The price of domestic sugar is going up, thanks to a recent federal district court ruling that threatens to severely limit the supply of genetically modified beet sugar, which accounts for some 95% of all planted sugar in the United States.  The case, Center for Food Safety v. Vilsak, centers on the USDA’s decision to deregulate the sale and distribution of a strain of genetically modified sugar beets developed and marketed by Monsanto Co.  Known as Roundup Ready beets, this new variety of beets is resistant to Monsanto’s widely used agricultural herbicide Roundup. The use of Roundup Ready beets allows farmers to apply Roundup to their entire field of beet crops, rather than more expensive and less environmentally friendly herbicides that must be applied more frequently.

Before a genetically modified plant seed may be sold commercially, federal law requires the manufacturer to obtain approval from the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the USDA. The approval process is designed to ensure that the seed is safe, that the danger of cross-pollination with other seed varieties is minimal, and that the possibility of cross-pollination is not a significant harmful impact on the human environment.  After years of field testing, APHIS conducted an environmental assessment (EA) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and determined that Roundup Ready beets would not have a significant impact on the environment.  Accordingly, APHIS approved Roundup Ready beets for marketing and distribution in March 2005. 

Anti-biotech activist group Center for Food Safety then filed suit against APHIS, alleging that its EA was inadequate under NEPA and demanding a full environmental impact statement (EIS). U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California agreed that APHIS was required to prepare a more extensive EIS and recently issued an order vacating APHIS’s decision to deregulate.  In doing so, Judge White denied the plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction that would ban any further planting of the crop, relying on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms.  That essentially means that APHIS will decide what interim measures will govern the planting of genetically modified sugar beets pending the agency’s preparation of a full EIS.  But it remains unclear what, if anything, APHIS is prepared to do to protect the many farmers who depend on the genetically modified crop for their livelihood.  Nor is it known whether APHIS will appeal the district court’s ruling that the agency violated NEPA in failing to prepare an EIS.  Until APHIS’s intentions are known, we can expect more uncertainty in the marketplace.