Advocate strives for organic understanding
Center for Food Safety director says GMO, conventional crops can't coexist
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., has played a prominent role in the ongoing controversy over genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs.
As a plaintiff in lawsuits against the USDA, the organization successfully argued that the agency's commercialization of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets was unlawful.
The National Environmental Policy Act was pivotal in these cases. According to the court decisions, USDA violated this statute by failing to complete an environmental impact statement, or EIS, before deregulating either of the crops.
However, that hasn't permanently stopped commercialization. After several years of study, the USDA released an EIS of genetically-engineered alfalfa in December 2010. Last month, the agency again fully deregulated the crop, which can withstand glyphosate herbicides.
As for genetically-engineered sugar beets, which are also tolerant of glyphosate, the USDA has decided to partially deregulate the crop under strict conditions.
The Center for Food Safety has challenged that decision in court and has vowed to file another lawsuit against the approval of genetically-engineered alfalfa.
During a recent stop in Portland, Ore., the group's executive director, Andrew Kimbrell, spoke with Capital Press about the Center for Food Safety's legal outlook and strategy.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q The National Environmental Policy Act requires the federal government to follow a process for studying environmental impacts but does not dictate an outcome.
Your group has won cases against USDA based on NEPA, but the agency has nonetheless re-commercialized the biotech crops in question. Do you see NEPA as a way to stop genetically modified organisms, or just slow down their approval?
A It's a misunderstanding of NEPA to see it as simply jumping a procedural hurdle. An agency cannot make an arbitrary or capricious decision based on its (NEPA) analysis. That is why they're so reluctant to do an EIS. If they were to really tell the story straight, they wouldn't be able to approve any of these crops. They haven't done their homework. They haven't done the science.
Q Under NEPA, federal agencies must take a hard look at the science and make a decision. Don't courts ultimately have to defer to the USDA's interpretation of the science?
A If we can show, as we have in the past, that the science is inadequate, has huge chunks that are missing or is misrepresented, then they no longer get deference. (If the) science says one thing (and) agency says another thing, they lose.
Q Do you believe USDA can succeed in its goal of promoting coexistence between biotech, conventional and organic crops?
A I don't believe in coexistence. I believe in coming up with the hard science of GMO contamination prevention. Can we prevent GMO crops from contaminating conventional and organic crops? It's a very simple question. No one has the answer. USDA doesn't have the answer. Until they have the answer, they shouldn't be approving a single GMO crop. They haven't even come close to that.
Q The USDA is considering whether to deregulate corn that's resistant to the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba, as well as soybeans that are resistant to dicamba. Is the horse out of the barn with corn and soybeans, since numerous biotech cultivars of these crops are already commercialized, or does your group plan to initiate legal challenges against future approvals?
A Definitely, the new varieties are fair game as far as lawsuits are concerned. The problem we see is super weeds. There really is no way to halt the super weed issue. Within a decade or less, that will become such a serious problem, almost everybody -- including industrial agriculture and lots of conventional farmers -- is going to realize this technology is totally unsustainable. It is planned obsolescence and it is doomed, whether or not we sue.
Q Why didn't biotech opponents file legal complaints against the USDA for deregulating genetically engineered corn and soybeans in the 1990s?
A At that time, though we suspected it, there was not significant peer-reviewed science on gene flow. We said contamination has got to happen, but the industry said, "No, it won't." We said super weeds have got to happen, but the industry said, "No, it won't," and the USDA said, "No, it won't." At the time, we didn't have the empirical evidence that it was arbitrary and capricious. Now that we have the evidence, we want to make sure it's applied to any new thing they put out there.
Q In a recent speech, you mentioned your disappointment with the Obama administration's approach to biotech crops, which you see as indistinguishable from the Bush-era policy. Given this apparent continuity between Republican and Democrat administrations, is likely USDA will stop approving biotech crops?
A I would say it's going to be an ongoing battle with the agency. What we have is regulation through litigation, which is not the way to go. The courts are pushing the USDA. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. They're going to lose in court. I'm very confident of it. We'll just keep having this kind of battle.