Bittersweet Battle

October 4, 2010 05:42 AM

Duane Grant has a bad taste in his mouth. The Rupert, Idaho, sugar beet grower is worried about the prospects of next year’s crop after a federal judge revoked government approval of Roundup Ready beet seed. Unless USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) acts swiftly, sugar beet growers will not be allowed to plant seed containing the herbicide-resistant technology in 2011.

Grant, who is also board chairman of the Amalgamated Sugar Company, estimates there is enough non-GM seed to plant half the acreage for his cooperative. “However, the inventories that are available are three to four years old. Even if a grower were to risk planting seed with reduced germ, it doesn’t contain the latest, most productive genetics,” Grant says. “Our factories also depend on full runs to function properly and efficiently.”

U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White ruled to stop the use of genetically modified sugar beet seeds until regulators complete an environmental impact study (EIS) on the product. Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, explains that the judge did not grant an injunction, which would have imposed a permanent ban on Roundup Ready sugar beets. But the judge did remand decisions on future planting back to APHIS.

The issue began in 2006 when a handful of environmental groups and farmers filed a suit against the approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa in San Francisco. In 2008, some of the same plaintiffs filed suit claiming USDA should have completed an EIS before approving commercial sugar beet planting. Judge White ruled that USDA would have to complete an EIS. But in March 2010, he denied an injunction request, allowing the continued planting, cultivating and processing of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

Markwart believes that APHIS understands the time crunch, but he says an EIS could take up to two years—a time frame that would cause pain to this sweet industry.

Complicating the problem is the fact that the sugar beet is a biennial crop. Seed is produced every other year and priming the pump for new types of sugar beet seed is typically a five- to six-year proposition.

“Sugar beet growers are in a box today because we relied in good faith on USDA,” Grant explains. “We did the customer acceptance studies, we did the grower education and we got all the export approvals. We did all the necessary work to steward this technology before releasing it into
the marketplace.”

Roundup Ready sugar beets came on the market in 2007 with the fastest adoption rate of any biotech crop. Weed control in this crop is problematic and prior to biotech often relied on hand labor. In 2010 approximately 95% of the nation’s 1.175 million acres of sugar beets were Roundup Ready.

No turning back? Markwart says the industry is so reliant on the new technology that he wonders if farmers can go back. “This ruling has serious implications for growers and also for factories,” he says.

Grant notes that wheat, corn, alfalfa and dry beans are alternative crops in his area. “However, it’s not as simple as just planting something else. Growers must be members of a cooperative to sell their sugar and they own valuable shares in those co-ops. The fate of factories is also a concern,” he says.

Judge White’s order does not impact the harvest and processing of Roundup Ready sugar beets or sugar beet seed crops planted before Aug. 13, 2010. Growers may therefore proceed with harvest and sell the current crop into the market without interference. Federal regulators recently indicated that they may partially deregulate the crop and decide by year’s end on the conditions
under which they will allow production of biotech sugar beets for the next two seasons.

Those conditions will likely include prohibiting the use of biotech seeds in certain states and establishing buffer zones in areas where crops might cross-pollinate with Swiss chard, table beets and fodder beets. Third-party compliance for producers handling biotech seeds and requiring root-crop growers to remove flowering plants before they produce pollen or seed could also be included.

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