Washington, DC — When a federal court ordered an end to planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops on all National Wildlife Refuges in the Southeastern U.S. last year, several refuge managers predicted that continued farming would be impossible. A year later, however, farmers are planting nearly the same acreage in Southeastern refuges as the year before – all without GE crops, according to agency records assembled by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which brought that successful lawsuit together with the Center for Food Safety (CFS).
Although the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which operates national wildlife refuges, has a “Biological Integrity” policy forbidding GE crops unless found “essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s),” their use is often approved. The principal justification FWS relies upon is that non-GE seeds are not available. Using this rationale, more GE crops had been grown on Southeastern refuges than in any other region. Refuge managers in the region swore that GE crops were essential to farming; as one said:
“I have just spoken with our co-op farmer about the issue of GMC [genetically modified crops]. When I told him that there is a chance that we will not be able to use GMC in the future, he said they would ‘be out of here.’ He said that if we even wanted a percentage of our farming program in a conventional program they would quit farming the Refuge. They will not gear their entire off-refuge operation to GMC and try to maintain a working knowledge of conventional farming just to satisfy the Refuge’s need.”
Contrary to those dire warnings, the region’s refuge farming program continued with conventional, non-GE crops without missing much of a beat. Refuge farming records collected by PEER show that –
- The total number of refuge acres under cultivation this year without GE crops was comparable to the prior year with heavy reliance on GE crops (32,484 acres versus 34,098 acres);
- There was still widespread planting of the three principal crops of corn, wheat and soybeans, without dramatic decreases. For example, soybeans (a crop dominated nationally by GE seeds) declined only slightly from 13,620 to 12,224 acres planted; and
- Farmers increased their reliance on other crops, such as millet, rice, clover and sunflowers, which are more beneficial to birds and pollinating insects.
“Banning GE crops did not cause the sky to fall on these refuges,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who has helped launch a series of lawsuits rolling back approvals for GE crops on 75 national wildlife refuges across 30 states. “Given the ready availability of other types of crops, no one can plausibly contend that GE crops are in any way essential to a wildlife refuge.”
Despite this experience, FWS has announced plans to move forward with extensive environmental reviews, which the court ordered prior to reintroducing any GE crops on Southeastern refuges. It is unclear whether these reviews can be completed before the 2014 growing season or whether they will withstand court challenge. PEER and CFS argue that GE crops, engineered to be resistant to herbicides (principally Monsanto’s ubiquitous Roundup), leads to more frequent pesticide applications of increased toxicity and threaten wildlife, especially amphibians, beneficial insects, soil quality and biodiversity.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service should be doing everything in its power to minimize the impacts of farming on wildlife refuges, and as this new information reveals, there are viable non-GE options that benefit both farmers and wildlife. GE crops bring only unnecessary risk to our nation’s refuges and protected species,” said Paige Tomaselli, senior CFS attorney and counsel in the lawsuits halting refuge GE crop plantings.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service should pause before leaping back into Monsanto’s embrace,” Douglass added, noting that, unlike soybeans, other crops have nutritional value for wildlife. “If this agency really is science-based, then it needs to study how different crops and farming practices can benefit wildlife.”