Late last week, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era policy banning the use of GMO crops and a controversial class of pesticides thought to harm bees and birds in federal wildlife refuges. The news generated some eye-popping headlines and raises the question: Why would land managers plant genetically engineered corn and soy plants and spray harmful pesticides in federal refuges for wildlife in the first place?
Wildlife refuges across the country have entered into cooperative agreements with private farmers, allowing them to farm on federal land in exchange for dedicating a portion of the agricultural area to habitat restoration and providing forage for migrating birds. Due to rapid habitat loss, birds and butterflies have come to depend on wildlife refuges along their migration routes to survive.
Refuges have historically used these private farms to prepare seed beds for native habitats and provide food for migrating birds. However, environmentalists say some of these farms use pesticides and GMO row-crop techniques that can harm wildlife.
For example, an increase in pesticide use associated with certain GMOs has decimated plants that provide food for monarch butterflies.
More than 490,000 pounds of potentially dangerous pesticides were sprayed on farms in wildlife refuges for agricultural reasons in 2016 alone, according to a recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity. Similar amounts of chemicals were used in prior years, even as pesticide-resistant GMO crops were phased out.
“Wildlife refuges are places where we should be protecting wildlife, not promoting use of highly toxic poisons on row crops,” Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center and author of the report, said in a statement.
During the Obama administration, environmental groups filed a series of successful lawsuits against the use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops at these farms, which can increase the amount of weed-killing chemicals farmers use. In 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to phase out the use of GMO crops and the controversial pesticides known as neonicotinoids or “neonics” at wildlife refuge farms nationwide.
Neonics have been repeatedly linked to declining populations of bees and other pollinators, and the European Union recently expanded a ban on their outdoor use. Recent research by the United States government shows that certain neonics can threaten birds and small mammals as well.
Most GMO crops are engineered to resist herbicide applications, allowing farmers to blanket whole fields with weed-killing chemicals while sparing the food crops. These biotech crops became so popular in the US that weeds began developing a resistance to Roundup, an herbicide developed by Monsanto and paired with GMO crops. The company recently added a more toxic pesticide to its GMO crop system to tackle the rise of so-called “superweeds.”
As you might expect, the use of such technology at refuges for threatened wildlife has long outraged environmentalists. Federal courts agreed, and lawsuits filed by environmental groups blocked GMO farming at several refuges before the Obama administration declared in 2014 that GMOs and neonics were not “essential” to fulfilling the refuges’ mission.
In a memo reversing the Obama-era ban, US Fish and Wildlife Deputy Direct Gregory Sheehan wrote that phasing out GMOs and neonics on some refuge farms was “appropriate and expedient.” However, he argued that there may be situations where GMO seeds are “essential” for meeting the needs of birds and other wildlife, and land managers should have the option to use them on a case-by-case basis.
Connor suspects this decision is not just about making sure that wildlife officials have access to all the tools in the toolbox. Since taking office, the Trump administration has systematically rolled back environmental protections put in place during the Obama administration, including many hard-fought victories won by environmentalists. And when it comes to public lands, the administration has prioritized the interests of private industry and game hunters above all else.
“It’s part of a trend we’ve seen on refuge lands, and all of our other public lands,” Connor told Truthout in an interview, adding that the Trump administration has aggressively moved to expand fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
Then there is the biotech and agrichemical industry, which has fought for years to save the tarnished public image of GMO crops and food products. In 2011, when environmentalists began challenging GMO fields in wildlife refuges, top biotech industry lobbyists took their concerns straight to the White House. At the time, the industry was working with the Obama administration to boost agricultural exports to Europe, where consumers and governments tend to be wary of GMO foods.
Last year, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a free-market think tank that supports GMO and industrial agriculture, sent a letter to the Interior Department requesting the ban on neonics and GMO crops at wildlife refuges be rescinded. GMOs have been unfairly stigmatized, the group wrote, even though science has shown that they outperform other types of crops. Neonics may threaten native butterflies, but they are less toxic to other animals than older pesticides, so why not allow the chemicals to be used on a case-by-case basis?
Of course, environmentalists are not concerned about GMO soybeans harming the birds and the bees in wildlife refuges — they are concerned about the herbicides and pesticides that come with them. However, conventional farming techniques can also be pesticide-heavy, raising the question of whether wildlife refuges should host for-profit farms to begin with.
“The claim that refuge wildlife need genetically modified soybeans cannot be made with a straight face,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, one of the groups that sued to stop GMO farming at wildlife refuges.
Jenkins added that the agricultural biotech industry has lobbied the Trump administration to reverse the Obama-era ban because it undermines sales pitches claiming that GMOs and pesticides have no ill side effects.
“These refuges are supposed to benefit wildlife, not a corporate bottom line,” Jenkins said.