sugar beet flickr user Dag Endresen As of a recent court hearing, a multinational biotech company feels threatened, thousands of farmers in the Pacific Northwest see impeding doom, and half of the US sugar industry is potentially depleted. What could be causing all this ruckus? The sugar beet.

This month’s ruling by US District Judge Jeffrey White halts the use of genetically-modified (GM) sugar beet seeds until an environmental impact study (EIS) can be conducted. The GM crop is resistant to Roundup, a Monsanto-produced herbicide, which allows farmers to spray herbicides on their fields without damaging crops. (The ruling doesn’t impact sugar beet crops that have already been planted this season, but will potentially inhibit new plantings until at least 2012, when the study might be completed.) Sustainable food advocates are ecstatic while Monsanto is looking at a potential loss in the billions, but Pacific Northwest farmers are caught in the middle.

  • Introduced back in 2005, sugar beets had the fastest adoption rate of any GM crop in the United States; 95% of the sugar beets in the United States are now GM crops, and beet sugar accounts for half of the sugar in the country. Many sugar beet farmers are concentrated in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and almost all of the seed comes out of Willamette Valley in Oregon. Farmers are worried that there are no longer enough conventional seeds and herbicides in storage to replace all the GM seeds currently in use. It’s not a surprise that they are uneasy with the court decision, since they may struggle to sustain their crop yields without the GM sugar beets.

    This lawsuit stems from organic seed producer Frank Morton in Oregon, who was afraid his crops would be contaminated by nearby GM sugar-beet seeds. In a struggle reminiscent of David and Goliath, Morton has fought against the threat to his business posed by the rapidly spreading use of GM seeds. Contamination of his crops could happen if his sugar beet plants are fertilized with GM pollen carried by wind from nearby fields, seed cleaning facilities, or even passing trucks (It also doesn’t help that Monsanto’s GM seeds are patented, which means the company can sue farmers for unlawful possession of Monsanto property if land becomes contaminated, even accidentally, with patented seed). Not only would contamination render Morton’s crops inorganic and technically Monsanto property, but there are worrisome accounts of Roundup resistant weeds developing across 22 states.

    Morton has been working with the Center for Food Safety since January 2008, and in September 2009 they won a case in which Judge White ruled that the National Environmental Policy Act had been violated by the USDA in its rush to deregulate GM sugar beets. (In order for a GM crop to gain nonregulated status, the USDA has to have proof that the crop isn’t a plant pest or a threat to the environment, and thereby no longer needs to be regulated by the USDA.) Morton and the Center for Food Safety have since filed an injunction on the use of all GM sugar beets, which resulted in this month’s court ruling.

    How did we get to this point? Back in 2005 the federal government approved Monsanto’s GM beets for unrestricted use, and their usage quickly spread. Farmers liked the fact that the Roundup resistant GM beets seemed to be increasing crop yields, and Monsanto claims that the “genetic enhancement of agricultural products” will ultimately make farming more sustainable through raising crop yields and better protection against insects and disease. However, the legitimacy of Monsanto’s claim has been increasingly called into question by sustainable agriculture advocates; a 2009 report put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows that despite 20 years of research and over 10 years of commercialized practices, GM crops have not increased US agricultural yields—and have actually driven up the price of production for farmers. Furthermore, while conventional practices that use chemical inputs do show a marginal increase in yield, the detrimental effects that chemicals have on our environment and human health are costly. The UCS report notes that conventional agriculture is responsible for “more heat-trapping emissions to the atmosphere than transportation,” and is a major source of water pollution leading to “dead zones.” If the effects of climate change, such as extreme heat, droughts, and flooding, make farming more difficult, why perpetuate the conventional practices that contribute to the problem?

    In terms of social sustainability, groups such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) found that the emphasis on GMOs has increased research and development in this sector, subsequently contributing to a loss in funding, support, and knowledge of alternative agricultural practices. The IAASTD has stated that investment in agroecological models (which follow whole-ecosystem approaches to agricultural development) offer environmentally and socially sustainable alternatives that are also capable of high yields under proper management. However, even though the promised high-yield of GM sugar beets is short-sighted logic at best, farmers and industry people are predicting economic hardship as a direct result of this ruling that suspend their use. It may be true that some farmers will be put at an economic disadvantage because of the ruling, but they wouldn’t be in this position if Monsanto had been held accountable in the first place.

    It should be noted that White’s ruling isn’t necessarily commentary on the safety of the GM crop. Rather, it critiques the process (or lack thereof) that the USDA went through to grant unrestricted use of the GM sugar beet. This follows the 2007 alfalfa ruling, which was the first instance of a court revoking the approval of a GM crop until an EIS could be completed. At the time, the court placed a nationwide injunction of all sales of Roundup-Ready alfalfa, though the Supreme Court lifted the injunction earlier this summer. Monsanto is claiming victory, but the Center for Food Safety points out that the recent alfalfa ruling is the first to include genetic contamination from GM crops within the definition of “environmental harm.”

    We don’t yet completely understand all the implications that genetically modified crops will have on our agricultural systems. White had it right to take a more precautionary approach. It’s a step that can help create more accountability for agricultural regulation. Monsanto is becoming the Goliath of the seed industry in the United States, but in the
    case of GM sugar beets we’ll see if David wins out in the end.

    Sugar beet field photo courtesy of Flickr user Dag Endresen under a Creative Commons license.