Farmers and Conservation Groups Seek to Halt Planting of Illegal Crop

Earlier court decision found federal acceptance of GE sugar beets to be unlawful


Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
George Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety, (415) 826-2770

Earthjustice and Center for Food Safety attorneys filed court papers yesterday on behalf of a coalition of organic seed growers, and conservation and food safety groups seeking a ban on genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets and sugar beet seeds. The motion calls for a moratorium to be set in place on all planting, production and use of the seeds and beets until a federal district court can consider further how to remedy the government’s unlawful deregulation of the crop.

The coalition filed the lawsuit charging that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approved the “Roundup Ready” sugar beets without properly assessing potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts. These impacts include the possibility of genetic contamination of organic and conventional crops, increased weed resistance to Roundup herbicide, limiting of farmers’ options to grow conventional and organic beets, and loss of consumer choice to buy products with sugar not derived from GE beets.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said, “We’re asking the court to halt all use of the genetically engineered sugar-beets and seeds, now and into the future, until the federal government does its job to protect consumers and farmers alike.”

The foundation for yesterday’s filing dates back to September of 2009, when the Northern California District Court ruled that APHIS had improperly approved Monsanto’s genetically engineered sugar beets for commercial use. The court ruled that the government’s decision to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets “demonstrated that deregulation may significantly affect the environment.” The court also found that Roundup Ready sugar beets “may cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets.”

“Monsanto’s gene-altered sugar beets were illegally approved by the Bush Administration’s USDA. The profound economic impacts on organic and conventional farmers, as well as the environment, were not assessed. As a result, the planting of these crops should be halted to avoid further harm,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

The court ordered APHIS to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before approving Monsanto’s petition to deregulate Roundup-Ready sugar beets. The filing yesterday asks for a halt on planting until the EIS has been completed and finally approved, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the September court order.

Roundup-Ready sugar beets were developed to resist applications of Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup. These plants are the same species as Swiss chard and table beets, which pollinate by wind over very large distances. Because of the wide-ranging reproduction capabilities of these crops and the strong likelihood of cross-pollination, organic and non-GE chard and beet farmers share concern that their crops will be contaminated.

Roundup Ready sugar beets grown for seed in Oregon’s Willamette Valley will begin to flower as early as mid-May if planting occurs this spring. The pollen from these genetically engineered sugar beets will then begin to blow through the valley, where organic farmers grow sexually compatible organic seed crops, such as Swiss chard and table beets. At around the same time, the Roundup Ready sugar beet root crop will be planted throughout the western U.S.

“The Willamette Valley is the prime region for organic chard and beet seed production,” stated Frank Morton, owner of Wild Garden Seed and grower of organic chard and table beet seed. “Without measures to protect farmers like me from GE contamination, organic chard and beets as we know them are at serious risk of being lost.”

The planting of Roundup Ready beets across the United States will also have the potential to accelerate environmental impacts from increased toxic herbicides. Roundup Ready crops like corn, soy, alfalfa and sugar beets are designed to withstand repeated dousing with Roundup, which contains the active ingredient glyphosate that kills weeds. This leads to overuse of the herbicide, which in turn had already caused Roundup-resistant weeds to develop on millions of acres of farmland. To battle this resistance, farmers often turn to older and more hazardous herbicides like 2,4-D, the active ingredient in Agent Orange.

Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety are representing the Center for Food Safety, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Organic Seed Alliance and the Sierra Club.

In a similar case decided in 2007, a judge banned Roundup-Ready alfalfa. Monsanto is appealing that decision to the US Supreme Court.

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