Challenging the USDA’s Approval of Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets

Earthjustice challenged the USDA’s decision to deregulate a variety of sugar beets genetically engineered to tolerate exposure to the herbicide glyphosate without assessing their environmental, health and economic impacts.

Case Overview

The genetic engineering of our agricultural products has created serious environmental problems and numerous questions about health and safety. The great majority of genetically engineered (“GE”) crops are engineered to be resistant to a specific weed killer, glyphosate (known commercially as “Roundup,” owned and marketed by Monsanto). These crops, known as “Roundup Ready,” allow farmers to apply large quantities of glyphosate to their fields without harming the crop, but this practice accelerates the evolution of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” Farmers then apply greater and greater quantities of Roundup to try to kill these weeds, and when this fails, they use even more toxic herbicides. Also, the GE crops themselves can cross-pollinate or become mixed with other related crops nearby, contaminating their conventional or organic counterparts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, approved for commercial production genetically modified sugar beets without assessing the environmental, health, and economic impacts of these Roundup Ready beets, to the dismay of organic farmers, conservationists, and food-safety experts.

Earthjustice sued the USDA on behalf of organic seed producers and conservationists to get the deregulation of genetically-modified beets reversed until a full environmental impact statement is performed. In September 2009, the court agreed the USDA had violated the law and must prepare an EIS.

After the court determined that the USDA violated NEPA and ordered preparation of an EIS, it vacated the deregulation, which it believed and intended would stop further sugarbeet production until after the EIS had been finalized. The USDA, however, issued permits intending to allow production anyway, and the companies proceeded to plant. Earthjustice sought and obtained a preliminary injunction requiring that the plantings be destroyed; however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the injunction and the crop was allowed to mature. In the meantime, the USDA prepared an EIS, after which the case was declared moot and dismissed.

Sugar beets in an agricultural field.
Sugar beets in an agricultural field. (Symbiot / Shutterstock)

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