International business briefs: GM crop officially not safe, EPA’s positive annual report, EIP says EPA report dresses up bad record, Methane to markets agreement, Australia faces climate crisis

A peer-reviewed scientific paper published this week in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews debunks the myth that biotech or genetically modified (GM) crops are thoroughly tested, regulated and proven safe. The paper, Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods, reveals fundamental flaws in how biotech companies test and the US government regulates GM crops. The paper thus raises serious questions about whether GM foods, which have been on the market since 1994, are in fact safe, as claimed by the biotech industry and US regulators. The scientific paper includes a comprehensive case study of two types of insecticide-producing GM corn (chiefly the MON810 variety of biotech giant Monsanto), showing how flawed testing and regulation permitted these varieties onto world markets despite evidence that they could cause food allergies. The European Union recently approved 17 corn hybrids derived from MON810 over the objections of several European countries.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement actions concluded in fiscal year 2004 will reduce a projected one billion pounds of pollution and require cleanups estimated to total a record US $4.8 billion, which are significant increases from last year. Other annual measures of the agency’s enforcement and compliance activity – such as the number of inspections (up 11% from fiscal year 2003) and investigations (up 32% from fiscal year 2003) – surpassed or kept pace with previous years, indicating continued progress in deterring violations of the nation’s environmental laws and reflecting an emphasis on environmental benefits and compliance.

However, Eric Schaeffer, the director of the US Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has challenged the EPA’s report: “Today, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its enforcement results for the 2004 fiscal year. EPA’s beleaguered enforcement staff should be congratulated for what they manage to accomplish despite the political handcuffs they are forced to wear under the Bush Administration. But a close look at what was announced today – and what was not – suggests that efforts to weaken environmental enforcement are beginning to take their toll. The EPA announcement today touts the high value of the ‘injunctive relief’ (the cost of cleaning up pollution to comply with the law) it has obtained, but these results come from a handful of cases that were launched years ago. For example, just two cases account for three quarters of the $4.8 billion the Agency claims in injunctive relief in the 2004 fiscal year. Mr Schaeffer also pointed out that the Justice Department was able to conclude fewer than 160 enforcement actions in 2004, the lowest by far in the ten years that such data has been publicly tracked by EPA. Moreover, civil penalties for enforcement of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other laws (other than Superfund) hit bottom also, declining to $57 million, its lowest in the 15 years in which EPA has tracked such data.

US EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt this week joined representatives from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Columbia, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Ukraine and the UK in signing a Terms of Reference formally creating the Methane to Markets Partnership. This new global initiative serves to advance international cooperation on the recovery and use of methane as a valuable clean energy source. Methane to Markets has the potential to reduce net methane emissions by up to 50 million metric tonnes of carbon equivalent annually by 2015, and then continue at that level or higher in the future. This would be the carbon equivalent of removing 33 million cars from roadways for one year or eliminating emissions from 50 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

And finally, Australians will be amongst those worst affected by global warming, according to experts, and as well as adapting to a hotter, drier country, they will also have to deal with constant extremes of drought and floods, bushfires and dust storms. Shifting rainfall patterns and rising farm and other economic losses from natural disasters will also be part of the price that Australia must pay to global warming, according to Tony Coleman, chief risk officer and group actuary for Insurance Australia Group. He added that the change in the weather could cause more damage to homes and businesses, and health threats would also be posed by heat waves, spreading insect-borne diseases such as dengue fever and Ross River fever, which are highly debilitating illnesses that have always previously been restricted to the more tropical northern region of the country.

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