Farmers, food safety advocates, and conservation groups have filed a suit in federal court challenging the deregulation of herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" sugar beets by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Attorneys from the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice are representing plaintiffs Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Center for Food Safety in the lawsuit, which seeks a thorough assessment of environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of the deregulation as required by federal law.
This spring, commercial sugar beet farmers in the western U.S. will begin planting Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Sugar beet seeds are primarily grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley, also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. The wind-pollinated GE sugar beets will inevitably cross-pollinate with related crops being grown in close proximity, contaminating conventional sugar beets and organic chard and table beet crops.
"Contamination from genetically engineered pollen is a major risk to both the conventional and organic seed farmers, who have a long history in the Willamette Valley," said the Organic Seed Alliance's Director of Advocacy, Matthew Dillon. "The economic impact of contamination affects not only these seed farmers, but the beet and chard farmers who rely on the genetic integrity of their varieties."
GE sugar beets are wind pollinated, and there is a strong possibility that pollen from Roundup Ready sugar beets could contaminate non-GE sugar beets and important food crops such as chard, and red and yellow beets (or "table beets"). Such biological contamination would also be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GE variety. Contamination also reduces the ability of conventional farmers to decide what to grow, and limits consumer choice of natural foods.
According to Tom Stearns, President of High Mowing Organic Seeds, "The issue of releasing GMO crops without serious research or oversight risks the security of our food supply and the economic viability of our nation's non-GMO and organic farmers."
In addition to the risk of crop contamination, scientific studies have shown that applications of Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, increase significantly when Roundup Ready crops are grown. Increased use of this herbicide is instrumental in the creation of Roundup-resistant "super weeds".
"Contrary to the industry's mantra that these plants reduce chemical use, studies have shown that herbicide use actually increases with the planting of Roundup Ready crops," said Kevin Golden, of the Center for Food Safety. "Just as overuse of antibiotics eventually breeds drug resistant bacteria, overuse of Roundup eventually breeds Roundup-resistant weeds. When that happens, farmers are forced to rely on even more toxic herbicides to control those weeds."
Crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides made up 81% of the GE crops planted globally in 2006. 99 percent of the herbicide tolerant crops grown in the U.S. are "Roundup Ready". 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) to 2004.
"The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment," said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice. "The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds."
These herbicide-resistant weeds have spread rapidly over the past seven years, and experts agree that their proliferation is directly linked to the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, including soybeans, cotton and corn. As recently as 2000, there were no documented cases of weeds resistant to glyphosate in the Corn Belt. Today, marestail, common and giant ragweed, waterhemp and Palmer pigweed are weeds with confirmed resistance to glyphosate. Cocklebur, lambsquarters, morning glory, velvetleaf, and others are also proving tougher to kill. In total, Roundup-resistant weeds have been reported on 2.4 million acres of U.S. cropland.
The sugar produced by Roundup Ready beets, which may have greatly elevated levels of the herbicide glyphosate, may be included in products ranging from candy to breakfast cereal to bread. At this point, none of those products will require labeling of any kind to indicate the presence of sugar derived from Roundup Ready sugar beets.
"As a consumer, I'm very concerned about genetically-engineered sugar making its way into the products I eat, as well as genetic contamination of conventional and organically grown varieties of table beets and chard," said the Sierra Club's Neil Carman. "It's unacceptable for consumers to be exposed to untested genetically engineered ingredients in foods that aren't labeled. At a time when consumers are facing multiple food safety challenges, we don't need more corporations messing with our food supply."
Kevin Golden, Center for Food Safety, (415) 826-2770
John Bianchi, Goodman Media, (212) 576-2700
Greg Loarie, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Matthew Dillon, Organic Seed Alliance, (360) 385-7192
Tom Stearns, High Mowing Organic Seeds, (802) 224-6301
Neil Carman, Sierra Club, (512) 288-5772