A single federal judge is wreaking havoc on the availability and price of sugar.  I’ve written at length before about the rising price of sugar following an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White that effectively outlaws the nation’s supply of genetically modified beet sugar, which accounts for some 95% of all planted beet sugar in the United States.

That case, Center for Food Safety v. Vilsak, centered 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 sugar beet 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.

After years of field testing, USDA 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, the agency approved Roundup Ready beets for marketing and distribution in March 2005.  Once Roundup Ready beets were introduced to the market, the nation’s sugar beet farmers liked the alternative so much they quickly abandoned conventional sugar beet seed, giving the herbicide-resistant seed a near total share of the sugar beet market.

But anti-biotech activist group Center for Food Safety soon filed suit against USDA, alleging that its EA was inadequate under NEPA and demanding a full environmental impact statement (EIS).  U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered USDA to prepare a full EIS.  Not content with merely preserving the status quo, Judge White is now at it again.  Last week, he actually issued an order requiring that 256 acres of sugar beet crop be ripped up from the soil and destroyed.  As a result of the ruling, experts now predict that the nation’s sugar beet acreage could plummet by as much as 37 percent, causing total sugar production to fall by 1.6 million tons of refined sugar.  In other words, hold on to your wallet.

Ironically, Judge White’s heavy-handed order comes at a time when the nation’s leading food producers are touting genetically modified crops as a solution to meeting the growing demands of an accelerating global population.  The adoption of biotech crops could help farmers and food manufacturers in the U.S. satisfy the increasing demand for food worldwide, economist Jay Lehr emphasized at the Midwest Food Processors Association’s meeting in Wisconsin.  Unfortunately, so long as Judge White has his way, countless farmers who depend on the genetically modified crop for their livelihood are left in the lurch.  And Americans can expect to pay even more for their sugar (and all food products containing sugar) in the weeks and months ahead.