(Beyond Pesticides, October 18, 2011) The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently announced the availability of a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates the potential environmental effects of deregulating (commercializing) sugar beets genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, commonly referred to as Roundup Ready (RR) sugar beets. APHIS considered three alternatives in the draft EIS: deny the petition seeking a determination of nonregulated status (prohibit commercial planting), make a determination of nonregulated status (allow commercial planting), or extend the partial deregulation of RR sugar beets for the root crop, with mandatory conditions and restrictions. Comments will be accepted until December 13, 2011.
APHIS originally deregulated RR sugar beets in 2005. A coalition of environmental groups and organic seed companies, led by the Center for Food Safety, challenged the USDA approval in 2008. It argued that GE sugar beets would contaminate organic and non-GE farmers of related crops, such as table beets and chard, as well as increase pesticide impacts on the environment and worsen the current Roundup-resistant “superweeds” epidemic in U.S. agriculture. In September 2009, Judge Jeffrey S. White in the federal district court in San Francisco agreed, and ordered USDA to prepare an EIS assessing these and other impacts, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In August 2010, after a year of vigorous litigation over the proper remedy for USDA’s unlawful approval, the court again agreed with plaintiffs, threw out the USDA’s approval, and halted planting.
Despite the absence of lawful review or a new agency decision, in summer 2010, USDA and the biotech industry, led by Monsanto, demanded the court allow planting to continue unabated. The district court refused to do so and instead set aside USDA’s approval of the crop based on the agency’s failure to comply with environmental laws. That precedential ruling was also preserved by the appeals court order. During this case’s appeal, USDA approved 2011-2012 planting of GE sugar beets under the terms of a novel permitting and “partial deregulation” scheme while it conducted the court-ordered analysis. That decision is the subject of separate litigation that is ongoing in the District of Columbia.
Monsanto created “Roundup Ready” crops to withstand its Roundup herbicide (with the active ingredient glyphosate). Growing previous Roundup Ready crops such as soy, cotton, and corn have led to greater use of herbicides. It has also led to the spread of herbicide resistant weeds on millions of acres throughout the U.S. and other countries where such crops are grown, as well as contamination of conventional and organic crops, which has been costly to U.S. farmers. Due to GE crops, in large part, Roundup has become the most popular pesticide ever.
Glyphosate is a known carcinogen, neurotoxin, irritant, and has been found to kill human embryonic cells, and can cause kidney and liver damage. Glyphosate is also harmful to the environment, particularly aquatic life and water quality and has been linked to intersex frogs, and is lethal to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment.
As researchers scramble to find new ways of chemically coping with increased weed resistance, they overlook the glaring fact that there already exist alternative systems such as organic farming, which erases the need for these drastic measures through its systemic pest prevention approaches. Organic farming can be at least as productive as conventional, chemical-reliant farming while having none of the toxic side effects that create significant risks to ecosystems and human health. To learn more, see our page on organic food and agriculture.
Currently, there are commercially available glyphosate tolerant seed varieties for corn, soybeans, canola, sorghum, and cotton. In addition to sugar beets, USDA recently approved Roundup-Ready alfalfa. Due to serious questions regarding the integrity of USDA’s environmental evaluations, public interest groups, including Beyond Pesticides, have filed suit against the agency to stop its full deregulation of GE alfalfa.
Take Action: APHIS is seeking public comment on the draft EIS and will consider all public comments submitted during the comment period before finalizing the EIS or making any decisions regarding the regulatory status of RR sugar beets. The comment period will be open for 60 days (until December 13, 2011). To obtain feedback and take comments from members of the general public, APHIS is scheduling three public meetings. These meetings will take place in Fargo, N.D., on Nov. 15; Corvallis, Ore., on Nov. 17; and APHIS will also hold a public meeting in the Riverdale, Md., on Nov. 22. Exact locations will be published in the Federal Register and posted on the APHIS website.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.