The Environmental Impact Subterfuge

The Environmental Impact Subterfuge

December 01, 2010
Originally published in Nature Biotechnology

Action needs to be taken to prevent anti-biotech activists from co-opting environmental law to derail the planting of transgenic crops that have already received regulatory approval.

The latest weapon used in the misinformation war against recombinant DNA technology and its agricultural applications is an obscure environmental law from the seventies. Green activists and organic farmers are exploiting the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA) to convince courts that inconsequen­tial paperwork oversights by regulators at the US Department of Agriculture warrant the revo­cation of two final approvals for recombinant DNA–modified crop varieties and of the issu­ance of permits to test several others. At least one more case is pending.

Under NEPA, all US federal government agencies are required to consider the effects that any “major actions” they take may have on the “human environment.” Agencies can exempt whole categories of routine or repetitive activities but most other decisions—such as the issuance of a new regulation, the location of a new bridge or the approval of a new agricultural technol­ogy—trigger the NEPA obligation to evaluate environmental impacts. If the agency concludes that the action will have “no significant impact” (a legal term of art), it issues a relatively brief Environmental Assessment explaining the basis for that decision. If significant effects are likely, though, the agency must prepare a comprehen­sive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which typically requires thousands of hours of work, details every imaginable effect and runs to hundreds (or even thousands) of pages.

The obligation under NEPA is wholly procedural, which means that even significant envi­ronmental effects do not prohibit the agency from ultimately taking the proposed action. Its purpose is solely to force government agen­cies to in fact consider possible environmental effects. However, courts have interpreted the law broadly by requiring a comprehensive review of every imaginable effect on the “human environ­ment.” This category now encompasses not only harm to the natural ecology but also economic, social and even aesthetic impacts.

Thus, if agencies miss some tangential or speculative issue, they can be tripped up by an irresponsible litigant who alleges that the envi­ronmental review was incomplete. Even when regulators actually do consider a potential impact but reject the concern owing to its unim­portance or improbability, they can run afoul of NEPA by failing to extensively and comprehen­sively document their reasoning. This latter phe­nomenon has lately plagued USDA approvals of recombinant DNA–modified crops.

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