Friday, November 06, 2009

Courts force U.S. reckoning with dominance of GM crops

Paul Voosen, New York Times (Oct. 8, 2009), writes that 90% of U.S. soy and cotton crops are genetically engineered (GM crops).  In addition, 85% of the corn crop is also genetically engineered, and it is found throughout the food system. 
     “These crops are safe to eat. The science on that is unequivocal, even in Europe, where a moratorium on new GM crops has existed for a decade. And by most accounts, GM crops have been an economic benefit to farmers, simplifying field maintenance and reducing the number of hands needed for weeding.
     “But as these crops have come to dominate the agricultural landscape, farmers who eschew their growing -- for ethical, organic or trade reasons -- have found themselves at a loss, frustrated by regulators and the majority of fellow farmers who have accepted GM crops as the new normal. . . . For the past two decades, the government has argued "essentially that there's no difference between a GM crop and its nonmodified sibling," said Alison Peck, a law professor at West Virginia University.
     "’Their arguments all sort of flowed from this presumption -- that these two kinds of crops are fungible,’ Peck said.
     “Two recent decisions out of the Northern District of California are the first-time acknowledgement by any federal entity of a difference between GM and non-GM crops, Peck said. The latest ruling, on the GM sugar beets of Willamette Valley, came down late last month and will move into the remedy phase at the end of this month. Both rulings -- the first, upheld several times on appeal, came down in 2007 -- found the regulatory apparatus used by the Department of Agriculture severely lacking. USDA, along with the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. EPA, oversees GM crops, using jury-rigged laws written well before the invention of biotechnology. Unlike Japan, Europe or even Russia, the United States has never passed legislation on GM crops.”
     USDA came to view GE and non-GE crops as identical, fungible. If the farmer wanted to keep GE-genes out of their field, it was that farmer’s burden to provide for buffer zones and other measures to keep out pollen drift. This could have serious economic consequences for organic and other non-GE farmers.
     To make the point about keeping out pollen, Voosen makes a interesting comparison to cattle ranching. “In the eastern part of the United States, traditionally, farmers have been obliged to fence in cattle. In the West, meanwhile, landowners are required to fence out roaming herds. The same distinctions apply to crops. Europe has been busy erecting a complex regulatory apparatus requiring farmers to ‘fence in’ their GM crops with isolation distances and liability funds. With no regulations, the United States has in effect required non-GM farmers to ‘fence out’ GM crops, placing the economic burden on conventional farming.”
  A copy of Judge Jeffrey S. White order in Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Thomas J. Vilsack, et al., is available here.


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