Washington, DC —A federal court ruled in favor of the public interest groups Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Beyond Pesticides yesterday, halting cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops in all national wildlife refuges in the Southeastern U.S. The ruling is the third in a series of victories against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) resulting in the removal of GE cultivation from federal wildlife preserves. In March 2009, the same groups won a similar lawsuit against GE plantings on Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. In 2011, the groups forced a legal settlement ending GE planting on refuges throughout the 12-state northeast region.
This latest ruling bars FWS from entering into cooperative farming agreements for GE crops on the 128 refuges across eight states, including the 25 refuges currently growing GE crops, without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act and refuge management laws. The requirement of environmental reviews will likely prevent the planting of crops in 2013 and 2014, and may result in a permanent end to the practice, as native successional grasses reclaim fallow refuge tracts.
Federal district court in the District of Columbia will hear arguments on November 5th on additional remedies that may be required to mitigate environmental damage on the Southeast refuges from GE crops already planted, including such measures as a ban on pesticide spraying, enlarged buffers, and steps to prevent trans-genetic contamination. FWS had unsuccessfully tried to argue the suit was moot because the planting season was over and the agency foresaw no new illegal plantings.
“While we are happy with the result we are disappointed that the government needlessly prolonged this litigation,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, noting that the government had tacitly conceded the merits of the suit in its court filing last spring. “The simple point we are making in case after case is that genetically modified crops have no legitimate role on a national wildlife refuge.”
In a ruling on October 15 this year, the same federal district judge, James Boasberg, ruled that the FWS Environmental Assessment (EA) for GE planting in the Midwest region was adequate. The ultimate meaning of that ruling is less clear due to facts that:
- FWS proposed GE planting be phased out after five years;
- GE planting is limited to the narrow purpose of transitioning former cropland purchased for refuge additions into successions of natural grasses; and
- The programmatic nature of the Midwest EA may require a new environmental review for each refuge contemplating any GE agriculture.
“How GE crops can be judged to carry significant environmental impacts in the Southeast and not in the Midwest is difficult to understand and accept,” said Paige Tomaselli, staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety. “However, short of a much-needed nationwide settlement, this is good news in our fight to end the growing of GE crops on our nation’s wildlife refuges.”
While national wildlife refuges have allowed farming for decades, the practice is losing support among refuge managers, especially since some crops, such as soybeans and corn, are available mainly in GE strains. Refuge policy states that GE crops should not be used except when essential to accomplish a refuge purpose – a test that is extremely difficult to honestly meet. The lawsuits stress that the GE crops actually conflict with the protection of wildlife, the main purpose of the refuges. GE crops also require more frequent and increased applications of toxic herbicides, which has fostered an epidemic of “super weeds” as weeds have mutated. In addition, GE farming has led to uncontrolled spread of the engineered DNA to conventional, organic crops and wild relatives, in effect contaminating the wild from federal wildlife preserves.