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No More GMOs in National Wildlife Refuges (Why Were They There in the First Place?)

Just a few weeks before California's Proposition 37 went up for vote (and eventually lost) there was a not-so-insignificant victory for environmentalists and anti-GMO activists. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg sides with plaintiffs on the issue of banning genetically modified organisms from the country's national wildlife refuges.

According to the plaintiffs—the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated environmental laws when the agency permitted the planting of GMO crops in refuges in ten states throughout the southeast.

The practice of planting genetically modified crops puts the environment in jeopardy, argued the plaintiffs. Heavy doses of chemical pesticides necessary in GMO farming can damage other plant species, degrade soil quality and pollute local waterways. The practice also threatens native insects that play key roles in the ecosystem, and Monsanto's Roundup pesticide, which is made of glyphosate, has been causing an array of pesticide resistant bugs and weeds that can require heavier applications and the use of additional pesticides.

The Fish and Wildlife Service already agreed to stop the practice, and asked the judge to dismiss the case, but Judge Boasberg said the harm was essentially already done, and set a hearing for earlier this month to determine the best measures in remedying the situation.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy and corn are the most commonly planted GMO crops in the National Refuges, and the plaintiffs allege pressures by the biotech industry on the government agency led to the decision to introduce GMOs to protected land. The Obama administration approved the planting of GMOs in Wildlife Refuges last year as part of a restoration plan to help manage habitats for local wildlife. Increased wildlife brings more visitors to parks and refuges, which boosts revenues for the agency.

The initial program was designed to last no more than five years, using GMOs to jumpstart harvests. After that, farming could continue in the refuges, but would have to be non-GMO crops.

Farming is already common in refuges to help restore native habitats and provide food, but this is the first time that GMOs have been allowed to enter the protected regions.

GMO seeds have been known to pollinate in non-GMO designated areas (which has led to patent infringement lawsuits filed by Monsanto). They're also connected with serious health issues in livestock. Earlier this year Danish pig farmer Ib Borup Perderson was featured in the farming magazine Effektivt Landbrug for a reportedly 'miraculous' turnaround in his pigs' health after switching them to a GMO-free diet. Perderson battled ongoing digestive issues in his pigs, as well as birth defects and debilitating reproductive issues until removing GMO grains from the animals' diet.

Some species of frogs have been shown to switch gender when exposed to atrazine, a chemical pesticide. And there's simply no telling what other effects GMOs and the companion pesticides could have on wildlife. Paige Tomaselli, a staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety was quoted in the Huffington Post saying, "Ultimately, we think genetically-engineered crops should not be grown on National Wildlife Refuges, which are safe havens for wildlife, for people, and to protect biological diversity."

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