Up until now, court challenges to genetically engineered crops have mostly been about process and procedure, not the merits of the brave new GM world.
But a decision last week out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is going to change all that, according to attorney George Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety. He says the court order “cements a critical legal benchmark in the battle for meaningful oversight of biotech crops and food.”
“Because of this case,” Kimbrell said, “there will be public disclosure and debate on the harmful impacts of these pesticide-promoting crops, as well as legal protections for farmers threatened by contamination.”
Tom Helscher, Monsanto’s spokesman, says there is less to the decision than the opponents claim. “As a result of subsequent court decisions and USDA actions, continuation of the appeals had little consequence for Roundup Ready sugar beet growers or seed companies,” he said. “The (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has issued interim measures to allow the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets and farmers are planting their Roundup Ready sugar beet crops.”
The Ninth Circuit’s summary order directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a “rigorous review” of the impacts of GE sugar beets engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
USDA approved the use of so-called Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2008, and their share of the market quickly grew to as much as 95 percent. Opponents, led by the Center for Food Safety, initially challenged the USDA action in federal district court in San Francisco.
They feared the Roundup Ready sugar beets will contaminate organic and other crops that are not genetically engineered, including table beets and chard.
District Judge Jeffrey S. White agreed, and ordered USDA to write a full blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). By last August, Judge White had not only stuck with his EIS order, but also rejected USDA’s “partial deregulation” of GE sugar beets base on an environmental assessment, and halted plantings.
It was Monsanto that appealed White’s decisions to the Ninth Circuit, and that’s been dismissed.
USDA plans on finishing the EIS on GE sugar beets in 2012, at which time it will be able to make a new decision on commercialization.
Vilsack has taken a “why can’t we all get along” approach with interim measures, hoping to
deal with both the pro- and anti-GMO camps.
USDA limited GM sugar beet plantings to exclude environmental hotspots like the entire state of California and western counties in Washington state. While those measures were not welcomed by Judge White, they might be how USDA may keep warring camps apart in the future.