CATCH THE BUZZ
Sugar Beet Sugar Not So Sweet…
By Scott Kilman
A federal judge's decision Friday to undo the government's five-year-old approval of genetically modified sugar beets, from which roughly half of U.S. sugar is derived, won't disrupt supplies for at least a year, but could pose headaches for food companies after that.
The order by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White—who had concluded in September 2009 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture hadn't lived up to its obligation to fully consider whether the weedkiller-tolerant sugar beets might harm the environment—effectively blocks farmers from planting the seed next spring, but leaves alone the crop already in the ground, which can be harvested this fall, processed and sold as sugar.
"In the short term, at least, we're aren't going to see any disruption in the marketing of this year's crop," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group.
However food companies that depend on a steady supply of U.S. sugar face uncertainty over where they will source their sugar beets after next year.
It is far from clear how soon U.S. sugar-beet farmers can return to planting the seeds, which are genetically modified the same way as the vast majority of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. The plants are genetically modified with Monsanto Co. genes that give them immunity to glyphosate-based herbicide, which the St. Louis biotechnology company sells as Roundup weedkiller.
The Roundup-resistant trait is popular with many farmers—it is present in 95% of the sugar-beet plants grown in the U.S.—because it enables them to chemically weed their fields without harming their crops, saving time and the expense of mechanical cultivation.
The lawsuit against the USDA was filed by activist groups including the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club, among others. Biotechnology critics worry that the transplanted gene could spread to conventional sugar-beet plants through cross-pollination, and that the herbicide-tolerance trait permits a heavy enough use of Roundup to spur the evolution of weeds that can survive glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller.
Glyphosate-tolerant weeds are already appearing in southeast U.S. farm fields where farmers have long grown Roundup-tolerant cotton and soybeans.
Sugar-beet industry officials say it would be difficult for U.S. farmers to quickly switch back to non-genetically modified seed. Some farmers have already sold off their cultivation equipment—which kills weeds by digging into the dirt—and it isn't clear how much conventional seed is available anymore.
Genetically modified sugar-beet seed won't be legal to plant again until the Agriculture Department repeats its regulatory review process. Sugar-industry officials widely expect the USDA's biotechnology regulators—who are charged with protecting U.S. agriculture from plant pests—to come to the same conclusion and eventually re-clear the seed for planting. But getting there again will include the time-consuming process of writing the environmental-impact statement ordered by Judge White, who sits in San Francisco.
The draft environmental-impact statement that the USDA published in December on Roundup–tolerant alfalfa, for example, ran to about 1,500 pages. The USDA has estimated that completing an environmental-impact statement on Roundup-tolerant sugar beets could easily take until April 2012.
Sugar-industry officials say they believe the USDA has the authority to implement interim measures to permit some planting of the genetically modified sugar beets. A USDA spokesman said the agency was "reviewing the judge's order in order to determine appropriate next steps."
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