Biology in the News Explained

The U.S.D.A. loves G.M.O’s – but does the environment?

An article in today’s NY Times about a Monsanto product exemplifies the shortsightedness of government policy with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Here’s a snippet:

A federal judge in Washington said last week that the Agriculture Department had not done adequate assessments before approving field trials of genetically engineered grass. And last August a federal judge in Hawaii, in a case involving field trials of crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, ruled that the Agriculture Department had not adequately assessed the possible impact on endangered species.

No, I am not a rabid anti-GMO type at all. I’m just tired of the USDA existing to serve corporate interests. As a biologist studying ecological issues related to biological control of pests, I have a lot of experience with the U.S.D.A. and know many U.S.D.A. scientists, and so I know about a lot of stupid U.S.D.A. policy. Assuming the case was in Hawai`i because the crops were, it’s a double whammy that they were introducing such an organism into a state with such a fragile environment.

U.S. government agencies have always had policies destructive to the environment, and often with questionable societal benefit – for example, until (I believe) 1979, your tax dollars were hard at work on the quest to introduce alien game animals from around the world. You’d honestly think, though, in this new century of increased environmental knowledge and general public awareness, that policies would make a little more sense. And undoubtedly the case is more complicated than presented in the article. But apparently the U.S.D.A. decided that the alfalfa in question was “harmless to people and livestock” and called it good. Huh? I’m certainly not assuming that all GMOs are harmful to the environment, and I think human health is not likely to be a problem with the great majority, but plants do commonly hybridize. To have no data on the conditions under which this plant might cross breed with un-modified alfalfa or (worse in my opinion) native legumes, and approve it anyway, is just another one of seemingly endless examples of government at least appearing to prioritize corporate interests ahead of long-term environmental stability.

Fortunately, even Monsanto seems to know when they have made a really bad decision. This article reminded me of when years ago, there was a lot of hype about Roundup-ready turfgrass being made available for use in those facilities of compelling national interest, golf courses. In the face of serious protest of their attempt to create a super weed (these grasses spread and hybridize with related species, albeit at low frequency), they actually backed off:

Superweed No Superstar
gone from hero to zero, as biotech firm Monsanto withdrew its proposal to commercially market the genetically engineered turfgrass. Turns out the product is resistant to the top-selling weedkiller Roundup, a brand also owned by Monsanto. The problem, according to the International Center for Technology, is that commercialization of the genetically engineered creeping bentgrass would be “an environmental nightmare.” The CTA has petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture to federally prohibit the use of the grass and label it a “noxious weed.” (Albright Seed Company, November 2002 newsletter)

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