Politics of the Plate: Sweet Victory

Courts are ruling against genetically engineered crops, but where does the Obama administration stand?
sweet victory

Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco nullified a decision made by the USDA during the Bush presidency that paved the way for widespread planting of genetically engineered (GE) sugar beets.

Describing the USDA’s deregulation of the controversial crop as “unreasonable,” United States District Court Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the agency should have produced a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before allowing the cultivation of “Roundup Ready” sugar beets (so named because they are bioengineered to tolerate applications of Roundup, the trade name of an herbicide produced by agribusiness giant Monsanto).

The decision was the result of a suit brought against the USDA by the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds. The groups claimed that the GE sugar beets could easily cross-pollinate with and contaminate non-GE sugar beets, as well as related crops such as Swiss chard and table beets. Beets and their relatives are pollinated by the wind, and studies have shown that wind has the ability to transport pollen for great distances, making the likelihood of contamination all but certain. Of particular concern were GE beets grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a major production area for conventional and organic beet and chard seeds.

As part of the rationale for his decision to order a full EIS, the judge cited “the potential elimination of a farmer’s choice to grow non–genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice not to eat genetically engineered food.” Beets account for about half the sugar Americans consume, and there is no law requiring that sugar from GE beets be labeled as such. To satisfy consumers wary of bioengineered ingredients, about 100 food producers have joined the Non-GM Beet Sugar Registry.

“The ruling is a major consumer victory for preserving the right to grow and eat organic foods in the United States,” said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club in a statement.

Monsanto spokesman Garrett Kasper told the Associated Press that “the ruling was largely procedural and did not question the safety of Roundup Ready crops.”

Procedural or not, the decision marks the second time this year that a judge has ruled against widespread use of Monsanto’s GE seeds. In a similar case in June, a Los Angeles appeals court upheld a 2007 injunction against Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Unfortunately for opponents to GE crops, a gloomy cloud hovers over this good news. In both cases, judges had to order the USDA to do the right thing. In fact, the lead defendant in the sugar-beet case was none other than Thomas Vilsack, Obama’s handpicked head of the USDA. When presented by the court with an opportunity to change its position on the suit after coming to power, the new administration stated emphatically that the federal government’s “position has not changed” and went on to argue in favor of the Bush USDA’s “unreasonable” policy.

“The court decision is a wake-up call for the Obama USDA that they will not be allowed to ignore the biological pollution and economic impacts of gene altered crops,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, in a press release. “The courts have made it clear that USDA’s job is to protect America’s farmers and consumers, not the interests of Monsanto.”

I have to wonder whose interests the USDA is protecting, especially in light of Obama’s string of appointments of former Monsanto execs to top USDA posts. (Grist’s Tom Philpott recently did a masterful job of making sense out of the USDA/Monsanto revolving door.) And, how does this policy square with the USDA’s recently unveiled (and much touted) Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, which is supposed to help the small, local farmers the government is battling tooth and nail in court?

We’ll have another chance to see the real intent of the “new” USDA on October 30: That’s the date that Judge White has set for beginning the remediation phase of the GE sugar beet case.

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