The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved plantings of three genetically engineered (GE) crops in as many weeks, including Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready sugar beets and alfalfa that are engineered to tolerate Roundup Ready weed-killing herbicide.
The USDA on February 11 also legalized, without restriction, the world's first GE corn crop meant for biofuel production. Biotech giant Syngenta's Event 3272 seed corn will simplify ethanol production and is not meant to feed animals or humans.
The approvals flew in the face of legal and regulatory challenges posed by GE crop opponents and members of the agricultural industry. Opponents fear the GE crop varieties could contaminate conventional food crops and promote the overuse of herbicides like the glyphosate-based Roundup and more toxic chemicals used to kill glyphosate-resistant weeds.
Monsanto won a victory on February 4 when the USDA partially deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets. A federal court in August 2010 temporarily banned the beets and ordered the USDA to re-review the environmental impacts of the Roundup Ready sugar beets as the result of a lawsuit filed by farmers and environmental groups.
Plaintiff attorney Paul Achitoff from the environmental group Earthjustice said the USDA's decision to allow plantings of the sugar beets under "lax conditions" violates federal law. However, the USDA said the beets pose no "plant pest risk" and farmers can start planting them before a final Environmental Impact Statement is issued in 2012.
Roundup Ready alfalfa was legalized without any restrictions on January 27 after nearly five years of legal battles that pitted farmers and GE critics against the USDA and Monsanto.
The USDA disappointed GE critics again last week when it fully deregulated Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta's Event 3272 GE corn. The corn is genetically engineered to produce an enzyme that converts starch to sugar, making it easier to process the corn and turn it into the biofuel ethanol.
The North American Millers Association (NAMA), a normally pro-biotech organization that represents 170 agricultural mills in 38 states, is concerned that Event 3271 kernels could accidentally mix with corn meant for food processing and damage the quality of food products like snacks and breakfast cereals.
"USDA has failed to provide the public with sufficient scientific data on the economic impacts of contamination on food production, or information on how USDA will ensure Syngenta's compliance with a stewardship plan," said NAMA President Mary Waters.
The USDA is counting on a "closed loop system" created by Syngenta to prevent Event 3272 corn from contaminating the food supply and is encouraging dialogue between Syngenta and the food industry, according to a release. The USDA is aware that some millers and food processors are concerned about Event 3272 and is promoting participation in an industry advisory council sponsored by Syngenta to review the "closed loop system."
Bill Freese, GE critic and policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said that the USDA should to take a closer look at Syngenta's track record.
A 2004 investigation conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that Syngenta had illegally distributed GE seed corn engineered to produce an unregistered pesticide on over 1,000 occasions to farmers in the US, South America and Europe.
The EPA fined Syngenta $1.5 million in 2006 for distributing the seed corn, which produced a then unregistered pesticide called Bt 10.
The USDA did not classify Event 3272 corn as a crop grown to produce an industrial compound during its review of Syngenta's petition to legalize the corn, and NAMA argues that the agency would have completed a more thorough scientific review of the product if it regulators classified it as industrial.
A USDA spokesperson told Truthout that Event 3272 is not considered an industrial product crop because its extra genetic traits turn starch into sugar, not ethanol itself.
Syngenta's own recently released data shows Event 3272 would have "adverse impacts" on food quality if it entered the conventional corn supply, according to NAMA.
NAMA spokesperson Terri Long said the millers' association is concerned about food product quality and not Syngenta's past violations.
Freese said that Event 3272 is supposed to be used for domestic ethanol production, but Syngenta has applied for import approvals for Event 3272 in nations where the US exports corn. Freese said Syngenta is trying to avoid liability in case Event 3272 does contaminate the domestic corn supply.
Freese and CFS helped represent plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the USDA that challenged initial approvals of Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets.