USDA's Response To A Ban On Monsanto's GM Sugar Beets Is Unlawful

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Sugar beets field, Germany

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (“APHIS”) recently announced its response to a court-mandated ban on new planting of genetically modified sugar beets.  Among other things, APHIS said it will issue permits for GM “steckling” (i.e., seedlings) production.  Many see the agency’s response as an attempt to circumvent the Court’s order since it would allow for the commercial planting of GM crops without public notice and comment and environmental review.

On August 13, 2010 a California District Court issued a ruling which banned the planting of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM sugar beets until APHIS conducts an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”), finding that APHIS’ failure to conduct one prior to deregulation of GM sugar beets was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). Roundup Ready sugar beets are genetically modified to withstand continued application of Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup.

Officially, the agency’s statement was in response to a concern among certain growers that there may not be sufficient supply of conventional beet seeds to meet the demand in part because GM sugar beets constitute 95 percent of sugar crop in the United States. Many, however, question whether this is yet another instance of USDA serving Monsanto’s interests at the expense of the public interest.

APHIS’ response seeks to, allegedly, “not only respond to the concerns of producers while complying with the court’s ruling, but also further USDA’s continuing efforts to enable coexistence among conventional, organic, and biotechnology production systems.” Interestingly, the crux of the District Court ruling was the need for the agency to conduct an EIS to determine whether in fact such a harmonic co-existence is possible. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that points to the contrary, namely, that GM sugar beets will not only pollute conventional and organic beets but will also cross-pollinate with related crops like Swiss chard and table beets, affecting organic and conventional farmers and consumers.

In addition to permitting the planting of GM “steckling” APHIS also announced that in response to the District Court ruling it will be evaluating requests for a partial deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets. The agency also said that its “promising to place priority on expediting the completion of the EIS.”

Plaintiffs in the GM sugar beet case disapproved of the agency’s post-decision conduct. Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, for example, said that “USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops. Despite numerous court opinions, congressional mandates and federal investigations, it continues to act illegally.”  In fact, since GM crops were commercialized the agency has yet to conduct a single EIS assessing the impact of such crops.  Kimbrell further stated that “[t]he agency and Secretary Vilsack seem to see their mission as defending Monsanto’s bottom line rather than protecting farmers and consumers.” Not surprisingly, prior to announcing its response to the federal court decision, agency members met with companies involved and invested in promoting the gene-altered crop.

On September 8, 2010, Plaintiffs’ group in the GM sugar beet case have filed a lawsuit arguing that the agency has violated the Court’s ruling.