In a decision this week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “deregulated” Monsanto’s genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” sugar beets, meaning that they can be commercially planted in the United States without restrictions. The decision follows several years of litigation and review.

It is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection (APHIS) office of the USDA’s “final regulatory determination” on the sugar beets, coming after publication of an Environmental Impact Statement in June of this year. The outcome is no surprise, as the USDA has long tried to deregulate this crop. Also no surprise is that the legal fight over the genetically modified sugar beet is not over.

Sugar beets, along with alfalfa, have been among the most controversial agricultural products of genetic engineering. For both of these crops, a major cause of the controversy is the ease of spread of the crop – because beets are wind-pollinated, they can easily spread to neighboring, non-GE crops, including seed crops. That puts conventional and particularly organic growers at risk of having their crops contaminated and rendered unsalable to premium markets that are GE-free. Sourcing GE free sugar would become substantially more difficult for natural and organic food producers as well as baby food producers.

Several other concerns also make deregulation controversial.

The Center for Food Safety also raised the following issues, among others: allowable herbicide residues on beets have increased; herbicide resistant weeds continue to develop; and Roundup Ready GE crops have increased herbicide use (not just of Roundup, but also potentially of more toxic chemicals as weeds become resistant – witness, too, the recent move to crops that are resistant to 2,4-D, a toxic weed killer). In addition, a number of activists continue to raise concerns about potential toxicity of the crops themselves. Personally, that has always been the least of my concerns about most GE crops, especially with herbicide resistant crops, where a far more serious problem is the growing use of herbicides in the first place. But the subject is still worth raising.

Those concerns have led to a concerted effort to stop GE sugar beets, although they have already been planted in the US. In 2009, the USDA made its first decision to deregulate the sugar beets, but was sued by a coalition of environmental and food safety NGOS along with farmers for failing to conduct an adequate assessment of the crop’s environmental and economic impact. APHIS went back to the drawing board, and in 2010 issued a new decision to deregulate the beets. That was overturned by another legal challenge. In 2011 APHIS again issued a decision to deregulate. Once again, a coalition of activists sued to overturn the decision, with Earth Justice attorney Paul Achitoff saying:

“The lax conditions on growing the GE sugar beets in today’s approval are not materially different from those earlier rejected by the federal court as inadequate to protect other farmers, the public, and the environment. USDA has yet again violated the law requiring preparation of an EIS before unleashing this genetically engineered crop” (see Earthjustice’s press release on the issue at

The latest decision by APHIS this week is certain to be challenged as well by groups petitioning the court to overturn USDA’s decision.

All of this highlights the importance of maintaining the right to challenge the USDA’s decisions. Right now, there are riders attached to the House version of the 2012 Farm Bill that would limit this right. According to the Center for Food Safety, the House bill “guts meaningful analysis of GE crops. The bill would place strict limitations on what USDA can meaningfully consider when conducting environmental reviews of GE crops, and prohibit USDA from using funds to conduct any additional assessments. Further, all requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act or Endangered Species Act, would be banned, even if a crop approval would harm protected species.”

Monsanto has spent $2.46 million lobbying Congress (versus just $269,000 by the organic agriculture lobby). Other “life-science” corporations have spent millions as well, to try to get this type of provision that will make approvals of GE crops even easier (even though no approvals have ever been denied by USDA). It becomes all the more important, then, that citizens weigh in with their representatives on this issue, and maintain the right to challenge approvals for both environmental and economic reasons, and at a minimum to ensure thorough reviews of crops before they are planted commercially.

Image: Sugar beets – USDA

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