(Beyond Pesticides, September 28, 2009) In a case brought by Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Earthjustice representing a coalition of farmers and consumers, a federal court ruled September 23, 2009 that the Bush Administration’s approval of genetically engineered (GE) “RoundUp Ready” sugar beets was unlawful. In this case, Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C 08-00484 JSW (N.D. Cal. 2009), the court ordered the U.S. epartment of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a rigorous assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment. The decision follows on the heels of a June 2009 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the illegality of the USDA’s approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa.
The federal district court for the Northern District of California ruled that the USDA’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 CFS, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Seeds, represented by Earthjustice and CFS, filed suit against APHIS in January 2008, charging that it 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 CFS. “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 has a significant effect on the human environment.”
The court concluded that there was “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 Dillion, 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.”
According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Director of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds – a 15-fold increase – between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004. 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 Roundup is an endocrine disrupter, and that some amphibians and other organisms may be at risk from glyphosate. Beyond Pesticides and over thirty public health and environmental groups and individuals submitted comments to EPA showing new and emerging science which supports that glyphosate should not be considered eligible for continued registration.
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.
Meanwhile, there is increasing speculation that the Department of Justice’s antitrust division may be scrutinizing Monsanto’s control of the markets for GE crops, and for commodities such as corn, soy and cotton.