Voting is an Environmental Act

Vote! It’s your superpower.

The environment surrounds you, me, and everyone else every second of every day. If you want a habitable planet to live on, you need to vote for it.

Everyone deserves and needs clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, healthy food to eat, toxin-free places to live, work, study, and play, and an opportunity to enjoy the rest of nature. We share Earth with billions of other living things that need a habitable planet to live on, too.

Earth is a sphere where everything is connected. The environment crosses all property lines, state boundaries, and international borders. When you vote with the environment in mind, you have the power to affect environmental issues in your community, county, state, country, and even around the world.

In this post, I will attempt to demonstrate how voting impacts the environment by providing a few past and present examples with the hope of encouraging you and other readers to vote in the next election and future elections.

Your Vote Matters

Voting gives you an opportunity to weigh in on who you want to represent you in various government bodies and to participate in deciding whether ballot measures should be approved or not.

Closest to home are local elections. You and other voters in your community choose your mayor (if you have one), city council members, school board members, county supervisors, and special district board members (e.g. water services district) and you vote on local and countywide ballot measures from banning fracking to property tax assessments for services.

In statewide elections, you have a chance to elect a governor and state legislators that are aligned with your priorities and to vote for or against propositions that apply to the whole state like legalizing cannabis, banning single-use plastic bags, or approving bonds to fund water conservation projects.

Participating in national elections enables you to vote for the United States president and members of Congress. The president, in turn, appoints his or her Cabinet, the people who lead federal agencies such as the Departments of State, Energy, Agriculture, Education, Defense, Interior, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Below are some examples of why your vote matters with a focus on the environment.

“Every election is determined by the people who show up.” ―Larry J. Sabato

Your Vote Matters to Your Community

Water is a constant environmental concern in Cambria the small town I live in on the California Central Coast in San Luis Obispo County.

In November, Cambria residents will vote for two of the five seats on the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) board of directors that oversee our water supply, wastewater treatment, fire protection, and parks and recreation.

This election is a big deal because in 2014 current and former board members decided to build an emergency water reclamation plant to filter brackish groundwater and re-inject it back into the local watershed to supplement our water supply. The facility was built using a temporary emergency permit at a whopping cost of $13 million.

Ratepayers are now saddled with an environmentally unsound plant that cannot be operated without expensive rework and perhaps never. Even though our water bills have doubled, much-needed infrastructure repair and replacement projects have been put on the back burner by the board.

The decisions that the CCSD board make directly affect my family and me so voting for the candidates that I feel will do the best job is important to me.

Your Vote Matters to Your County

San Luis Obispo County voters will have the opportunity to vote on Measure G-18, which would prohibit new petroleum extraction and ban all oil and gas well stimulation treatments (e.g. fracking) on land within the unincorporated area of the county.

This ballot measure is the result of a coalition of San Luis Obispo County residents who are concerned about the oil fields already operating in the county and that want to put a kibosh on future expansion.

Members of Coalition to Protect SLO County Delivering Protect Our Water Initiative Signatures to San Luis Obispo County Courthouse
Members of the Coalition to Protect SLO County Delivering 20, 473 Protect Our Water Initiative Signatures to San Luis Obispo County Courthouse

Oil extraction uses a tremendous amount of water. Some of it is reclaimed and treated, however, toxic oil wastewater is also injected into aquifers underlying the county, which may be needed at some point in the future to provide drinking water or to irrigate the agriculture fields and vineyards in this rural area. Drinking water wells near the oil fields are at risk of contamination.

Protecting our water is of paramount importance to me. I also believe that we need to get off burning fossil fuels as soon as possible and power our society with clean renewable energy so I think this measure is a step in the right direction.

Your Vote Matters to Your State

This year, California voters will go to the polls to elect a new governor to replace Governor Jerry Brown Jr. who is leaving office after serving longer than any other California governor. Besides balancing the state budget, Governor Brown has positioned California as an environmental leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and changing over to clean renewable energy.

Will our new governor keep the momentum going, stall it, or actively try to thwart it? It depends on who we vote for to lead the state.

Also on the California ballot, are 11 propositions, one of which deals with water (a perennial issue in our drought-prone state). Proposition 3 is a bond measure that could provide much-needed funding for safe drinking water facilities as well as watershed management projects to prevent soil erosion and flooding and to recharge groundwater basins.

