By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 – USDA announced Friday afternoon that court-challenged planting of Roundup Ready (RR) sugar beets can go ahead. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) says its decision to allow planting is based on “an environmental assessment, accepting and reviewing public comments, and conducting a plant pest risk assessment.”

The new Chair of of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., immediately welcomed the decision. She said “this decision comes at a crucial moment when farmers need certainty to efficiently plan their crops. America leads the world in crop production because we lead the world in efficiency and innovation. I appreciate that the USDA has made this decision based on sound science after a careful review. Going forward, we need to create more certainty for growers and fewer delays that hinder their ability to make decisions.”

Representing groups concerned about the spread of genetically engineered (GE) crops, Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff took a very different view of USDA's deregulation announcement. He commented: “The lax conditions on growing the GE sugar beets in today’s approval are not materially different from those earlier rejected by the federal court as inadequate to protect other farmers, the public, and the environment. USDA has yet again violated the law requiring preparation of an EIS [environmental impact statement] before unleashing this genetically engineered crop.”

A USDA statement explained that “APHIS has determined that the Roundup Ready 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.” The statement added that “This partial deregulation is an interim measure until APHIS is able to complete a full environmental impact statement” – and that “growers of RR sugar beet root crop will be required to enter into a compliance agreement that outlines mandatory requirements for how the crop can be grown.” Under the agreement, APHIS retains discretion to revoke, withdraw, or cancel its “conditional partial deregulation.” APHIS also will have authority to “impose civil and/or criminal penalties and remedial measures, including seizure, quarantine, and/or destruction of root crop that is in violation of the mandatory conditions of the partial deregulation.”

APHIS calls its partial deregulation an “interim action” which does not indicate what its final decision will be on fully deregulating RR sugar beets in the future. APHIS says that decision will come only after it completes the environmental impact statement (EIS) process which is now under way and expected to be completed by May 31, 2012. One measure of the importance of this decision is that USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that Roundup Ready sugar beet varieties made up 95% of U.S. sugar beet production in 2010.

Steve Welker, sugar beet commercial lead at Monsanto Company which petitioned USDA to provide interim approval pending completion of the EIS, commented Friday that “USDA’s decision is a positive step for sugar beet farmers.” He said “Sugar beet farmers have been busy preparing for spring planting, waiting for USDA’s guidance and hoping it would come in time for spring planting.”

Monsanto points out that seed companies have seed in stock for the Roundup Ready sugar beets developed by Monsanto and German seed company KWS SAAT AG. Monsanto adds that since commercial introduction for the 2007-2008 crop, “The benefits farmers across the U.S. and Canada experienced on their farms have driven the fastest adoption of any biotech crop to date.”

Monsanto explains that “Last year a federal court procedurally voided USDA’s prior authorization of Roundup Ready sugar beets requiring USDA to prepare an EIS. As a consequence the USDA would have to issue interim measures should it decide to allow continued cultivation of Roundup Ready sugar beets while the EIS is being prepared. At issue before the court was USDA’s administrative process. There is no issue as to the safety or efficacy of the product. USDA’s action today authorizes farmers to continue planting Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed USDA’s authority to issue interim measures to authorize planting of a crop while USDA is completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) (Monsanto v Geertson Seed Farms).”

The Washington-based Center for Food Safety, which has coordinated the challenge to USDA in both the sugar beet and alfalfa cases in the courts, last week promoted an amicus curiae brief filed by attorneys for several small organic food companies, trade groups and activists. “The threat of GE contamination hangs over this industry like a Sword of Damocles,” the organic groups say in the brief. “At base, nothing short of the continued viability of the organic food industry is at stake.” It was filed for Annies, Clif Bar, Eden Foods, National Cooperative Grocers Association; National Organic Coalition, Nature’s Path Foods, Organic Farming Research Foundation, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, Organic Trade Association, Organically Grown Co. and United Natural Foods. To read the 55-page Jan. 26 brief, click HERE.

For more information about Roundup Ready sugar beets, click HERE.

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