1 in 7 Wildlife Refuges Has Genetically Engineered Crops

March 17, 2010

Genetically engineered crops are being planted in more than 80 of the United States' 551 national wildlife refuges, according to three organizations that filed a lawsuit March 1, 2010, against the US Fish and Wildlife Service over the use of GE crops in one Delaware refuge, Bombay Hook.

The groups Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Delaware Audubon Society, and the Center for Food Safety say they are preparing to file additional suits against other refuges, with one goal of setting a precedent that will spur changes at all refuges.

A primary claim of the Delaware suit is that GE plantings have not been evaluated through an appropriate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The groups have already won a similar case involving the Prime Hook refuge, which is now administered as part of Bombay Hook.

The groups estimate that about 100,000 acres of the 150 million acres in the nation's refuges are being planted with various GE crops, and that about 90% of all refuge crops are now GE. The FWS says it doesn't have publicly available, comprehensive numbers for GE acreage, but Will Meeks (cell 571-232-6551), head of the National Wildlife Refuge System Branch of Wildlife Resources, says the 100,000 number sounds about right.

Meeks says the FWS allows farming for several purposes, such as preparing the soil for transition back to more natural vegetation; providing certain foods for migratory birds; or, for at least one refuge, as mandated by legislation. He says that factors considered on a refuge-by-refuge basis regarding whether GE crops are acceptable include availability of the appropriate seed species, cost, related pesticide use, and possible effects on creatures and plants.

He notes that FWS is not now engaged in any overarching policy determinations for GE crops. Instead, individual refuge managers work with specific policies already in place (such as the Biological Integrity, Diversity, and Environmental Health Policy, and the Compatibility Determination), and can ask the national office for help with science information specific to the refuge and crops being considered. The manager makes the final decision, sometimes with regional oversight.

Refuges are intended to help protect more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 200 species of fish including representatives of nearly 25% of the nation's endangered or threatened species that live in refuge environments.

A study published Dec. 10, 2009, in the International Journal of Biological Sciences found that three strains of GE maize likely damaged the liver, kidneys, heart, adrenal gland, spleen, and blood-forming tissues and organs of rats that ate the foods for just three months. The study by French researchers evaluated raw data from Monsanto that the company was forced to release. The company said the researchers didn't evaluate the data appropriately.

An argument typically made to support use of GE crops is that they reduce pesticide use if the GE trait is resistance to selected pesticides. However, pesticide use associated with GE crops is actually greater than for traditional crops, according to The Organic Center.

Farmers who are working these parcels often say that using GE seed is the only way they can make a profit. But many farmers, and the US Dept. of Justice, are very concerned about skyrocketing seed prices in the past decade, particularly for GE crops for which there are few industry competitors. For one example of media coverage of this issue, see:

Detailed data on which refuges have GE crops, and the acreage involved, is not complete. Available data acquired by PEER and the Center for Food Safety through the FOIA process in 2007 and 2008 provides a starting point, but the groups note that some data for certain refuges seems to be incomplete. Also, the acreage planted each year can change. The groups have stopped most of their FOIA efforts, choosing instead to begin legal action.

Meeks says the FWS still does not have a publicly available database for GE crops. He suggests asking each refuge manager for such data, but acknowledges that a FOIA request may be needed in instances where the manager declines to provide data.