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.”

An emboldened USDA

The legal battle over the use of GM sugar beets has been going on ever since the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service gave the green light to the genetically modified crop in 2008.

The significance of this latest development, however, is that it demonstrates an emboldened attitude on the part of the USDA. One event likely boosting the agency’s confidence is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year reversing the injunction that was put on GM alfalfa crops.

“Based on that decision, which basically said that it is up to the USDA to decide whether to allow limited plantings, the agency feels it can go ahead with allowing the continued planting of genetically modified sugar beets,” said Ken Roseboro, editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Report.

Monsanto’s motivations for wanting GM sugar beet planting to continue are clear, but sugar beet farmers are also pushing for the immediate continued use of the crop due to a reported lack of available non-GMO sugar beet seed. Said Hubbard, “The sugar beet industry is applying enormous pressure on the USDA to move forward with allowing production.”

Just how far the sugar beet battle will go remains uncertain, but Roseboro said it could follow in the alfalfa case’s footsteps all the way to Supreme Court. Whether that happens could depend on whether Monsanto aggressively intervenes in this case—as it did in the alfalfa dispute. “The alfalfa case was a bigger deal because that crop is grown on 22 million acres in the United States, while sugar beets are grown on a much smaller scale,” Roseboro explained.  

Regardless of Monsanto’s involvement, “something will have to be decided on this soon for the seed to be planted,” Roseboro added. “That is why the USDA is pushing for planting.”

A report issued earlier this month by a USDA economist estimated that a ban on GM sugar beets would slash total U.S. sugar production by 20 percent next year.

How much conventional seed really is available?

From an agricultural perspective, one of the most troubling aspects of this situation is the mystery surrounding the country’s non-GMO seed supply. According to Hubbard, it is largely unknown exactly how much conventional seed still exists because the seed companies have not been forthcoming with this information. “The seed industry has not been transparent and has left everyone wondering just how much conventional seed truly is available,” Hubbard said. “In turn, sugar beet farmers and the media are painting this as a potential sugar beet supply crisis.”

If the majority of conventional sugar beet seed has been eradicated, Hubbard said she believes that the seed companies must be held accountable. “Rather than having the foresight to ensure that conventional seed would always be available to farmers, they looked out for their own interests in aggressively moving forward with all GM sugar beet production.”