The Obama administration is supporting genetically engineered (GE) agriculture in more than 50 national wildlife refuges across the country and watchdog groups say internal emails among top administration officials reveal that the GE plots are a priority in the White House.
Earlier this year, a settlement in a lawsuit filed by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and its allies halted the planting of GE crops in US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife refuges in northeastern states. Now PEER claims the Obama administration is working with the biotech lobby to shield GE plots in refuges from future legal challenges.
A January 10, 2011 email obtained by PEER reveals that biotech lobbyist Adrianne Massey contacted Peter Schmeissner, the senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology, about the legal challenge to GE crop plantings in northeastern refuges.
Massey, who has made a career out of promoting biotechnology across the world, promotes the public policy of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a lobby funded by Monsanto and other biotech firms.
The Obama administration recently created the White House Agricultural Biotechnology Working Group and GE crop opponents claim the interagency group has teamed up with BIO to boost exports of GE crops to countries that have grown leery of America's increasingly transgenic food supply.
Massey also emailed Schmeissner about legally mandated environmental assessments of GE crops in wildlife refuges. PEER contends the emails are evidence of "collusion" between the Obama administration and the biotech lobby, but it remains unclear how much sway BIO actually holds within the administration. The Office of Science and Technology did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.
The biotechnology working group features top-level officials from almost every agency under the Obama administration involved in agricultural trade and beyond, including the State Department, the Justice Department, the Office of Budget and Management, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Other internal emails reveal that Schmeissner asked top officials in the working group to comment on new environmental assessments of GE crop plantings in refuges across the country. The mandatory assessment can help the government defend the GE crop plantings from legal challenges. So. how did tiny parcels GE crops in wildlife refuges become a priority for top White House officials?
For years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed farming on national wildlife refuges for the purpose of habitat restoration. The agency claims farming helps develop native grasslands and provides food for wildlife.
Deborah Rocque, a top official for the wildlife refuge system, told Truthout that GE crops restore habitats in ways that conventional crops cannot. Crops that are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicide (such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn and soy) provide beneficial ground cover and the herbicides can be sprayed across entire fields, killing only unwanted weeds, but sparring the GE crops.
Conservationists can debate whether blanketing parcels of wildlife refuges with GE crops and plant-killing chemicals is sound land management practice or an ecologically dangerous experiment, but PEER believes that BIO and the Obama administration are not interested in habitat restoration.
"The White House is engaging in a joint effort with Monsanto ... and as we understand it, it's part of a White House pledge to double exports," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.
The US has had trouble in recent years exporting GE crops to Europe, where many consumers are skeptical about GE foods and some countries mandate that foods containing GE ingredient must be labeled. Now that more than 90 percent of corn and soy grown in America is GE, the government has a vested interest in promoting the acceptance of GE crops in other countries.
"These plans are based on the curious notion that wildlife benefit from having the small slivers of habitat set aside for them covered by genetically engineered soybeans," Ruch said of the program in an earlier release. "To boost US exports, the Obama administration is forcing wildlife refuges into political prostitution."
PEER claims that Fish and Wildlife policy did not allow for GE crops in wildlife refuges unless found essential for some purpose, and some European countries pointed to the policy as evidence that GE crops are not environmentally sound. So by using environmental assessments to justify GE crop plantings in picturesque wildlife refuges, the Obama administration and agribusiness firms can clean up the tarnished image of GE crops worldwide.
Rocque, however, said that Fish and Wildlife never had a policy whether or not GE crops should be planted in refuges and it simply makes sense to use herbicide-resistant GE crops as a habitat restoration tool.
Ruch said PEER filed its first legal challenge after being contacted by Fish and Wildlife biologists who opposed using refuge land to grow GE crops. PEER later obtained an internal email among Fish and Wildlife officials that the group believes is evidence that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has put pressure on the agency to get in line with the broader administration's stance on GE agriculture.
In the January 14 email, Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes tells Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Tom Ashe and Interior Department official Tom Strickland that Vilsack is "somewhat exercised that the Administration is not being consistent in supporting genetically engineered crops."
"This is the White House telling Fish and Wildlife to get out of the way," Ruch said.
Rocque, however, said she is unaware of any internal pressure from the White House to promote the planting of GE crops in wildlife refuges.