CSPI finds many farmer violating EPA's requirements

Government data obtained by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) show that farmers are routinely overplanting insect-resistant genetically engineered (GE) corn. Farmers planting that corn are required to plant 20 percent of their acreage with non-GE corn—a “refuge” designed to prevent the breeding of pests that are resistant to the pesticides produced by GE corn. But according to CSPI’s analysis, many Corn Belt farmers aren’t complying with the refuge requirement, thereby threatening the long-term effectiveness and environmental benefits of the technology.

The data, collected by the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), show that in 2002, 19 percent of all Bt-corn farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska —about 10,000 farms—violated the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) refuge requirements. Thirteen percent of farmers growing Bt corn planted no refuges at all. According to CSPI, farmer noncompliance with refuge requirements is more widespread than the biotechnology industry claims, partly because industry does not survey small farms, which have higher rates of noncompliance. CSPI obtained the NASS data under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Noncompliance on this scale shows that current regulations aren’t up to the task,” said Gregory Jaffe, director of CSPI’s biotechnology project. “Both the EPA and the biotech industry must do more to make sure that farmers meet these very basic obligations, so that the benefits of this technology won’t be squandered. As biotech applications become even more advanced—and potentially more dangerous—this kind of noncompliance will be even less tolerable.”

In its report, Planting Trouble, CSPI recommends that EPA determine farmers’ compliance with its refuge requirements using data from NASS, as opposed to the less-reliable data from the biotechnology industry’s telephone survey of farmers. CSPI wants biotech firms to conduct on-farm inspections and to require farmers to document their compliance with maps and seed-purchase records. The industry could also incentivize small farmers to plant the required amount of non-Bt corn by providing coupons with bags of Bt corn seed, according to CSPI. In a letter today, CSPI urged EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to implement the report’s recommendations.

Bt corn is engineered with a gene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin that kills European Corn Borer pests. With non-Bt corn, farmers must either spray their corn with chemical pesticides, or expect a smaller yield due to pest damage. In 2002, farmers planted 19 million acres of Bt corn in the U.S.

Because of its pesticidal properties, Bt corn is regulated by the EPA, rather than the USDA or the FDA. And because the proliferation of insects that can resist Bt technology would be an environmental setback, EPA requires that 20-percent refuges be planted within a half-mile of Bt corn crops. In areas where Bt cotton is grown, EPA requires a refuge of 50 percent non-Bt corn.

“The public’s confidence in the regulatory system will be put at risk if the industry and farmers get away with ignoring government-impaired obligations that are designed to protect the environment,” Jaffe said. “If EPA wants to maintain its public credibility, violators must be swiftly brought back into compliance or denied access to the technology. A minority of noncompliant farmers should not be allowed to jeopardize a technology that the vast majority of farmers safely apply.”

Unlike some environmental or consumer groups, CSPI does not oppose agricultural biotechnology as long as it is appropriately regulated to safeguard human health and the environment. CSPI has often faulted the biotech industry for its disregard of government oversight.