At the end of last week, the USDA deregulated a new genetically modified, RoundUp resistant grass created by Scotts Miracle Gro. Over the past 6 months, it has deregulated several genetically modified crops, so this isn’t really shocking or surprising. However, the real alarm comes when you read the USDA’s reasoning behind deregulation. Turns out, the same logic can be used to deregulate just about every new genetically modified crop out there.
But, you say, the USDA hardly even regulates the GMO crops it’s supposed to be regulating right now. So what’s so terrible about deregulating more crops? The difference is that because the USDA is supposed to be regulating these crops, we consumers have successfully taken the USDA to court (and WON!) in the ongoing public battle against GMOs. If the USDA steps out of the business of regulation, those hard-won verdicts have no teeth.
Up until this past Friday, there were a couple semi-solid regulatory hooks that required the USDA to regulate new GMO crops. The first was by identifying GMO crops as a “plant pest.” Tom Philpott explains:
A ’50s-era law called the Plant Pest Act gave the USDA power to restrict the introduction of organisms that might, well, harm plants. Genetically modified crops technically qualified as “plant pests” because industry scientists used DNA “promoters” derived from natural plant pathogens, most notably cauliflower mosaic virus, to amplify the genetic traits they introduced into new crops. “These promoters ensure that the desired trait is always ‘on,’ that is, expressed,” Gurian-Sherman explains.
The second regulatory hook came by classifying new GMO crops as “noxious weeds.” The USDA has the authority, indeed the mandate, to regulate any engineered crop that could “go rogue” and “become hard-to-control.”
On Friday, both regulatory hooks were dismissed out of hand by the USDA, despite a strong case for GMO grass being a potential noxious weed. According to Philpott:
The Center for Food Safety had petitioned the USDA to classify genetically modified bluegrass as a noxious weed. The case for this is strong: Gurian-Sherman explains that bluegrass has light pollen that can be carried for miles on the wind, meaning that genetically modified bluegrass can easily transfer its genes to established conventional bluegrass.
And like most grasses, bluegrass spreads rapidly. Anyone who has ever grown a garden can testify that it’s tough to get rid of unwanted turf grass. In fact, Scotts is also seeking deregulation of Roundup Ready bentgrass, another grass that has proven hard to control. In 2005, Scotts grew trial plots of its bentgrass in Oregon. It escaped the boundaries of the experimental plot and is still creating problems for homeowners miles away.
For homeowners, dealing with rogue Roundup Ready bluegrass may mean resorting to chemicals far more toxic than Roundup.
In one of the documents (PDF) released last Friday, the USDA conceded that, by its own reckoning, Scotts’ genetically modified bluegrass “can be considered for regulation as a Federally listed noxious weed that shows potential to cause damage to crops and natural resources of the United States.” But to avoid actually declaring it a noxious weed, the agency simply claimed that the weed risks posed by genetically engineered and conventional are “essentially the same.”
That’s highly debatable, since anyone who wants to address weed problems from conventional bluegrass can turn to Roundup, the nation’s most-used herbicide, whereas dealing with rogue Roundup Ready bluegrass means resorting to chemicals far more toxic. Starting with the “essentially the same” premise, the USDA notes that conventional bluegrass is already widely planted across the country without causing much harm; from there it assumes that Scotts’ engineered bluegrass won’t be a problem either, concluding that it need not be declared a “noxious weed” after all. And if it’s neither a plant pest nor a noxious weed, the USDA has no right or obligation to regulate it.
The ramifications of this are mind-blowing, at least to me:
Well, if the USDA doesn’t regulate novel GMOs, then it has no obligation to perform environmental-impact or endangered-species analyses of new organisms in the biotech pipeline, including plants engineered as pharmaceutical substances and biofuel feedstocks. In an email exchange, a USDA press officer confirmed that the agency would not be conducting an environmental-impact statement on Roundup Ready bluegrass—and by extension, any other crops that don’t count as plant pests or noxious weeds.
And that means watchdogs like Center for Food Safety will no longer have a legal foothold to sue the USDA for regulating those things badly — which is usually how it’s done. In the wake of several recent deregulations — including Roundup Ready sugar beets, alfalfa, and bentgrass — federal courts have sided with Center for Food Safety and rebuked the USDA for failing to properly assess risks.
Ouch. I do not like where this is headed. Not one bit.
What Can You Do?
Unfortunately, under the current law, there’s little you can do to stop the deregulation of GMO crops. But that doesn’t mean you are powerless. You are still a consumer, and you can vote with your dollars.
1) Opt out of GMO-based agriculture. As much as possible, avoid products and so-called “food” made with GMOs. This is a handy shopping guide created for just such a purpose.
2) Support labeling of foods and products made with GMOs. That means contacting your representative and sharing your opinion that GMO foods should be labeled. According to the most recent surveys, 93% of Americans agree with you! If that’s not something bi-partisan that would offer immediate feel-good results for politicians, I don’t know what is.
3) Spread the message, so your friends and family can opt out of GMO foods, too. Even if they think you’re totally berzerk when you pile that grass-fed butter on your plate, or call foods cooked in saturated-fat laden coconut oil “healthy,” they simply can’t argue with the science showing the dangers of GMOs. Here is an Action Tool Kit to arm you with anything you might need to convince them — pamphlets, power point presentations, quizzes, letters to restaurants or grocery stores, you name it.
Hat tip to Peggy of Local Nourishment for the link to Tom Philpott’s article.
(photo by archangeldeb)