USDA releases Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds for planting

Posted 2/8/11

“We got the first step,” he said. “we just have to see what the second step is going to be.”

On Friday, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., first broke the news of the USDA’s decision to allow Roundup Ready seeds to be planted this year. Baucus, …

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USDA releases Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds for planting


Sugar beet growers anticipate planting Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds this spring under strict conditions as the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to work on an environmental impact statement governing use of the genetically modified seeds.

But Heart Mountain grower Ric Rodriguez, vice chairman of the Western Sugar Cooperative’s board of directors, spoke with caution Monday, saying there’s still time for opponents to file a court action that could stop planting before it begins.

“We got the first step,” he said. “we just have to see what the second step is going to be.”

On Friday, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., first broke the news of the USDA’s decision to allow Roundup Ready seeds to be planted this year. Baucus, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, had pleaded for release of the seeds, stressing the economic effects of the crops on states such as Montana and Wyoming.

Across the United States, up to 95 percent of sugar beets are Roundup Ready, bred to resist applications of the Monsanto Co. herbicide Roundup.

The approval follows closely, but is not connected to, the release of Roundup Ready alfalfa, although plantings of that crop may not increase significantly this year. (See related story.)

Rodriguez said he was happy about Friday’s announcement, but “I’m not 100 percent optimistic yet.”

Roundup Ready opponents had vowed to appeal or file a new suit, he said, although nothing had come to the courts by press time Monday that he was aware of.

“There’s still that worry out there,” he said, although he believes it will be harder for the plaintiffs to get an injunction against planting the crop, since they haven’t been able to show any damages so far.

Rodriguez said he wasn’t sure when Roundup Ready beet seed would be delivered to area growers.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said on Friday it would partially deregulate Roundup Ready beets, letting farmers plant them while it finished work on a full environmental impact statement.

Last summer, a federal judge in California issued an order halting the planting of genetically modified sugar beets until the USDA completed an environmental impact study on how the beets could affect conventional crops. The ruling had a widespread impact since nearly all the nation’s sugar beets come from the genetically altered seed, and farmers had worried the USDA wouldn’t finish its work in time for spring planting.

“This is a really big deal,” said Mike Moyle, a Republican lawmaker who used to grow sugar beets and still farms west of Boise, Idaho. “If they hadn’t approved this, farmers in Idaho wouldn’t have had enough (unmodified) seed.”

Sugar beets are planted on more than 1 million acres in 10 states, with Idaho, Minnesota and North Dakota being the top producers. The beets supply half the nation’s sugar.

“USDA’s decision is a positive step for sugar beet farmers,” said Steve Walker, a Monsanto sugar beet representative. “Sugar beet farmers have been busy for spring planting, waiting for USDA’s guidance and hoping it would come in time for spring planting.”

Walker said Monsanto will carefully review the details of the interim measures.

The USDA website lists 18 requirements for farmers planting genetically modified sugar beets. They include restrictions on planting in California and several counties in Washington, maintaining a 4-mile distance between the male plants and all other commercial crops, properly cleaning cultivation and harvesting equipment to prevent modified seeds from being mixed with unmodified ones and a labeling system to identify genetically modified seeds throughout the production process.

Paul Atchitoff, of Earthjustice, the group leading the fight against the USDA over the sugar beet deregulation, said the conditions are “not materially different from the way the industry was growing before.”

“And those conditions resulted in contamination and will continue to result in contamination,” Atchitoff said.

Friday’s announcement does nothing to address the concerns the California judge outlined last year, and it will allow producers “to do anything they want in practical effect,” he said.

He said his group would file another lawsuit immediately to stop the partial deregulation.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

Roundup Ready alfalfa seed contracts far in future

Seed company representatives told alfalfa growers last week that no Roundup Ready seed production contracts will be issued for at least a year, and that Roundup Ready alfalfa will probably never make up more than half the U.S. crop.

And seed companies will require isolating genetically modified fields in an attempt to limit cross-pollination with conventional alfalfa crops, company representatives said, although those may make it difficult to find ideal field locations. The crop itself, they said, poses no threat to human health.

“People want to fear this thing,” said Jim Larson of Dairyland Seed Co., a Wisconsin-based company. “Our fear is not being able to find a place to grow it.”

Larson and other seed company representatives spoke to about 50 people at the annual meeting of the Wyoming Crop Improvement Association last week at the University of Wyoming Powell Research and Extension Center. They said with planting of the modified crop halted for several years, thousands of pounds of alfalfa seed produced in past years remains in warehouses and new contracts will not be issued until that backlog eases.

“There’s plenty of time to work a lot of this stuff out,” said Rod Leafdale of Forage Genetics. “I won’t have any contracts (for growers), maybe for a year.”

Larson doesn’t foresee government officials placing severe restrictions on where Roundup Ready alfalfa will be planted, except that buffer zones translating to 78.5 square miles for his company around a field will keep fields apart.

“We believe that this whole thing has to be grower driven,” he said, which means growers may have to talk to their neighbors about what crops they are planting to maintain buffer zones.

Although Mike Moore, manager of the University of Wyoming Seed Certification Service, had said he believed future lawsuits over the crop could “pit neighbor against neighbor” rather than corporation against corporation, seed company reps said they didn’t think it would turn out that way.

Nationwide, agricultural experts believe contamination of organic and traditional crops by recently deregulated, genetically modified alfalfa is inevitable, despite Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent assurances the federal government would take steps to prevent such a problem.

Many farmers had pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve the use of genetically modified alfalfa. Monsanto developed the seed to resist the glyphosate in the weed killer Roundup, saving farmers time and labor on weeding. Supporters also say the use of the genetically modified seeds lets farmers grow more alfalfa on each acre and helps keep food prices low.

Opponents say widespread planting of genetically modified alfalfa will result in pollen from those plants contaminating organic and traditional crops, destroying their value.

Alfalfa is grown on about 20 million acres, in almost every state in the U.S., and is the fourth-largest field crop behind corn, soybeans and wheat. Production has declined in the past several years from almost 25 million acres in 2000, according to Steve Oftedal of Cal West, who told growers at the Crop Improvement Association meeting that U.S. dairy farms — prime alfalfa users — dwindled from 105,000 in 2000 to 65,000 in 2009. Oftedal said milk production continued at relatively level rates.

The USDA’s deregulation of genetically modified alfalfa was the latest step in a long court fight. A federal court barred its planting in 2007, saying the USDA had not given enough consideration to potential effects on the environment and human health. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban last year.

Vilsack said steps would be taken to ensure genetically modified alfalfa wouldn’t cross-pollinate with organic and unmodified crops. He proposed research to improve detection of modified genes in alfalfa and promised $1 million for research on the flow of pollen to determine how big buffer zones between modified and unmodified fields must be to prevent contamination.

None of that will be enough, said Jeff Wolt, an agronomist with Iowa State University’s Seed Science Center.

“Some degree of cross-pollination will occur regardless of what mechanism is going to be put in place,” he predicted.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)