Biotech fight grinds on
Factions locked in court battle over sugar beets
BY MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Roughly seven years after the USDA approved genetically engineered sugar beets for unrestricted planting, the crop remains embroiled in legal controversy.
The main question now centers on whether the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service violated environmental law by partially deregulating the crop, which can withstand glyphosate herbicides.
A vast majority of U.S. sugar beet farmers now rely on the transgenic Roundup Ready sugar beets, which lets growers control weeds by spraying herbicides over the top of the crop without damaging it.
The sugar beets, developed by the Monsanto Co., were fully commercialized in early 2005 after more than a year of environmental analysis by APHIS.
The Center for Food Safety and other biotech critics filed a lawsuit challenging the agency's decision and eventually convinced a federal judge to deem the action unlawful in 2009.
The crop's approval is now being reexamined as part of a more comprehensive environmental study. In the meantime, however, APHIS is allowing farmers to cultivate it under certain conditions.
That partial deregulation was announced in 2010. This time, both the sugar beet industry and biotech critics filed lawsuits against the agency.
According to sugar beet companies and other industry plaintiffs, the partial deregulation is too strict. Critics counter that shortcomings in the agency's environmental assessment render it unlawful.
"In its rush to finalize a partial deregulation, APHIS entirely failed to consider several important aspects of the problem and failed to explain how its conclusions squared with flatly contradictory evidence in the record," according to a court document filed by biotech critics.
Even with the restrictions mandated by the agency, transgenic sugar beets can cross-pollinate with related crops grown under conventional and organic systems, critics allege.
Those farmers would suffer severe economic harm if their crops were contaminated with altered genes from Roundup Ready sugar beets, according to critics.
Biotech critics are also troubled by the prospect of increased glyphosate usage and the development of weeds that are resistant to the herbicide.
The groups claim that APHIS has continued to ignore these problems by allowing the crop's cultivation despite evidence of their existence.
Though sugar beet companies argue that the agency's limits on cultivation are overly broad -- and thus "arbitrary and capricious" in violation of administrative law -- the industry has been defending the underlying partial deregulation decision.
The industry alleges that Roundup Ready sugar beets don't pose a real risk of gene flow because the crop is grown primarily for its roots and most plants aren't permitted to flower.
Although plants cultivated for seed are permitted to flower, isolation distances between transgenic crops and those grown in organic and conventional systems will avert the potential for cross-pollination, the industry claims.
Biotech critics claim the possibility of contamination is a significant environmental impact "no matter how unlikely or how easily remedied," the industry argues.
"In sum, APHIS took the requisite hard look at potential cross-pollination, applied its technical expertise to the issue and reasonably concluded that with its mandatory restrictions in place there would not be a significant environmental impact," according to a court document filed by industry plaintiffs.
The litigation is pending before a federal judge in Washington, D.C. Final court briefs were filed in the case in early 2012 and biotech critics have requested an oral argument in the case. The judge has not yet approved that motion or scheduled a time for such a hearing.