Currently, about half of the America's sugar supply comes from genetically modified sugar beets, which have been engineered to be resitant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. In a hearing scheduled to take place today in San Francisco, a federal judge could make a ruling which would order a nationwide halt to the planting and use of genetically modified sugar beets while the USDA conducts an environmental impact assessment - a process which could take two or three years.
The genesis of today's hearing goes to the USDA's 2004 fast-track approval of GMO sugar beets, an approval process which lacked an environmental impact report. This omission would come back to bite the USDA in September of 2009.
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.
That ruling simply declares a violation of law for failing to prepare the Environmental Impact Statement, but that by itself doesn't prevent the production or use of the genetically modified sugar beets.
Meanwhile, organic farmers in the Oregon, where the majority of the Roundup ready sugar beets are grown, have a grievance of their own, saying that pollination from the genetically altered sugar beets gets carried by winds into their organic crops.
At issue is whether the genetically altered beets can corrupt natural varieties of beets and Swiss chard through cross pollination. The nation’s seed supply for both types of plants, altered and natural, is based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Organic seed producers there fear that once cross pollination takes place, farmers will have nothing but genetically modified seeds and consumers will have no choice but to eat crops with genetically modified origins.
The Organic Seed Alliance, Center for Food Safety, High Mowing Organic Seeds and the Sierra Club filed a motion for injunction late Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The court has already agreed on most of the grounds stated for banning the Roundup Ready seed.
Last September, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture broke the law when it failed to take a “hard look” at the potential damage genetically altered beets posed to crops that were related but natural, like table beets, chard and sugar beets that weren’t genetically modified.
White ordered the USDA to go back and conduct a full environmental impact statement on the consequences of deregulating Roundup Ready beets. The USDA deregulated the beets in 2005. They were planted commercially in 2008 and quickly became the seed of choice among sugar beet farmers, who saw cost benefits to planting a crop resistant to the powerful plant killer glyphosate, marketed as Roundup. Weed control is costly with sugar beets and non-Roundup Ready beets varieties required a cocktail of different herbicides for weed control. The promise of Roundup Ready crops was that using a single chemical would be cheaper and that less spraying would be required because of Roundup’s potency.
But the genetically altered plant’s effects on its natural cousins weren’t vetted.
The judge can rule today, or take the matter into consideration.
Other notable organic news:
The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday released 17 warning letters to food manufacturers, making good on a vow to crack down on misleading labels on food packages.
The agency accused the companies of pumping up the nutritional claims of their products or masking contents like unhealthy fats. The letters went out to the makers of a broad array of products, including Gerber baby food, Juicy Juice, Dreyer’s ice cream, POM pomegranate juice and Gorton’s fish fillets.
“The F.D.A. is not merely firing a shot across the bow; it is declaring war on misleading food labeling,” said Bruce A. Silverglade, director of legal affairs of theCenter for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that had pushed for stricter rules.
The warning letters followed commitments last fall by the F.D.A. commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg, who has made a priority of improving information for consumers on food packages.
That's what many fear about genetically engineered alfalfa. Organic farmers grow alfalfa as a forage crop for livestock, but genetically engineered crops can pollinate organic crops, making them non-organic. No organic forage, no organic livestock. No organic livestock, no organic milk.
That scenario has already played out in corn and canola, at least in some regions. A seed scientist at an organic seed company told me it's virtually impossible to find corn seed from the midwest that has avoided GM contamination. As a result, this company buys its organic corn seeds from a remote region of the Southeast. The same is true of rapeseed (canola) in Western Canada.
To avoid this fate with Round-Up Ready Alfalfa, 200,000 people have submitted comments to the USDA criticizing a draft environmental impact statement on the GM crop by the agency, which had recommended approval of the crop.
This battle has been brewing for sometime. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) sued the USDA for failing to conduct an environmental impact statement, as required by law, before deregulating the crop. The federal courts sided with CFS and banned GE alfalfa plantings until USDA analyzed the impacts of GE alfalfa on the environment, farmers and the public.
Strangely, that environmental impact statement concluded, "There is no evidence that consumers care about GE contamination of organic alfalfa" -- even though it would no longer qualify as organic if it were contaminated. Stranger still, considering that organic milk is the leading organic product sought by consumers.
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