Obama administration upholds GM sugarbeet deregulation

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Sugar beet

The USDA has chosen not to change laws on genetically engineered sugarbeets in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice requesting a review of deregulation for the beets last month.

The first crop of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugarbeets, genetically engineered to be resistant to the company’s Roundup-brand herbicide, was harvested in the fall following approval from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

But the plaintiffs argued that Monsanto, currently the sole supplier of GM sugarbeets, should be required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before its GM beets are allowed to be grown without restriction. In light of the new administration, they called on APHIS to reconsider this option.

Following the USDA lawyers’ decision to retain the department’s current position, CFS attorney Zelig Golden said: “This certainly is not the ‘change’ the Obama Administration promised. We’re very disappointed that the USDA and Secretary Vilsack did not take this important opportunity to reverse the Bush Administration’s flawed position on GMOs, and take steps to safeguard public health, environment and farmers’ livelihoods.”

A USDA spokesperson told FoodNavigator-USA.com: "USDA has a rigorous science-based regulatory system and has adhered to our authorities and implementation of National Environmental Policy Act statutes." ​She added: “We stand by our decision.”

GM sugarbeet concerns

The CFS has expressed concern that GM beet pollen could contaminate non-GM and organic crops because sugarbeets are wind pollinated.

The organization has long questioned the safety of GM sugarbeets, claiming that “they have not been proven safe” ​and saying that at Monsanto’s request, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “increased allowable levels of herbicide residues ​[glyphosate] on GM sugar beet roots by up to 5,000 percent when USDA approved the crop for planting.”

However, a spokesperson for Monsanto told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “The referenced ‘5,000 percent increase’ is not being used in its complete and correct context…Refined sugarbeet roots produce pure sugar that is the same as any other sugar, and with no glyphosate residue.

“Critics of Roundup Ready sugarbeets like to publicize this decade-old EPA increase to scare people, but do not further qualify their math by purposely omitting two important facts: 1) The original 30-year-old tolerance was set at time when glyphosate was not used on sugarbeet crops, and 2) the increase is currently at a maximum EPA safe tolerance level of 1/1000th percent (0.001%).”

Industry action

Meanwhile, a group of 82 organizations representing farm, food, environmental and public interest groups, sent a letter to USDA secretary Tom Vilsack last month asking that new approvals of GM crops be blocked until the regulatory situation is clearer – and what they see as “serious deficiencies”​ are corrected.

Many food manufacturers are also resistant to GM sugarbeets, and over 70 food companies have signed the Non-Genetically Modified Beet Sugar Registry, pledging that they will not use or sell genetically modified beet sugar.

Related topics: Natural sweeteners, Regulation

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