The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are under scrutiny after a succession of federal court hearings which found the organizations have acted illegally or carelessly when approving certain biotechnological crops.

Despite the fact these regulatory bodies are responsible for ensuring the safety of genetically engineered crops, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), before they are approved for commercial use, a November 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office–the investigative arm of Congress–cited several problems.  One of the key shortcomings noted was a lack of a comprehensive risk assessment program that ensures these crops pose no risk to the environment, the agricultural areas that want to be GMO-free, and food safety.

The GAO has relied on voluntary reporting by companies like Monsanto and other GMO developers before selling new products they develop for the market. According to Lisa Shames, director of the natural resources and environment area of the GAO, the agency can only make recommendations to the biotech companies, but cannot compel them to take action.

Unlike the GAO, federal judges can compel organizations into action. While the USDA claims to ensure safety, concerns about the agency’s ability to balance the desire to support business development–making it easier for companies to develop new technology–and keeping the public interest foremost have been raised during recent court hearings.

alfalfa-field-featured.jpgIn 2007, Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found the USDA negligent, ruling that the agency had violated federal law by approving commercial planting of ‘Roundup Ready’ alfalfa before the alfalfa was put through stringent testing.  Judge Breyer requested an environmental impact statement be prepared by the USDA that examines any possible deleterious effects the substance, which critics claim include the contamination of nearby non-GMO alfalfa fields.  This week, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ban on Roundup Ready alfalfa, ruling that the federal district court overstepped its bounds.  While unlikely to speed up the planting of now-prohibited alfalfa, the

decision gives the USDA the ability to allow restricted or partial

planting of the seeds while it continues to complete an Environmental

Impact Statement, which the court agreed was indeed required under

federal law.

In a similar case, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffery White found that ‘Roundup Ready’ sugar beets had also been approved for commercial planting without adequate USDA evaluation. Judge White was critical of the USDA’s decision to allow Roundup Ready sugar beets to be planted, and stated that these technologically altered beets could have an adverse affect on the environment.  In a March ruling he told growers he “is inclined to order” that they “take all efforts, going forward, to use conventional seed.” He will consider a permanent injunction of the seed at a hearing on July 9, 2010.

“The courts have made it clear that the USDA’s job is to protect America’s farmers and consumers, not the interests of Monsanto,” said Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety Andrew Kimbrell after a hearing in September, 2009.  He said this should be a wake-up call for the US Government. The Center for Food Safety filed the sugarbeet lawsuit because of concerns that GM beet pollen could contaminate

non-GM and organic crops because sugarbeets are wind-pollinated. 

In an attempt to quell pubic outrage, the USDA recently began allowing public comment while debating regulatory changes. Keith Matthews, acting director of the US Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division, said “Transparency and open government is a major priority of the Obama administration.” 

Despite this move by the USDA, some scientists still believe their biological risk assessment program comes up short. Robert Peterson, a Montana State University scientist and leader of the university’s biological risk assessment program, believes the agency’s risk assessment program is “fundamentally flawed,” and stated that some biotech companies’ approaches are not “scientifically sound.”

In February 2009, 26 concerned academic entomologists issued a public statement to the EPA claiming they are prohibited from doing independent research thanks to technology agreements that biotech companies like Monsanto and others place on all the seed they sell. “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology,” said the statement.

“We are all fans of this technology,” said Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University, “the problem is we are not getting access to ask the questions that need to be asked that maybe the companies don’t want to ask.”