Regulatory Independence Myth Lives On At USDA

Recently the New York Times ran an eye-opening series of articles detailing the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) struggles to regulate the natural gas industry.  The disturbing revelations demonstrate that the agency faced and often succumbed to industry pressure at times funneled through politicians whose agenda was to advance industry interests.  “More than a quarter-century of efforts by some lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to police the industry better have been thwarted, as E.P.A. studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope and important findings have been removed,” commented the article’s author.

One scientist, for example, whose study was narrowed and concerns about the oil and gas industry waste were eliminated from the final report said, “[i]t was like the science didn’t matter.  … The industry was going to get what it wanted, and we were not supposed to stand in the way.”

At least EPA had scientists expressing concerns about proposed industry action.

USDA, the umbrella agency to which APHIS belongs, cannot boast the same accomplishment.  The agency is filled with reviewers “lobbying” industry interests from within.  Riddled by conflicted agency missions of, for example, “improving nutrition and health” vs. “expanding markets for agricultural products and support[ing] international economic development,” the agency often finds itself at cross-roads of private and public interest.

More often than not, as you might have guessed, the private interest wins.

From not knowing the location of GMO test fields, deregulating genetically modified crops without performing an environmental impact statement (EIS), which brought about numerous lawsuits against the agency, to agency personnel that, as Bill Freese of CFS pointed out, are “biotech boosters who do not need a directive to be biased to industry,” the agency is mired in conflict of interest and appearances of impropriety.    An Office of Inspector General report found in 2005 that, among other failures, APHIS biotechnologists do not sufficiently document their review process and scientific basis for approving initial field test applications.  The OIG also found that APHIS did not effectively track information required during the field tests, including approved applicants’ progress reports, which should contain the results of field tests, including any harmful effects on the environment.

Earlier this year Mark Bittman, a New York Times Opinion columnist and the Times magazine’s food columnist, advocated for breaking up USDA arguing that because USDA’s goals are at odds with each other, “you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating.”  Enticing concepts.

Even if we assume the best case scenario and give APHIS the benefit of the doubt that it corrected the failures cited by OIG, the fact that it wants to hand over the task of performing safety studies to the biotech industry negates any of those assumptions.  On April 7, 2011, APHIS took a step closer to openly advocating for the biotech industry with its pilot program which would allow the biotech developers to either submit an environmental report based upon which APHIS would develop an environmental assessment or an EIS or, alternatively, the EA or EIS would be prepared by a contractor, funded by the Monsanto’s of the world but selected by APHIS.

APHIS promises to “independently” evaluate all information submitted but with its track record who is really going to believe that claim?