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Hawai'i CFS

Center for Food Safety Testifies at Congressional Oversight Hearing on "Superweeds" Caused by Biotech Crops

September 30, 2010

Congress Sharply Critical of USDA’s Biotech Crop Oversight Failures, Calls for New Regulations

Read testimony given by CFS’s Science Policy Analyst, Bill Freese, at the hearing

Today the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding the second of two hearings on the issue of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” created by unregulated cultivation of genetically engineered, Roundup Ready crops. 

The focus of the hearing is on the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s failure to enact sensible regulations to forestall rapid evolution of weeds resistant to Roundup, which now infest over 10 million acres of U.S. cropland. Cotton experts regard Roundup-resistant weeds as a serious threat to the cotton industry, comparing its impacts to that of the infamous boll weevil. Resistant weeds are spreading rapidly to the Midwest and points north, threatening soybean and corn growers as well.

According to CFS Science Policy Analyst Bill Freese: “USDA has stood idly by while Roundup-resistant weeds infest ever more cropland, triggering big increases in herbicide use, higher weed control costs for farmers, abandonment of soil-conserving no-till cultivation, and in some cases even reversion to manual weeding crews not seen for decades. Meanwhile, pesticide companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a host of new crops resistant to older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D, a component of the Vietnam War’s Agent Orange. This short-sighted response will lead to more toxic pollution of the environment and evolution of still hardier weeds, accelerating the pesticide treadmill.”

CFS Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell testified at the first hearing in July, noting that USDA has acted as a “rogue agency” and that several federal courts have ruled that USDA’s oversight of biotech crops has violated U.S. environmental laws.

“USDA’s do nothing approach to weed resistance mirrors its general attitude to the economic and environmental harms triggered by biotech crops. We expect better from this new administration. It is long past time that USDA adopt a new policy of risk assessment and biotech crop regulation that complies with its statutory mandates.”

An EPA official will also testify at the hearing to report on that Agency’s pro-active approach to managing insect resistance to genetically engineered Bt crops. In sharp contrast to USDA, EPA has largely prevented significant evolution of insect resistance through mandatory insect resistance management (IRM) plans. 

“The tragedy here is that there are sustainable, non-chemical approaches to weed control. These include the planting of cover crops, which both suppress weeds and reduce soil erosion and fertilizer runoff that degrades water quality. USDA should support such approaches, which are increasingly recommended by weed scientists as a sustainable way to manage herbicide-resistant weeds,” added Freese.

The hearing – “Are ‘Superweeds’ an Outgrowth of USDA Biotech Policy? (Part II, September 2010)” can be found here. Part 1 of this hearing, which took place on July 28, 2010, is available here.

Freese’s oral testimony given at today’s hearing is available here.

Freese also provided written answers to four follow-up questions from the Committee:

  1. What does your research reveal about when Monsanto should have known and reacted to development of Roundup-resistant weeds?
  2. Can you elaborate on why multiple herbicide-resistant crops are not, as some claim, a solution to the resistant weed epidemic?
  3. Do you know of any specific health threats presented by any of the herbicide resistant crop systems under development?
  4. Could you elaborate on the external costs imposed on growers and the environment caused by the cultivation of herbicide-resistant crops?


CFS’s recent cases that found USDA oversight of biotech crops violated U.S. laws:

Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, 130 S.Ct. 2743 (2010) (upholding the lower court’s vacating of USDA’s approval of genetically engineered alfalfa and the halt to its planting); Geertson Seed Farms v. Johanns, 2007 WL 518624 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (holding that USDA illegally approved genetically engineered alfalfa and requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, that must address, inter alia harm from superweeds));

Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, 2009 WL 3047227(holding that USDA illegally approved the commercialization of GE sugar beets and requiring an EIS); Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, 2010 WL 3222482 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 13, 2010) (vacating the approval of GE sugar beets and halting their use and planting)

International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) v. Johanns, 479 F.Supp.2d 9 (D. D.C. 2007) motion to dismiss appeal granted Scotts Company v. ICTA, No. 07-5238 (D.C. Circuit March 17, 2008) (per curiam order) (holding that USDA illegally approved the field testing of genetically engineered grasses)

Center for Food Safety v. Johanns, 451 F.Supp.2d 1165, 1182 (D. Hawaii 2006) (holding that USDA illegally approved the field testing of genetically engineered biopharmaceutical crops).