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USA: New court hearings for GM sugar beet

(10 September 2010) The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) intends in the coming year once more to allow limited cultivation of genetically modified (GM) sugar beet under controlled conditions. Environmental and consumer groups have reacted by announcing further court hearings.

In mid-August, a Californian District Court suspended the cultivation approval issued in 2005 for GM sugar beet, citing thereby insufficient testing of its effects on the environment.

The USDA foresees the enactment of transitional regulations by the end of the year that appropriately address the interests of sugar beet cultivation as well as the court judgment. Out-crossing between GM and conventional sugar beet, as well as related cultivated plants such as Swiss chard and beetroot, should be prevented through regulation and control. According to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the goal thereby is to "further USDA's continuing efforts to enable coexistence among conventional, organic, and biotechnology production systems."

Out-crossing is of relevance primarily in regions where sugar beet seeds are produced, which applies in the USA almost exclusively to a climatically suitable valley in the state of Oregon. In order to produce the seeds intended for later planting, the sugar beet plants must bloom. The resulting pollen is dispersed by wind. A variety of studies have shown that out-crossing can occur at distances of as much as 1000 metres.

The USDA intends apparently to regard the growing fields for GM sugar beet as release sites, which consequently are to be permitted according to the legal provisions appropriate to this definition. Presumably, seed breeding companies may be required to maintain specific distances to fields planted with varieties that are capable of multiplying. To date, and depending on the company, such distances have ranged from 2500 to 6500 metres.

In contrast, pollen is less of a problem in the industrial cultivation of sugar beet. Since sugar beets are ‘biennial’ – forming their taproots in the first year and their blossoms in the second – they are harvested before they bloom. Pollen is formed only by plants that blossom prematurely. Farmers who plant GM sugar beets have been required up to the present to check their fields for such ‘prematures’ and to eradicate them.

After the court decision, cultivation of GM sugar beet in California could no longer be allowed for the moment in any case. Isolated stocks of wild beet are found in the state in addition to the conventional sugar production presented as being ‘without gene technology’.

The measures announced by the USDA have been deemed insufficient by the organisations filing suit, which include the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club. The organisations refer to a lack of clarity towards control of the eradication of ‘premature bloomers’ and suggest therefore that out-crossing to conventional sugar beet, Swiss chard or beetroot would remain possible. The organisations also suggest that a legal decision on the further cultivation of GM sugar beet only may be reached after conclusion of the exhaustive assessment of environmental effects that was ordered by the court.

According to statements by the USDA, two years would be necessary for such an assessment.


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