APHIS allows spring planting of Roundup Ready sugarbeets
On Feb. 4 the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) authorized spring 2011 planting of Roundup Ready sugarbeets.
The decision includes mandatory interim measures for planting Roundup Ready sugarbeet crops, including the spring 2011 crop, while APHIS prepares a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready sugarbeets.
Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready sugarbeets to farmers during the 2008/2009 crop season, and growers responded with the fastest adoption of any biotech crop to date.
The APHIS decision began with a January 2008 lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by the Center for Food Safety and other biotech opponents. The suit called the glyphosate-resistant technology into question and challenged the USDA’s deregulation of the crop. That resulted in Judge Jeffrey White ruling that USDA would have to complete an EIS for Roundup Ready sugarbeets – a study that’s yet ongoing.
On Jan. 21, 2010 the plaintiffs also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against further planting, cultivation, processing or any other use of Roundup Ready sugarbeets until the EIS is complete. On March 16, 2010 Judge White denied the request, allowing farmers to plant the crop in 2010.
The recent Feb. 4 USDA decision allows for the planting of Roundup Ready sugarbeets this spring, but under certain conditions. APHIS will provide growers with specific guidelines for growing the crop that comply with the National Environmental Policy, the Plant Protection Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.
“Looking at the restrictions, I think they’re over and above what probably needs to be done – in climates like Wyoming, I don’t think some of those things are of that big of concern,” says Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Ken Hamilton of the “specific guidelines.”
Keith Kennedy of the Wyoming Ag Business Association says some of the conditions relate to identification, third-party inspectors and monitoring fields for three years for volunteer plants.
“There will probably also be some increased recordkeeping that growers will be expected to do, as well as control on transportation at harvest, as far as not loading trucks so the beets spill off, and restrictions on the transport of seed,” explains Kennedy.
When the EIS is complete, the USDA will then decide whether to authorize future plantings of the sugarbeets with conditions.
In separate, but related, litigation regarding Roundup Ready sugarbeet stecklings, or seedlings, Judge White had ordered their destruction on Nov. 30, 2010 – a command that received a temporary stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“One thing we’re most concerned about is the appeal on the destruction of the stecklings,” says Kennedy. “If those are destroyed, there might not be seed in 2012. I haven’t heard anything on when we can expect a decision on that from the Court of Appeals.”
“We’ve got some legal actions yet that are still hanging, and those are some issues that will ultimately have to be decided. If they come down on the side of more restrictions, that will be an economic decision that producers have to face,” says Hamilton. “I don’t see producers wanting to move back to non-Roundup Ready beets – the massive acceptance of the product indicates this is clearly a better way of going, and the costs would be substantial to go back.”
“Roundup Ready sugarbeets have changed the industry,” says Kennedy. “Western Sugar has gone from where they could hardly give away shares, to where folks can now sell them. But, the situation with Roundup Ready beets is there’s so much uncertainty from year to year, and from an ag business perspective it’s hard for guys to make a commitment and take advantage of some seasonally better prices on some of their fertilizer and other inputs they need for a beet crop.”
“The news isn’t great, but it’s better than what we knew before,” says Hamilton. “Hopefully this administration can keep making progress on the genetically modified issue, and try to keep the debate in the arena of science, and not so much in public policy issues.”
“I think APHIS is very aware that they are treading a thin line, and they want this to be something that is not subject to an injunction before the crop can be harvested,” notes Kennedy. “If I were a beet grower I wouldn’t necessarily be happy with these conditions, but I think APHIS is well aware there will be a lot of scrutiny in the Ninth Circuit over this document, and APHIS just wants people to be able to use the product and avoid a situation where, perhaps, a judge would prevent the harvest of the crop.”
Kennedy says he thinks the other Roundup Ready crops, like corn, soybeans and cotton, are breathing somewhat easier after the recent positive directions for both Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugarbeets. However, he says there is another pending APHIS decision on corn amylase, an enzyme that breaks down corn starch into sugars to make ethanol.
“In the long term health of crop agriculture, that will be more the telling story because that’s the first time that trait will be seeking deregulation,” he says. “The technology has been out for a while, and its real promise over the long term is for reduced use of water, reduced nutrient needs, and also to go even farther to lessen expense and environmental impact.
“My concern is where we can go with technology in the future, especially given how far we’ve seen China go in approving new traits for crops. My concern is that we not get so bogged down in the regulatory mess that we’re behind the eight-ball compared to other countries.”