Friday, the USDA quietly announced deregulation of Monsanto’s GMO sugarbeets

  • Published on February 6th, 2011

monster sugar beetsThe US Department of Agriculture continues its unprecedented give-away to big agriculture monster Monsanto and its Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds. On Friday, while the media was preoccupied with the Superbowl and Egypt’s rioting, the USDA quietly announced it was deregulating Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets – despite a court order.

This move comes just a week after the agency had gone back on its own plan to regulate GMO alfalfa to at least attempt to keep it from contaminating organic farms. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had been floating a plan to limit the area where the GMO crop could be planted, but caved to a storm of pressure from industry, Congressional Republicans (and Monsanto pals like Montana Democrat Max Baucus), and the Obama White House.

It was actually Baucus who announced the latest decision, saying “It’s important the USDA complete its study, but our producers were being unfairly asked to wait in limbo as the planting season quickly approaches.”

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service later issued a statement:

After conducting an environmental assessment, accepting and reviewing public comments and conducting a plant pest risk assessment, APHIS has determined that the Roundup Ready sugar beet root crop, when grown under APHIS imposed conditions, can be partially deregulated without posing a plant pest risk or having a significant effect on the environment.

Which of course, they can’t actually say scientifically without conducting the review ordered by the judge.

Where’s the beets?

This decision appears to be less about science and more about marketing – and Monsanto’s monopoly on seeds. As Tom Philpott notes at Grist,

Sugar beets provide about half of the sugar consumed in the United States — and Monsanto controls 95 percent of the sugar beet seed market with its Roundup Ready genes. The company’s stranglehold over the beet market demonstrates its insidious market power. When a federal judge demanded in August 2010 that farmers stop planting Monsanto’s GM beet seeds pending an impact study, farmers quickly found out that virtually no non-GM seed was available. Between 2005, when the USDA first greenlighted GM beets, and 2010, Monsanto had essentially driven all competition out of the market.

That August court order roiled the food industry, raising the specter of higher sweetener costs because farmers would be forced to plant fewer beets due to lack of seeds. Rather than seeing this effect as an opportunity to reduce U.S. sweetener consumption, the USDA evidently saw it as a crisis that needed to be addressed by defying the court order.

Needless to say, this is not going to help the situation. Monsanto’s GMO seeds already dominate the entire US corn, soy, and cotton crops; 93% of soy, 86% of corn, 93% of cotton, and 93% of canola seed planted in the U.S. in 2010 were genetically engineered.

Despite the implications of some reports that almost no non-GMO seeds are available – prior to the court ruling, Monsanto’s GMO seeds had snagged an incredible 95% of the market –  the Wall Street Journal reports a shortfall of just 20 percent. But that’s enough to cause panic – sugar shortages are happening already, with weather-related problems in Brazil and Australia hurting crops and driving up the price 300 percent over the past two years.

And as Tom Philpott points, out in an earlier article for Grist,

Let’s ponder that for a moment. As recently as 2008, sugar beet farmers relied exclusively on conventional seeds; the GM ones weren’t commercially available. Two years later, GM seeds dominate the market, and the conventional market has been essentially wiped out.

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About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.


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