Court Finds USDA Violated Federal Law by Allowing Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets on the Market


Government failed to evaluate environmental and economic risks of Monsanto product


Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
Andrew Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety, (703) 927-2826
Zelig Golden, Center for Food Safety, (415) 826-2770
John Bianchi, Goodman Media, (212) 576-2700
Matthew Dillon, Organic Seed Alliance, (360) 385-7192
Tom Stearns, High Mowing Seeds, (802) 472-6174
Neil Carman, Sierra Club, (512) 288-5772 

In a case brought by Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice representing a coalition of farmers and consumers, a federal court ruled yesterday that the Bush USDA’s approval of genetically engineered (GE) “RoundUp Ready” sugar beets was unlawful. The court ordered the USDA to conduct a rigorous assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment. 

The federal district court for the Northern District of California ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) when it failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) before deregulating sugar beets that have been genetically engineered (“GE”) to be resistant to glyphosate herbicide, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. Plaintiffs Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Seeds, represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, filed suit against APHIS in January 2008, alleging APHIS failed to adequately assess the environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of allowing “Roundup Ready” sugar beets to be commercially grown without restriction.

“This court decision is a wakeup call for the Obama USDA that they will not be allowed to ignore the biological pollution and economic impacts of gene altered crops,” stated Andrew Kimbrell Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. “The courts have made it clear that USDA’s job is to protect America’s farmers and consumers, not the interests of Monsanto.”

While industry asserts that the adoption rates of GE sugar beets has been high, food producers have shown reluctance in accepting GE beet sugar. Over 100 companies have joined the Non-GM Beet Sugar Registry opposing the introduction of GE sugar beets, and pledging to seek wherever possible to avoid using GM beet sugar in their products.

Sugar beet seed is grown primarily in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which is also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. GE sugar beets are wind pollinated and will inevitably cross-pollinate the related crops being grown in the same area.  Such biological contamination would 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 the foods they can eat. In his September 21, 2009 order requiring APHIS to prepare an EIS, Judge Jeffrey S. White emphasized that “the potential elimination of a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an action that potentially eliminates or reduces the availability of a particular plant [that] has a significant effect on the human environment.”

The court found “no support in the record” for APHIS’ conclusion that conventional sugar beets would remain available for farmers and consumers and held that the agency’s decision that there would be no impacts from the GE beets “unreasonable.” 

The court also held that APHIS failed to analyze the impacts of biological contamination on the related crops of red table beets and Swiss chard. “Organic seed is the foundation of organic farming and organic food integrity, said Mathew Dillon, Director of Advocacy of the Organic Seed Alliance. “We must continue to protect this natural resource, along with the rights of organic farmers to be protected from negative economic impact from GE crops, and consumers rights’ to choose to eat food free of GE components.”

“The ruling is a major consumer victory for preserving the right to grow and eat organic foods in the United States,” stated Neil Carman of the Sierra Club.  “Environmental impacts of Roundup Ready sugar beets were also not considered by APHIS, and they need to be fully evaluated.”

“Roundup Ready” crops allow farmers to douse their fields with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide without killing the crop. Constant application of the herbicide has resulted in the rapid emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds. There are now millions of acres across the U.S. infested with such “superweeds,” including marestail, pigweed and ragweed, and farmers are using greater applications of Roundup or other, even more toxic chemicals.  According to an independent analysis of USDA data by the former Executive Director of the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 138 million pounds in the nine years from1996 (when GE Roundup Ready crops were introduced) to 2004.  

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff noted, “Although touted by Monsanto as offering all sorts of benefits, GE crops offer consumers nothing, and are designed primarily to sell herbicides. The end result of their use is more toxics in our environment and our food, disappointed farmers, and revenue for Monsanto.”

A 2008 scientific study revealed that Roundup formulations and metabolic products cause the death of human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro even at low concentrations.  Other recent studies suggest that ingredients in Roundup are endocrine disrupters, and that exposure to Roundup is lethal to some species of amphibians.

In addition, Judge Jeffrey S. White — in his ruling — has scheduled a meeting in his courtroom on October 30, 2009 to discuss the remedies phase of the case, including potential injunctive relief.

There is increasing speculation that the Department of Justice’s antitrust division is scrutinizing Monsanto’s allegedly anticompetitive practices in the markets for GE seeds and traits.

The case is Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C 08-00484 JSW (N.D. Cal. 2009). The decision follows on the heels of a June 2009 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the illegality of the APHIS’ approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa.

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