Comment period closes for Roundup Ready sugar beets
By DAVE WILKINS
The USDA has received hundreds of public comments on a plan that could clear the way for continued production of Roundup Ready sugar beets.
U.S. sugar beet growers hope the agency will act quickly. If it doesn't, farmers may not get enough seed in time for spring planting, growers said in written comments.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service last month released an environmental assessment that outlined three possible options, two of which would allow for planting of genetically engineered beets.
The option preferred by the agency would allow commercial production of Roundup Ready beets under special permits.
A 30-day public comment period closed Dec. 6.
Growers are now in wait-and-see mode, said Duane Grant, chairman of the Snake River Sugar Cooperative. Conventional beet seed is believed to be in short supply, and growers can't order Roundup Ready seed until APHIS formally approves a plan.
"The appropriate action for growers now is simply to wait for the conclusion of the APHIS process," Grant said.
APHIS has indicated that a final decision will be made toward the end of the year or early January.
The agency has received more than 1,800 public comments regarding Roundup Ready sugar beets, most of them in response to the environmental assessment released in November.
Hundreds of individual farmers submitted comments urging the agency to quickly approve a partial deregulation of Roundup Ready beets and allow commercial production of beets under compliance agreements with grower-owned cooperatives.
As an alternative, growers said they would accept a plan that would allow them to grow Roundup Ready beets under APHIS permits.
Growers typically purchase beet seed in late November or December, but they can't buy Roundup Ready seed now because a federal court order in August returned the biotech crop to regulated status.
In written comments, growers urged APHIS to act quickly. Many said they are concerned that seed companies will not have adequate time to prepare seed for timely delivery.
"Absent swift regulatory action, farmers will not be able to obtain necessary seed in time for spring planting," North Dakota farmer Russell Mauch, president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said in written comments submitted to APHIS.
APHIS' preferred action -- the granting of special permits -- carries mandatory conditions that are unnecessary in order to control potential plant pest risks, Mauch said.
"APHIS should tailor any mandatory conditions to reflect the nearly non-existent risk of pollen flow or other plant pest risk from commercial sugar beet production," he wrote.
Several other commodity groups and food manufacturers also submitted comments in support of continued biotech sugar beet production.
Any delay in allowing continued production of Roundup Ready sugar beets could have devastating consequences for food makers and consumers, according to the Washington D.C.-based Independent Bakers Association.
"The lack of alternative strategies for securing adequate refined sugar supplies would create shortages, place large numbers of manufacturing jobs at risk, drive some already-struggling small businesses into bankruptcy and raise consumer prices," IBA President Nicholas Pyle wrote.
A ban on Roundup Ready beets would be a "severe blow" to U.S. farmers and consumers, said Celia Gould, director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. There wouldn't be enough conventional sugar beet seed or alternative herbicides available to growers, and weeding crews have become "a thing of the past," Gould said.
"In short, sugar production would plummet and prices would skyrocket," she wrote. "This is not an alternative we can live with."
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led a federal judge to return Roundup Ready to regulated status this summer insist that growers not be allowed to grow the biotech crop under any circumstances.
"Biotech beets are illegal, and they threaten the environment through transgenic contamination and weed resistance and consumers by inhibiting the fundamental right to choose," the Center for Food Safety said on its website.