Sometimes proposition titles and summaries make them seem better than they are so it pays to read the full text during the weeks leading up to the election.

Your Vote Matters to Your Country

In 2016, a twist in the Electoral College process resulted in Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States even though Hillary Clinton received more votes. From the time President Trump took office on January 20, 2017, until now, his actions have already had a far-reaching impact on the United States and the rest of the world.

Looking at his actions from an environmental perspective, I selected two that stand out as being particularly harmful and dangerous to not only the American people but to people all across the world.

When President Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) he was making good on his campaign promise to overturn and roll back environmental regulations and safeguards while attempting to dismantle the agency founded in 1970 to protect the health and wellbeing of the American people and the environment.

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general with a long history of suing the EPA, proceeded to repeal the Clean Power Plan that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from fossil fuel burning power plants, rescinded the Waters of the United States Clean Water Rule aimed at protecting wetlands that recharge aquifers and prevent flooding, and refused to ban Chlorpyrifos a pesticide known to be a carcinogen.

In July 2018, after months of being hounded for his excessive spending of taxpayer dollars—interestingly, not because he was destroying the agency he had sworn to lead—Pruitt resigned. He was replaced by former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, who is now presiding over rolling back Federal Clean Car Standards that would have increased fuel efficiency of new vehicles and reduced air pollution.

Your Vote Matters to the World

Fulfilling another campaign promise, Trump announced in June 2016 that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, an international agreement signed by 195 countries with the long-term goal of keeping the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels to minimize the risks of climate change.

A Hand Holding a Tiny City Powered by Renewable Energy
A Hand Holding a Tiny City Powered by Renewable Energy – Photo Credit iStock/ violetkaipa.

The United States should be leading the effort to end the era of fossil fuels and to accelerate the transition to clean renewable energy not isolating itself from the rest of the world.

One can only wonder how much progress the United States could be making on the environmental front if every eligible voter had voted in 2016. We have another chance in 2020.

I hope the above examples adequately illustrate how voting affects the environment, which in turn affects you, me, and everyone else hoping to live on Earth now and in the future.

Imagine if Everyone Voted

The number one reason many people give for not voting is that they do not think that their vote matters. Certainly, it is your right to vote or not to vote. However, if you choose not to vote, you are still influencing election results.

I was fortunate to grow up with two parents who regularly voted and gave me the understanding that voting is a privilege and a duty of being a United States citizen. I still believe that and I vote.

Even though the candidates that I vote for do not always win the election and ballot measures I am against pass and measures I am for fail, I still feel voting is important. In those cases, I have made my voice heard and provided a data point. In today’s data-driven world, if enough of us create the same data point, politicians will take notice and act accordingly.

Imagine if everyone were to overcome apathy, difficult voting situations (some states make it harder than others), and other reasons for not voting and we all voted in the upcoming election and future elections. We could come together and vote for people who will actively work towards keeping Earth habitable for ourselves, our children, and future generations.

Let’s do it.

If you need help finding information about national, state, or local elections, USA.gov’s Voting and Elections webpage is a good place to start.  Nonprofit Ballotpedia’s Elections webpage also houses useful information and links.  Californians you can find information on the California Secretary of State’s Election and Voter Information webpage.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” —Wendell Berry

Featured Image at Top: Woman Carrying a “Vote on behalf of your Mother” Sign During a March – Photo Credit Shutterstock/Sheila Fitzgerald

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GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Laws and Regulations

You have a right to know what is in your food.

Except for the 2016 bioengineered (BE) food labeling law, the U.S. has no federal laws specific to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or biotechnology.

However, that does not mean that there is no regulation of the biotech industry or the products they create.

In the United States, three federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Department of Agriculture (USDA), are largely responsible for ensuring that bioengineered food, drugs, plants, animals, and other products are safe for people, agriculture, and the environment.

Roundup Ready Soybean Field
Roundup Ready Soybean Field – Photo Credit Monsanto

This post will give you an overview of some of the U.S. laws that are used to regulate bioengineered food (including the pending labeling standard) and provide links to resources so you can learn more if you want to.

This is the third post in a series of posts about GMOs and bioengineered food. The first two posts, GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It? and GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones, introduced you to genetic engineering and provided a historical framework. The last post will look at potential environmental issues.

