by Mike Ludwig
25 July 2011
researchers in Stonington, Illinois,
are working to develop
new soybean varieties in this July 2006 file photo.
According to PEER Executive Director
"The White House is engaging in a
joint effort with Monsanto
... and as we understand it, it's
part of a White House pledge to double exports,"
Monsanto via The New York Times)
The Obama administration is supporting
genetically engineered (GE) agriculture
in more than 50 national wildlife refuges across the country and
watchdog groups say internal emails among top administration
officials reveal that the GE plots are a priority in the White
Earlier this year, a settlement in a lawsuit filed by the watchdog
group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and
its allies halted the planting of GE crops in US Fish and Wildlife
Service wildlife refuges in northeastern states. Now PEER claims the
Obama administration is working with the biotech lobby to shield GE
plots in refuges from future legal challenges.
A January 10, 2011 email obtained by PEER reveals that biotech
Adrianne Massey contacted Peter Schmeissner,
the senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and
Technology, about the legal challenge to GE crop plantings in
Massey, who has made a career out of promoting biotechnology across
the world, promotes the public policy of the Biotechnology Industry
Organization (BIO), a lobby funded by Monsanto and other biotech
Obama administration recently created the
Agricultural Biotechnology Working Group and GE crop opponents claim
the interagency group has teamed up with BIO to boost exports of GE
crops to countries that have grown leery of America's increasingly
transgenic food supply.
Massey also emailed Schmeissner about legally mandated environmental
assessments of GE crops in wildlife refuges. PEER contends the
emails are evidence of "collusion" between the Obama administration
and the biotech lobby, but it remains unclear how much sway BIO
actually holds within the administration.
The Office of Science and Technology did
not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.
The biotechnology working group features top-level officials from
almost every agency under the Obama administration involved in
agricultural trade and beyond, including the State Department, the
Justice Department, the Office of Budget and Management, the
Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection
Other internal emails reveal that Schmeissner asked top officials in
the working group to comment on new environmental assessments of GE
crop plantings in refuges across the country. The mandatory
assessment can help the government defend the GE crop plantings from
legal challenges. So. how did tiny parcels GE crops in wildlife
refuges become a priority for top White House officials?
For years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed farming on
national wildlife refuges for the purpose of habitat restoration.
The agency claims farming helps develop native grasslands and
provides food for wildlife.
Deborah Rocque, a top official for the wildlife refuge system, told
Truthout that GE crops restore habitats in ways that conventional
crops cannot. Crops that are genetically engineered to tolerate
herbicide (such as
Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn and
soy) provide beneficial ground cover and the herbicides can be
sprayed across entire fields, killing only unwanted weeds, but
sparring the GE crops.
Conservationists can debate whether blanketing parcels of wildlife
refuges with GE crops and plant-killing chemicals is sound land
management practice or an ecologically dangerous experiment, but
PEER believes that BIO and the Obama administration are not
interested in habitat restoration.
"The White House is engaging in a
joint effort with Monsanto... and as we understand it, it's
part of a White House pledge to double exports," said PEER
Executive Director Jeff Ruch.
The US has had trouble in recent years
exporting GE crops to Europe, where many consumers are skeptical
about GE foods and some countries mandate that foods containing GE
ingredient must be labeled.
Now that more than 90 percent of corn
and soy grown in America is GE, the government has a vested interest
in promoting the acceptance of GE crops in other countries.
"These plans are based on the
curious notion that wildlife benefit from having the small
slivers of habitat set aside for them covered by genetically
engineered soybeans," Ruch said of the program in an earlier
"To boost US exports, the Obama
administration is forcing wildlife refuges into political
PEER claims that Fish and Wildlife
policy did not allow for GE crops in wildlife refuges unless found
essential for some purpose, and some European countries pointed to
the policy as evidence that GE crops are not environmentally sound.
So by using environmental assessments to
justify GE crop plantings in picturesque wildlife refuges, the Obama
administration and agribusiness firms can clean up the tarnished
image of GE crops worldwide.
Rocque, however, said that Fish and Wildlife never had a policy
whether or not GE crops should be planted in refuges and it simply
makes sense to use herbicide-resistant GE crops as a habitat
Ruch said PEER filed its first legal challenge after being contacted
by Fish and Wildlife biologists who opposed using refuge land to
grow GE crops.
PEER later obtained an internal email among Fish and
Wildlife officials that the group believes is evidence that USDA
Secretary Tom Vilsack has put pressure on the agency to get
in line with the broader administration's stance on GE agriculture.
In the January 14 email, Interior Department Deputy Secretary
David Hayes tells Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Tom Ashe
and Interior Department official Tom Strickland that Vilsack
"somewhat exercised that the
Administration is not being consistent in supporting genetically
"This is the White House telling Fish and Wildlife to get out of
the way," Ruch said.
Rocque, however, said she is unaware of
any internal pressure from the White House to promote the planting
of GE crops in wildlife refuges.