February 7, 2011
On Friday, February 4, USDA announced the partial deregulation of genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets, allowing widespread planting to go forward. The decision follows on the heels of the recent decision to deregulate GE alfalfa despite earlier indications from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that safety conditions would be placed on the release.
GE sugar beets were developed by Monsanto Co. to withstand spraying of its Roundup Ready herbicide. USDA maintains that under certain conditions the GE sugar beets can be grown without risk to the environment.
In “compliance agreements” between USDA and sugar processors, conditions will be placed on the release of the GE sugar beets, and none will be allowed in California or in parts of Washington state. Among the conditions are third party inspections to determine whether the crops reach the stage where they produce pollen, some restrictions on using sugar beet equipment in fields where close relatives like Swiss chard or red beets are grown, and monitoring fields where the crops had been grown to check that volunteer beets do not come up.
USDA retains authority to revoke the agreements or to impose civil and criminal penalties if the conditions in the compliance agreements are violated.
Earthjustice, which in coalition with the Organic Seed Alliance, Center for Food Safety, and other groups has won several lawsuits against USDA on this issue, issued an immediate response condemning the decision, noting in particular that the conditions imposed by USDA are very similar to the ones previously rejected by the courts as inadequate to protect farmers and the environment. They have already challenged the new USDA decision in court.
USDA originally deregulated GE sugar beets in 2005 and the product quickly became the dominant form of US production. In 2009, a U.S. District court judge ruled USDA violated environmental law by failing to conduct a full environmental impact statement, and in 2010 the same judge returned the sugar beets to regulated status.
Sugar processors then petitioned USDA for partial deregulation. Last September, USDA allowed the planting of 256 acres of GE sugar beet seedlings. The judge ruled in November that USDA violated the law and ordered the seedlings to be removed from the ground. That decision is currently on appeal.
Meanwhile, USDA expects to have completed the environmental impact statement by May of 2012.
Categories: Food Safety