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Federal court rules against genetically modified sugar beets

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement before deregulating genetically engineered sugar beets and allowing them to be grown without restrictions, a federal court ruled earlier this week.

Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the APHIS’ approval of the beets, known as “Roundup Ready” sugar beets, produced by the St. Louis-based Monsanto Company to resist herbicide, was unlawful. On Monday, the Court in San Francisco ordered the USDA to conduct an assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment.

"This court decision ... was about USDA procedure," said Monsanto spokesman Garrett Kasper. "The judge concluded USDA needs to show a more thorough review process through an EIS. It’s keenly important to understand that his decision in no way questions the safety or efficacy of Roundup Ready sugar beets."

The case was brought against APHIS by the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, representing a coalition of farmers and consumers.

“A clear message has been sent to America that organic farmers and consumers have rights and those rights have been recognized,” said Zelig Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety. “For Monsanto and for the USDA, it’s a powerful message that those interests have to be protected. Organic crops are in harm’s way, and this ruling is a big victory for the natural industry and the USDA has to take those concerns seriously starting now.”

“Roundup Ready” allows farmers to use the crops, along with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, without killing the crop. According to the plaintiffs, ongoing application of the herbicide has resulted in “superweeds,” weeds that are becoming resistant to the Roundup herbicide. This would increase the amount of herbicide needed to be applied to crop fields, Golden said, referring to an analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, that says GE crops increased herbicide use in the United States by 122 million pounds between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004.

“Just like in humans when antibiotics are overused, a resistance develops and the same is true in fields when you use too much herbicide and resistance develops,” Golden said. “The end result is that farmers are beginning to have problems using RoundUp to kill weeds and will have to use more toxic alternatives. The more herbicide farmers use, the more residue will end up in our food.”

Golden added that Roundup is linked to fertility concerns and high mortality rates in tests on animals. But Kasper said that according to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no substantiated evidence of mutagenic, carcinogenic, reproductive toxicity or birth defects in the wide spectrum of regulatory studies submitted to obtain approval for commercialization of products containing glyphosate, which is a key ingredient in Roundup.

Sugar beet seed is grown primarily in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which is an area that also grows seeds for organic chard and table beets. Organic farmers have long been concerned that genetically modified sugar beets would contaminate their crops through wind-carried cross-pollination.

Such contamination would cause significant market losses and could put organic farmers out of business, according to Center for Food Safety officials. Contamination, they claim, also reduces conventional farmers’ choice in deciding what to grow, and limits consumer choice of the foods available to purchase.

Judge White ordered APHIS to prepare an EIS, calling APHIS’ conclusion that there would be no impacts from the GE beets “unreasonable.”

"The potential elimination of farmers' choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or consumers' choice to eat non-genetically engineered food ... has a significant effect on the human environment," White’s opinion stated.

Kasper said Roundup Ready sugar beets reduce impacts on the environment because the technology allows for less chemical input, and less passes over the fields in tractors, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

An earlier environmental assessment that the APHIS based its initial approval found no significant impact from introducing the genetically engineered sugar beets, and if pollen spread the genes to wild beets, they would be considered weeds, which would pose no concern.

White has scheduled an Oct. 30 hearing to determine a potential injunction to halt new plantings.

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