How Does the Federal Government Regulate GMOs and Bioengineered Food?

When Congress enacts a law, they state what they want to be accomplished (either broadly or in detail) and they grant authority to one or more federal agencies to carry out the law.

In turn, the federal agency or agencies charged with implementing the law establish policies and issue formal regulations through what is called the rulemaking process, which includes informing the public via the Federal Register and allowing public comment at various points in the process.

Before we talk about laws and regulations, it might be helpful to understand a little bit about how the EPA, FDA, and USDA coordinate their regulatory activities.

Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the regulatory arena for biotech products was chaotic with federal agencies acting inconsistently, overriding each other, and approving products without following existing laws.

This exacerbated fears the public was already voicing about the safety and ethics of genetic engineering technologies and products as well as worries about the impact they might have on society and the environment. Many scientists shared these concerns advocating for caution and research safety standards. Companies trying to get approval to conduct field tests outside of their controlled laboratories or to bring products to market were frustrated by the confusing and inconsistent regulatory process.

Although Congress held hearings and considered enacting biotechnology-specific legislation, they failed to do so.

U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) LogoPresident Ronald Reagan was not a fan of regulatory controls, but in 1984, he allowed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to form a working group to develop a coordinated system for regulating biotechnology using existing laws.

When the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology was issued on June 26, 1986, it contained a matrix showing which agency was responsible for regulating what and policy statements from the EPA, FDA, and USDA describing how each agency regulates products of biotechnology.

Until 2017, the Framework had only been updated once, in 1992, to reaffirm that federal oversight “focuses on the characteristics of the biotechnology product and the environment into which it is being introduced, not the process by which the product is created.”1

In July 2015, the Obama administration issued a memorandum to the EPA, FDA, and USDA directing the agencies to update the Framework, develop a long-term strategy, and commission an independent report, which they did.

  1. The National Strategy for Modernizing the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products published in September 2016 describes the federal government’s long-term strategy for ensuring the regulatory system is equipped to assess future risks.
  2. The January 4, 2017 release of the updated Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology includes the agency’s current roles and responsibilities, methods for coordinating activities and sharing information, and several case studies that outline the regulatory process for various hypothetical genetically engineered products like a plum with pesticide properties or algae for biofuel.
  3. The National Academy of Sciences published their report entitled Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology on June 28, 2017. The 212-page report is worth reading; however, this excerpt from page 10 sums it up nicely.2

“The pipeline of biotechnology products likely to emerge over the next decade probably will result in disruptive innovations and significant societal impacts; a carefully balanced, coordinated approach toward future biotechnology products that incorporates input from stakeholders—including interested and affected parties, relevant federal agencies, and nontraditional product developers—will be required.”

Overview of Laws for Regulating Bioengineered Food

In general, the EPA, FDA, and USDA are each responsible for regulating the aspects of biotechnology products that fall under their area of responsibility and authority to ensure bioengineered food and other products are safe for human health and the environment (EPA), safe for people to eat and drink (FDA), and safe to grow in agricultural settings and forests (USDA).

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) LogoThe EPA uses a registration process to regulate the sale, distribution, and use of all pesticides including what are called plant-incorporated protectants, which are genetically engineered plants that produce their own pesticides. Registered pesticides must be reviewed at least every 15 years.

A pesticide may be registered if it will generally not cause, “(1) any unreasonable adverse effects to man or the environment taking into account the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of the use of a pesticide, or (2) a human dietary risk from residues that result from the use of a pesticide in or on any food.”3

The FIFRA also gives the EPA authority to require permits for companies wanting to test their products on more than 10 acres of land or one surface acre of water. Smaller scale experiments do not require permits.

Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

The EPA is required to conduct a pre-manufacturing review of all new chemical substances to prevent their manufacturing, processing, distribution, use, or disposal from presenting an unreasonable risk to people and the environment.

In 2016, the TSCA was amended by the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which added a new requirement. Now, the EPA is required to determine that new chemical substances are safe before they go on the market.

The TSCA excludes food, food additives, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, pesticides (but not pesticide intermediates), tobacco, nuclear materials, and firearms from EPA jurisdiction because they are covered by other laws.

Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) LogoThe FDA regulates a wide variety of products under the FD&C Act, including human and animal foods, dietary supplements, cosmetics, human and veterinary drugs, human biological products, and medical devices.

