USDA to Approve the Next Gene-Altered Crop

Within the next few days, the agency will likely approve genetically engineered sugar beets. But there's still time to act.

February 1, 2011

Genetically engineered sugar beets could be in the ground this spring, and in our food system months later.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Now that the USDA has ignored public opinion and approved genetically engineered alfalfa, the agency is expected to approve yet another genetically modified crop next week. After a five-year battle with industry and lawmakers over the use of genetically engineered (GE or GMO) sugar beets, the USDA looks poised to finally allow their use, before the publication of its environmental impact assessment on how GE sugar beets could impact other crops and wildlife, and against the wishes of most U.S. consumers.


Last year, according to Nielsen Research, "GMO-free" was the fastest growing marketing claim on store shelves, outpacing even "gluten-free" and "natural," and up to 90 percent of U.S. consumers would like GMO labeling of foods, according to Consumers Union surveys. But with this approval, which is widely anticipated, the USDA is yet again ignoring what the public wants, and due to contamination concerns related to GE sugar beets, the agency is essentially taking away consumer choice to avoid biotechnology, says Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides. "The Secretary of Agriculture should have picked up on the transparency advocacy that the President and this administration has put forth," he says. "It really is hypocritical of an administration that advocates transparency to support a technology that is secret to the consumer and to people who would like to make an informed choice," he adds.

Sugar beets are wind-pollinated crops, and the pollen can spread up to six miles, possibly farther, depending on the winds.

THE DETAILS: This is the third go-round with GE sugar beets at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The crop was first approved in 2005, but in 2009, a federal judge in California ruled that the USDA had failed to adequately assess GE sugar beets' impacts on other crops, namely chard and table beets, which are in the same plant family as sugar beets. As a result, the USDA agreed to do a proper environmental impact study, but in the meantime, fought the judge's decision that GE sugar beets couldn't be planted. The agency ultimately lost in August 2010, and the court ruled that it was illegal to plant GE sugar beets before the assessment was complete. However, the next month the USDA circumvented that ruling and announced that it would issue permits for farmers to plant the crop, provided it didn't flower, which would essentially allow GE sugar beets to be prepped for spring planting. The following December, the same judge ruled that that was illegal and ordered all fall plantings to be destroyed. The USDA appealed that decision, and the GE sugar beets remain in storage, ready to be planted in spring, should the agency finally issue an approval for the crops. And that is widely expected to happen this week.

WHAT IT MEANS: As with any GMO crop, the approval of GE sugar beets could prove damaging for organic farmers. Much of the GE sugar beet production occurs in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which is also a major seed-producing region for Swiss chard and table beets (table beets are the beets you eat; sugar beets are used for sugar production and to make ethanol fuel). Because the three crops are in the same family, it's very easy for GE sugar beets to contaminate the other crops, along with other non-GE sugar beets, says George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, which was involved in both lawsuits trying to keep the USDA from approving the use of sugar beets. Sugar beets are wind-pollinated crops, and the pollen can spread up to six miles, possibly farther, depending on the winds. The problem of contamination was the primary reason the California judge kept challenging the USDA's approval. In his December ruling, the judge noted that containment efforts for preventing cross-contamination of non-GM sugar beets were insufficient, and said that contamination incidents were "too numerous" to allow continued planting of the illegal crop.

"This is a very invasive thing," Kimbrell says. "Once it happens, especially in seed crops, there's a fundamental loss of [consumer] choice and a loss of farmers' reputations." He adds that farmers there have already seen their customers turn to other areas of the country, "because people see the Willamette Valley as a place filled with the risk of contamination." Organic farmers in the area are under greater financial burden to conduct DNA testing on their crops, without which they could risk losing the national organic certification. "This is a serious, continuing problem," he says.

And, he adds, one that is wholly unnecessary. "Sugar companies are going to get their sugar regardless," he says. "Ninety percent of the world grows conventional [not genetically engineered] sugar beets. Our sugar industry is massively subsidized, and wouldn't exist without Farm Bill subsidies."

In addition to the potential for widespread contamination of altered DNA, farmers' increased reliance on genetically modified crops will simply lead to more dousing of crops with glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup. A report published last year by The Organic Center found a 98 percent increase in the use of Roundup since GE crops were first approved in 1996. That has led to a proliferation of superweeds, ones that are so tough and unwieldy, they've been known to destroy farm equipment. As a result, chemical farmers haven't rejected GMOs; they've simply turned to more potent, and more toxic, pesticides such as 2,4-D (a potential hormone disruptor that can be contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin ) and dicamba (another pesticide that might be contaminated with dioxin as well as other cancerous compounds known as nitrosamines).

There is hope, however. Jay Feldmen of Beyond Pesticides sees a lot of parallels between the current push for more and more biotech and the fight over rBGH labeling of milk. A few years ago, Monsanto, who made rBGH (the growth hormone administered to dairy cattle), relentlessly fought dairies who chose to stamp their milk products with the "rBGH-free" label, but the biotech giant eventually lost out to consumers who demanded to know if their milk was hormone free and to farmers who wanted to publicize that it was. "That was driven by a synergy of consumers and farmers who rejected growth hormones in dairy products," Feldman says. "As a result, rBGH failed miserably and the U.S. market collapsed."

So, demand organic! Support companies that are both certified organic (which disallows the use of GE or GMO seeds) and those that have joined the Non-GMO Project, which requires companies to do DNA testing to prevent cross-contamination.

And call President Obama. Though the USDA has yet to make an official decision, you can still voice your concerns about GE sugar beets (and alfalfa) to the big man himself. Here's how to contact the White House.

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