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The Sweet 'n Lowdown on GM Crops

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Farmers should be allowed to continue growing genetically modified sugar beets despite a recent flawed court decision.

An August 13 court ruling allows farmers to harvest this year's crop of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets, but prevents the planting of the herbicide-resistant seeds next year. The decision by San Francisco Federal Court Judge Jeffrey S. White follows a 2007 case before a fellow San Francisco judge that resulted in the banning of GM alfalfa. The U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned the alfalfa decision.

In an earlier summary judgment, Judge White found that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency of the Department of Agriculture, should have undertaken a full-blown environmental impact study before deregulating the planting of the GM seeds, rather than the environmental assessment that the agency produced. The governing law in the case, the National Environmental Policy Act, allows the use of environmental assessments rather than environmental impact statements when APHIS decides that the threat to the environment is not significant. APHIS made that determination, but the judge disagreed.

Sugar beets, planted on a million acres or so, provide about half of the U.S. sugar supply.

The concern here is that the GM seeds will contaminate neighboring fields of non-GM sugar beets, red table beets, and Swiss chard, closely related species that are sexually compatible with sugar beets. APHIS discounted that threat, both because they failed to find any organic producers of sugar beets in 2005 when the assessment was done, and because cross-contamination, although possible, would not be widespread. It is important to note the case is primarily about consumer choice and not safety. Producers of organic seed and environmental groups who brought the case are worried about cross-contamination of organic and non-GM crops.

Ninety-five percent of all sugar beets planted last year were genetically modified. The decision will cause a scramble for seed for next year, because sugar beets are biennial—they don’t produce seed until the second year of growth. Judge White’s original decision was handed down in 2009, after seed beets for 2011 were planted, so no seed producer could have responded to that 2009 decision in time to produce the conventional seed needed for the 2011 crop. It’s not clear that everyone involved in this case understands this, although the decision does mention the two-year crop cycle. I imagine that sugar beet farmers are in a mad scramble to secure seeds for next year’s crop.

Producers of organic seed and environmental groups who brought the case are worried about cross-contamination of organic and non-GM crops.

Because of the crop’s biennial nature, it’s not clear that this decision makes any sense at all. Sugar beets are harvested in the first year after planting, before they produce pollen, so they can’t contaminate neighboring crops. Oh, not so quick, White says. Sometimes beets undergo a process called bolting, and produce pollen in the first year of growth. And sometimes weed beets grow in fields, shedding pollen as well. Well, yes, but we eat the roots and leaves of table beets and Swiss chard, so even if they have been exposed to pollen from rambunctious bolting beets, it doesn’t affect the roots or foliage of that year’s crop. If we ate the seeds from table beets, we could be exposed to the herbicide-resistant genes, but we don’t. Incidentally, the sugar molecule, sucrose, is identical whether it comes from GM beets, conventional beets, or sugar cane. You can’t find, detect, test, or taste a difference.

Most of the seed for all of these crops is produced in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Pollen from GM beets can contaminate seed crops of the closely related crops. Of course, conventional beets can contaminate the other seed crops as well. Farmers in the valley handle the problem by establishing voluntary buffer zones amongst the various crops. It’s not clear why the present system won’t work for GM seeds as well, but Judge White doesn’t think it’s adequate, so he has forced APHIS to undergo the two-year long process of a formal environmental impact statement.

In the process of writing the decision, the judge has committed a couple of howlers. According to the decision:

Montsano [sic] contends that sugar beet pollen remains viable for a maximum of 24 hours, depending on environmental conditions. However, other sources provide that sugar beet pollen may remain viable for much longer. (“Sugar beet pollen can remain viable for 50 days when stored cold and dry, but does not survive wetting by dew or usually remain viable for more than a day.”)

I’m not sure what this means—does the judge worry that refrigerated trucks will be driving by with their doors open while pollen is in the air? I’ve no reason to doubt that you can keep pollen viable by refrigerating it, I’m just not sure why it matters. Sugar beet pollen travels by wind, and can travel as far as 800 meters. That’s why the voluntary standards provide a buffer zone of 1,000 meters. The judge quotes a study that finds it conceivable that, under certain weather conditions, “within twenty-four hours it is possible to estimate that pollen could be dispersed up to 864,000 meters (864 kilometers) in turbulent conditions.” And Dorothy blew into the Land of Oz, but that doesn’t mean we should depopulate Kansas.

Finally, the judge is concerned that GM seed won’t be properly labeled, and chastises APHIS for failing to provide proof for their claim that the seed will be clearly labeled. According to the judge,

Moreover, there is no support in the record for APHIS conclusion that non-trangenic [sic] sugar beet will likely still be sold and will be available to those who wish to plant it and that farmers purchasing seed will know whether it is transgenic because it will be marked and labeled as glyphosate tolerant (emphasis mine).

This is nonsense on stilts. If the farmer doesn’t know what kind of seed he has, he stands to lose his whole crop if he applies glyphosate (Roundup) to beets grown from non-tolerant seeds. No company will risk that liability, and all GM seeds are clearly labeled, if for no other reason than the stiff premium the farmer is paying for the seeds. Surely the judge knows this. Incidentally, GM seed has been available in soybeans for 15 years, and has over 90 percent market penetration, but non-GM varieties are readily available. There is almost no premium for non-GM soybeans, hence the prevalence of the GM varieties.

Ninety-five percent of all sugar beets planted last year were genetically modified.

The decision will be appealed, and a solution is readily available—even if a higher court decides that an environmental impact statement is needed, farmers should be allowed to continue planting GM seed until the statement is finished. That’s the only available course that won’t totally disrupt the sugar beet industry. Sugar beets, planted on a million acres or so, provide about half of the U.S. sugar supply.

The judge, in an earlier decision on the issue, criticized APHIS because the agency assumed that the full study would draw the same conclusion as the environmental assessment. Of course they did, because that’s the very essence of the decision by APHIS to forego the environmental impact study. No doubt APHIS was influenced by the fact that GM seeds are planted on roughly 150 million acres in the United States each year, with no harm to consumers, and great benefits to the environment and the economy. There is a vibrant organic market for each of the crops where GM seed has been approved, and 15 years of experience have shown that the two markets can coexist.

Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer.

FURTHER READING: Hurst has also written about industrial food critics and a former secretary of Agriculture in “No Butz About It,” on the “Green Menace” of preventing Haitians from receiving much-needed seed, and on an eyewitness account of Zimbabwe’s collapse, when “‘The First White Farmer Had Been Murdered.’” C. Peter Timmer imagines “A World Without Agriculture,” and Jon Entine asks, “Will Science-Phobia Kill the Green Revolution?”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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