The fate of GMO sugar beets is still being argued in court

US growers getting ready to plant this year’s sugar beet crop have, since last year’s harvest, seen official permission to plant GMO [genetically-modified organism] beets challenged in court, rescinded, partially restored, denied by injunction, restored once again … and are still looking out for last-ditch efforts to outlaw the herbicide-resistant beets.

Last August, the US District Court for the Northern District of California agreed with anti-GMO advocates, led by the Center for Food Safety, that the US Department of Agriculture had failed to conduct a proper environmental review before deregulating GMO sugar beets in 2005. Further planting was barred until such a review was completed, not likely to happen before 2012. Growers protested that the ban would effectively cancel the 2011 crop, and with it about half of the US sugar supply. Sugar import quotas were adjusted … and countersuits filed. [See Sugar Rush.]

With the outcry from growers, not to mention the domestic sweetener industry – and at the request of Monsanto (inventors of Roundup Ready sugar beets) and KSW SAAT AG (seed growers and marketers) – the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) prepared a draft environmental assessment and invited public comment by December 6 on a “partial deregulation” that would permit growers to plant the GMOs under strict conditions.

Nearly 4,000 comments were filed. Comments from farmers, cooperatives, growers’ associations and sugar processors make it clear that the entire vertical industry has retooled itself to handle the GMOs since their 2005 deregulation: there’s no practical way to turn back the clock.

Other farmers – organic growers – counter that their industry is jeopardized by GMOs which can cross-pollinate nearby organic crops and so contaminate the resulting seed. Perhaps the most arresting charge against the GMOs (in general, including but not limited to sugar beets) is that their widespread use is giving rise to new generations of weeds that are resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and the leading herbicide.

On February 4, USDA announced its decision to deregulate GMO sugar beets. The Center for Food Safety sought an injunction against the USDA (but was turned down). The American Sugarbeet Growers Association followed up with a lawsuit seeking to soften the USDA conditions, which include planting the beets four miles away from crops that could be cross-pollinated and not replanting the same land with the beets for four years.

Meanwhile, there’s been a judicial tug-of-war over the fate of some stecklings – seedlings that will produce sugar beets for the 2012 planting season. So far, the GMOs are – still – alive.

Sugar beets owe their existence to an urgent need to maintain domestic sugar stores when imported sugar was in short supply. The need was Napoleon’s: with Britain blockading France in the 1800s, he pressed French farmers to plant the temperate sugar beet engineered (the old-fashioned way) as a replacement for tropical sugar cane. The current high price of imported sugar may be cause enough to secure the near-term future, at least, of the GMO sugar beets.

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