On the Friday before the 4th of July weekend, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) discreetly dropped a bombshell. They announced that their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) would not regulate Scotts Miracle-Gro’s genetically engineered Kentucky bluegrass which is resistant to Roundup herbicide (Scotts is Monsanto’s exclusive agent for marketing and distribution of Roundup).
Just as alarming were the rationales behind the decision. APHIS claimed GE Kentucky bluegrass is not under their regulatory authority because pest organism DNA isn’t used for that strain, they don’t view GE nor non-GE Kentucky bluegrass as a plant pest or noxious weed and they don’t consider the GE variety to be a new species. Thus, the USDA announced they will take no steps to regulate GE Kentucky bluegrass but they “strongly encourage” Scotts to “work with industry partners and stakeholders and to develop appropriate and effective stewardship measures.” Self-regulation, in other words, which is what the USDA previously pushed when they announced a new policy letting Monsanto write their own environmental impact reports this past April.
As reported by Tom Philpott in a July 8 article for Mother Jones, according to Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program, APHIS’s decision on GE Kentucky bluegrass sets a dangerous precedent because it will “drastically weaken USDA’s regulation,” (which is already too ineffectual). Gurian-Sherman believes, “This is perhaps the most serious change in US regs for [GM] crops for many years.” Even before the USDA’s recent announcement, the “plant pest” regulatory requirement for GMOs had become increasingly pointless in recent years because the biotech industry can produce more GMO strains using genetic material from non-pests and “If the companies don’t use plant pests, then the USDA ostensibly doesn’t have a legal hook to regulate the crops,” Gurian-Sherman said.
In the same article, Philpott cited USDA documents conceding that Scotts genetically modified bluegrass could be considered for regulation as a Federally listed noxious weed showing potential to cause damage to crops and natural resources. To avoid having to regulate, the agency claimed that risks posed by genetically engineered and conventional bluegrass are “essentially the same,” a highly dubious claim in light of current problems of Roundup resistant superweeds many farmers are now plagued with. Also, genetic material inserted into cells are positioned randomly and no intensive testing has been done to determine how this affects functioning of the cells.
In a follow up article a week later, Philpott shed some light on a memo from USDA secretary Tom Vilsack to Scots acknowledging the potential for GM bluegrass to contaminate non-GM varieties in a process called “gene-flow” (which has already occurred with GM corn, canola and other modified crops). In his own words: “The USDA recognizes that if this GE variety were to be commercially released, producers wishing to grow non-GE Kentucky bluegrass will likely have concerns related to gene flow between the GE variety and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass.” So what’s Vilsack’s response to this imminent threat to all organic and non-GMO food producers?
“USDA therefore strongly encourages Scotts to discuss these concerns with various stakeholders during these early stages of research and development of this GE Kentucky bluegrass variety and thereby develop appropriate and effective stewardship measures to minimize commingling and gene flow between GE and non-GE Kentucky bluegrass.”
Once again his suggestion is self-regulation. An example of what happens when companies like Monsanto are given free reign to regulate themselves was recently documented in a report from Earth Open Source, called “Roundup and Birth Defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” (summarized and re-posted at Gmwatch.org). According to previously suppressed internal documents uncovered by researchers for the report, from as far back as the 1980s Monsanto and industry insiders were aware that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, caused birth defects, cancer, genetic damage, endocrine disruption, and other serious health problems in lab animals even at proportionally low dosages and did not inform the public. Today Roundup is the world’s top-selling herbicide and the most widely used in America.
Increased exposure to glyphosates is another reason why growing any Roundup resistant GMOs are a bad idea but in our current situation with numerous Monsanto-connected officials in the USDA and other government positions and billions of dollars each year spent by big agribusiness on campaign contributions, lobbying, advertising, etc., what can concerned citizens do?
We can all do a small part to spread the word and not buy anything from Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto nor products that benefit such companies. With the Internet it’s easier than ever to educate ourselves through independent investigative journalism from around the world which often report news (via text, video and podcast) with greater accuracy, detail and context than most corporate-owned newspapers and TV news programs.
Numerous grassroots campaigns are doing important education and activism work on related issues, one of the most prominent of which is the Organic Consumers Association’s “Millions Against Monsanto” project. And of course there’s local community-based groups like Community Alliance for Global Justice that educates and mobilizes the public to challenge unjust policies of corporations, governments and other institutions while creating and supporting alternatives embodying social justice, sustainability, diversity and grassroots democracy (to paraphrase the mission statement). Unlike corporations such as Monsanto, the food justice and food freedom movements don’t have the money to launch massive PR campaigns and bribe lawmakers to do our bidding but there’s power in numbers. With your help our numbers and ability to take effective collective action will continue to grow.
Reid Mukai is co-chair of the Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ).