APHIS fumbles on bio-beets


While the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service considers its next step in the regulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets, we take note of criticisms leveled at APHIS by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in his Aug. 13 10-page ruling that banned the genetically engineered crop's further planting.

Roundup Ready sugar beets have been the subject of ongoing litigation. Last September, White agreed with plaintiffs that APHIS should have performed an environmental impact statement before deregulating the crop in 2005. Although he allowed the planting and processing of this year's crop, he made it clear that unrestricted use of Roundup Ready sugar beets would not be allowed in 2011. In his ruling this month, White vacated APHIS's 2005 approval of the crop and returned regulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets to the agency.

In its own filings, APHIS has said it could take nine months to formulate interim rules and pass them through the regulatory process. If that's the case, restrictions on planting of seed and root crops wouldn't be finalized until April or May.

Sugar beet growers quickly adopted Roundup Ready seed stock because it allowed them to reduce their labor costs and make more money. Roundup Ready sugar beets account for more th an 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop. Many industry observers have their doubts that a similar crop could be grown with existing conventional seed stocks.

If that's the case, growers in Texas and California who plant in the fall are out of luck. Growers in Idaho and the upper Midwest normally make decisions about spring plantings in November and begin putting beets in the ground in late March and early April. They will have to plant something else if they don't have conventional seeds, and won't know until April if, and under what restrictions, they can use Roundup Ready seeds. Seed growers in Oregon's Willamette Valley, who are now harvesting their current crop, will have to plant conventional seeds this fall if they want to plant sugar beets at all.

Throughout the case, White has all but telegraphed his intentions to all of the parties. Nothing in his rulings has come as much of a surprise. But White was clearly surprised that APHIS hadn't picked up his cues. In short, White said APHIS has dropped the ball.

White admonished the agency for not having already completed much of the process. Early in the case's remedy phase this year, White indicated that plaintiffs had made a good case, thus the agency should have anticipated the result, White said.

APHIS "has already had more than sufficient time to take interim measures, but failed to act expediently," White wrote.

The livelihoods of thousands of growers and thousands of workers who process, market and transport the sugar are at risk. Rural communities depend on those paychecks to circulate throughout the local economy. And because half of the domestic sugar supply is processed from sugar beets, anything that impacts the crop also impacts consumers and commercial interests.

Though obliged to rule APHIS bungled its original deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets, Judge White understands the huge economic stakes that hang in the balance. We aren't sure APHIS appreciates the point.

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