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Beet Plantings Banned

Ruling: Judge says USDA will have to review Monsanto crop

by Marc S. Reisch
August 23, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 34

Credit: USDA ARS
Sugar beets are the source of more than half of U.S.—produced sugar.
Credit: USDA ARS
Sugar beets are the source of more than half of U.S.—produced sugar.

A federal judge has temporarily nixed future plantings of Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready sugar beets in a case brought against the Department of Agriculture in 2008 by environmental groups including the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club. The order does not affect crops already planted on 1 million acres in 10 states.

Worried about “the likelihood and potential amount of irreparable harm to the environment,” the judge ordered USDA to prepare the environmental impact statement that should have been prepared for the beets, engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide Roundup, when they were first deregulated in 2005.

Monsanto says the judge’s action does not question the safety or benefits of the genetically engineered crop and would not have a significant impact on its business. The Sugar Industry Biotech Council, of which Monsanto is a member, notes that USDA can adopt interim measures to allow future plantings of Roundup Ready sugar beets. USDA is mum on the possibility but says it will not be able to complete an impact statement until April 2012.

Judge Jeffrey S. White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California wrote in his order that he was “troubled by maintaining the status quo that consists of 95% of sugar beets being genetically engineered while [USDA’s] Animal & Plant Health Service conducts the environmental review that should have occurred before the sugar beets were deregulated.”

The environmental groups maintain that Roundup Ready crops, which also include soybeans and corn, “have led to increased use of herbicides, proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds, and contamination of conventional and organic crops.”

John Roberts, an analyst with investment research firm Buckingham Research, notes that although sugar beets are not as important a crop as soy and corn, both of which Monsanto and others firms such as DuPont and Syngenta have genetically engineered, “they’re part of the broadening of biotech acceptance to a wider range of crops.”

Roberts adds that “wheat is the next mega-crop” that biotech firms are targeting. Success for biotech there “will clearly rely on broader acceptance of biotech,” because wheat is mostly intended for human consumption.



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