The Context of USDA’s GE Sugar Beet Decision

You’ve probably heard that USDA recently deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets following a court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Organic Seed Alliance has written before about the threat this genetically engineered (GE) trait poses to the integrity of organic and other non-GE crops, including table beets and chard, and why we joined legal battles around its introduction.

The decision is of course troubling to farmers who have invested years in breeding projects that will likely be affected by the unrestricted production of GE sugar beet seed. But equally as troubling is the context and culture in which this decision was made.

Heightened contention around new GE crop approvals has spurred myriad responses, from lawsuits involving alfalfa and sugar beets, to federal and state labeling initiatives and community bans. Yet, instead of engaging in more meaningful dialogue with those at risk of harm, regulatory agencies signal an even more relaxed approach to overseeing GE crops.

We know that, unlike some countries, USDA does not take a precautionary approach to GE crop technologies; though, we wish it did. Instead we find ourselves with an agency that, even in light of evidence that harm will likely occur, chooses a deficient approach to ensuring that farmers of all conventions are protected. This is to say the agency doesn’t require contamination prevention measures; post-market monitoring of potential economic, environmental, or other impacts; and a compensation mechanism for those negatively impacted.

In short, the U.S. does not have a comprehensive policy framework to govern the introduction of GE crop technologies despite growing evidence of harm and conflict.

Take Roundup Ready alfalfa. The court-ordered EIS showed that contamination of organic and non-GE alfalfa was likely. Indeed, contamination cases have mounted since the GE crop’s introduction. Ironically, USDA initiated alfalfa gene flow studies after the crop was approved for unrestricted production.

In an open letter from Secretary Vilsack announcing the GE alfalfa decision, he stated:

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

And that’s just it: agriculture is complex. It’s not just about markets. In fact, when Judge Breyer ruled in 2007 that USDA failed to take the “hard look” required by law for major government actions when it approved GE alfalfa, he clarified that contamination isn’t just a marketing issue, it’s about a farmer’s ability to choose seed, and a consumer’s ability to choose food, free of transgenic material. We know the issues are environmental (how best to sustain our soil and water) and social (the health of rural communities), as well as economic.

Therefore, “a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity” is one that takes a comprehensive approach to addressing the multifaceted issues and interests, and in so doing, honors this complexity.

This will take a cultural shift within USDA, since current policies and practices point to more lax oversight of new GE crops. For example, one USDA proposal allows manufacturers of new GE crop traits to perform their own environmental assessments, an enormous step backward in the face of ongoing pressure to strengthen and create a more independent review of GE crops. (We wrote about that here.)

More recently, the biotech industry has been working to weaken the actual rules even further through legislation. Proposed language in the House Farm Bill would allow GE crop plantings even when a court has restricted planting for certain crops, which occurred in the cases of alfalfa and sugar beets. Other proposed changes would limit USDA’s oversight of GE crops.

Organic farmers depend on organic and other non-GE seed varieties to meet the organic standards as well as consumer demand. The unwanted presence of GE material in the seed they rely on places an unfair burden on farmers and the companies managing these genetics. The organic community is responding to the challenges contamination poses in a number of ways, including prevention measures in their organic systems plan and testing and redirecting contaminated seeds and harvests. Yet when contamination is found, there is no recourse available – no way to collect compensation for testing costs, prevention measures, losses incurred from selling organic seed to the non-organic market, or costs associated with cleaning up seed lines.

Currently, preventing and dealing with contamination remains the burden of those who attempt to avoid GE products. This reality shows that current policies and practices don’t reflect the complexity of agriculture.

As such, it is our recommendation that USDA place a moratorium on deregulating new GE crops at least until a comprehensive approach to prevention and compensation is established. At the very least, those who manufacture and profit from these technologies should bear the costs. These costs include mitigating the spread of GE material, testing and eradicating unwanted GE material, losing premiums and sales of non-GE products, among other perpetual costs absorbed by the organic and non-GE agricultural community. We believe it is most appropriate to establish a compensation plan that manufacturers and/or patent holders pay into as part of a strengthened regulatory framework.

USDA should also conduct a full analysis of existing contamination at the seed level. The current state of the genetic integrity of our nation’s seed is unknown. OSA’s research and that of others in the organic and non-GE community points to an ongoing problem that is only getting worse.

We agree with Secretary Vilsack that there is a better way to address ongoing conflict regarding GE crops, a way that doesn’t have to involve litigation. But it’s up to the agency to use its existing authority to implement such a solution.

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