By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA has recommended that farmers be allowed to grow genetically engineered sugar beets on a restricted basis.
The agency has completed a draft environmental assessment that evaluates the continued production of sugar beets resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as Roundup Ready sugar beets by the Monsanto Co.
The USDA's preferred alternative would be to issue permits for growing the crop, subject to mandatory conditions intended to "minimize any potential for the escape and dissemination of plant pests," according to an agency notice.
Roundup Ready sugar beets were fully deregulated by the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 2005, but last year a federal judge ruled that the decision had violated environmental law.
For the crop to be farmed commercially without restrictions, APHIS would need to complete a full "environmental impact statement" analyzing the crop's effects, which is currently under way but probably won't be finished until 2012.
However, earlier this year a Supreme Court ruling related to glyphosate-resistant alfalfa opened the way for the agency to seek partial deregulation of genetically engineered crops, even if a court decision rescinded full commercialization.
Several months ago, Monsanto submitted a petition to APHIS requesting partial deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets.
In the petition, the company recommended several measures -- such as mandatory isolation distances between sugar beets grown for seed and other, closely-related seed crops -- that were initially proposed by APHIS during litigation.
Monsanto's recommendation is one of the alternatives analyzed in the agency's recent environmental assessment.
According to the agency's interpretation of this alternative, restrictions on sugar beet cultivation would be imposed by Monsanto "through technology stewardship agreements, contracts or other legal instruments."
The preferred alternative appears to be more restrictive, with APHIS overseeing commercial production of the crop. Details were not available as of press time.
Another alternative examined in the environmental assessment would be for the agency to reject any degree of deregulation, at least until the final environmental impact statement is done.
The agency's environmental assessment will be up for public comment for 30 days.
"The APHIS notice regarding the draft EA and comment period is encouraging, as it indicates that USDA is actively considering these issues, consistent with the recent Monsanto Supreme Court ruling on the alfalfa litigation," said Tom Helscher, spokesman for the Monsanto Co.
Capital Press was unable to reach the Center for Food Safety, an environmental group involved in litigation opposing deregulation of the crop.