Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to stop the planting of genetically-modified crops on 44,000 acres of federal land in the South, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the corn, milo and rice provide food for migrating birds along critical flyways.
The Center for Food Safety and two other groups argue that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not follow proper procedures in permitting farmers to grow on the public lands in a program that began 14 years ago. Their suit seeks an injunction that would agree that Fish and Wildlife violated rules and would order a halt to the planting.
The groups pursued two similar lawsuits in Delaware, which blocked planting of genetically-engineered crops in two wildlife refuges and, ultimately, resulted in the Fish and Wildlife Service ending the practice in its 12-state northeast region.
"Our general larger point is that the use of these crops ... promotes weeds that grow everywhere and promotes growth of different feeds that wildlife would not normally be eating," said attorney Kathryn Douglass of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, one of the groups suing.
"That is actually harmful ... changing the diet of animals that have traditionally relied on the endemic flora and fauna in the area," Douglass said.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Tom MacKenzie disputed allegations in the lawsuit that the agency didn't adequately assess the environmental impact or allow sufficient public comment on the program. He also said the program uses carefully selected land along waterways where waterfowl and other birds migrate.
"Any farming operation is solely for the benefit of wildlife," MacKenzie said.
The federal agency allows genetically-modified crops to be planted on its lands in eight states in the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Altogether, the agency manages 4 million acres in the 10-state region.
A total of 23 refuges are included in the agency's planting program, with two others being considered. All 25 are listed in the lawsuit.
Arkansas has the greatest number of refuges targeted in the suit — six — and they're all in the eastern part of the state, where both farming and duck hunting are key elements of the economy.
Growers harvest about 75 percent of what they plant, leaving 25 percent on the ground for the birds to eat.
"Our farming programs use the same commercial seed stock used by farmers across America," MacKenzie said.
That usually includes seed that has been modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, which is marketed by Monsanto Co. as Roundup.
MacKenzie said the planted acres include buffer zones, require crop rotation and other checks "to facilitate safe, consistent and sustainable" food sources for migrating waterfowl and other birds.
Douglass said genetically-engineered crops "are the last thing that should be introduced onto a national wildlife refuge." She said that if the groups are successful in ending those plantings, they may then turn their attention to ending all crop development on wildlife refuge land.
MacKenzie said using traditional seed would lead to a greater need to spray herbicides, something the genetically-altered grains don't require.
The third group suing is Washington, D.C.-based Beyond Pesticides.