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Home » New West Network Topics » Food & Agriculture » USDA Deregulates GMO Sugar Beets, Farmers and Biotech Finds Common Ground in Montana
This week's food and ag roundup catches you up on the USDA's decision to deregulate genetically-modified sugar beets, the latest on a measure in the Montana Legislature that would even the field for farmers accused of planting patented plants (like GMO sugar beets), raw milk pops up in statehouses across the country and a few other news nuggets. Read on.

USDA Deregulates GMO Sugar Beets, Farmers and Biotech Finds Common Ground in Montana

The big news in the food and ag world this week was USDA’s deregulation of genetically-engineered sugar beets.

Here are a few links to catch you up:

After giving genetically engineered alfalfa the nod the week before, the USDA announced it will release GE sugar beets for production in the United States. (From: The Wall Street Journal)

On the conventional ag side, cheers went up across the country, including in the West, where sugar beets are planted from Idaho to North Dakota.

Advocates said by allowing the beets to be planted this spring, the decision will stave off a big sugar shortage. (GMO beets – marketed by Monsanto as Roundup Ready beets – account for more than 90 percent of the national sugar beet production.)

Duane Grant, a beet farmer in Rupert, Idaho tells the New York Times: “The decision is a win for consumers. It assures a full beet crop will be planted in 2011.”

Reaction from the sustainable ag community has been one of outrage. (From: Red, White and Green)

So, now the question remains: can organic and GMO really “co-exist?” It depends on who you ask. (See this good piece from NPR last month on the tale of two growers in Oregon.)

In Montana though, there is one bright spot amidst all this GMO angst.

After two years of meetings between agribuisiness interests and organic and conventional growers alike, a bill that sets out to protect both farmers and the patent holders on protected plant varieties (like Roundup Ready) is moving through the Montana Senate.

Senate Bill 218, which would regulate the process for disputes between growers and seed companies over the production of patented crops, passed the Senate Agriculture committee unanimously this week.

The bill is relatively simple. It sets up mediation for disputes and allows for a third-party, independent sampling of crops in cases of alleged patent infringement, which is important given the situations that have played out in the Midwest over Roundup Ready seed (see this piece in Vanity Fair on the “culture of fear” Monsanto has bred with infringement claims and lawsuits).

But, what’s remarkable about SB218 is that somehow, a widely disparate group found common ground on it.

The last time the bill came to the legislature, it died, curiously after Monsanto sponsored a dinner for the members of the committee that killed it.

The state Department of Agriculture picked up the ball and brought together all groups for a series of heated, but productive discussions. At the last minute, it looked like the measure would be ignored though, in the heat of a tight budget and a less-than-cordial atmosphere in the statehouse.

It came through though and yesterday passed the Senate unanimously.

In other news this week:

Want a nice analysis of farm bill data and an answer to the question: “Who exactly is the average American farmer?” Check out this post from Simple, Good and Tasty.

Hold the cheese: Federal regulators are mulling changes to the rules on making cheese from raw milk, worrying some that the revamp will make cheese less delicious (is that possible?) (From: New York Times)

Meanwhile, raw milk is on the agenda for several state legislatures this year, including Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Washington. (from: Brownfield Ag News)

Sustainable food is all the rage: Sunset magazine deems sustainable and local ag to be quite cool. (From:

That brings up the quote of the week, which comes from Montana rancher and sustainable agriculture hero Becky Weed, who said about the local food movement on a Yellowstone Public Radio program:

“Yeah, there’s been a lot of press about it, but I want to be really clear: This is not a fashion statement. People aren’t doing it, or at least most farmers aren’t doing it, simply because it’s trendy. I really see this as an imperative.”

Listen to the whole thing here.


Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer and editor (formerly of these pages) who also runs Prairie Heritage Farm, a small farm near Conrad, Montana. She and her husband grow vegetables, turkeys and ancient and heritage grains. As a farmer and writer, she works on and follows food and agriculture issues closely and each week, rounds up the top stories on the web in this arena for New West. Have an ag story you think should be included in next week’s roundup? You can reach Courtney at

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