November 10, 2004

Leavitt's EPA the NCGA's monkey?

The Washington Post reports that the EPA is responding dismissively to a suggestion by a NAFTA panel that suggests Oaxacan campesinos in Mexico are entitled to a little deference. First, the EPA is failing to respect the basic dignity, let alone the property rights, of the Mexican farmers. Second--the EPA?? Mexican farmers? Shouldn't Mike Leavitt be worrying about our environment or something?

The issue is genetically-modified ("GM") maize. American farmers love it, but Mexicans don't want it growing in their fields. The Mexican government prohibits imports of GM seed intended for cultivation, but apparently some of the stuff has escaped and is now growing in Mexican cornfields. A group of Mexican farmers petitioned for an expert investigation of the problem under Article 13 of NAFTA, and the resulting report has the temerity to recommend that the we actually do something in response to the farmers' concerns. Specifically, it recommends that any GM corn products imported into Mexico be milled at or near the border. This would prevent the kind of accidental cultivation of GM maize that so worries the Oaxacans.

The EPA's press release responding to the report is no better than a bad blog post. The EPA argues erroneously that the report "fails to consider the benefits of biotechnology" and arrogantly dismisses the report:

This report is fundamentally flawed and unscientific; key recommendations are not based on sound science, and are contradicted by the report’s own scientific findings. The authors acknowledge that no economic analysis of their recommendations was conducted, and that many of these recommendations are based solely on socio-cultural considerations.

This kind of cold dismissal of "socio-cultural" considerations got me curious, so I downloaded the report and read it myself (pdf here). Contrary to what the EPA says, the report did consider the benefits of biotechnology. But it also considered the harms. It pointed out that the safety questions have still not been answered:
The maize transgenes that have found their way into Mexico have not undergone risk assessment for environmental, health, social, or economic risks by Mexican national public institutions as they have within the United States and Canada. The regulatory agencies of the United States and Canada do not carry out a formal risk assessment for the consequences of transgenes beyond their borders.

The report also points out that that the preferences of Mexican campesinos, like our own preferences, are not entirely determined by scientific study:
There are a number of Oaxacans, especially campesinos, who consider the presence of any transgenes in maize as an unacceptable risk to their traditional farming practices, and their cultural, symbolic, and spiritual value of maize. That sense of harm is independent of its scientifically studied potential or actual impact upon human health, genetic diversity, and the environment.

This position isn't strange or radical. We all have things which we value culturally and symbolically; think of the furor over burning the American flag. Is it so much to ask that we take steps to avoid contaminating their land (and it is, after all, their land) with corn that they don't want? How would you react if you were told you shouldn't be complaining about your neighbor planting unwanted peonies in your backyard, because peonies have never been scientifically proven to be a threat to your health? That your opinion counted for nothing because it was based on your "socio-cultural" loathing of peonies? You'd say "screw you, Jack, and get off my land."

Why shouldn't the Mexican farmers be able to say the same thing?

(And why should the EPA be involved in this issue at all? Since when did it decide to be the industry groups' public-relations monkey?)


One of the GM varieties of maize that the farmers are objecting to ("Bt maize") has been engineered to produce a protein made by a soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis. The NAFTA report explains:

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – A group of soil bacteria found worldwide, which produce a class of proteins highly toxic to the larvae (immature forms) of certain taxonomic groups of insects. Bacterial spores (resistant forms) containing the toxin are used as an environmentally benign commercial pesticide favored for its high specificity. Bt strains (over 20,000 known) produce “cry” (crystal) endotoxin proteins that disrupt digestive function and lead to death in moths, butterflies, and certain other insects, including corn borers, cabbage worms, cotton bollworms, and other agricultural pests. Since 1989, genes expressing the cry proteins have been introduced into plants (see Bt crop) to confer insect resistance. Bt also refers to the insecticidal toxins.

A plant that's been rigged to produce an "environmentally benign" commercial pesticide that kills butterflies? This doesn't sound great at any level, socio-cultural or otherwise.

Posted by Carey at November 10, 2004 10:55 PM