Biotech Industry Is USDA's Favorite Son


Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at Washington Post Live's "The Future of Food" conference, held at Georgetown May 4.

During the recent Future of Food conference, Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in response to a question from Deborah Koons Garcia, compared biotechnology and sustainable agriculture to two sons, for whom he declared equal love.  We decided to test the Secretary’s claim of neutrality to see if it stands up to the historical facts.

It will come as no surprise to many that biotech has in fact been the agency’s favorite “son.”

Undue Influence

Documents obtained by the Center For Food Safety (CFS) during litigation concerning the agency’s failure to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to deregulating genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa shed light as to the the extent of Monsanto’s involvement in the approval process.   In 2003, for example, Monsanto submitted a deficient petition for the deregulation of GE alfalfa.  Rather than sending the company a “deficiency letter,” however, the APHIS reviewer gave the company an opportunity to rewrite the draft “deficiency letter.”  CFS explained:

The lead APHIS petition reviewer explained to APHIS colleagues: ‘[deficiency letter should] be sent as a draft so that [Monsanto] can review each of the points and have a chance at suggesting improvements.

And improve it did.  In fact, Monsanto did one better.  According to CFS, “Monsanto’s input included a point-by-point redrafting of APHIS’s questions.”

The story continues.  Monsanto withdrew its original petition, resubmitted a new one shortly thereafter, and, documents reveal, a Monsanto official offered, and an APHIS reviewer accepted, assistance with the drafting of the environmental assessment (EA).  APHIS reviewer wrote to Monsanto:

I’m the one that will supposedly write the EA… If you are willing to provide assistance with the EA, I would appreciate it…. At this time, no one has voiced a concern with this so I am assuming that there is no problem….  I would appreciate receiving an electronic copy of the petition (Word?) so I can do cut and paste which I think will speed the completion of the EA. (emphasis added)

The Monsanto official then offered to “help draft the initial version of the EA.”

At the minimum, re-writing deficiency letters and “assisting” APHIS in drafting EA creates appearances of impropriety and conflicts of interest, none of which inspire confidence that this agency is regulating and not simply rubber stamping industry applications.

Failure to Rely On Sound Science In The Approval Process

APHIS is required to rely on “sound science” in its decision making processes but does it? Based on the agency’s conduct in reviewing deregulation petitions, however, one is left to draw the conclusion that “sound science” is a shifting standard, veering towards the viewpoint of the petitioner rather than public health or the environment.

The agency’s deregulation of Monsanto’s GE alfalfa, as CFS highlighted in its public comments, is a good example of how “sound science” gets redefined to assist the biotech developer.

During the review process the agency relied on decade-old data that no longer reflected current, rapidly changing dynamic of the glyphosant-tolerant crop adoption systems, resistant weed evolution and herbicide use. The agency also rejected high-quality pesticide usage data from its sister agency, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), to, instead, rely upon on “simulation studies” by organizations representing the biotechnology-pesticide industry.

Why does APHIS continually avoid using NASS data despite NASS being “universally acknowledged to provide the most accurate and reliable pesticide information available in the U.S.”?  When NASS is regarded by experts in the field as the authoritative source for pesticide usage information in American agriculture and is also extensively used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state pesticide officials, pesticide firms and independent analysts, the agency’s “insistence on referring to outdated data and the curious reluctance to discuss recent data is puzzling, and positively misleading in an area that is changing so rapidly.”1

Sound science, once again, gets refitted and repackaged to fit the conclusion the agency wants to achieve, i.e., approval of GE crops.

The agency even tried to generate “scientific disagreement” and “controversy” on the issue of increased pesticide use associated with GMOs to “avoid an assessment of the herbicide usage impacts of currently grown [Roundup Ready] crops, and to avoid conducting a prospective assessment of the herbicide usage impacts of Roundup Ready alfalfa.” It achieved that by a pitting decades old study which has no original research on GE crops against a Charles Benbrook’s study, which used NASS data to demonstrate an increase in herbicide use and emergence of superweeds in the decade since GE crops were introduced. Why the agency decided not to further investigate this issue is a an unanswered question but suggests that further analysis would have forced the agency to concede certain less-than-helpful facts concerning the biotech industry.

When CFS looked into the studies cited by APHIS, however, it found either no apparent conflict, in one case, and serious flaws in the remainder of the studies.

