Battle Over Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets Continues

In the second deregulation of GMO crops in a week, on February 4, the USDA announced it will allow farmers to begin planting "Roundup-Ready" GMO sugar beets in order to avoid a "shortage of U.S. sugar."

Previously, on January 27, the USDA announced it would allow the planting of genetically modified alfalfa without any restriction or labeling requirements.

The organic industry is up in arms. Alfalfa is the nation’s fourth largest crop and a prodigious pollinator, and as such, it is all but guaranteed that organic alfalfa crops will become genetically contaminated, which could be particularly threatening to organic dairy producers who rely on alfalfa as feed for their cows.

Now, it is reported that the Obama administration itself appears to have used this issue as a trading card to further its own agenda, allowing GMO alfalfa to become completely deregulated, according to a commentary by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and a January 27 article in the Wall Street Journal.

Calling the proposal to regulate GMO alfalfa-originally promised by USDA secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack-overly "burdensome" to business, the Obama administration, led by departing presidential advisor David Axelrod, "abandoned a proposal to restrict planting of genetically engineered alfalfa," says the Wall Street Journal.

Sugar Beet Decision

This decision, released to the media at the end of the business day on Friday – a key tactical PR move to avoid media attention – is in defiance of a federal court order made by San Francisco U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White banning the planting of GMO sugar beets until a study of their environmental impact can be done, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) on Friday issued a decision to allow the U.S. sugar beet industry to continue growing Monsanto’s (NYSE: MON) “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets.

The decision was immediately challenged in court by a coalition of farmers and conservation groups: the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club.

This is the same coalition that in August of last year had APHIS’s previous decision to allow planting thrown out because it violated environmental laws. The coalition declared the new decision unlawful as well, and vowed to overturn it.

The sugar beets are genetically engineered by Monsanto to tolerate repeated applications of that company’s weed killer Roundup, or glyphosate. Judge Jeffrey White of the federal district court for the Northern District of California found in earlier rulings that growing the GE sugar beets is likely to cause irreparable harm to the groups’ members and the environment, and “may cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets.”

The judge ordered the federal government to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act before allowing the GE sugar beets to be grown. The USDA is continuing to work on the court-ordered EIS, but considers last week’s documents sufficient to allow growers to continue growing the controversial crop planted in defiance of the earlier court ruling.

“There is clear evidence of harm to the environment from GE sugar beets,” said Paige Tomaselli, Staff Attorney for the Center for Food Safety. “Because USDA continues to bow to industry pressure and permits further commercial production of Roundup Ready sugar beets, without first preparing an EIS or protecting the public, the Center for Food Safety will once again seek to halt the planting in court.”

The environmental groups said Environmental Assessment issued by the federal agency Friday is far less comprehensive that the court ordered for it to be. The agency says it adequately considers the damage the GE sugar beets are likely to cause.

According to APHIS, growing the crop will be subject to permits with conditions that will eliminate all risk of harm. Earthjustice said in a press release: "This conclusion is at sharp odds with earlier court rulings and the views of growers of organic and non-GE crops, who will likely see their crops contaminated by the GE sugar beets, threatening their livelihoods and the ability of farmers and consumers to choose non-GE foods."

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff added, “USDA has yet again violated the law requiring preparation of an EIS before unleashing this genetically engineered crop.”

The introduction of previous Roundup Ready crops over the last decade, such as soy, cotton, and corn, have led to a 382 million pound overall increase in herbicides. It has also led to the spread of herbicide resistant weeds on millions of acres throughout the United States and other countries where such crops are grown, as well as contamination of conventional and organic crops, which has been costly to U.S. farmers.

In 2008, the groups sued USDA for deregulating Monsanto’s genetically modified sugar beets without complying with the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement of an EIS before deregulating the crop. On August 13, 2010, the federal court banned the crop until USDA fully analyzed the impacts of the GE plant on the environment, farmers and the public in an EIS.

Three weeks later, despite the court’s ruling, and without any prior environmental analysis, USDA issued permits to seed growers to again grow the genetically modified sugar beets. The groups again sued USDA. On November 30, 2010, the court granted the groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered the seed crop destroyed. That order was stayed pending appeal, which is scheduled for argument on February 15, 2011.

Impact on Food System

The organic industry is the only agricultural system in the US that requires a paper trail from seed to shelf. Now, organic producers are at huge risk that their organic seed stock will become polluted by GMO alfalfa and other pollinating GMO crops, including GMO corn and sugar beets, significantly threatening their ability to produce certified organic product.

"The organic industry may not know it is at war with the biotech seed industry, but the biotech industry definitely knows it is at war with organic. Through shrewd political lobbying with USDA and the White House, biotech agriculture has won a decisive victory in the continuing onslaught of genetically engineered foods, controlled by only a handful of multinational corporations," says Steve Hoffman, president of Compass Natural, an organic industry communications firm.

In criticizing the USDA on loosening restrictions on GMO alfalfa, Sen. Patrick Leahy, author of the original Organic Foods Production Act, called it "a big payday for the giant firms that pushed for this rollback," according to the Burlington Free Press.

Labeling of GMO ingredients is required in Europe, Japan and elsewhere. There are few GMOs in grocery products because they must be indicated on the label – and when they are, nobody buys them.

But the biotech lobby has been very successful in the US – there is no labeling requirement for GMO ingredients in foods. As a result, most consumers don’t know that GMO ingredients are in 80% of conventional grocery products, and that virtually 90% of all the corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar beet crops in the U.S. are from GMO seed.

"If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it," said Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto, in a 1994 article in the Kansas City Star.

There is more than enough science to show that GMO foods are risky to human, animal and plant health and the environment. The use of toxic, synthetic herbicides has increased by nearly 400 million pounds due to GMO agriculture, and superweeds are already becoming resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup, the primary herbicide used in GMO agriculture. Because of that, GMO farmers are now being recommended to use even more toxic herbicides.

We urge you to write to your congressperson, senators and the President to require labeling of GMO ingredients in foods.

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