Natural Foods Merchandiser

Battle over genetically engineered beets spreads

A pending federal lawsuit to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reverse its 2005 decision to deregulate genetically modified sugar beets and halt planting isn't stopping some growers from trying to move ahead with the controversial produce.

Just last week, farmers in Boulder County, Colo. told county commissioners that if they are not allowed to plant GM sugar beets on open space land they lease from the county, they could go out of business.

The beets, Roundup Ready Sugarbeets, engineered by Monsanto, the makers of Roundup, are designed to resist the herbicide.

The farmers say they need to use this new technology to move forward in sugar beet production. The beets make weed control more efficient, and if they can't plant Roundup Ready Sugarbeets, the long history of sugarbeet production in Boulder County would come to an end. They are not alone, many Midwestern growers that dominate the industry want the beets because they can tolerate Roundup.

But some residents are fighting it and they have backing from the natural foods community.

"I've long been opposed to GMO and this is in my back yard," Boulder resident Mary Rogers said. "When you're talking about GMO, you're talking about something that can have far-reaching consequences. I'm wondering if we're opening a Pandora's Box."

Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety — one of several organizations suing the USDA over the Roundup Ready Sugarbeets — says Boulder residents are right to worry.

"Cross pollination is a major danger," he said. "Report after report shows that using genetically engineered seeds and plants results in contamination. We can't stop biology from doing what it does and spreading. It's inevitable."

If Boulder County allows growers to plant Roundup Ready Sugarbeets, Golden said the farmers will likely end up using more Roundup as weeds become resistant to the herbicide. Similar to human viruses that morph to resist the overuse of antibiotics, so shall weeds learn to resist Roundup, some experts have warned.

Organic seed producer Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., claims GMOs can harm not only his crops, but his reputation. Even a small amount of GMO content would cost a batch of seeds its organic certification.

Morton, the owner of Wild Garden Seed, is fighting Roundup Ready Sugarbeets in the Willamette Valley, home of nearly all of the nation's sugarbeet seed production. His concern is that if the beets are allowed to pollinate, they will spread to his crop of chard, which is easily cross-pollinated by sugar beets.

And while the Linn and Marion County offices of the Oregon State University Extension Service, say the sugar beet industry is taking great pains to ensure there is no cross pollination, just last month, a soil mixture containing fragments of Roundup Ready Sugarbeet roots was found in a bag of soil sold at a local west Corvallis, Ore. store. If local gardeners' plants flower, there is little the industry, or the government could do to keep the GMOs from invading organic operations, Golden said.

Last year, the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club, the Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Organic Seeds filed a lawsuit against the USDA over Roundup Ready Sugarbeets. Morton is a member of the Center for Food Safety.

The lawsuit, now before a federal court judge in San Francisco, claims the USDA violated federal law by deregulating the genetically modified sugarbeets. The suit is asking for a permanent injunction to stop the planting, sale and distribution of GM sugar beets. A ruling is expected soon.

The USDA has contested the suit. Representatives for Monsanto have refused to comment on the pending case, other than to say they are confident in the U.S. regulatory process.

Meanwhile, Boulder County Commissioners are considering the request of six farmers to plant Roundup Ready Sugarbeets on county land. County staffers have recommended allowing the farmers to plant the sugar beets. The county's Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee and Food and Agriculture Policy Council will review the staff's recommendations before making their own recommendations to the country commissioners. That report is expected later this summer.

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