On Friday, U.S. producers learned they will be allowed to plant Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection (APHIS) decided to partially deregulate the genetically-modified crop while completing a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Sugar beet producers have adopted Roundup Ready rapidly since the crop’s 2007/2008 release. Currently, over 90 percent of the sugar beet crop is estimated to be in extremely popular Roundup Ready varieties.

The USDA decision – which environmentalists fear could be precedent-setting with many genetically modified crops currently in the USDA/APHIS approval pipeline -- means producers will have to follow guidelines setting how and where GM-sugar beets can be grown.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee “appreciate(s) that the USDA has made this decision based on sound science after a careful review. Going forward, we need to create more certainty for growers and fewer delays that hinder their ability to make decisions.”

Stabenow’s constituency includes some 850 sugar beet farmers working 136,000 acres. In 2008, the Michigan crop alone was worth $171 million. 

Predictably, the APHIS decision set environmental groups howling with grievances beyond the usual, baseline arguments (including the threat of increasing glyphosate-resistant weed populations and contamination of conventional crops) against all GM crops.

In what can be seen as a swift second kick to environmentalists’ teeth, the GM-sugar beet announcement comes just a week after USDA’s deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

In the lead up to that announcement, USDA officials tried several approaches to placate those advocating for the GM alfalfa and non-GMO/organic forces. None worked and during a late-January House Agriculture Committee hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was roundly criticized for his efforts to find common ground between the sides. Once GM alfalfa was fully deregulated on Jan. 27, farm and commodity groups applauded while environmental groups promised new legal action.

For more on Roundup Ready alfalfa, see Roundup Ready alfalfa available for spring planting

Environmental groups also say APHIS’ decision – which claims GM sugar beets can be grown without harming the environment and non-GM/organic crops, at least in the short-term – was issued in defiance of a court order. Last fall, a California federal district court judge found the crop "may cross-pollinate with non-genetically engineered sugar beets and related Swiss chard and table beets." Citing the National Environmental Policy Act, the judge ordered a full EIS be prepared before Roundup Ready sugar beets were allowed to be planted.

Back-and-forth legal actions led to a late-November ruling by the court ordering the Roundup Ready sugar beet seed crop destroyed. An appeal of that order will be heard on Feb. 15.

“USDA has yet again violated the law requiring preparation of an EIS before unleashing this genetically engineered crop," said Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice attorney, following the partial deregulation.

In a press release, Monsanto countered those claiming USDA had overstepped its legal authority: “In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed USDA’s authority to issue interim measures to authorize planting of a crop while USDA is completing an EIS (Monsanto v Geertson Seed Farms). When this EIS is completed, it is incumbent on USDA to make a decision whether to authorize planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets without conditions.”

Seed was also a major concern for sugar beet growers. If forced to revert to non-GM beets it would have meant relying on conventional seed that has been in storage for several years. To many, the viability and quality of that seed supply was questionable.

Farmers “wonder if the older varieties will produce like the newer, GMO seeds will,” said a Mid-South sugar consultant just prior to the partial deregulation. “There’s also concern that the germination of the older seed won’t be adequate to make the kind of yields the sugar beet growers are used to.”

“USDA’s decision is a positive step for sugar beet farmers,” said Steve Welker, Monsanto’s sugar beet commercial lead. “Sugar beet farmers have been busy preparing for spring planting, waiting for USDA’s guidance and hoping it would come in time for spring planting.” 

Regarding the partial deregulation, a coalition of environmental groups has promised immediate legal action.

dbennett@farmpress.com