Washington, DC — In an effort to boost exports, the Obama White House has entered into a joint venture with the agricultural biotechnology industry to remove barriers to the spread of genetically engineered (GE) crops, even on national wildlife refuges, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Today, PEER sued the White House Trade Representative, Office of Management & Budget (OMB) and the State Department to force release of documents detailing their partnership with industry.
Recent successful lawsuits brought by PEER with the Center for Food Safety have underlined the incompatibility of GE crops with refuge habitats, which has strengthened objections from GE-averse nations. The Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), whose most prominent member is Monsanto, the world’s biggest source of GE crops, approached the Obama White House for assistance. In late 2010, the White House formed an interagency “Agriculture Biotech Working Group” consisting of more than 35 officials from ten agencies to promote GE agriculture. This Working Group includes officials from the White House and its OMB, Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Trade Rep. It also has officials from State, Justice, Agriculture, EPA and FDA.
A central task of this Working Group is to legally insulate GE crops on refuges from further litigation. Initially, it tried to pressure the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which operates the National Wildlife Refuge System, to rescind its Ecological Integrity Policy, which forbids GE planting unless found to be essential to accomplishing a refuge purpose. Working with BIO, these officials then helped prepare environmental assessments to start paving a legal path for GE plantings on 75 refuges in 30 states.
“With all the environmental challenges facing this country, why is the White House priority putting wildlife refuges under the thumb of Monsanto?” asked PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed today’s Freedom of Information Act suits. “It is frankly depressing that the top White House official for ecosystem recovery is hustling genetically altered soybeans on slivers of land set aside for wildlife.”
PEER has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to most of the agencies in the Working Group. Today’s suits target three key agencies which have not turned over any documents. PEER has obtained fragmentary documents including a January 14, 2011 email from Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes relaying pressure from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that refuges were “not being consistent in supporting genetically modified crops.” Perhaps more telling are decisions to withhold records showing –
- The depth of collusion with industry. OSTP, for example, is withholding key portions of its correspondence with a BIO lobbyist on the grounds that it reveals proprietary information;
- What other actions the White House is pursuing to promote GE crops; and
- Other unannounced industry partnerships the White House has spawned.
“We are on the ground floor of our climb to reach answers to these questions,” added Douglass, who is pursuing further record releases from the other agencies involved. “One thing we do know is this Biotech Working Group exhibits the opposite of the transparent, science-based decision-making we were promised from this administration.”