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Genetically Engineered Sugar Beet Approval Illegal, Judge Rules
SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 22, 2009 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture's deregulation of genetically engineered RoundUp Ready sugar beets in 2004 was unlawful, a federal court in California ruled Monday.

The federal district court for the Northern District of California ruled that the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS, violated the law when it failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before deregulating sugar beets that were genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup.

Plaintiff groups Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Seeds, represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, filed suit against APHIS in January 2008.

They claimed that the agency failed to adequately assess the environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of allowing Roundup Ready sugar beets to be commercially grown without restriction. This failure to assess violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the court determined.

Judge Jeffrey White ordered APHIS to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. He ordered the USDA to conduct a rigorous assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment.

"This court decision is a wakeup call for the Obama USDA that they will not be allowed to ignore the biological pollution and economic impacts of gene altered crops," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. "The courts have made it clear that USDA's job is to protect America's farmers and consumers, not the interests of Monsanto."

Judge White ruled that "the potential elimination of a farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer's choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an action that potentially eliminates or reduces the availability of a particular plant has a significant effect on the human environment."

The judge found "no support in the record" for APHIS' conclusion that conventional sugar beets would remain available for farmers and consumers. He held that the agency's decision that there would be no impacts from the GE beets "unreasonable."

Sugar beets growing in Oregon's Willamette Valley (Photo by Delina)
Sugar beet seed is grown primarily in Oregon's Willamette Valley, which is also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets.

The judge also held that APHIS failed to analyze the impacts of biological contamination on the related crops of red table beets and Swiss chard. GE sugar beets are wind pollinated and will cross-pollinate related crops grown in the same area.

The plaintiff groups argued that "such biological contamination would be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GE variety."

Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to spray their fields with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide without killing the crop. Constant application of the herbicide has resulted in Roundup resistant weeds, and there are now millions of acres across the U.S. of such "superweeds," including marestail, ragweed, and waterhemp, and farmers are using greater applications of Roundup or other, even more toxic chemicals.

According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds a 15-fold increase between 1994, when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced, and 2004.

A 2008 scientific study showed that Roundup formulations and metabolic products cause the death of human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro even at low concentrations. The plaintiff groups also point to other recent studies that suggest Roundup is an endocrine disrupter, and that some amphibians and other forms of life may be at risk from glyphosate.

Food producers have shown reluctance to accept genetically modified beet sugar. More than 100 companies have joined the Non-GM Beet Sugar Registry opposing the introduction of genetically modified sugar beets, and pledging to seek wherever possible to avoid using transgenic beet sugar in their products.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said, "Although touted by Monsanto as offering all sorts of benefits, GE crops offer consumers nothing, and are designed primarily to sell herbicides. The end result of their use is more toxics in our environment and our food, disappointed farmers, and revenue for Monsanto."

Judge White's decision follows a June 2009 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the illegality of the APHIS' approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa.

Judge White has scheduled a meeting in his courtroom on October 30, to discuss the remedies phase of the case, including a potential injunction to halt the use of Roundup Ready products.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.

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