Federal Court Uproots Approval of Biotech Sugar Beets

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 16, 2010 (ENS) – A federal judge late Friday rescinded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approval of genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” sugar beets. The crop is engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, and a little less than half of all U.S. sugar is derived from the biotech beets.

In his ruling, Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California sided with four seed, food and environmental groups – the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club.

Earthjustice Attorney Paul Achitoff, who represented the groups, said, “Time and again, USDA has ignored the law and abdicated its duty to protect the environment and American agriculture from genetically engineered crops designed to sell toxic chemicals. Time and again, citizens speaking truth to power have taken USDA to court and won.”

The foundation for the groups’ lawsuit dates back to September 2009, when the Northern California District Court ruled that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had improperly approved Monsanto’s genetically engineered sugar beets for commercial use.

Spraying herbicide on a field of sugar beets. (Photo by Enviro Warrior)

In September 2009, the court ruled the USDA had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving the Monsanto-engineered biotech beets without first preparing an Environmental Impact Statement. The crop is genetically engineered to resist Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, which it sells to farmers together with the patented seed.

That ruling states the government’s decision to deregulate Roundup Ready sugar beets “demonstrated that deregulation may significantly affect the nvironment.” The court also found that Roundup Ready sugar beets “may cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets.”

Similar Roundup Ready crops have led to increased use of herbicides, proliferation of herbicide resistant weeds, and contamination of conventional and organic crops.

In his ruling Friday, Judge White prohibited future planting and sale of the sugar beets until the USDA prepares the Environmental Impact Statement and complies with all other relevant laws. The USDA has estimated that an EIS may be ready by 2012.

The judge’s order does not interfere with the harvest and processing of Roundup Ready sugar beet and sugar beet seed crops planted before the date of the order.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said, “This is a major victory for farmers, consumers and the rule of law. USDA has once again acted illegally and had its approval of a biotech crop rescinded. Hopefully the agency will learn that their mandate is to protect farmers, consumers and the environment and not the bottom line of corporations such as Monsanto.”

In his order, Judge White noted that USDA’s errors are not minor or insignificant and voiced concern that the USDA was not taking this process seriously.

He pointed out that “despite the fact that the statutes at issue are designed to protect the environment,” USDA and the sugar beet industry focused on the economic consequences to themselves, yet “failed to demonstrate that serious economic harm would be incurred pending a full economic review….”

This is the second time a court has rescinded USDA’s approval of a biotech crop. The first such crop, Roundup Ready alfalfa, also was found to have been illegally allowed onto the market.

Although Monsanto took that case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the high court overruled part of the lower court ruling, the alfalfa remains illegal to plant.

In the past several years, federal courts have also held illegal USDA’s approval of biotech crop field trials, including the testing of biotech grasses in Oregon and the testing of engineered, pharmaceutical-producing crops in Hawaii.

The Sugar Industry Biotech Council said in a statement Saturday, “The sugar beet industry will provide its full support to USDA to allow full consideration of appropriate interim measures that allow continued production of Roundup Ready sugar beets.”

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