Academic journal article Policy Review

The Rush to Condemn Genetically Modified Crops

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Rush to Condemn Genetically Modified Crops

Article excerpt

IN SPITE OF more than twenty years of scientific, humanitarian, and financial successes and an admirable record of health and environmental safety, genetic engineering applied to agriculture continues to be beleaguered by activists. Gene-spliced, or so-called genetically modified, crop plants are now grown on nearly 150 million acres in the United States alone, helping farmers to increase yields, reduce pesticide spraying, and save topsoil--and without injury to a single person or damage to an ecosystem. But this remarkable record hasn't kept radical environmentalists from condemning and obstructing the technology. When they can't sway public opinion with outright misrepresentations or induce regulators to reject products, activists have resorted to vandalism of field trials and, finally, to harassment with nuisance lawsuits.

Environmental activists succeeded in alarming the American public about gene-spliced crops and foods for a time during the 1990s and the early part of last decade, but they cried wolf so often in the face of an unbroken string of successes that the public began to tune them out. More recently, the activists have had to dig deeper into their bag of tricks and revive a proven strategy for obstructing progress: litigation that challenges the procedural steps government agencies take when approving individual gene-spliced crops. Since 2007, a coalition of green activist groups and organic farmers has used the courts to overturn two final approvals for gene-spliced crop varieties and the issuance of permits to test several others. At least one additional case is now pending.

The NEPA process

UNDER THE NATIONAL Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which took effect in 1970, all federal government agencies are required to consider the effects that any "major actions" they take may have on the "human environment." Agencies can exempt whole categories of routine or repetitive decisions, but most other decisions--such as the issuance of a new regulation, the siting of a new road, bridge, or power plant, or the approval of a new agricultural technology--trigger the NEPA obligation to evaluate environmental impacts. If the regulatory agency concludes that the action will have "no significant impact" (a legal term of art), it issues a relatively brief Environmental Assessment explaining the basis for that decision. If the environment is likely to be affected significantly, however, the agency must prepare a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement, which typically requires thousands of man-hours, details every imaginable effect, and runs to hundreds (or even thousands) of pages.

The obligation under NEPA is wholly procedural, which means that even significant environmental effects do not prohibit the agency from ultimately taking the proposed actions. Its purpose is merely to force government agencies to consider the possibility that their actions may result in environmental effects, but courts have interpreted the law broadly and expanded its impact, requiring a comprehensive review of every imaginable effect on the "human environment." This category now encompasses not only harm to the natural ecology but also economic, social, and even aesthetic impacts. It has become easy, therefore, for agencies to miss some tangential matter and be tripped up by an irresponsible litigant who alleges that the environmental review was incomplete. And even when regulators actually do consider a potential impact but reject the concern due to its unimportance or improbability, they can run afoul of NEPA by failing to extensively and comprehensively document their reasoning. That is exactly what happened with the challenges to approvals of gene-spliced crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved 74 different gene-spliced crop varieties for commercial-scale cultivation, including dozens of varieties of corn, cotton, canola, potato, soybean, and tomato, as well as a handful of other crop species. …

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