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Mixed Rulings on Crops With Genetic Changes

(CN) - A federal judge issued diverging opinions on plans to farm genetically modified corn and soybeans in midwestern and southeastern regions of National Wildlife Refuge land.

Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System includes more than 150 million acres of public land and water for wildlife conservation in various states.

After rejecting several farming alternatives, Fish and Wildlife last year approved a plan that allows farming of genetically modified corn and soybeans on refuge lands in the Midwest and the Southeast.

In the Midwest, the agency set habitat restoration, which aims to limit invasive or unwanted plant species and to protect purer native species, as the objective for this farming. It says the plan promotes long-term restoration of native habitats, such as prairie, wetlands and bottomland hardwoods.

Fish and Wildlife signed agreements allowing farmers to plant and harvest genetically modified crops on designated areas in refuges, under conditions established by refuge managers. Under the agreements, the use of modified corn and soybeans on refuge lands in the region is limited to five years for any individual tract, and is only allowed for habitat restoration.

The agency's 2011 environmental assessment concluded that the plan would have no significant environmental impact, and thus there was no need for a full environmental impact statement.

Three nonprofit organizations and a research, education and farm policy group sued the government in November 2011, challenging its decision to authorize planting of genetically engineered crops on refuges and wetlands in eight Midwestern states. The groups claimed that the government had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a full environmental impact statement and to determine on a case-by-case basis if modified-crop cultivation was a compatible use for some refuges. They also argued that the proliferation of genetically engineered crops, most of which are herbicide-tolerant, increased the use of herbicides and posed a threat to public health and the environment.

Though U.S. District Judge James Boasberg found that the groups have standing to sue, he disagreed that the government's decision was arbitrary and unreasonable.

The groups had argued that the government's environmental analysis had ignored possible adverse impacts, such as the increased use of herbicides, the risk of herbicide-resistant "super weeds," and the risk of transgenic contamination of neighboring fields.

But Boasberg noted that the agency's study sufficiently addressed the environmental effects of growing modified crops on refuges.

"FWS's conclusions may not be what plaintiffs wish, but it cannot be gainsaid that they took a hard look at the issues," Boasberg wrote.

The agency adequately considered several proposed farming alternatives, and was reasonable in approving the current plan, given its need to reconcile environmental costs with the agency's objectives, the 35-page ruling states.

It was also reasonable to opt for a region-wide study because refuge-specific analyses were not required within the challenged environmental assessment, according to the Oct. 15 ruling.

Fish and Wildlife adequately considered potential adverse impacts on the environment and was justified in foregoing a full environmental impact statement, the judge concluded, granting the government summary judgment.

Over a week later, on Oct. 23, the same judge granted summary judgment to the same groups in their complaint over genetically modified crop farming that has been banned in the Southeast next year.

The groups filed suit over this plan in August 2011, claiming that the government should have conducted a compatibility determination before authorizing the farming of genetically modified crops in southeastern refuges.

Hoping to dismiss these claims as moot, the government pointed out that it had voluntarily folded the plan at the end of the 2012 growing season to conduct "appropriate environmental analysis."

Boasberg said that the case is not moot, however, because the decision has not "completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation."

"In other words, plaintiffs allege harms that are currently occurring and will continue throughout 2012," Boasberg wrote. "Waiting for 2013 is not good enough."

The alleged harms include "harm [to] beneficial insects, increase[ed] prevalence of [herbicide] resistant weeds, alter[ed] soil ecology, and [genetic] contaminat[ion] [of] natural plants."

The judge set a hearing for Nov. 5 to determine an appropriate remedy.

According to the Center for Food Safety, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, as are 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton.

"A number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment," the center claims. "Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and cancer. As for environmental impacts, the use of genetic engineering in agriculture will lead to uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and the potential contamination of all non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material."

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