US Federal Judge Jeffery White has given farmers the green light to harvest genetically modified sugar beets, saying that the request to suspend cultivation from environmental groups came too late in the growing process, and that removing the beets from the market would cause severe economic ramifications. In the US, cultivated sugar beets provide for nearly half of the country’s sugar supply, and the majority of those sugar beets are genetically modified (GM).
“If this court were to ban the planting and processing of the genetically engineered sugar beet root crop, there would not be enough conventional seed for a full crop this year,” White said in denying the injunction. “The economic impact of such a shortage would be dramatic and widespread.”
In 2007, a coalition of green groups and organic farmers sued the US Department of Agriculture over its approval of biotech company Monsanto’s GM sugar beet, citing concerns that the GM strain would cross pollinate with - and thus compromise - non-GM beets. Monsanto joined the lawsuit on the side of the USDA in defence of the crop. A US District Court judge ruled that the USDA had failed to follow the appropriate processes in approving the GM sugar beet.
The groups that had brought the suit subsequently asked that the cultivation and harvest of the GM beets be put on hold until the lawsuit was resolved. But the judge denied the request on economic grounds. Removing the crop from the market this late in the season would cause losses of roughly 6,000 jobs and US$300 million in profits, he said, noting that the removal of the crops would also significantly affect the prices and supply of US Sugar.
It remains unclear if the GM crop will be banned from cultivation while the lawsuit is still active. Still, the judge encouraged the use of as much conventional seed as possible in the meantime. The prospect of the future ruling has fuelled a promise of resistance from Monsanto, as well as enthusiasm and optimism from the environmental groups.
“Without measures to protect farmers like me from (genetically engineered) contamination, organic chard and beets as we know them are at serious risk of being lost,” said organic beet farmer Frank Morton.
This concern over cross contamination may not be unwarranted. In 2004, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favour of Monsanto when a farmer, claiming accidental cross planting, replanted and sold GM canola.( For more, see Bridges Trade BioRes 28 May 2004, http://ictsd.org/i/news/biores/63685/)
“Beet growers spared for now,” CAPITAL PRESS. 18 March 2010; “Judge allows genetically engineered beet harvest,” ASSOCIATED PRESS. 16 March 2010.
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