February 4, 2011 / 8:40 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 3-USDA partially deregulating biotech sugar beets

 * USDA to permit commercial sugar beet production
 * Aims to prevent drop in U.S. sugar production
 * U.S. judge had banned planting of GMO beets
 * GMO sugar beets make up 95 pct of sugar beet crop
 * Opponents say they will sue to stop action
 (Adds opponents comments)
 By Carey Gillam and Chuck Abbott
 KANSAS CITY/WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - U.S. agricultural
regulators on Friday said despite a court ban, they would allow
commercial planting of genetically modified sugar beets under
closely controlled conditions while they complete a full
environmental impact statement.
 The move marks the second-such boost by the United States
for contested biotech crops in a week, and underscores U.S.
determination to expand the use of GMO crops amid rising global
fears over food security and surging prices.
 After approving genetically altered alfalfa last week in
the face of bitter protest and after court rulings against an
earlier sugar beet approval, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
said it would allow Monsanto Co's MON.N "Roundup Ready" sugar
beets back in the fields this spring.
 Beet planting will be done under closely controlled
conditions to prevent any potential plant pest risks, according
to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
 "After conducting an environmental assessment, accepting
and reviewing public comments and conducting a plant pest risk
assessment, APHIS has determined that the Roundup Ready sugar
beet root crop, when grown under APHIS imposed conditions, can
be partially deregulated without posing a plant pest risk or
having a significant effect on the environment," said Michael
Gregoire, deputy administrator for APHIS' biotechnology
regulatory services.
 Gregoire said the partial deregulation was an interim
measure until APHIS completes a full environmental impact
 Monsanto's biotech beets, engineered to tolerate the
company's Roundup herbicide and make weed management easier for
growers, make up 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop and are
needed to avoid a steep drop in U.S. sugar production,
officials have said.
 The government has estimated that if growers have to rely
on a limited supply of conventional sugar beet seeds, U.S.
sugar production could drop by more than 1.6 million tons, or
about 21 percent. Sugar beets account for more than half of the
nation's sugar supply.
 "This technology has produced record harvests in recent
years and increased farmer profitability while minimizing
on-farm labor and environmental impact," said Jim Greenwood,
chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Industry
Organization (BIO).
 "We remain hopeful that this action, along with the
decision made last week on Roundup Ready alfalfa, will pave the
way for new technologies in the pipeline," Greenwood said.
 Opponents to the biotech beets said the USDA action
circumvents court orders, and they said they would take USDA
back to court.
 " USDA has yet again violated the law requiring preparation
of an EIS (environmental impact statement) before unleashing
this genetically engineered crop," said Paul Achitoff, an
attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.
 Along with the Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice sued
USDA in 2008 for approving the biotech beets without conducting
a full environmental impact assessment as required by law. They
argued that widespread use of the crop leads to increased use
of herbicides, proliferation of herbicide resistant weeds, and
contamination of conventional and organic crops.
 In August, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled in their
favor, finding USDA's 2005 approval of the beets was illegal,
and banning the crop until the USDA prepared an EIS. He also
ordered that beet seedlings currently in the ground be
 The USDA has appealed the order to remove already planted
seedlings and a hearing is slated for Feb. 15. The department
has said a full environmental impact study will take until May
2012, and it does not want to wait that long to allow
 Under the partial deregulation announced Friday, growers of
the Roundup Ready sugar beet rootcrop will be required to enter
into a compliance agreement that outlines mandatory
requirements for how the crop can be grown. APHIS expects that
sugar beet cooperatives and processors will be the only
entities that will enter into compliance agreements on behalf
of their respective members/farmers.
 APHIS said it will regulate the seed crop through its
permitting process.
 Center for Food Safety attorney Paige Tomaselli said the
measures were inadequate.
 "The measures provided in the decision will not protect
farmers and will not protect public health and the
environment," she said. "Because USDA continues to bow to
industry pressure and permits further commercial production of
Roundup Ready sugar beets, without first preparing an EIS or
protecting the public, the Center for Food Safety will once
again seek to halt the planting in court."
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Chuck Abbott
in Washington; additional reporting by Christopher Doering in
Washington; editing by Marguerita Choy)

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