The long-running battle over the cultivation of GM sugar beets came to a head in August when a federal judge ruled that their planting and processing should be blocked until the USDA has completed an environmental impact statement (EIS), which is expected to take two years.
The plaintiffs in the case – a coalition represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety – have welcomed the ruling, but sugar growers have expressed concern about future US sugar supply as GM sugar beets will not be allowed to be planted or processed into sugar from next year.
Now, the USDA has said it is working with sugar beet seed producers to allow seedlings to be planted in the fall, under the strict condition that they should not be allowed to flower. The agency said it is also evaluating a request for partial deregulation of the beets, but added that it would “place a priority on the expedited completion of the EIS”.
Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: “USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service must chart a course for compliance with its statutory authorities and environmental statutes, such as NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act], while USDA works to create the environment where all types of producers can and do produce all types of crops. The steps we have outlined today not only respond to the concerns of producers while complying with the court's ruling, but also further USDA's continuing efforts to enable coexistence among conventional, organic, and biotechnology production systems."
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.
Currently, Monsanto is the only supplier of GM sugar beets.
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 of 2008 following approval from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.