Two important energy/environmental policy decisions were made yesterday that have serious implications both geopolitically and in the U.S. One of the decisions – the one that got all the media attention – was President Obama’s choice to sink domestic offshore oil production and force America further into subservience and abject dependence on foreign oil supplies. I’ve written briefly already about why an offshore moratorium is wrongheaded for a variety of reasons. I have also written about the value, economic, national security and environmental, of domestic offshore oil production. This topic will not detain me further here.
I want to write about the second decision; the one that flew largely under the radar. A Federal court on Tuesday ordered the Monsanto to plow up and destroy its entire stock of genetically modified sugar beets. The beets had been approved for use in 1995. The action by this activist judge is the first court ordered destruction of a biotech crop.
Sugar beets account for more than half of the nation’s sugar supply, and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beets have been popular with farmers as they have been genetically altered to withstand sprayings of the chemical herbicide Roundup, making weed management easier for producers.
Despite claims to the contrary, this judge reached outside U.S. law to European shores where biotech policy is ruled by the parsimonious “precautionary principle:” which basically says that no novel product or method of production should be put into use or circulation until it can be shown to pose no harm to humans or the environment. This principle does not foster progress and innovation but rather, unreflectively supports the status quo, stagnation and decline. The judge based his decision environmentalist’s claims that the use of the crop might lead to the production of super weeds, increased pesticide use and pose a threat of contamination to organic beets. These same fears were raised before the USDA when it approved the beets and have been raised in an effort to halt the development, testing and introduction of every previous genetically altered crop. Despite widespread use, none of these crops have ever been shown to pose unusual threats to human health or the environment.
U.S. law does not enshrine the precautionary principle but rather treats GMO crops like conventionally bred new varieties. Whether or not they are allowed into the market or halted is supposed to be based upon a rational assessment of the types of harms that might be posed by the crop, the likelihood that such harms might materialize, and a balancing of the relative benefits and costs. In other words GMO policies are supposed to be informed and driven by the application of sound science and careful weighing of the human and environmental benefits from the crop against the reasonably anticipated harms. This judge has reversed the standard.
This action throws a monkey wrench into the burgeoning biotech product industry – as the same standard could now be applied by this and other courts to other crops whether in use or development and to pharmaceuticals and other products that use genetic engineering. The implications of this ruling for the environment, the worlds hungry, and the U.S. economy are profound and dire.