Such studies, noted CFS, either relied on NASS data from the late 1990s period, which have no relevance to the state of farming today (considering increased herbicide use and superweeds), or, presented no original research or findings of their own, but rather superficially cited the results of other studies that often in their turn uncritically cite the results of still other studies, creating an echo chamber effect. Still other studies were “simulation studies” that arrive at the conclusion that herbicide tolerant crops reduce pesticide use.2

The simulation studies cited by APHIS were discredited by CFS as “pure fabrications” because they “conflict dramatically with real herbicide usage data” and, therefore, “simulate nothing but the authors’ flawed assumptions, and have no grounding in fact or farming practice.”  That’s not sound science.

CFS’ conclusion of the agency’s safety analysis spells out in no uncertain terms that the agency failed to use sound science — the kind we think of when we hear the term — when it considered deregulating GE alfalfa:

In at least seven cases, it is clear that APHIS has not even taken the trouble to read  the articles/studies it cites.  Instead, APHIS has “lifted” citations for these seven works from a review article where the conclusion of each is briefly and uncritically described.  Such third-hand reporting is a flagrant breach of scientific protocol.  The legal equivalent would be for a witness to present second-hand hearsay (he said she said) as if it were his/her personal experience.  It is no more permissible in science than in law.  It is irresponsible to report the bare conclusions of a study one has not read, because one does so on faith, without having made a critical assessment of the validity of the study’s methodology, the assumptions upon which it is based, or possible errors.  The fact that error is a huge and ineradicable part of scientific endeavor is implicit in the discipline of peer-review.  When one uncritically cribs conclusions and citations at third hand, as APHIS has done here, it represents a betrayal of this core scientific principle.

Similar bias was also noted during the approval process of Pioneer Hi-Bred herbicide tolerant corn (you didn’t think that bias was limited to one instance, did you?).  CFS noted in its 2009 public comment that the agency relied on faulty data that corrupted the analysis of key environmental issues during environmental assessment.3

Historically, APHIS has demonstrated a remarkable bias and a willingness to uncritically accept biotech industry’s safety analysis. If you are going for neutrality, Secretary Vilsack, may we suggest you do the walk and not just the talk?

  1. As CFS  points out, unlike private sector companies, which may supply faulty pesticide data because of illegitimate (and secretive) techniques whose validity cannot be confirmed, NASS utilizes transparent, rigorous procedures and statistically valid sampling methods to deliver highly accurate pesticide data.  Furthermore, NASS has regularly collected pesticide usage data on the major crops for which glyphosate-tolerant (GT) versions are predominant (soybeans, corn and cotton) over the entire period of GT crop adoption, offering a consistent set of data that facilitates accurate, year-to-year comparisons.  Finally, NASS data and methodologies are freely and publicly available, which allows for open review and criticism of any analysis utilizing them.
  2. The problem with at least one simulation study relied upon by APHIS is explained CFS as follows:

    NASS’s pesticide use figures are built solidly on thousands of data points, derived from interviews with hundreds of growers in each state.  In contrast, Sankula et al (2006) have constructed an extremely shaky “simulation” of herbicide use based essentially on just two data points for each state: one for weed control in the RR crop, and the second for the conventional crop.  If one or both of the two herbicide regimes cited by the expert is even modestly “off-base” with respect to average state-wide farmer practice, the modest errors will ramify tremendously in the expansion.  With NASS surveys, however, the multitude of data points ensures that the inevitable inaccuracies in individual farmer reports (underestimates or overestimates of this or that herbicide) are ironed out in the wash.

  3. For example, in arguing against APHIS’ premise that farmers’ interest in herbicide tolerant (HT) has stagnated, CFS stated the following:

    On the contrary, the percentage of HT corn has increased dramatically from 2000 to 2008 (7% to 63%) and particularly since 2004, including a sharp spike from 2007 to 2008 (52% to 63%), when APHIS assumes a slight decline.  APHIS’s false assumption that GE HT corn plantings have leveled out (even slightly fallen) in recent years misleads it into thinking that corn grower interest in HT corn has stagnated, and to the likely false conclusion that availability of this new HT corn will not increase overall HT corn acreage, but rather merely displace existing varieties of HT corn.  APHIS similarly relies on these faulty data (lower percentage of GE HT corn in 2008 than 2007) to argue that deregulation of this new HT corn will not increase the range of corn cultivation,  and not impact growers of organic corn (17% of GE corn was HT in 2005).   Most importantly, APHIS relies on the false assumption of “slowly increasing” adoption of HT corn varieties to argue (albeit in a thoroughly muddled manner) that while deregulation of this new HT corn may lead to an increase in the use of glyphosate, it will only be a “negligible” increase.