If you’re Monsanto, you’re probably really proud of your genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets. Introduced in 2008, the beets are the company’s most recent Roundup Ready product genetically engineered to withstand the direct application of the herbicide glyphosate. Immediately successful, they took over the sugar beet market within two years. By 2010, 95 percent of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. were Monsanto’s genetically modified variety.
This matters to us all because about 50 percent of white sugar sold here is made from sugar beets. In other words, unless that bag of sugar you just bought is labeled “Certified Organic” or “100 percent cane sugar,” it almost certainly contains sugar made from GMO crops.
There was, of course, a reason for Monsanto’s success with sugar beets — and not just because it was able to leverage its market power to encourage farmers to adopt the new seed. Once again, it’s a weed problem.
Weeds in sugar beet fields have developed resistance to the chemicals farmers have been using for years, but they’re not resistant to glyphosate, which hasn’t been used very often in conventional sugar beet cultivation. As a result, these Roundup Ready seeds allowed farmers to use a chemical — glyphosate — that their weeds hadn’t really been exposed to and thus represented a bit of a game-changer for sugar beet farmers who had been left out of Big Ag’s glyphosate party.
Despite its instant success, Monsanto’s product hit a few speed bumps in 2010. That year, a federal judge revoked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) approval for the seed in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety on the basis that the agency violated the law by failing to perform a full environmental impact statement for the seed. This is a critical oversight given the risks of genetic contamination of conventional and organic seeds by the GMO seeds through wind-blown pollen, as well as the current superweed crisis caused by overuse of glyphosate.
The problem with the judge’s order, however, was that Monsanto had so successfully crowded out sugar beet seed competitors that once he ruled the beets “illegal” it quickly became clear that there were no conventional sugar beet seeds to be found. So America faced the prospect of total Armageddon the zombie apocalypse cats and dogs sleeping together a 20 percent reduction in that year’s sugar crop. In response — and in defiance of the federal judge’s order — the USDA allowed farmers to plant GM sugar beets anyway.
Well, I’m happy to report that our long national nightmare is over. At last, the USDA has released its full environmental review of Roundup Ready sugar beets. In it, the agency describes the risks for genetic contamination as well as the likelihood of increased herbicide resistance in weeds that will result from unrestricted planting of the beets. And as a result, the USDA is recommending full “deregulation” of GMO sugar beets, which will allow for their unrestricted planting.
The environmental review puts a high priority on the absence of alternative seeds and the potential disruption to sugar supplies — an absence that has been shaped by consolidation in the seed industry. It also observes that any weed resistance that develops if more Roundup Ready seed is planted can be countered by applying more types of herbicide! The chemical treadmill FTW!
As this review illustrates, the agency behaves as if its “hands are tied” on GM seed approvals. As George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety and a plaintiff in the sugar beet trial, describes it, the agency claims “regulatory impotence.” The USDA’s arguments in the recent court case involving GM alfalfa echo this sentiment. In short, the agency asserts that it lacks authority to fully assess the risks of GM seeds because Congress has ruled that the agency can’t let the larger potential impacts enter its analysis.
Kimbrell isn’t buying it. “We strongly disagree with USDA’s claims of regulatory impotence,” he told me in an email. This claim, he added, is “contrary to the statute and Supreme Court, in addition to being extremely bad policy. USDA’s job is to protect all farmers and the environment, not just biotech special interests.”
It’s hard, for example, to reconcile the environmental review’s dry discussion of superweeds in GM sugar beet fields with the far more dire warnings that came out of the recent National Academy of Science summit on the topic. And it’s also hard to take seriously the USDA’s claim that farmers will take voluntary steps to ensure GMO sugar beets aren’t planted too closely to conventional ones (or related species like chard and other beets).
But here’s the really bad news: Full “deregulation” of the seed will eliminate existing distance requirements between fields of conventional crops and the GMO crops, which are meant to help prevent genetic contamination (aka gene flow). And while the USDA maintains that farmers will continue to observe these limits on their own, farmers have demonstrated that the temptation to plant more and more widely tends to outweigh all concern about contaminating the plots of their neighbors.
The Center for Food Safety is still reviewing the USDA’s 800-page decision. That said, advocates have unearthed past evidence of sloppy science and close ties to Monsanto within the arm of the USDA responsible for producing the review. And history does not offer much reassurance that the agency is putting its best effort into a full examination of the risks from further expansion of GMO seed.
In the end, maybe the answer lies not within the USDA but outside it. Perhaps farmers and food processors will be less enamored of GMO sugar beets if California passes the GMO food labeling law currently on the ballot there. Then bags of sugar with the phrase “contains genetically modified ingredients” will do what the agency charged with “protecting all farmers and the environment” simply won’t — and that’s to give farmers pause in embracing crops that offer short-term convenience and long-term complications.