Biotech issues heating up

A couple of news items regarding biotechnology issues sprang up in late March that show continued controversies of biotech crop production in the United States and future implications.

The first is news from a federal judge in Delaware who ruled that U.S. Fish and Wildlife should not have permitted genetically modified crops to be grown on a national wildlife refuge.

According to news reports, U.S. District Judge Gregory Sleet wrote that the Fish and Wildlife agency erred by failing to conduct environmental studies to determine whether farming with genetically modified crops at the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware was compatible with conservation and habitat preservation. Local farmers had been able to plant genetically modified soybeans and corn on the 10,000-acre refuge up until 2006.

Unfortunately this is a case where U.S. Fish and Wildlife dropped the ball and created a hole that activists could use to legitimize their relentless assault on biotechnology. The implications of this ruling are that many Midwest producers in the future may no longer be able to grow GM soybeans and corn on wildlife refuge land, which has been done successfully for some time.

The suit was brought by the Audubon Society in Delaware, the Center for Food Safety and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the public employee's environmental group, said he planned to send the court ruling to managers at more than 80 Fish and Wildlife refuges that permit farming.

"If we don't see movement, our litigation plan is to select a refuge in each region of the country and file similar suits," he said.

So, obviously this issue isn't staying confined to Delaware. These anti-biotech crusaders have found a way to legally restrict the use of biotechnology. It's only a matter of time I'm afraid before they find a loophole that prevents producers from using biotechnology at all.

In other biotech news, a controversial bill was being considered by the Montana Senate Agriculture Committee during March. The bill dealt with how biotech companies sample crops to determine illegal use of patented seeds. Montana House Bill 445 passed the House and the battle centered in the state Senate. But the bill never made it out of the Senate Committee. This situation was a backdoor assault on biotechnology.

The bill would have required Monsanto and other companies to get permission from a farmer before sampling crops on their land. If the farmer denied permission, the company could have asked a district court for an order to sample the crops. The farmer or the company could also have asked the state Department of Agriculture to oversee the sampling process.

The state's leading farm organizations, however, testified against the need for any such guidelines. They argued the bill's real aim was to discourage the development and sale of genetically modified seeds in Montana, leaving farmers without access to the benefits of biotechnology.

If it becomes so cumbersome to use GM seed, farmers will no longer use it. On the other hand, Monsanto does not have a good track record when it comes to dealing sensitively and courteously with farmers regarding its seeds. In many ways, this bill seeked to even the playing field against the behemoth company whose tactics are considered to be bullying by some farmers. Regardless, the technology or the access to the technology should not be taken away from farmers.