Friday’s court-ordered ban on Roundup Ready sugar beets is making waves this week. In Oregon, it’s particularly big news because most of the genetically modified sugar beet plant seeds are grown in the Willamette Valley. Sugar beet crops are grown in Idaho and Washington, among other states.
Sugar beets aren’t the same as table beets that you’d eat on a salad, but they’re pretty crucial to the U.S. economy: they provide around 50 percent of the sugar produced in the U.S. And 95 percent of the sugar beets planted nationwide are genetically modified.
But a federal district court judge in California has ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t vetted the environmental impacts of Monsanto’s Round-up Ready sugar beets, which are genetically modified to withstand Round-up herbicides and make beet farming easier.
Judge Jeffrey White said the USDA still needs to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the genetically engineered crop. And, moreover, that it really should have been done before the agency deregulated the sugar beets in 2005. One environmental concern with genetically modified crops is cross-pollination with other crops such as table beets and Swiss chard. Another one: uncontrolled growth of herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds.’
On a national level, this case begs a couple questions: What are the environmental impacts of genetically modified crops, and how should the U.S. Department of Agriculture assess them?
The USDA has wound up in two court battles recently for trying to avoid these questions. This Reuters story offers a broader perspective on the issue.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety and one of the plaintiffs in the sugar beet case, called the USDA “a rogue agency” for skipping environmental reviews of biotech crops (the same legal problem has stymied approval of a Roundup Ready alfalfa crop, too).
Several groups have piled on to criticize USDA and argue the sugar beet decision puts new pressure on the agency to look at the impacts before approving genetically engineered crops.
On the flip side, however, the biotech industry is asking the agency to speed up the approval process for new products.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he is working to revamp the agency’s biotech crop decision-making.
Opponents of the Roundup Ready sugar beets have won their case for the time being. The current crop of modified beets can be harvested, but no more can be planted until the USDA finishes its homework (not until 2012, the agency estimates). But the USDA has all but promised the crop will be deregulated.
The agriculture department asked the court to delay the ban for nine months so some temporary rules could be put in place for beet farmers using the Roundup Ready seeds. But no.
But Judge White said the department’s errors “are not minor or insignificant” and that the agency had already had almost a year to make arrangements since the court’s initial ruling last September.
He also criticized USDA and its Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for not taking the court case seriously.
“APHIS’s apparent position that it is merely a matter of time before they reinstate the same deregulation decision… causes some concern that Defendants are not taking this process seriously,” the judge wrote in his decision.
OPB has scoped out the sugar beet issue on several fronts: A report last year includes interviews with growers of sugar beet seeds and organic farmers worried about the impacts of modified crops; and a Think Out Loud episode earlier this year delved into the fight over genetically modified crops.
For more details, read Judge White’s Friday ruling.