The future of organic seed crops remains murky following the Nov. 4 announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it will likely continue allowing the commercial production of Monsanto’s genetically modified sugar beets under certain conditions. The announcement, which was published as part of a Federal Register notice, flies in the face of the August ruling by a federal judge in San Francisco that was intended to halt such plantings until USDA publishes its environmental impact statement for the GMO crop. That report isn’t expected to be completed until May 2012, but sugar beet farmers are saying they need to be able to plant the GMO crops this year because there isn’t enough conventional seed available to meet demand.

In its Federal Register notice, the USDA wrote that its preferred method for addressing this issue is to authorize the production of [Roundup Ready] sugar beets under strict conditions. The agency has issued permits to four companies allowing the planting of GM sugar beet seeds, despite a preemptive lawsuit filed in October by the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and other groups challenging the legality of the permits.

The planting of GMO sugar beets threatens the integrity of organic crops that cross-pollinate with sugar beets, including organic table beets and Swiss chard. The area where this threat is most pronounced is Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which produces nearly all of the sugar beet seeds in the United States and where organic farmers such as Frank Morton produce organic table beets and chard. In addition, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets have led to the development of super weeds that are resistant to even massive amounts of herbicides.

Since its introduction in 2008, GMO sugar beets rapidly grew to represent 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop, according to USDA estimates. Monsanto is the only supplier of GMO sugar beets, which account for 44 percent of U.S sugar production.

“USDA is blatantly ignoring the previous court decision by allowing the continued planting of GMO sugar beets,” said Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance. “In doing so, they are looking out for the interests of Monsanto over those of organic and non-GMO farmers.”