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Court finds USDA (again) acted illegally on GM sugar beet planting

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 01-Oct-2010

A federal court has ruled that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has again acted illegally by allowing limited planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets despite a court-ordered ban.

Judge Jeffrey White, federal district judge for the Northern District of California, ruled in August that the planting of GM sugar beets should be halted until the USDA completes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), expected to take two years.

However, the USDA said that it would allow limited planting of the sugar beets while the EIS was prepared and issued permits to four companies, which are understood to have already planted seedlings to produce seed for the 2012 crop.

On Tuesday, Judge White said the plaintiffs in the case – a coalition represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety – are “likely to succeed” in their September 9 request for a temporary restraining order halting planting of the crop, as the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service acted illegally in issuing the permits without preparing an EIS.

The judge set October 4 as the deadline for the plaintiffs to propose remedies, which could include destruction of crops that have already been planted. A hearing is scheduled to take place on October 22.

Staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety Paige Tomaselli said: “Once again, USDA has bypassed environmental review and public comment to cater to industry preferences. We cannot allow USDA to abdicate its responsibility to protect public health and the environment.”

In a statement, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack called the ruling “a wakeup call for all of agriculture, GMO and organic alike".

Currently Monsanto is the only supplier of GM sugar beets, which have been modified for resistance to its Roundup-brand herbicide.

According to the August ruling, this year’s beets will still be allowed to be harvested and processed as usual, Judge White ruled, but sugar farmers have warned that US sugar supply could be disrupted from 2011. GM sugar beets account for 95 percent of those being grown in the US, according to USDA figures, with beet sugar providing about half of the total US sugar supply.

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