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National wildlife refuges phasing out GMO crops, some pesticides across US to help bees

GRANTS PASS, Ore. - National wildlife refuges around the country are phasing out genetically modified crops and a class of pesticides related to nicotine in programs meant to provide food for wildlife.

A July 17 letter from James W. Kurth, chief of the national refuge system, makes no specific mention of any concerns that the pesticides or the crops pose risks to wildlife or pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. It just says they don't fit refuge objectives, such as promoting natural ecosystems.

"We make this decision based on a precautionary approach to our wildlife management practices, and not on agricultural practices," he wrote.

But it comes after a July order to phase out neonicotinoid pesticides on wildlife refuges in the Northwest and Hawaii that mentioned concerns about harm to bees and after a White House memorandum directing federal agencies to promote pollinator health in the face significant losses in recent decades of insects, bats and birds that pollinate fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Conservation and food safety groups also petitioned for the change.

"Fish and Wildlife by this action is showing tremendous leadership in standing up for wildlife and banning two of the most harmful practices in agriculture," said Lori Ann Burd, endangered species campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now is the time to take this ban beyond refuges."

Wildlife refuges commonly allow farmers to grow crops on their land, on the condition they leave some behind to feed wildlife.

Citing a May decision by a leadership team on agricultural practices on refuges, Kurth told refuge managers to phase out GMO crops and neonicotinoids by January 2016. Exceptions can be made, particularly on refuges that include lands mandated by law for agriculture use, such as the Tule Lake and Upper and Lower Klamath refuges in Northern California and southern Oregon.

Seeds for corn and other crops grown on wildlife refuges commonly are coated with neonicotinoid pesticides, which are absorbed into the growing plant and kill pests that attack the leaves and stems. Most of the corn grown in the United States has been genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, commercially sold as Roundup.

Iain Kelly, a risk assessment scientist for neonicotinoid manufacturer Bayer CropScience, said he was disappointed in the Fish and Wildlife Service decision.

"We don't think the science bears out that decision," he said.

Specifically, he said advances have been made that keep the pesticide from making its way into a plant's pollen and nectar at levels high enough to harm bees and other pollinators.

He added a moratorium on neonicotinoids in the European Union just started last winter, and has not run long enough to produce results. And the company is working on techniques to limit the dust produced when neonicotinoid-coated seeds go through farm machinery.

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