By Miller, Henry I.; Conko, Gregory
Regulation , Vol. 34, No. 2
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must have been on vacation the day President Obama pledged in 2009 that "Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions" made by his administration and that "political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions." Why else would Vilsack, last December, have disregarded his own department's scientific review and conclusion that a new, genetically engineered crop variety should be approved because it is safe for humans and the environment?
A comprehensive environmental review by USDA scientists had concluded that a genetically engineered alfalfa variety was substantially equivalent to other conventional varieties and posed no genuine risks. Vilsack chose to ignore those findings and pandered to the organic food lobby by announcing that the Agriculture Department might forbid farmers to plant the alfalfa variety on huge swaths of American cropland.
Organic farmers--who produce less than one percent of the nation's agricultural output--have long complained that the cultivation of biotech crops jeopardizes their own production because plants of the same species can cross-pollinate with one another. Organic farmers may not use the products of biotechnology, but unintended cross-pollination by a neighbor's genetically engineered plants could in certain circumstances "contaminate" organic crops. A federal court even rescinded the USDA's initial approval in 2005 of a biotech alfalfa variety on the grounds that the department failed to complete an Environmental Impact Statement addressing the issue of "coexistence" between genetically engineered and conventional varieties.
But even after the USDA's subsequent environmental review concluded that coexistence was not a problem, Vilsack nevertheless sowed confusion and concern among American plant breeders and farmers by proposing geographic restrictions as well as minimum separation distances from other crops for the commercial cultivation of the genetically engineered alfalfa variety. This would have signaled an abandonment of any semblance of a scientific underpinning of regulation, and it would have been disastrous news for the vast majority of American farmers who have eagerly embraced genetic engineering technology that has delivered substantial economic and environmental benefits over the past two decades.
Affecting the Human Environment
To fully understand the context of Vilsack's actions, some background is essential.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), federal government agencies are required to consider the effects that any "major actions" they take may have on the "human environment." The obligation is triggered by all manner of decisions, such as proposing a new regulation, building a new federally funded highway, or approving a new agricultural technology.
If an agency concludes that its action will have no significant impacts, it issues a relatively brief Environmental Assessment that explains the basis for that decision. But if significant effects are likely, the agency must prepare a comprehensive and voluminous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that details every conceivable effect, runs to hundreds of pages, and requires thousands of bureaucrat-hours.
Since NEPA was enacted, however, prodding by environmentalists and decisions by compliant judges have expanded its coverage to such an extent that courts now interpret the term "human environment" to include not just tangible ecological harms that affect people and human communities, but also impacts that are economic, social, cultural, historic, or aesthetic. One decision by a federal district court in Minnesota illustrates just how liberally the statute is interpreted:
Relevant as well is whether the project will affect the local crime rate, present fire dangers, or otherwise unduly tap police and fire forces in the community, . …