A lawsuit filed last week in federal court against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) seeks to end cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops on twenty-five national wildlife refuges across the U.S. Southeast. The suit is the latest step in a campaign to banish GE crops from all refuges.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Beyond Pesticides, the federal suit charges that the Fish & Wildlife Service unlawfully entered into cooperative farming agreements and approved planting of GE crops in eight states (AL, AR, GA, KY, LA, NC, SC and TN) without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and in violation of FWS policy.
This is the third in a series of lawsuits filed by CFS and PEER challenging FWS’s practice of permitting GE crops on wildlife refuges. In 2009 and 2010, the groups successfully challenged approval of GE plantings on two wildlife refuges in Delaware – Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges – which forced FWS to end GE planting in the entire 12-state Northeastern region.
National wildlife refuges have allowed farming for decades despite the interference by farming with the protection of wildlife and native grasses. In recent years refuge farming has been converted to GE crops because the agency claims GE seed is the only seed farmers can obtain today. These GE crops are mostly engineered for a single purpose: to be resistant to herbicides, mainly Monsanto’s ubiquitous Roundup. Because the crops are immune, their usage leads to more frequent applications and increased amounts of toxic herbicides. This over-reliance on herbicides used in GE cropping systems has fostered an epidemic of “super weeds” in the past decade as weeds have mutated, similar to antibiotic resistance. Farming of GE crops has also led to the uncontrolled spread of the engineered DNA to conventional, organic crops or wild relatives, contaminating the wild.
“GE crops are the last thing that should be introduced onto a national wildlife refuge,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who has also filed cases under the Freedom of Information Act seeking detailed information about the Obama “White House Agricultural Biotechnology Working Group” which is working to promote planting GE crops on National Wildlife Refuges. “Under high-level pressure, the Fish & Wildlife Service has to abandon wildlife biology to practice political science.”
Scientists have warned that these engineered, herbicide-resistant crops lead to increased pesticide use on refuges and can have other negative effects on birds, aquatic animals, and other wildlife. In the Prime Hook case, Federal District Court Chief Judge Gregory Sleet found that “it is undisputed that farming with genetically modified crops at Prime Hook poses significant environmental risks.”
“These genetically engineered crops are engineered by chemical companies like Monsanto for one purpose: to promote indiscriminate herbicide use and sell more of their herbicides,” said Paige Tomaselli, Staff Attorney with the Center for Food Safety. “Dousing wildlife refuges with herbicides harms wildlife, damages biodiversity, and otherwise undermines the underlying significance of refuges: to serve as a safe haven for wildlife. These herbicide-promoting crops have absolutely no place on our protected national lands.”
If successful, the suit will enjoin the cultivation of GE crops in the Southeast Region until and unless a new approval decision is made based on a rigorous review of all potential impacts in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as required by NEPA. Meanwhile, unless practices and DOI policy on the refuges change, PEER and CFS will continue to challenge the cultivation of GE crops on refuges across the country.