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Farmers and Conservationists Challenge Latest Federal Approval of Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets

In defiance of earlier court ruling, USDA allows continued growing of controversial, illegally planted crop
February 4, 2011
San Francisco, CA —

Today, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a new decision to allow the U.S. sugar beet industry to continue growing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets. The decision was immediately challenged in court by a coalition of farmers and conservation groups: the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club. This is the same coalition that in August of last year had APHIS’s previous decision to allow planting thrown out because it violated environmental laws. The coalition declared the new decision unlawful as well, and vowed to overturn it.

The sugar beets are genetically engineered by Monsanto to tolerate repeated applications of that company’s weed killer Roundup, or glyphosate. Judge Jeffrey White of the federal district court for the Northern District of California found in earlier rulings that growing the GE sugar beets is likely to cause irreparable harm to the groups’ members and the environment, and “may cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets.” The judge ordered the federal government to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act before allowing the GE sugar beets to be grown. The USDA is continuing to work on the court-ordered EIS, but considers today’s documents sufficient to allow growers to continue growing the controversial crop illegally planted in defiance of the earlier court ruling.

“There is clear evidence of harm to the environment from GE sugar beets,” said Paige Tomaselli, Staff Attorney for the Center for Food Safety. “Because USDA continues to bow to industry pressure and permits further commercial production of Roundup Ready sugar beets, without first preparing an EIS or protecting the public, the Center for Food Safety will once again seek to halt the planting in court.”

In spite of that court order, the federal agency today issued a far less comprehensive Environmental Assessment, claiming it adequately considers the damage the GE sugar beets are likely to cause. According to APHIS, growing the crop will be subject to permits with conditions that will eliminate all risk of harm. This conclusion is at sharp odds with earlier court rulings and the views of growers of organic and non-GE crops, who will likely see their crops contaminated by the GE sugar beets, threatening their livelihoods and the ability of farmers and consumers to choose non-GE foods.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff commented, “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.”

The introduction of previous Roundup Ready crops over the last decade, such as soy, cotton, and corn, have led to a 382 million pound overall increase in herbicides. It has also led to the spread of herbicide resistant weeds on millions of acres throughout the United States and other countries where such crops are grown, as well as contamination of conventional and organic crops, which has been costly to U.S. farmers.

In 2008, the groups sued USDA for deregulating Monsanto’s genetically modified sugar beets without complying with the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement of an EIS before deregulating the crop. On August 13, 2010, the federal court banned the crop until USDA fully analyzed the impacts of the GE plant on the environment, farmers and the public in an EIS.

Three weeks later, despite the court’s ruling, and without any prior environmental analysis, USDA issued permits to seed growers to again grow the genetically modified sugar beets. The groups again sued USDA. On November 30, 2010, the court granted the groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered the seed crop destroyed. That order was stayed pending appeal, which is scheduled for argument on February 15, 2011.

Contacts

Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436

Paige Tomaselli, Center for Food Safety, (415) 826-2779

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