on declining genetic diversity.
Tim Schwab, from Food and Water Watch, emphasized the need for publicly-funded GE crop research in order to reduce bias in current GE research sponsored by biotechnology companies.
Closing out the second day of the meeting, Lisa Griffith from the National Family Farm Coalition, pointed out problems of GE crop contamination, herbicide drift, and pollinator decline.
Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University, emphasized the lack of “universal consensus in the scientific community about many aspects” of GE, noting that the U.S. regulatory system lacks independent review and relies “largely on research developed by companies that develop [GE] crops.”
Some presenters were supportive of GE technology, and touted the potential of GE crops to improve yield or contribute to a more sustainable food system. Several presenters spoke in support of conventional breeding methods to attain desirable crop traits without genetic modification, noting that the high-yielding traits were often not a result of GE, but rather of conventional breeding. Others raised concerns about the economic impact of GE contamination on organic farms, who risk losing their certification and being rejected by buyers.
NSAC’s policy on genetically engineered crops and livestock supports farmer choice and enterprise, consumer choice, and a regulatory process informed by independent and open scientific assessment.
Four webinars on October 1, 8, 22 and November 6 have been scheduled in advance of the next public meeting of the NRC committee from December 10-11. For more information on the study, funded in part by NAS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, see the project’s website.