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USDA to farmers: plant genetically modified crops!

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Feb 09, 2011 10:45 AM

The biotech fairy must be whispering a whole lot of sweet nothings (made with genetically-modified sugar) into U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's ear. Or something.

In late January, the Secretary announced the USDA's decision to completely deregulate genetically modified alfalfa, allowing it to be planted anywhere, without restriction. Just about a week later, the department told GM sugar beet farmers -- currently under a court-ordered ban on planting -- to go ahead and sow those GM seeds.

The moves came as a surprise to those opposing deregulation of modified crops, who include the usual anti-frankenfood crowd but also farmers raising organic alfalfa that can get contaminated by the modified stuff. On the beet side, organic seed growers, many of whom live in the Pacific Northwest, fear their beet and chard seeds will be cross-pollinated by the modified sugar beets (they're all the same species, Beta vulgaris). If this happens, organic seed producers could lose their certification -- and their livelihood.

Sugar beets

Vilsack seemed to understand this, and in December made noises [PDF] hinting that the USDA would work towards a strategy of "coexistence" that took into account the needs of organic producers as well as GM-crop growers.

"[W]e have an obligation to carefully consider USDA’s 2,300 page EIS, which acknowledges the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa - a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad."

Then he was promptly dragged in front of a congressional committee that reamed him out for considering any sort of restrictions on the biotech crop, saying it was outside the scope of the USDA's authority, which is only to regulate plants posing pest risks.

"Since there is no plant pest risk, the only option under [the Plant Protection Act] is full deregulation." House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told the secretary.

The Obama higher-ups also reportedly pushed the agriculture secretary away from what was perceived as a "burdensome" regulation.

The kerfluffle all stems from a couple of lawsuits, filed by the Center for Food Safety, that resulted in judges ordering the USDA to take the environmental impacts of modified crops more seriously. In 2007, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa -- allowing it to be planted anywhere, without restriction -- violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The judge placed a moratorium on its planting because of the contamination risk to organic producers, and ordered the USDA to evaluate the modified crop's impacts on the environment. Two years later, another judge ruled GM sugar beets posed a similar risk, and prohibited their planting as well.

The USDA's environmental assessment for alfalfa took three years to complete, involved multiple advocates on both sides of the issue, and left the agency with three options: a complete ban, partial regulation or complete deregulation. Needless to say, organic advocates were disappointed with the decision to fully deregulate, as Stonyfield Farm's CEO Gary Hirshberg wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post.

The impact statement for beets has not yet been completed, (ETA is May 2012) and lawyers for the side opposing GM beets say the USDA's note to farmers -- go ahead and plant -- defies the court order banning planting until the environmental impact is assessed. Sugar beet producers had complained they wouldn't have enough non-GMO seed to plant their crop, and the USDA used this rationale as an excuse for their partial deregulation in advance of completing the environmental impact statement.

If the partial deregulation becomes final policy, though, organic advocates may win victory of a sort. GM crops have never been subject to any regulation on where they are planted. Although the partial deregulation of GM beets is only temporary, the fact that GM beet farmers are currently limited in where they plant actually amounts to an expansion of regulation for modified crops. Under the partial deregulation for beets, sugar beet farmers are not allowed to plant GM beets in a few parts of the country, like California and Washington, where organic seed stocks for beets are raised. If this state of affairs became permanent, it might become part of the "coexistence" strategy Vilsack and some organic advocates hoped for.

Organic advocates are appealing both the alfalfa and the beet decision, and plan to sue the Department of Agriculture.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

Sugar beets image courtesy Flickr user bby_.

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