Setback for bioengineered sugar beets

by Jay Sjerven
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A federal district court judge on Aug. 13 vacated the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets for planting and use until the department completes an environmental impact statement and that statement affirms the bioengineered sugar beets are not harmful to the environment. Roundup Ready sugar beets currently being harvested may be processed and used, but Roundup Ready sugar beet seed must be stored and not planted.

Roundup Ready sugar beets were bioengineered to be tolerant of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The U.S.DA.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in 2005 approved the sugar beet line for planting and use. The technology spread quickly, and in the current season, about 95% of acres planted to sugar beets in the United States were planted to Roundup Ready sugar beets.

The U.S.D.A. indicated its 2005 decision to approve or deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets was made after it conducted an environmental assessment and issued a finding of no significant environmental impact pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It decided at the time the environmental assessment was sufficient to meet the requirements of NEPA and that an environmental impact statement was not required. The latter imposes a higher level of proof a bioengineered crop or organism would have no significant harmful effects.

But in January 2008, the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and two organic seed groups filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging APHIS’s decision to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets. In September 2009, Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the environmental assessment APHIS prepared failed to consider certain environmental and economic impacts of non-regulated Roundup Ready sugar beets as required under NEPA. Judge White said APHIS would have to prepare such a statement.

In March 2010, Judge White denied a motion by the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets for the current season but warned the denial was not indicative of the court’s view on a possible permanent injunction pending the full environmental review he ordered APHIS to conduct. He added all efforts should be taken “going forward, to use conventional seed” and that he was troubled about maintaining the status quo “that consists of 95% of sugar beets being genetically engineered while APHIS conducts the environmental review that should have occurred before the sugar beets were deregulated.”

The plaintiffs then moved for the court to vacate the APHIS decision to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets, which led to the Aug. 13 ruling.

Judge White ruled bioengineered sugar beets are once again regulated articles under the Plant Protection Act.

“This vacatur applies to all future plantings and does not apply to genetically engineered sugar beet root and seed crops that were planted before the date of this order,” he said. “Therefore, such crops may be harvested and processed. The genetically engineered sugar beet root crop that has already been planted may be processed and sold as sugar. The genetically engineered sugar beet seed crop that has already been planted may be harvested and stored.”

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director and co-counsel for the Center for Food Safety, said, “This is a major victory for farmers, consumers and the rule of law. The U.S.D.A. has once again acted illegally and had its approval of a biotech crop rescinded. Hopefully, the agency will learn that their mandate is to protect farmers, consumers and the environment and not the bottom line of corporations such as Monsanto.”

Luther Markwart, vice-president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, added, “In the short term at least, we aren’t going to see any disruption in the marketing of this year’s crop.”

But there was concern about the next year. Duane Grant, chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co., Boise, Idaho, said, “There has been no incentive to market, no demand for conventional seed since 2008, and we believe there is not enough conventional seed available for growers to plant a full crop in 2011.”

The Sugar Industry Biotech Council in a statement noted: “Under the court’s ruling, and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in ‘Monsanto versus Geertson Seed Farms,’ APHIS may adopt interim measures regarding future planting of Roundup Ready sugar beet crops that are compliant with federal legal requirements. The sugar beet industry will provide its full support to the U.S.D.A. to allow full consideration of appropriate interim measures that allow continued production of Roundup Ready sugar beets.”

The U.S.D.A. in June began its environmental impact review of Roundup Ready sugar beets in response to the judge’s earlier order by taking public comments with the comment period ending June 28. The U.S.D.A. estimated a draft environmental impact statement may be completed by May 2011 with the final statement prepared and published by April 30, 2012.

A spokesman for APHIS said the court’s Aug. 3 ruling was complex and the agency was studying its ramifications including whatever interim measures might be considered.

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