A federal judge has deemed the continued planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets, supplied solely by Monsanto, to be in violation of a previous court order, and ruled that the current GM crop should be plowed under. U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had permitted Monsanto to plant the beets despite a previous ruling by him requiring that USDA complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the beets before planting.

The Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds and the Sierra Club were the plaintiffs in the case, litigated by The Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice. Judge White cited the “too numerous” instances of contamination from the GM crops, and stated that the legality of planting the current seedlings, on the part of USDA and Monsanto, was clear. The action was circumvented his previous ruling in August of this year. As a result, hundreds of acres of seedlings were ordered destroyed. USDA indicates that it expects to complete an EIS for the crop in spring 2012.

The order for the destruction of the beets was effective as of December 6th. The GM beets are called “Roundup Ready” because of their genetically modified resistance to the Roundup herbicide. They contain glyphosate as the active ingredient, and the patented crop is sold to farmers at an extra fee. Other Roundup Ready crops include soy, cotton and corn. Their use has led to the widespread incidence of herbicide resistant weeds, as well as the contamination of conventional and organic crops. Some evidence suggests that herbicide-resistant crops may be more likely to develop serious plant diseases.

U.S. sugar farmers have said that this result could disrupt the 2011 sugar supply, as GM sugar beets accounted for 95% of U.S. sugar beets, and beet sugar provides about half of all U.S. sugar, according to USDA. Others say the gap will be filled. “Farmers can plant conventional sugar beets, as they did for decades (every year until 2007) before Roundup Ready sugar beets were approved by USDA. We also know of several organizations working on producing organic sugar beets,” says George A. Kimbrell, senior staff attorney at The Center for Food Safety.

USDA is now considering plans to grant permits to plant more GM beets, thus temporarily commercializing the crop before they release their EIS in 2012. Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance, says her group has little confidence that USDA oversight of GE sugar beet seed production is enough to ensure the protection of organic seed from contamination. “The threat of contamination to organic seed and crops risks compromising livelihoods, genetic integrity and faith in the organic label,” she says.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2011 (online 12/20/10)