USDA issues draft environmental assessment of GM sugar beets

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gm sugar beets, Sugar beet

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has prepared a draft environmental assessment (EA) of genetically modified sugar beets, including an option to permit planting of the beets under certain conditions.

A federal district judge ruled in August that the planting of GM sugar beets should be halted until the USDA completes an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), expected to be completed by the end of May 2012. 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 – a move that the court ruled was illegal last month.

The USDA said its EA has been drafted in response to a request from KWS SAAT AG and Monsanto – currently the only supplier of GM sugar beets – for administrative action to allow continued cultivation of Roundup Ready sugar beets under certain conditions.

Deputy administrator for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service APHIS biotechnology regulatory services Michael Gregoire said in a statement: “APHIS takes its role in protecting plant health very seriously and is well aware of the importance of this decision for sugar beet growers and processors. We are issuing this environmental assessment to share our decision-making process as transparently as possible and allow for public comment.”

Three alternatives

The draft EA puts forward three alternatives: Deny the request for partial deregulation or similar action, halting production until the EIS is completed; authorize production under APHIS-imposed conditions to limit potential plant pest risks; or allow partial deregulation “under conditions imposed by Monsanto/KWS through technology stewardship agreements, contracts or other legal instruments.”

Under this third alternative, APHIS would no longer regulate Roundup Ready sugar beets.

APHIS said its preferred alternative is the second option, allowing production under APHIS permits.

“The mandatory conditions outlined in the permits would work to minimize any potential for the escape and dissemination of plant pests and the likelihood of environmental impacts of concern raised by the Court,”​ it said.

Any action would be an interim measure pending the department’s full EIS, the USDA said.

According to the August ruling, this year’s beets will still be allowed to be harvested and processed as usual, 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.

The USDA is accepting comments on the draft EA received before December 6. More information, including how to comment, is available via the federal register here​.

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