After facing a series of legal challenges from environmental groups, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service will phase out the use of genetically modified (GMO) crops and controversial neonicotinoid pesticides at farming projects on national wildlife refuges.
National Wildlife Refuge System chief James Kurth has directed the agency to stop using GMO crops and neonicontinoids on refuge farms by January 2016, according to a July 17 memo obtained by activists last week. The Fish and Wildlife Service is the first federal agency to restrict the use of GMOs and neonicotinoids in farming practices.
Neonicitinoids are a class of insecticides related to nicotine that act as nerve agents and are typically sprayed on crop seeds to kill insects. Scientists suspect that some neonicitinoids are responsible for declining populations of pollinating insects, and researchers in the Netherlands recently linked neonicotinoids to deaths among farmland birds.
For over a decade, GMO crops and neonicotinoid pesticides were used on a regular basis at farming projects on national wildlife refuges across the country. Federal court rulings shut down GMO farming on refuges in several regions after environmental and food safety groups spent years challenging the practice both in and out of court, arguing the crops and poisons threaten the same ecosystems that the refuges are supposed to protect.
Kurth's memo states that the federal wildlife refuge system's "leadership team" has decided that federal refuges should only use agriculture practices that contribute to specific "wildlife objectives" and restore or mimic natural ecosystems, but Kurth did no elaborate on what these "wildlife objectives" would be.
Several federal wildlife refuges have farmed crops that are genetically engineered to resist pesticides to feed wildlife and control weeds. GMO technology allows farmers to blanket whole fields of crops with pesticides to kill weeds while sparing the GMO crops.
Scientists warn that GMO farming leads to increased pesticide use that can harm native grasses and wildlife such as birds and aquatic animals, according to a statement from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), one of the groups that challenged the GMO farming practices.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will still consider the temporary use of GMOs for habitat restoration projects on a case-by-case basis, but in general, the federal refuge system will stop relying on them to meet "wildlife management objectives," according to the memo.
Beginning in 2005, the Center for Food Safety and PEER filed five lawsuits challenging the use of GMO crops on wildlife refuges across the country. The groups argued that farming GMO crops without conducting environmental impact studies violated federal environmental law. Several federal judges agreed and halted the planting of GMO crops at refuges in more than half of US states.
Refuges that grew GMO crops have not had any trouble switching to non-GMO practices after the court orders, according to an analysis by PEER. The group took up the case after federal employees raised concerns about GMO farming.
"We are gratified that the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally concluded that industrial agriculture, with genetically engineered crops and powerful pesticides, is both bad for wildlife and inappropriate on refuge lands," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. "Since refuges have already demonstrated that they do not need these practices, we would urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to make the ban immediate, not wait until 2016, and to eliminate the loopholes in its new policy."
The legal battle even made its way to the White House. In 2011, internal emails revealed that a lobbying group funded by Monsanto and other biotech firms had contacted top officials in a White House working group on biotech agriculture about court-ordered environmental assessments of GMO farms in wildlife refuges.
PEER charged that the biotech lobby and the Obama administration were colluding to clean up the tarnished image of GMO agriculture in order to promote crop exports to Europe, where GMOs are publically unpopular and restricted in several countries. The White House declined to comment at the time.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to phase out neonicotinoid pesticides comes as a growing body of research continues to link the poisons to decline in pollinator populations, especially bees. Last year, the European Union placed a two-year ban on the use of three neonicitinoids on certain crops.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that neonicitinoids used in seed treatment "can distribute systematically in a plant and potentially affect a spectrum of non-target species," according to the memo.
The agency's findings deal a major blow to corporate peddlers of neonicitinoids such as Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, which vigorously defend the safety of the chemicals in the face of growing scientific scrutiny, especially in Europe.
Regulators in the United States are studying the poisons and alleged links to declining pollinator populations, but have not placed any definitive restrictions on the chemicals.
While the Fish and Wildlife service claims there can be "appropriate and specialized uses of neonicotinoid pesticides" on wildlife refuges, the agency will stop using the chemicals, along with GMO crops, at farming projects by 2016.