Supremely Important: Genetically Engineered Crops

More questions are being raised about the long-term impact of these crops on the environment.

Fifteen years after farmers and agribusinesses began planting
genetically engineered crops in our nation's fields, we still know very
little about their long-term environmental, economic, and social

The Supreme Court is finally getting involved. It recently heard a
case involving Monsanto's genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa, which is
resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Farmers, including many that use
pesticides and herbicides and others that don't, asked that approval
for this variety of alfalfa be blocked.

They argued that the Department of Agriculture hasn't completed a
required environmental impact statement yet. Farmers fear that GE
alfalfa will cross-pollinate with conventional or organic alfalfa that
hasn't been engineered. Organic certification prohibits genetically
engineered crops entirely. What's more, this kind of contamination
could block exports to many other countries, particularly countries
within the European Union, who have not approved biotech crops.

The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its decision this summer.
However it rules, more questions are being raised about the long-term
impact of these crops on the environment.

In April, the National Research Council, which is part of the
National Academy of Sciences, published the first research report on
how genetically engineered crops affect U.S. farmers. These researchers
found there has been a rapid rise in weeds resistant to the herbicide
Roundup (so-called superweeds) that could rapidly undercut any
environmental or economic benefits of GE crops. Roundup-resistant crops
allow farmers to kill weeds with the herbicide without destroying their

To date, at least nine species of weeds in the U.S. have developed
resistance to Roundup since genetically engineered crops were
introduced. The other primary type of GE seed is designed to produce
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria deadly to insect pests. Thus
far, two types of insects have developed resistance to Bt. The loss of
effectiveness of Roundup and Bt could lead to increased use of more
toxic and persistent herbicides.

Greater scrutiny is long overdue. Over 80 percent of corn, soybeans,
and cotton grown in the U.S. are already coming from genetically
engineered seeds. But the economic stakes are equally troubling. Only a
few companies control this industry. Monsanto is already under a
Justice Department investigation regarding the pricing of its
genetically engineered soybeans. The company has sued more than 100
farmers, alleging patent violations. And as the Supreme Court case
reveals, the government and the biotech industry have overlooked
concerns of farmers who have chosen not to grow these crops for much of
the last 15 years.

The NRC reported that there's little to no scientific literature on
how genetically engineered crops affect farmers who choose not to use
them, or on the larger agriculture community itself. Why, after 15
years, do we have so little scientific data on these crops? A letter
sent to the Environmental Protection Agency last year from 26 leading
entomologists (scientists who study insects) gives a clue. The
entomologists argued that they were prevented from doing independent
research on genetically engineered crops because of technology
agreements Monsanto and other seed companies have established. The
agreements bar research that isn't approved by the companies.

And where are the regulators? When the regulatory framework for
genetically engineered crops was first put in place in the early 1990s,
regulators in George H.W. Bush's administration--under heavy lobbying
from the biotech industry--determined that these crops were no
different than any other crop and hence required no special pre-market
testing. They simply squeezed genetically engineered crops into the
existing regulatory framework.

Since then, Bill Clinton's, George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's
administrations have consistently dodged more rigorous regulation of
these crops. Congress has stayed out of the issue completely. Lawmakers
haven't passed a single bill to strengthen the regulation of these
largely untested crops. It's not surprising that this regulatory and
research vacuum on genetically engineered crops has led to a series of
court challenges. Even Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has admitted
that "our rules and regulations have to be modernized."

But we'll need more than legal rulings to answer 15 years worth of
questions about the effects of genetically engineered crops on our
nation's fields and farming communities.

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