USDA sued over GM sugar

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gm sugar beets, Sugar beet

A coalition of environmental and farming groups has filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) accusing it of sidestepping a ban on the planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets.

A federal judge ruled last month that the planting of GM sugar beets should be halted until the USDA completes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), expected to take two years. This year’s beets will still be allowed to be harvested and processed as usual, the judge 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.

Last week, the USDA said it would work out temporary rules to allow further planting of GM sugar beets despite the ban, saying that such steps “respond to the concerns of producers while complying with the court's ruling”.

But a coalition of organic farmers and conservationists – represented by Earthjustice and attorneys from the Center for Food Safety – has challenged the USDA in a federal district court in San Francisco, claiming that its issuance of temporary permits for the planting of GM sugar beets violates the court’s ruling.

Executive director of the Center for Food Safety Andrew Kimbrell said in a statement that the USDA is “acting as a rogue agency in illegally allowing these crops to be planted without the required hard look at their environmental and economic dangers.”

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) said last week that it was working with sugar beet seed producers to allow planting of seedlings in the fall, under the strict condition that they should not be allowed to flower.

However, the plaintiffs argue that the beets could still contaminate neighboring fields.

Currently Monsanto is the only supplier of GM sugar beets, which have been modified for resistance to its Roundup-brand herbicide. No one from Monsanto was available to comment on the lawsuit prior to publication.

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