Monsanto man“Everything looks A-OK. What a surprise!”Last August, Federal Judge Jeffrey White issued a stinging rebuke to the USDA for its process on approving new genetically modified seeds. He ruled that the agency’s practice of “deregulating” novel seed varieties without first performing an environmental impact study violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

The target of Judge White’s ire was the USDA’s 2005 approval of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, engineered to withstand doses of the company’s own herbicide. White’s ruling effectively revoked the approval of Monsanto’s novel beet seeds pending an environmental impact study, and cast doubt upon the USDA’s notoriously industry-friendly way of regulating GM seeds.

A rigorous environmental impact assessment would not likely be kind to Roundup Ready sugar beets. First, sugar-beet seeds are cultivated mainly in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, also an important seed-production area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. The engineered beets could easily cross-pollinate with the other varieties, causing severe damage to a key resource for organic and other non-GMO farmers. Second, Monsanto’s already-unregulated Roundup Ready crops — corn, soy, and cotton — have unleashed a plague of Roundup-resistant “superweeds,” forcing farmers to apply ever-higher doses of Roundup and other weed-killing poisons. Finally, the Roundup herbicide itself is proving much less ecologically benign than advertised, as Tom Laskawy has shown.

How has the Obama USDA responded to Judge White’s rebuke? By repeatedly defying it, most recently in February, when the agency moved to allow farmers to plant the engineered seeds even though the impact study has yet to be completed. Its rationale for violating the court order will raise an eyebrow of anyone who read Gary Taubes’ recent New York Times Magazine piece teasing out the health hazards of the American sweet tooth: the USDA feared that the GMO sugar beet ban would cause sweetener prices to rise. Thus the USDA places the food industry’s right to cheap sweetener for its junk food over the dictates of a federal court.

In early April, the USDA made what I’m reading as a second response to Judge White, this one even more craven. To satisfy the legal system’s pesky demand for environmental impact studies of novel GMO crops, the USDA has settled upon a brilliant solution: let the GMO industry conduct its own environmental impact studies, or pay other researchers to. The USDA announced the program in the Federal Register for April 7, 2011 [PDF].

The biotech/agrichemical industry has applauded the new plan. Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization told the Oregon-based ag journal Capital Press that the program will likely speed up the registration process for GMO crops and make the USDA’s approach less vulnerable to legal challenges like the rebuke from Judge White. Capital Press summed up Batra’s assessment of the plan like this: “The pilot program will not only help move crops through the process more quickly, but the added resources will also help the documents hold up in court.”

In other words, the industry plans to produce studies that find its novel products environmentally friendly, and fully expects the USDA to accept their assessments. Judge White had ruled that the USDA should be more rigorous in assessing the risks of new GMO crops, yet his decision seems to be having the opposite effect. No doubt the USDA’s latest scheme reflects the administration’s stated desire to not be too “burdensome” in regulating industry.