Opponents of genetically engineered (GE) crops maintain that human consumption of these products poses a risk to public health. Now, three environmental groups have brought a lawsuit against the federal government contending that genetically modified crops are not fit for even wildlife to consume and do harm to habitat.
But while the two sides argue whether GE crops are environmentally safe, neither the environmentalists nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know if GE crops are the better choice economically. And the environmentalists are pondering legal action to stop all crop planting on refuges in Mississippi and across the South.
Earlier this month, the environmental groups brought a lawsuit seeking to block the planting of GE crops on federal land across the South. If successful, it would stop the planting of GE crops on approximately 44,000 acres of federal lands in the South.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says GE crops are more economical to raise because they require less herbicide.
However, this is not based on any economic analysis.
Kathryn Douglass, staff attorney with Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said the environmental groups have not conducted a cost comparison analysis.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie said the agency has not conducted a cost-benefit study, and maintained that such an analysis would be impossible due to the numerous variables from refuge to refuge that could not be quantified.
The three suing environmental groups are PEER, Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Beyond Pesticides.
The groups filed the lawsuit Aug. 12 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia claiming the U.S. Fish and Wildlife did not properly study the potential impact of GE crops on habitat and wildlife or allow for a proper public comment as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The federal agency disputes those allegations concerning the program where farmers are allowed to plant a crop — mainly rice, milo and/or corn — on federal lands then leave 25 percent of it standing in the field for wildlife consumption.
MacKenzie said in a statement: “Any farming operation is solely for the benefit of wildlife.” He said the program’s aim is “to facilitate safe, consistent and sustainable” food for migrating waterfowl and other birds.
“These genetically engineered crops are engineered by chemical companies such as Monsanto for one purpose ? to promote indiscriminate herbicide use and sell more of their herbicides,” countered Paige Tomaselli, staff attorney with CFS. “These herbicide-promoting crops have absolutely no place on our protected national lands.”
Twenty-three refuges in eight states stretching from Louisiana to the Carolinas are included in the lawsuit with an additional two under consideration.
Four refuges in Mississippi are included. They are St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Natchez, Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge near Starkville, Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex in the Mississippi Delta and North Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Grenada.
The Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex incorporates seven refuges – Hillside, Holt Collier, Mathews Brake, Panther Swamp, Theodore Roosevelt and Yazoo. The North Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge Complex (formerly the formerly the Mississippi Wetland Management District) includes the Dahomey and Tallahatchie refuges.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports a little more than 8,000 acres of crops were planted on these Mississippi refuges last year. However, the acreage can vary from year to year, and not all of the crops planted in state were genetically modified.
The agency could not say how many of those 8,000-plus acres in Mississippi were planted using genetically engineered seed, and could not say what the planting intentions were for these lands going forward.
The environmental groups allege that GE crops require more herbicide to control weeds and supplant other natural food sources available to wildlife. In addition to being bad for the environment, the groups contend that the extra herbicide applications required with GE crops make the practice less attractive economically.
Douglass said it could be a while before the lawsuit makes it to court and a ruling is rendered. The federal government has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, meaning it could be some time in October.
Douglass said the groups would determine their course of action after hearing the government’s response. So, the case could easily stretch into early next year when farmers are preparing for planting.
The groups’ focus could also broaden, according to Douglass. The environmental groups are currently targeting only GE crops.
However, Douglass told the MBJ that if the groups are successful in blocking the planting of GE crops, they might bring action to stop the planting of all crops on federal lands.
The environmental groups were successful in two similar lawsuits in Delaware. However, Douglass said the current lawsuit is “not as cut and dry” as the Delaware cases.
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