Bio-beet case full of sweet irony

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


We are always wary of unintended consequences of legislation and litigation allegedly undertaken to advance some high and noble cause, but we also have to admit that we can't help but appreciate the irony sometimes.

Such is the case with the court fight over Roundup Ready sugar beets.

The facts of the case have been widely reported and are well known. After the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets, the genetically modified crop was quickly embraced by growers because it allowed them to reduce labor costs and realize greater returns. GM stock now accounts for more than 95 percent of the nation's sugar beet crop, which in turn produces about half of the domestic sugar supply.

In January 2008, the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds filed a lawsuit against APHIS, challenging the crop's deregulation on the grounds that the agency should have produced an environmental impact statement before allowing Roundup Ready sugar beets to be grown, harvested and processed. U.S. District Judge White agreed, and, after allowing this year's crop to be harvested and processed, he returned the authority for regulating the crop to APHIS.

Environmental groups are suing to stop APHIS from allowing seed companies to plant stecklings that next year will be replanted to produce Roundup Ready seed varieties for the 2012 root stock crop. That case is still in the courts, and is but the first of what is expected to be many legal challenges to the agency's renewed effort to deregulate the crop.

Plaintiffs allege their "agricultural, environmental and economic interests ... have been, and continue to be threatened" by APHIS's issuance of permits to produce Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds. They argue that use of the bio-beets will spawn herbicide-resistant weeds that will require greater use of chemicals that will harm the environment.

Those arguments sow the seeds of unintended consequences for farmers and the environment.

Roundup Ready sugar beets have allowed farmers to make greater use of strip tillage, seeding the beets directly into grain stubble. The technique reduces soil erosion because farmers aren't turning up the ground. Because they make fewer passes over the field, farmers reduce the amount of fuel they use and the associated exhaust emissions. The glyphosate-resistant beets require far less chemicals than conventional crops, so even those growers who aren't using strip tillage are putting less herbicide into the ground.

So if growers are forced to return to planting conventional beet varieties they'll be using more fuel and producing more emissions, using more herbicides and losing more soil. Costs will go up, profits will go down. If plaintiffs are successful in banning Roundup Ready beets, their attempts to help the environment will actually hurt the environment.

How's that for irony?

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