RODALE NEWS, STATE COLLEGE, PA—In an unprecedented move, one that some food safety groups call illegal, on Friday afternoon the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the planting and sale of genetically engineered, also known as GE, GMO, and Roundup Ready, sugar beets. The agency’s announcement is allowing the springtime planting of GE sugar beets in a way that’s never been done before, without a completed environmental impact study (EIS). “They’re going by the seat of their pants. They’ve never, ever done this with a plant,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental watchdog group that’s been involved in litigation blocking GE crops, including past lawsuits challenging the approval of GE sugar beets , for years. Kimbrell learned of the GE sugar beet approval while attending the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable in State College, where he gave a presentation regarding the dangers of GMOs and the general lack of benefits  they offer to consumers. “They only offer risk,” he says.
THE DETAILS: Kimbrell says that approving the GE crops before the EIS is completed in 2012 means that the USDA can essentially ignore the major issues associated with genetically engineered sugar beets—genetic contamination of related crops such as table beets and chard, as well as conventional non-GMO sugar beets, along with the rise of superweeds caused by excessive spraying of the toxic herbicide Roundup . “They keep trying to find some way around the law and, really, at the behest of the biotech industry,” says Kimbrell.
The road to Roundup Ready sugar beets has been a long one. USDA and industry have been trying to push it through for years, but the crop has been kept out of fields thus far by four lawsuits in which Center for Food Safety has been involved. “It looks like we’re seeing Obama saying he’s going to be more business friendly, and within a couple of weeks we get GE alfalfa approved after it’s been held up for years, and now GE sugar beets. It looks like a flood of approvals as the administration tries to prove to business that it’s not about regulation, it’s about letting business have its way.”
WHAT IT MEANS: According to Michael Hansen, PhD, chief scientist at Consumer Union, 54 percent of U.S. sugar comes from sugar beets, and the rest from sugar cane. He says that 90 percent of the sugar beets out there are already GE, and the new approval, if not held back by litigation, will greatly increase GE sugar in the American food chain. (Because of strict U.S. import tariffs on imported sugar, 85 percent of the sugar on the U.S. market is domestic.) Like other food scientists, Hansen thinks this decision is premature. “I don't think it's a good idea,” he says. “The USDA will clearly have to deal with the problem of increased use of herbicide, even more so than with alfalfa," because sugar beets are related to weeds that could easily become herbicide resistant. Sugar beets are wind-pollinated crops, and they contaminate other crops, including weeds, by wind pollination. Their wild, weedy relatives could be contaminated by Roundup Ready genes, and yet another superweed would evolve.
And, Hansen adds, these unwanted crops are being funded by taxpayers. “All of these sugar beets are here because they’re being massively subsidized,” Hansen says, thanks to a powerful sugar industry that's as politically powerful as biotech companies and other commodity lobbyists. Currently, the government has plans to pump $1.4 billion into the sugar industry between 2008 and 2017.
Still, despite the recent barrage of GE crop approvals, Kimbrell is confident that between legal action and grassroots efforts, the pro-GMO tide in Washington can be turned. “We’ve stopped crop after crop after crop…GE wheat, rice, pharmaceuticals, alfalfa, and sugar beets,” says Kimbrell. “I’m confident judges are getting wise now that agencies aren’t regulating industries as much as appeasing them.”