Under the FD&C Act, a substance (which could be a GMO) that is intentionally added to food is considered a food additive. Unless the substance is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for its intended use, it requires premarket approval from the FDA, which offers a voluntary consultation process to help address safety and regulatory issues during early stages of product development.

Genetically engineered animals are regulated by the FDA under the “new animal drug” provision of the law, which makes it illegal to introduce a new animal drug into the market without FDA approval. So-called new animal drugs include animals genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals for human use (e.g. insulin) or food for human consumption (e.g. salmon).

The FD&C Act gives the EPA authority to set tolerances for pesticide residues on food for people and animals.

Protection and Inspection Acts

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) LogoThe Animal Health Protection Act, Plant Protection Act, and Virus-Serum-Toxin Act give the USDA regulatory oversight over products that are pests or could cause disease in livestock animals, are deemed plant pests or noxious weeds, or are veterinary biological products used to prevent, diagnose, and treat animal diseases.

If the USDA conducts a risk assessment and determines that a GMO is unlikely to pose a plant pest risk, then it is no longer subject to provisions of the Plant Protection Act, although it might be subject to other regulations.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act, Poultry Products Inspection Act, and Egg Products Inspection Act give the USDA authority and responsibility for ensuring that the United States’ commercial supply of meat, poultry, egg products, and certain farm-raised fish, in interstate commerce, is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled.

The FDA oversees the safety of substances added to meat, poultry, and egg products under the FD&C Act, while the USDA considers whether the use of such substances is suitable under the various Inspection Acts.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

NEPA, passed by Congress in 1969, requires all branches of the federal government to consider the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. Each agency has its own guidelines about what constitutes a major federal action, which could be approving a bioengineered food or other product.

National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS)

President Obama signed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (public law 114-216) on July 29, 2016.

Genetically Engineered AquAdvantage Salmon Compared to Atlantic Salmon
Genetically Engineered AquAdvantage Salmon Compared to Atlantic Salmon of Same Age – Photo Credit AquaBounty

The law:

  • Provides a definition of bioengineering as it relates to food.
  • Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national mandatory bioengineered (BE) Food disclosure standard.
  • Pertains only to food and drink for human consumption.
  • Pertains only to food and drink that already requires labeling by either the FDA or USDA.
  • Prohibits food products from animals being considered BE just because they eat BE food themselves.
  • Prohibits any state from establishing their own BE food labeling standards and overturns state laws previously passed (e.g. Vermont).
  • Exempts food served in restaurants and food manufacturers with less than $2.5M in annual revenue.

National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Proposed Rule

The USDA published their NBFDS proposed rule (regulation) on May 4, 2018, and allowed the public to comment until July 3, 2018.

Cheeseburger with French Fries on Wooden Table
Do this cheeseburger and fries contain GMOs? You may never know. Photo Credit iStock/nitrub

Notable features of the proposed rule are:

  • The percentage and predominance of BE ingredients will be used to determine whether a food requires BE disclosure or not.
  • Only foods on a list created by the USDA will be subject to disclosure. The proposed list includes canola, corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, non-browning apples, papaya, potatoes, and some squashes. The list will be updated annually.
  • Highly refined ingredients like oil and sugar produced from BE plants such as corn and sugar beets may end up being excluded from disclosure.
  • Quick Response (QR) CodeThere are three options for BE food disclosure on food and packaging: text stating the food is BE or may contain BE ingredients, a symbol, or an electronic or digital link you scan with your smartphone (if you have one) to go to a website for more information.
  • Although failing to make a BE food disclosure is prohibited, Congress did not authorize the USDA to enforce the law other than to conduct audits and hearings. There is no provision for penalties for non-compliance.
  • Manufacturers have until January 1, 2022, to comply with the law.

After reading this post, I hope you feel at least a little informed about how the EPA, FDA, and USDA regulate bioengineered food. In the next and final post of this series, we will look at environmental issues and concerns.

Featured Image at Top: Meshed Gears that Say Rules, Regulations, Compliance, Policies, and Standards – Photo Credit iStock/EtiAmmos

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References

  1. 2017 Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology Products –White House OSTP, 01/04/17 (p. 4)
  2. Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology – U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017 (p. 10)
  3. Summary of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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