(Beyond Pesticides, February 9, 2011) Last Friday the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced plans to allow the U.S. sugar beet industry to continue growing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets, despite the incompletion of an environmental impact statement (EIS). This comes one week after USDA decided to fully deregulate GE alfalfa seed, despite the risks it poses to both organic and conventional farmers. On Monday, Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Sierra Club and Cornucopia Institute formally filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the agency concerning its decision to allow unrestricted deregulation of GE alfalfa.
The 60-day notice of intent to sue, filed February 7, 2011, officially notifies USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the groups’ intent to sue pursuant to the citizen suit provision of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), citing APHIS’ violation of Section 7 of the ESA in failing to ensure that the deregulation of GE alfalfa is not likely to jeopardize threatened or endangered species and their habitat. According to Section 7, APHIS must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to ensure that agency actions do not impact threatened or endangered species. The notice charges that there is no evidence that APHIS consulted with FWS prior to its decision to deregulate GE alfalfa; APHIS unilaterally determined that there would be “no effect” on endangered species. Alfalfa is grown on about 20 million acres in almost every state in the U.S. and is the fourth largest field crop behind corn, soybeans and wheat.
The January 27, 2011 decision to deregulate GE alfalfa follows USDA’s completion of the court-mandated environmental impact statement (EIS). At first, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called for “coexistence” among GE, organic and conventional non-GE farmers, despite the clear recognition in the EIS that GE contamination of organic and conventionally grown crops presents a huge problem. The EIS fails to take into account the documented increase in herbicide-resistant “super weeds” that is requiring the use of highly toxic herbicide cocktails for weed control on conventional farms. Likewise, USDA has not shown that contamination-free coexistence with deregulated GE alfalfa is likely or possible. GE alfalfa would not have to be labeled, nor would meat from livestock fed GE alfalfa.
On January 31, 2011, a coalition of organic companies and environmental organizations, including Beyond Pesticides, released an open letter and call to action on the USDA’s decision to deregulate GE alfalfa, allowing its unrestricted cultivation and threatening organic and non-GE conventional farmers. It sets a precedent for future deregulation of GE crops. The letter encourages individuals to write to President Obama opposing the decision and asking that the administration reconsider its position.
Partial Deregulation of GE Sugar Beets
On February 4, 2011, APHIS issued a new decision to allow the U.S. sugar beet industry to continue growing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready,” GE sugar beets. The decision will be immediately challenged in court by a coalition of farmers and conservation groups. Last August, APHIS’ previous decision to allow planting of GE sugar beets was thrown out because it violated environmental laws. The coalition declared the new decision unlawful as well, and vowed to overturn it. Like GE alfalfa, GE sugar beets are genetically engineered by Monsanto to tolerate repeated applications of that company’s weed killer Roundup, or glyphosate.
Monsanto Company (Monsanto) and KWS SAAT AG (KWS) requested that APHIS examine whether the agency could deregulate in part to allow the continued cultivation of Roundup Ready ® sugar beets. Monsanto is faced with heavy financial loses if its GE crops are not planted before they expire. But some farmers said there might not be enough non-engineered seed available to satisfy demand. The government projected a possible 20 percent reduction in American sugar production. As a result, USDA was under pressure to allow the genetically engineered beets to be grown, and to do so in time for the spring 2011 planting season.
APHIS conducted an environmental assessment (EA) and published it in November 2010. The EA evaluated a range of options, including authorizing production of GE sugar beets under APHIS permit conditions. APHIS, without completing an EIS, concluded that the GE sugar beet root crop, when grown under APHIS “imposed conditions,” can be partially deregulated without posing a plant pest risk or having a significant effect on the environment. See USDA’s documents for GE sugar beets. This conclusion is at sharp odds with earlier court rulings and the views of growers of organic and non-GE crops, who will likely see their crops contaminated by the GE sugar beets, threatening their livelihoods and the ability of farmers and consumers to choose non-GE foods. APHIS is currently developing an EIS prior to making any further decision on the petition for a full deregulation of GE sugar beet. APHIS expects to complete the EIS by the end of May 2012. Sugar beets are a fairly small crop, planted on a little over one million acres, mainly in northern states, and worth somewhat more than $1 billion. Beets account for roughly half of the American sugar supply, with the rest coming from sugar cane. The GE beets accounted for more than 90 percent of the sugar beets grown last year.
In 2008, the groups sued USDA for deregulating Monsanto’s GE sugar beets without complying with the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement of an EIS before deregulating the crop. On August 13, 2010, the federal court banned the crop until USDA fully analyzed the impacts of the GE plant on the environment, farmers and the public in an EIS. Three weeks later, despite the court’s ruling, and without any prior environmental analysis, USDA issued permits to seed growers to again grow the genetically modified sugar beets. The groups again sued USDA. On November 30, 2010, the court granted the groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered the seed crop destroyed. That order was stayed pending appeal, which is scheduled for argument on February 15, 2011.
In a related announcement last month, FWS said that it has agreed to stop planting GE crops on all its refuges in a dozen Northeastern states, according to a settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought by conservation and food safety groups. Because the federal government would not agree to end illegal GE agriculture in refuges nationally, new litigation is being prepared in other regions where as many as 75 other national wildlife refuges now growing GE crops are vulnerable to similar suits.
The lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, filed by the Widener Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic on behalf of Delaware Audubon Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Center for Food Safety, charged that FWS had illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements with private parties, allowing hundreds of acres on its Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware to be plowed over without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In settling the suit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service promised to revoke any authorization for further GE agriculture at Bombay Hook and the four other refuges with GE crops.
Genetic engineering is often touted by chemical manufacturers as a way to reduce pesticide usage and increase disease resistance. In reality, it has actually been shown to increase pesticide usage, while disease resistant varieties are still largely in the experimental stages. Most GE crops currently on the market are genetically modified to be resistant to pests and pesticides through the incorporation of genes into food crops from a natural bacterium insecticide (Bt) or the development of herbicide-resistant crops. Thus, there are serious public health and pest resistance problems associated with GE crops. For instance, in a recent study by University of Notre Dame, scientists found that streams throughout the Midwest are contaminated with GE materials from corn crop byproducts, even six months after harvest. The long-term health effects of consuming GE food are still unknown. GE crops are also known to contaminate conventional non-GE and organic crops through “genetic drift” and take a toll on the environment by increasing resistant insects and weeds, contaminating water and affecting pollinators and other non-target organisms.
Currently, there are no regulations requiring GE foods to be labeled as such. The best way for consumers to avoid GE foods is to choose organic products.
Center for Food Safety’s senior attorney and counsel for the lawsuit to be filed against the USDA regarding GE alfalfa, George Kimbrell, is scheduled to speak at Beyond Pesticides’ 29th National Pesticide Forum, “Sustainable Community – Practical solutions for health and the environment,” April 8-9 in Denver, CO. Among other cases, Mr. Kimbrell was counsel in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms (2010), the first case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on the impacts of GE crops.
Call or email President Obama and USDA and tell them NOT to deregulate GE alfalfa or GE Sugar Beets. Join the coalition of those opposing the decision including upcoming National Pesticide Forum keynote Maria Rodale (CEO, Rodale, Inc. and author of Organic Manifesto), National Organic Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Organic Trade Association, Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farm, and more. Ask the Administration reconsider its position:
Photo Courtesy: USDA APHIS