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Companies sour on GM sugar beets take pledge

More than 70 companies have signed a registry and pledged not to use or sell sugar from genetically modified sugar beets. The registry is sponsored by advocacy and watchdog groups including the Center for Food Safety, Institute for Responsible Technology, Sierra Club and others. Those onboard share the common concerns of consumer safety, crop contamination and unpredictable pest problems.

"The concerns are many," said Zelig Kevin Golden, staff attorney at CFS. "In terms of agriculture, the genetically modified seed is grown in the same region [Willamette Valley, OR] as all non-GM and conventional and organic sugar beet and chard seeds. But wind can easily transfer the genetically modified seed to non-GM crop flowers. The producers who rely on non-GM or organic crops for their markets stand to lose them if those seeds are contaminated."

Sugar beets, table beets, fodder beets (cattle feed) and chard are all the same plant species, Beta vulgaris, often grown together and therefore at high risk of cross-contamination.

Golden also cited that the genetically modified sugar beets are be Roundup-resistant, and are often rotated in fields with other Roundup-resistant crops including soybeans and alfalfa, a practice that could lead to stronger and hard-to-manage Roundup-resistant weeds.

"The increasing problem with Roundup-resistant weeds is forcing farmers to use more Roundup or more toxic chemicals including 2,4-D—a very toxic herbicide—and atrozine," Golden said. "When Monsanto went for approval on genetically modified sugar beets they asked for an increase in glyphosate residue [the main component in Roundup] and the EPA approved a 5,000 percent increase. Than means that if you are eating genetically modified sugar beets there is a high likelihood that you are eating a lot more Roundup, which can be bad for human health at certain levels."

Seeds of change
CFS filed a lawsuit in January, 2008, claiming that the USDA failed to comply with federal and environmental laws to protect humans vis a vis genetically modified sugar beets. On April 3, this year, their argument will be heard by the Federal District Court.

In a case about a year ago, the courts found that the USDA had failed to comply with similar laws by approving GM alfalfa, and put an injunction on the sale or planting of the GM alfalfa pending further investigation and review of risks by the USDA.

"The USDA had publicly stated that they would have the alfalfa review out this January," Golden said. "However, the current rules for allowing or not allowing GM crops are under revision and weren't completed prior to January 20 due to broad public opposition. And now the Obama administration appears to be taking a fresh look at GM crops and approval, so we're not sure what the timing is."

Signing of the registry is sending a clear message to producers and regulatory officials that consumers, farmers and manufacturers are concerned about the risks of GM crops. And the sponsoring groups are hopeful that the new administration will listen.

"I think we will see stronger oversight of the USDA going forward," Golden said. "We believe the new administration will take seriously the negative impacts for non-GM farmers, human health risks and place tighter requirements and restrictions on these kinds of crops."

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