Roundup Ready technology scrutinized by courts, federal agency
Two decisions regarding Roundup Ready technology in crops produced in Wyoming are awaiting a decision by the USDA as to whether or not they will be allowed to continue in the future.
The most restricted Roundup Ready crop is currently alfalfa, which as been under litigation since June 2005 when the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) deregulated two lines of the glyphosate-resistant alfalfa and a lawsuit was subsequently filed. The judge in the lawsuit vacated APHIS’s 2005 decision, determining the agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in support of its decision to deregulate the varieties.
Following that, a Draft EIS was prepared to comply with a February 2007 judgment and order by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
That Draft EIS was released and a notice was published in the Federal Register on Dec. 18, 2009. The draft evaluates the potential environmental effects of deregulating the two lines of alfalfa. APHIS extended the initial 60-day comment period on the draft for 15 days, closing it March 3, 2010. The agency also held public meetings in Nevada, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Maryland.
Fred Hopkin, sugar beet and alfalfa seed producer from Lovell, attended the public meeting held in Reno, Nev. in conjunction with the Western Alfalfa Seed Growers annual meeting.
“At the public forum I attended, 100 percent of the comments were favorable toward Roundup Ready alfalfa,” says Hopkin, noting the majority in attendance were alfalfa seed growers and people from the alfalfa industry who traveled from several states away to make their comments known.
“At this point it’s in the hands of the USDA. After they filter through the comments and information, then they’ll make the decision on whether to deregulate,” says Hopkin, adding that only USDA knows the time frame.
Following the moratorium against planting Roundup Ready alfalfa, Hopkin says a working group was formed in the industry, including seed companies and seed certification agencies, including the Wyoming Seed Certification Service.
“They’ve come up with a plan to create zones where the seed can be grown, isolating its production to certain areas,” says Hopkin of how the industry has responded to concerns that the glyphosate-resistant gene would spread to seed intended to be kept conventional.
“The pollen flow is a potential issue, and everyone recognizes that, so the intent is to leave some areas of alfalfa seed production where there will not be any genetically modified seed produced,” notes Hopkin. “There’s a specific distance, which is fairly liberal, that’s a buffer between these areas, and it’s based on the science of how far bees and other pollinators typically fly as well as pollen flows.”
“As of now, it’s not been deregulated, and we don’t know when that will be,” says Hopkin. “We hope it will be sometime in the next few months, in time for fall planting, but there’s no guarantee with any of this.”
Turning to Roundup Ready sugarbeets, they were a new option readily adopted by 95 percent of beet growers, including those in Wyoming.
According to Monsanto, sugarbeets experienced the fastest adoption of any biotech crop to date when Genuity Roundup Ready sugarbeets were introduced to sugarbeet producers during the 2008/2009 crop season.
However, on Jan. 21, 2008 opponents of the varieties initiated legal action in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, challenging the deregulation of Roundup Ready sugarbeets by the USDA. The case was brought by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White ruled the USDA would have to complete an EIS for Roundup Ready sugarbeets. Monsanto emphasizes the ruling focused on the process used by the USDA in deregulating the sugarbeet variety and in no way questioned the safety or benefits of the Genuity line.
The plaintiffs then filed a motion Jan. 21, 2010, for a preliminary injunction against further planting, cultivation, processing, or other use of Roundup Ready sugarbeets until the EIS was complete. On March 16 Judge White denied the request, allowing farmers to continue to plant Roundup Ready sugarbeets for the 2010 crop season. The next hearing is scheduled for July 9.
Hopkin says after clearing the March 5 hurdle sugarbeet producers in the Big Horn Basin have gone ahead with spring planting.
Regarding the distant possibility of Roundup Ready technology in wheat, Tim Anderson of Prairie Farms near Albin says he thinks it will come in the next seven years. However, he thinks the variety won’t be “Roundup Ready,” because Roundup is what producers currently use to take care of volunteer plants. “We’d take away the one tool we have to clean our stubble,” he says.
“The first thing we’d have to do is gain world acceptance. Corn found that out, and alfalfa and sugarbeets are having that struggle right now,” continues Anderson. “The problem with wheat is that it’s different. While sugar and corn are refined before being consumed by humans, and alfalfa is fed to animals, wheat is fed directly to people, so that makes a difference.”
Although there are certain countries that still refuse to purchase genetically modified crops, Anderson says they’re here to stay. “All crop production will have to double to feed the world by the time today’s younger generation retires. That’s why there’s a need for genetically modified crops,” he says. “It comes down to feeding the people.”
“I think the Roundup Ready technology is a useful tool, not only for producers, but it also helps keep the price of food reasonable,” says Hopkin. “If growers can produce crops more economically, ultimately that makes the price of food more economical for consumers.”