U.S.D.A. offers options for bioengineered sugar beets

by Ron Sterk
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KANSAS CITY — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Nov. 2 offered a draft environmental assessment with three options addressing an industry request for partial deregulation or similar administrative action that would allow planting of bioengineered sugar beet seed.

The three options examined by APHIS include: deny the request and halt any authorization of production until APHIS completes the required environmental impact statement; grant the request to allow production without further APHIS regulation; or authorize production of bioengineered sugar beets under APHIS permit subject to mandatory conditions to prevent potential plant pest risks. Aphis said it preferred the latter option.

The draft environmental assessment was to be published in the Nov. 4 Federal Register and is available for public comment until Dec. 6.

The request came from the Monsanto Co. and KWS SAAT AG concerning Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” sugar beet seeds, which were granted nonregulated status by the U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 2005 and were planted on about 95% of U.S. sugar beet acreage in 2010. Further planting of the bioengineered seeds was blocked in a September 2009 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that invalidated the APHIS decision and required a full environmental impact statement as part of a 2008 law suit brought against the U.S.D.A. by the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and two organic seed groups.

The U.S.D.A. has indicated the environmental impact statement won’t be ready until late May 2012, and it is unknown how much traditional sugar beet seed is available for next year’s crop. U.S.D.A. analysts have estimated U.S. sugar production could fall by 20% if the bioengineered seeds can not be planted.

A three-day evidentiary hearing on the law suit was being held in the California court this week.

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