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Aug 16, 2010

US Federal Judge Places National Ban on HT GM Sugar Beets

Sugar Beet Testing Fields in
Fort Collins, Colorado where the USDA's
Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
tests new varieties
Photo courtesy ARS Sugar Beet Research Unit
On 13 August 2010 a federal judge in the Northern California U.S. District Court ruled that gene-modified (GM) sugar beets can not be planted in the United States until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) completes a detailed environmental assessment report.

This judicial decision overturns the USDA's 2005 approval of GM sugar beets.  It threatens future U.S. sugar supplies as currently an estimated half of all U.S. sugar is derived from sugar beets.  An estimated 95% of all U.S. sugar beets are now planted with herbicide tolerant (HT) seeds. 

The decision was implemented by an order signed by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White.  This was based on the judge's conclusion that the USDA had not fulfilled its obligation to conduct an environmental assessment study of the impact of herbicide tolerant sugar beets on eco-systems and contamination of other crops, including organic sugar beets. 

The judicial order allows the current 2010 season HT sugar beets to be harvested and processed into sugar.  It blocks farmers from planting HT sugar beets starting spring 2011. 

Most HT sugar beets seeds come from Monsanto's line of RoundUp ready sugar beets.  Several sugar-beet seed companies license Monsanto's HT technology to produce the seeds.  The product line is not very large enough to result in large loses for Monsanto. 

The judicial ruling against the USDA was made in favor of the plaintiffs, a group of activists including the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club, among others.  They filed the complaint based on concerns that HT technology is promoting the development of weeds, which in the future will become resistant to glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in Monsanto's weekkiller.  Their fear is that this will lead to creation of "superweeds."  Following the judicial order, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety expressed his support for the decision noting that the USDA was not doing its job and that this order was "regulation by litigation."

Sugar-beet industry officials note that it will be difficult and expensive for U.S. farmers to switch back to non-GE sugar beet seeds.  First, there is not a large of supply of traditional sugar beet seed left on the market.  Second, some farmers have already sold the machines they used for tilling the soil as a way to traditionally eliminate weeds. 

It is now up to the USDA to conduct the time consuming process of conducting the environmental impact study.  The draft of a similar environmental impact report that the USDA conducted in December 2009 regarding HT alfalfa was 1,500 pages long. 

In the June 2010 HT alfalfa case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the USDA has the authority to grant partial approval to plant interim GM crop plantings while an environmental impact study is pending.  Based on this recent ruling, the USDA might appeal the judicial order regarding HT sugar beets and request interim plantings in order to deter severe economic hardship for U.S. farmers. 

Sugar-industry officials believe that like the HT alfalfa case, the USDA HT sugar beets environmental impact study will eventually clear the way to overturn the judge's order and lift the ban on HT sugar beet plantings.  They estimate that this process may take as long as spring 2012 or longer. 

For more see related blogs:

U.S. Supreme Court Lifts Ban on HT Alfalfa, 22 June 2010.
Court Ban of GM Sugar Beets Denied, 17 March 2010.

For more see original articles and court order:

Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Thomas Vilsack, et al., Order Regarding Remedies, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, 13 August 2010.

Kilman, Scott. "Food Firms Jarred by Sugar-Beet Restriction," Wall Street Journal, 16 August 2010.

Pollack, Andrew, "Judge Revokes Approval of Modified Sugar Beets," New York Times, 13 August 2010.

About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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