OMG, GMOs: Earthjustice's Paul Achitoff

Why are genetically engineered (GE) crops bad for the environment?

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Intro: (This is the first in a series of Q & A’s on genetically engineered food, which harm the environment by increasing pesticide use, creating pesticide resistant superweeds and contaminating conventional and organic crops. Earthjustice is challenging the USDA’s decision to allow genetically engineered sugar beets and alfalfa onto the market. To learn more, check out our GMO web feature.

EJ: Why are genetically engineered (GE) crops bad for the environment?
PA: Most GE crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicides. As a result of continually applying a single herbicide to the same field over and over again, there is now a proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds across the nation. It’s been particularly prevalent in cotton, but we’ve also seen it in GE soybean fields. The amount of herbicide that’s going into the environment, into the soil and into the groundwater has increased significantly as a result of these GE crops.
That’s the main issue, but there are other issues as well. For example, GE crops can contaminate conventional or organic crops, so that has economic impacts on non-GE farmers whose crops become mixed with their GE counterpart.

EJ: How did Earthjustice get involved with this issue?
PA: About 10 years ago we took on a case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture involving its approval of open-air field trials for crops genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals. We eventually established that the USDA had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act by approving these field trials without following the proper procedures of those statutes. From there it wasn’t too far to work on cases where crops are genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides.
EJ: Monsanto, one of the largest biotech companies in the world, makes a majority of these crops. How is Earthjustice holding up against such a formidable foe?    
PA: Because Monsanto has a lot of resources and because they view our lawsuits as a significant threat, they have devoted a lot of resources to opposing our litigation. They have hired a large law firm, they have spent a great deal of money on expert witnesses, and they are very aggressive in defense of their business interests, so it keeps us on our toes.
EJ: I bet! So do you think all of these issues that have occurred with previous GE crops will also occur with GE sugar beets and alfalfa?
PA: Yes. We have every reason to think that the same problems will occur because the situation really isn’t any different. There aren’t any enforceable controls in place to prevent them from happening. The government could place some controls on the industry, but the USDA has not used that authority because it simply is so sympathetic to Monsanto’s interests. It doesn’t care about the larger interests of consumer choice, conventional and organic farmer choice, the environmental impact of increased herbicide use, and so forth.
The USDA has the ability to do things in a much more responsible way, but it chooses not to and so we have to ask the courts to get it to follow the law and act more responsibility. Currently we have a lawsuit pending in which we are asking the court to decide that the government’s recent decision to allow the continued growing of GE sugar beets while it’s preparing an environmental impact statement is unlawful. The whole purpose of doing an environmental impact statement is to determine the environmental, human health and socioeconomic impacts of an agency’s decision before the decision occurs, not after it occurs and has become entrenched.
EJ: Will stopping the GE sugar beet planting cause a sugar shortage?
PA: Though there have been stories about the possibility of drastic shortages of sugar and higher prices if GE sugar beets are not allowed to be planted, my view is that the analyses that those stories were based on were greatly exaggerated. They were generated primarily to scare both the judge and the public into imagining that we somehow need GE sugar beets or else people are going to be paying $50 for a can of coke.
EJ: How can people avoid eating GE foods?
PA: Buy certified organic products, eat less processed food and eat more fresh food. Right now, between 70 and 80 percent of all packaged foods contain one or more GE ingredients, so if you buy a box of breakfast cereal, or an energy bar, or ice cream, chances are very good that it contains one or more GE ingredient.
Currently, there are a small number of large corporations like Monsanto that have patented most of the commodity crops like soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets that are grown in the U.S. today. So, essentially what you’re finding is that these companies are, to a very significant extent, controlling what people are eating to a degree that many consumers don’t realize because the U.S. doesn’t require GE ingredients to be labeled. I hope people would be indignant about that because nobody wants Monsanto controlling their diet, but that is in fact what’s happening.
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Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.