How Monsanto's Sugar Beets Grew Larger Than the Law

Image: sugar beet plant. Title: How Monsanto's Sugar Beets Grew Larger Than the Law
Unsplash: Peter Feghali

Fifty to sixty percent of US sugar comes from sugar beets—and almost all of that comes from a genetically modified (GM) version of the plant. Sugar is in a good chunk of our foods, even savory ones like soups and bread. With no requirements in our country that GM foods be labeled, you may be consuming a lot more GM sugar that you think.

As detailed in the April/May 2012 “Frankenfood” issue of the Green Americana number of health concerns have been raised about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and most of them center around how little we know about the long-term effects of consuming these creations. 

“GMOs are being put in American food without long-term testing and without labeling,” says Elizabeth O’Connell, Green America’s GMO Inside campaign director. “The American public should have the right to an informed choice on whether or not to eat GM food, as they do in more than 60 other countries.”

You may already be aware of many of the many health issues around GMOs and sugar. What you may not be aware of are the sordid events that led to a marriage between the two, as this plant rose above the law.Angry Beet

Regulating the GM Sugar Beet
In March of 2005, genetically modified sugar beets appeared on the US market for the first time. Crafted by Monsanto to include a gene from a soil bacterium, this GM beet was able to withstand a copious onslaught of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (glyphosate). The agricultural industry could spray as much of the weed-killer as it wanted without impacting crops.

Today, Monsanto’s GM sugar beets make up 95 percent of the US crop, having been planted year after year despite a US District Court injunction against planting and even a ruling by US District Court Judge Jeffrey White that the 2011 crop be destroyed due to illegal deregulation. The story of how Monsanto raised its product above the law is a case study of the power of the biotech industry over federal regulators.

The role of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been “essentially to escort genetically engineered crops through their process as fast as possible,” says Page Tomaselli, senior staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety. The USDA was the agency that initially gave the biotech industry the green light for full deregulation of the sugar beets in 2005, allowing the seeds to be sold and planted with no restrictions.

Yet, the USDA did so without properly assessing the environmental impacts, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Center for Food Safety (CFS), along with the Sierra Club, High Mowing Seeds, and the Organic Seed Alliance, successfully sued the USDA. US District Judge Jeffrey S. White ruled that the USDA had violated federal law, and his court placed an injunction on the crop. While the farmers could harvest the existing year’s crop, they couldn’t plant a new one until the USDA completed a proper Environmental Impact Statement.

At this point, Monsanto and allies in the sugar beet industry went to the USDA with concerns that this injunction could cause a sugar shortage. There was not enough non-GM seed stock available to meet the demand for sugar beets anymore, they claimed. The USDA decided to issue field permits for the GM sugar beet crop to be planted in spite of the court’s ruling.

When the seed companies choose to stock GM seeds and not traditional ones, they are creating a situation where they can “potentially say that their hands are tied and all that they have are these genetically engineered seeds,” says Tomaselli.

Who Regulates the Regulators?
The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice responded to these field permits with legal action, arguing that these permits were illegal given the District Court order to cease planting.

“We had to run into court and ask the judge to stop them,” Earthjustice managing attorney Paul Achitoff told Reuters that day, “It’s an extreme sort of a thing ... but the circumstances were such that there wasn’t any alternative. They basically had dared the court to stop them.”

On November 30th, 2010, Judge White ordered that the newly planted GM seedlings be removed from the ground.

However, in February of 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge White’s original injunction. Instead of addressing whether the USDA issued illegal permits, it perplexingly looked at whether the seedlings caused “irreparable harm.” Judge Thomas of that court wrote, “Biology, geography, field experience, and permit restrictions make irreparable injury unlikely.”

The court vacated Judge White’s original injunction. The USDA issued temporary permits for the sale and planting of GM sugar beets while it completed an Environmental Impact Statement. Once the statement was finished, the agency permanently deregulated GM sugar beets.

Today, over 90 percent of the US sugar beet crop is genetically modified. 

The “Monsanto Protection Act”
If Judge White’s order in November of 2010 had been carried out and that year’s crop of sugar beets had been destroyed, it would have introduced a new element of risk for agricultural companies choosing to grow GM seeds. Monsanto wanted to make sure the sugar beet litigation would never happen with future crops, and it knew exactly how to do that—by changing the laws.

On March 29, 2013, President Obama signed H.R. 993, a large appropriations bill, into law. It contained a rider known by anti-GMO activists as “The Monsanto Protection Act,” which was inserted into the bill by Congress.

According to Tomaselli, this rider codified what the USDA did in the sugar beets case, forcing “the USDA to issue permits if a judge vacates a deregulation decision ... [creating] a situation where we would not be able to challenge these permits under the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act or any other environmental law that these permits might be violating.”

The good news is that this bill will expire in September of 2013, giving conerned citizens another chance to fight back when biotech lobbyists attempt to get Congress to reintroduce it. Green America’s campaign, GMO Inside, is already laying the groundwork for the battle to come.

Implications for the Future
To this date, the USDA has not turned down a petition to deregulate a GM crop, nor has it voluntarily conducted an Environmental Impact Statement on such a crop.

“The USDA will do virtually anything to avoid meaningfully regulating GMO crops. We’ve seen this in every case that we’ve litigated,” says Achitoff. 

Now with the Monsanto Protection Act codified into law, “the implication is that the companies that are growing [new GM] crops will be able to continue growing them even before any environmental review has been completed,” adds Tomaselli.

With 13 new GM crops ready to go before the USDA for approval this year, and no labeling laws in place for people to make informed decisions about what they eat, the potential environmental and health impacts of untested GMOs could be of grave concern.

So What Can We Do?
Between cross-contamination and a shrinking traditional seed stock, it’s questionable whether our sugar beets can ever be non-GMO again. The sugar beet case raises the question of how much control we really have over GMOs once they’ve taken over the marketplace.

“Monsanto and the biotech industry are incredibly powerful and have successfully inserted themselves into the work of legislators and regulators,” says O’Connell. “We’re losing more and more traditional seed stock in favor of genetically modified seeds, and our actions now will have repercussions for generations.”

To keep GMO sugar out of your cupboard, look for cane sugar—GM sugar cane is still in development, so for now you can be sure that it is GMO-free. Going a step further and choosing organic and Fair Trade cane sugar will protect the health of the workers and the planet.

And join Green America’s campaign, GMO Inside, to take action for meaningful GMO regulation and labeling.

“Ultimately, the USDA is not going to protect us from GMOs, let alone regulate them,” says O’Connell, “It’s up to us to protect our families and preserve the thousands of years of heritage we have in our seeds and in our food.”

From Green American Magazine Issue