Biotech beet-down

Judge orders a new, hard look at Monsanto's sugar beets

  • Sugar beet harvest in Idaho.

    Jason Lugo/Istock
  • Source: American Sugar Alliance

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Two years ago, the Center for Food Safety sued to stop Roundup Ready sugar beets. Two companies, Betaseed and West Coast Beet Seed, use Oregon's Willamette Valley as a nursery to grow all the Roundup Ready sugar beet seed sold to U.S. and Canadian farmers. But the Willamette is also a major seed-producing area for organic and conventional chard and table beet seeds, which could be contaminated by wind-blown pollen from genetically modified crops. Judge White specifically noted in his ruling that when the Department of Agriculture deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets, it failed to take into account "the potential elimination of (a) farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer's choice to eat non-genetically engineered food."

Monsanto, meanwhile, has responded with its own right-to-choose argument, and says it will fight the challenge. "We're going to work very closely with the growers to vigorously fight for their right to have this technology," says spokesman Garrett Kasper.

On Oct. 30, Judge White will hear arguments about what to do next. Kasper says Monsanto is still formulating its response. The company is also consulting with the Department of Agriculture to decide whether to appeal the earlier alfalfa decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The USDA will likely release its alfalfa EIS sometime this year; in the meantime, about 220,000 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa grandfathered in under that decision continue to grow in American fields.

Some observers say that the successful lawsuits against alfalfa and sugar beets could set a precedent for challenging Monsanto's core crops like corn and soybeans, which together cover 140 million acres in the U.S. But a six-year statute of limitations effectively prohibits retroactive challenges. 

"There are no legal challenges that we can do to (those) crops. That's now a policy question," says Golden. "The court has sent a strong message to the USDA that they need to protect farmers and consumers, and now consumers need to step forward."

For more information, please read: Brave New Hay, by Matt Jenkins.