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Lawsuit challenges use of GMO crops and pesticides in U.S. wildlife refuges

The Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District is highlighted in litigation brought by national environmental groups.

The Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District extends over five counties in northwestern Minnesota.

The Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District extends over five counties in northwestern Minnesota, and its holdings might be thought of as a series of islands where woods, wetlands and remnants of tallgrass prairie are protected from further losses to agriculture and development.

There’s a special focus on maintaining habitat for waterfowl and other bird species native to the region, which has lost an estimated 80 percent of its wetlands and more than 99 percent of its native prairie.

Mammals, reptiles, insects and wildflowers, including the western prairie fringed orchid, are also highlighted in materials about resource management in the district, which is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Now the district itself is highlighted in litigation brought by national environmental groups in a challenge to the planting of genetically engineered crops, and use of new pesticides known as neonicotinoids, on lands within that system.

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For decades, some land within the refuges has been cultivated under cooperative arrangements between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private farmers.

But the shift in recent years to engineered crops and new insecticides has triggered a series of lawsuits, which argue narrowly that FWS has failed to meet legal requirements for reviewing the environmental impact of such practices before permitting them — and, more broadly, that because of their persistence and other special characteristics, they have no place in areas set aside for protection as wildlife habitat.

What’s a refuge for?

In a report Tuesday on the Environmental News Service wire, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety put it this way:

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is entrusted with protecting our most vulnerable species. This lawsuit seeks to ensure the agency carries out that mandate and corrects course before irreversible damage is done. Allowing pesticide promoting, genetically engineered crops is antithetical to the basic purpose of our refuge system.”

Other plaintiffs in the case include Beyond Pesticides, the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Besides the Detroit Lakes WMD, the example refuges — all within the FWS’ Midwest Region 3 — are  the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge near Carbondale, Ill.; the Cypress Creek NWR near Ulin, Ill.; the Swan Lake NWR near Sumner, Mo.; and the Iowa WMD, which has holdings in 18 counties in the north-central part of the state.

From the lawsuit:

Region 3 includes 66 refuges and wetland management districts encompassing over 1.2 million acres. The five refuges at issue in this case collectively total over 11,000 acres of the approximate 17,000 farmed acres in Region 3.  Row crops are usually cultivated for three to five years on farmland acquired by Region 3 before it is restored to natural habitat.  While GE corn and soybeans are among the crops planted during those three to five years, they are typically the only crops planted during the last two years before farmland is restored to natural habitat.

Three to five years? That may leave you wondering, What’s the big deal?

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A problem of persistence

It’s probably fair to say the plaintiff groups never met a genetically engineered crop (or pesticide) they didn’t dislike.

But the newer products and practices under challenge in these case are different from those of the past in some key ways, and the plaintiffs’ case against them is neither categorical nor fanatical.

Leaving aside the argument over how toxic the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) may be to amphibians, insects and people, the case raises more mainstream arguments about the impact of genetically engineered, “Roundup ready” crops on plant communities. More excerpts from the complaint [PDF], lightly compressed:

Studies show that cultivation of herbicide-resistant GE crops such as “Roundup Ready” soybeans and corn dramatically increases herbicide use, particularly glyphosate.

Gene flow from GE crops to conventional and organic crops, or transgenic contamination, is one adverse environmental impact stemming from GE crop cultivation.  Gene flow occurs in numerous ways, including when a crop disperses its seeds or pollen to propagate itself.

 Gene flow results in transgenic contamination of related conventional or organic cultivars or wild species with potentially hazardous or simply unwanted genetically engineered content. There are over 200 documented episodes of transgenic contamination.

 Widespread adoption of “Roundup Ready” technology in corn and soybeans [leads] to glyphosate-resistant “superweeds.”  These superweeds evolve quickly when “Roundup Ready” crops are grown year after year, without break, on the same fields; like bacteria exposed to antibiotics, some weeds naturally resistant to glyphosate will survive exposure, and will then reproduce and flourish. There are reports of glyphosate-resistant weeds in the states in Region 3.

More bad news for bees

The lawsuit also lays special emphasis on neonicotinoids — the insecticides that are designed to be carried throughout a plant’s tissues, and are heavily implicated in “colony collapse disorder” among U.S. honeybees:

Ninety-nine percent of corn seed is treated with neonicotinoids; therefore, it is likely that farmers are planting neonicotinoid-treated corn on Refuges.  Despite the overwhelming adoption of neonicotinoid treated corn seed, neonicotinoids are not represented on the Region 3 PUP Field Approval List [of pesticides cleared for use on refuge lands].

Neonicotinoids have been shown to adversely impact more than just managed honey bees—they also impact native bees and beneficial insects, which are critical to supporting pollination services. 

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Clothianidin and its parent compound thiamethoxam — the two most widely used neonicotinoids — are highly toxic to other bee species like the common Eastern bumble bee, alfalfa leafcutter bee, and blue orchard bee, all of which are valuable plant pollinators.  More than 15 threatened or endangered insects, ranging from beetles to butterflies to grasshoppers and other taxa, are potentially directly affected by the use of clothianidin and thiamethoxam products.  

Readers who track the worsening problems of honeybees will no doubt make the connection: Besides exposure to “neonics,” perhaps the biggest factor driving the die-offs is the disappearance of undeveloped, uncultivated lands that offer abundant foraging opportunity for nectar-seeking bees.

The kind of land, you want to think, our national wildlife refuges would preserve in large quantities, well buffered from the agricultural lands where neonic use is unlikely to change for at least the next several years.

What are the lawsuit’s chances?  According to the ENS piece cited above, four earlier and similar cases brought by the Center for Food Safety and PEER have “succeeded in rolling back approvals for genetically engineered crops on 75 national wildlife refuges across 30 states.”

Previously, the two groups successfully challenged approval of genetically engineered plantings on two wildlife refuges in Delaware, which forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to end such plantings in its 12-state Northeastern region.

Another suit from the same groups halted cultivation of genetically engineered on 25 refuges across eight states in the Southeast in November 2012. In that case, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg directed the Fish and Wildlife Service to reveal where the GE crops were planted on Southeast refuges, their number, the type of crop and the types of pesticides used, including the dates and amounts of application.