On June 1st, the agency decided to allow the unregulated planting of genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets on the grounds that, if they were banned from U.S. farms, Americans would face a sugar shortage! And that would be unthinkable.
The decision came on the heels of a long-awaited environmental impact statement of GMO sugar beets, beets that have been genetically altered to withstand heavy doses of the herbicide Roundup. Both GMO sugar beets and Roundup are made by the multinational chemical giant, Monsanto. A bit of backstory: The USDA originally approved GMO sugar beets in 2010 without doing an environmental assessment, but a lawsuit forced them to rescind approval of the crops. In 2011, in a move that food safety advocates called illegal, the agency went against judge's orders and allowed farmers to plant them anyway while it completed its assessment.
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The newly released environmental impact statement agrees with what non-GMO advocates have been saying for years: that more GMO crop approvals will lead to Roundup-resistant "superweeds" and that through pollen drift, GMO sugar beets in particular can contaminate non-GMO and organic sugar beets, regular beets, chard, and a host of other crops more so than any other GMO crop.
Yet the USDA is giving farmers the go-ahead to plant GMO sugar beets without any restrictions or safeguards that would protect organic and non-GMO farmers from contamination, reports Tom Laskawy at Grist.org.
"The environmental review puts a high priority on the absence of alternative seeds and the potential disruption to sugar supplies—an absence that has been shaped by consolidation in the seed industry," he writes.
In other words, GMO seeds have overtaken the sugar-beet seed market, and supplies of non-GMO sugar beet seeds have become very hard for farmers to get. Laskawy writes that the shortage of non-GMO seeds would translate into a 20 percent drop in America's sugar production. Sugar beets are used in regular granulated table sugar, but 50 to 55 percent of GMO sugar beets are converted into processed foods, such as sodas, candy bars, and baked goods.
That was the same argument the agency used in 2011, when it ignored a federal judge's order that would have prevented farmers from planting the crops until the environmental impact statement was complete.
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But some think the sugar shortage excuse is, in a word, lame. Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer protection group Food & Water Watch, told Rodale.com when GMO sugar beets underwent their environmental review: "It's a convenient argument for USDA to say this is suddenly a decision regarding a sugar shortage. But this is a pro-Monsanto decision, and to make it about anyone else is not accurate," she says. "This is a political decision. It's not based on an environmental impact statement or science, and we need to let politicians know they're doing the wrong thing."
As Laskawy writes, consumers' voices could be heard this November if California's proposed GMO-labeling ballot initiative passes. In the meantime, you can demand organic sugar (or no sugar at all) in whichever state you happen to call home.
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