Approval of Roundup Ready Sugar Beets Deemed Illegal by California District Court - UPDATED

Beet roots

Beet roots

As reported by the Environmental News Service, Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California ruled on September 21, 2009, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deregulation of genetically engineered Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2004 was unlawful.

Plaintiff groups, Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Seeds, represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, filed suit against USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”) in January 2008 claiming agency’s failure to adequately assess the environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of allowing Roundup Ready sugar beets to be commercially grown without restriction was against the law.

The District Court agreed and held that APHIS violated the law when it failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, thereby violating the National Environmental Policy Act, before deregulating sugar beets that were genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup.

Judge White also ordered the USDA to conduct a rigorous assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment as “the potential elimination of a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops,” that could result from cross-pollination of GM crops with those grown free from genetic modification, “or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an action that potentially eliminates or reduces the availability of a particular plant [and] has a significant effect on the human environment.” The Judge also found “no support in the record” for APHIS’ conclusion that conventional sugar beets would remain available for farmers and consumers and held that the agency’s decision that there would be no impact from the GE beets “unreasonable.”

The issue of genetic contamination as a result of cross-contamination is a concern for all crops that now face competition with their transgenic counterparts. In the case of sugar beet seed, which is grown primarily in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, biological contamination is a threat to crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets that are grown in the same area.

The Judge’s decision that APHIS failed to analyze the impacts of contamination from cross-pollination highlights what we at GMO Journal have been pointing out – that the United States’ regulatory framework often fails, for various reasons, to regulate and monitor genetically modified foods and crops.

By way of background, Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to spray their fields with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide without killing the crop. But, hardy crops make for hardy weeds, and like superbugs that result from the constant application of pesticides, constant application of the herbicide has resulted in Roundup resistant weeds. There are now millions of acres across the U.S. of “superweeds,” including marestail, ragweed, and waterhemp, that were not there prior to the introduction of Roundup, forcing farmers to use greater applications of Roundup or other, even more toxic chemicals.

According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds – a 15-fold increase – between 1994, when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced, and 2004, debunking one of industry’s arguments that planting genetically modified crops reduced the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Studies are not emerging showing that superweeds and the increase use of herbicides have adverse affects on human and animal health, as well as the environment. For example, a 2008 study mentioned by the Environmental News Service, showed that Roundup formulations and metabolic products cause the death of human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro even at low concentrations. A similar conclusion was reached by a study conducted by the Austrian government in 2008 on lab mice. The Austrian study found that, among other things, mice fed a type of genetically engineered corn developed by the Monsanto Company produced fewer offspring than those fed conventional corn. The plaintiffs in the sugar beets lawsuits also pointed to yet another recent study that suggests that Roundup is an endocrine disrupter, and that some amphibians and other forms of life may be at risk from glyphosate.

Environmental News Service also reports that food producers have shown reluctance to accept genetically modified beet sugar and more than 100 companies have joined the Non-GM Beet Sugar Registry opposing the introduction of genetically modified sugar beets, and pledging to seek wherever possible to avoid using transgenic beet sugar in their products.

Judge White has scheduled a meeting in his courtroom on October 30, to discuss the remedies phase of the case, including a potential injunction to halt the use of Roundup Ready products.

I would like to express optimism and claim this as a small victory for consumers and organic farmers but given Obama’s recent appointments from within the industry to key agricultural and food safety positions, for now, I will keep my optimism in check.

UPDATED: As reported in The Oregonian, on Janual 20th a judge was asked to halt planting of genetically modified sugarbeet seeds in Oregon.