Farmers and Conservationists Challenge USDA Attempt to Sidestep Court Ban on Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets

Feds hand out permits to plant GE crop with no public input, notice or comment


Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice, (808) 262-8283


Paige Tomaselli, Center for Food Safety, (415) 826-2770

Today, the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit in federal district court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, challenging permits from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) purporting to allow the immediate planting of a genetically engineered (GE) sugar beet seed crop. The coalition of organic seed growers and conservationists is represented by Earthjustice and attorneys from the Center for Food Safety.

Less than one month ago, on August 13, 2010, Judge Jeffrey White vacated APHIS’s deregulation of the GE sugar beet variety, making it illegal to plant, and required APHIS to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. The court found that APHIS had ignored the requirements for assessing the crop’s environmental impacts. The patented sugar beet variety, known as “Roundup Ready” because it has been engineered by Monsanto to tolerate applications of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. This allows farmers to douse their fields with the chemical without concern for the crop itself, leading to greater use of the herbicide. Constant application of the herbicide also accelerates development of Roundup-resistant “super weeds,” now found on millions of acres of U.S. farmlands, leading to further increased use of the chemical and of other, even more toxic herbicides.

“The court has already found that the approval of this engineered crop was illegal,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. “Rather than complying with the court’s order, the USDA is once again acting as a rogue agency in illegally allowing these crops to be planted without the required hard look at their environmental and economic dangers." 

The sugar beet seed crop will be grown in and around Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where farmers also grow seed for other crops. Judge White had found that the GE sugar beets, which can cross-pollinate table beets and Swiss chard, may contaminate organic and conventional crops and threaten these farmers’ livelihoods. They also deprive farmers and consumers of the choice to grow and consume non-genetically engineered food.

APHIS was unwilling to await preparation of the court-ordered EIS and a new, public process on whether to again deregulate and allow for commercialization. Instead it responded to the urgings of the sugar beet industry and issued permits purporting to allow the industry to plant their Roundup Ready sugar beet seed crop this fall. It did this without any environmental review or public notice and comment in order to create seed for a future Roundup Ready sugar beet crop that is still illegal. The unprecedented permitting process for a commercially grown, genetically engineered crop violates the National Environmental Policy Act, among other laws. Although APHIS claims the permits do not allow the crop to flower and spread pollen, the seed crop is expressly intended to flower and create seed next summer. The National Environmental Policy Act requires APHIS to first examine the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the seed crop together with the impacts of the rest of the sugar beet production cycle the seed crop is intended to facilitate.

The plaintiffs have asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction enjoining the issuance of the permits and any planting pursuant to them.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said, “APHIS’s issuance of these permits blatantly violates well established law and flouts the court’s recent rulings. It has become Monsanto’s puppet.”

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