Despite lawsuits and rulings, genetically modified sugar beets will probably be planted this spring.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is allowing beet farmers to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets this year while they complete an environmental impact statement.
About half of U.S. sugar is derived from sugar beets. The agriculture and biotech corporation Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2008 after successfully introducing modified corn and soybeans. The Roundup Ready seeds are designed to withstand applications of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, which allows farmers to spray fields without killing their crop.
But U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White ruled last year that GM sugar beets needed an environmental impact statement before farmers could continue to use them. On Feb. 16 he heard arguments in a lawsuit related to his December ruling saying that all GM sugar beet seedlings should be uprooted before the environmental impact statement is completed. (Note: An earlier version of this story gave an inaccurate description of the issues at stake in the Feb. 16 hearing.) Environmental groups are also asking whether APHIS can legally deregulate the GM seeds when the court-mandated environmental impact assessment is not finished.
Third-generation beet farmer Don Steinbeisser, Jr., president of the Montana-Dakota Beet Grower’s Association, said if he can plant Roundup Ready beets in April, this will be his fourth year using the genetically modified seed. He thinks Roundup Ready beets are necessary for the industry.
“It makes it more profitable and better environmentally,” he said, since Roundup Ready beets don’t require tilling and he uses less herbicide to control weeds.
Steinbesser said while the Roundup Ready beet yield is about the same as non-GM beets, using them prevents the occasional bad year. According to the Sugar Industry Biotech Council, using less herbicide means “reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced soil erosion, reduced soil compaction and enhanced water conservation.”
Organic Seed Alliance is one of the plaintiffs in a suit against APHIS for allowing GM sugar beets. OSA Director of Advocacy and Communications, Kristina Hubbard, said genetic engineering could undo the work her organization does to protect the genetic integrity of seeds. Hubbard calls GM seeds a “short-lived solution” that creates long-term problems with chemical-resistant weeds.
Hubbard said while farmers might need less herbicide for the first few years, studies show that in the long term they’ll end up using more. This study for the Organic Center used USDA data to show that in the last 13 years farmers using GM seeds used 318 million more pounds of pesticides as the weeds developed a resistance to Roundup.
Other studies, Hubbard SAID, show that GM crops don’t increase yield, which pro-GM groups say is the selling point of genetic engineering. A Union of Concerned Scientists report, “Failure to Yield,” finds that traditional plant breeding techniques are more effective at increasing yields.
“I believe [traditional plant breeding] can provide seed systems necessary for feeding the world,” Hubbard said. So far, genetic engineering only promotes use of more chemicals, she added.
Another concern with GM seeds is the unintended spread of the gene. Sugar beets differ from other GM plants because the commercially planted crop doesn’t usually produce seeds.
Hubbard said it is a concern, though mainly in the small part of the Willamette Valley in Oregon where most of the world’s sugar beet seeds are produced. Beets, like alfalfa, are wind pollinated, and studies on genetically modified alfalfa have shown their pollen can travel up to 12 miles.
That could be a serious problem for the seed producers in the Wilamette Valley. “The reality is that complete isolation is not going to be possible,” said Hubbard.
The full environmental impact statement from APHIS isn’t due until May 2012.