One man’s battle against GM sugar beets

A lawsuit filed last year to stop sales of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetically modified sugar beet seed will be argued in a US District Court of Northern California on April 3. One man’s livelihood may hang in the balance.

The plaintiffs, which include Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Center for Food Safety, want the court to stop sales of Roundup Ready GM sugar beet seed and require the US Department of Agriculture to thoroughly assess the environmental, health, and economic impacts of the GM beets.

“GMO contamination is inevitable”
Frank Morton, owner of Wild Garden Seeds and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says the GM beets threaten his livelihood. Morton produces seed for organic chard, table beets, and other vegetables in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where seed for the GM beets is also grown. Pollen from the GM beets grown here could easily contaminate his seed, destroying the organic status of the seed and ruining his business.

According to Morton, 5,000 acres of GM sugar beet seed are grown in the valley. He is angry that GM seed production was introduced into the valley secretly. “The initial stages of GM beet seed production were carried out in secrecy for at least two years without other sugar beet seed growers having any knowledge or notification that GMOs were in the air, literally,” he says.

The Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association established a three-mile isolation distance between the GM sugar beets and conventional and organic plants. Morton says the isolation distance is inadequate. “GMO contamination is inevitable under the current situation.”

60% in 2008, 90% in 2009
GM sugar beets were grown and harvested for the first time in the US in 2008. According to industry estimates, about 60% of the 1.2 million acres of sugar beets grown last year were Roundup Ready GM varieties. The beets were grown in Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. California grew only non-GMO, conventional varieties. Tom Schwartz, executive vice president of the Beet Sugar Development Foundation, told the San Francisco Chronicle that 90 to 95% of this year’s US sugar beet crop will be GM.

“Roundup Ready salad greens”
Cross pollination between GM sugar beets and related plants, such as chard and table beets, is a major threat in the Willamette Valley where sugar beets are the predominant crop. Morton says there are many areas where chard and sugar beet fields are “rubbing up against one another.” The two plants cross pollinate because they are the same species.

Morton now sends his seed to a laboratory that tests for GMO contamination. “I’m watching for contamination, and if it happens, people will hear about it,” he says. “I have to pay an expense on account of a technology that will destroy the value of our crop if we get positive results. Nobody considered that Roundup Ready sugar beets in one generation might turn up as Roundup Ready salad greens in the next.”

Lawsuit to stop GM beets
As a result of the threat to his business, Morton joined a lawsuit organized by the Center for Food Safety to sue the US Department of Agriculture for failing to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS). “USDA didn’t consider the impact on all these farms and markets to where we sell seeds. My markets have zero tolerance to GMOs,” he says. “If there is any GMO contamination, my customers won’t buy the seed. Who is going to pay for that?”

The case goes to court on April 3. Last August, Monsanto petitioned the court to become party to the suit along with sugar beet processors and seed growers cooperative. The judge denied the petition, which Morton says was a victory.

Kevin Golden, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, says he is confident the court will rule in the plaintiffs’ favor based on a precedent set in 2007 in a similar lawsuit involving GM alfalfa. In that case, the court required USDA to conduct an environmental impact study (EIS) on GM alfalfa and issued an injunction to stop sale of the seed. “The alfalfa case has established a very strong legal precedent. We are confident the judge will find that the USDA failed to do its legal duty under the National Environmental Policy Act (which requires that the agency conduct an environmental impact study).”

Golden understands the personal significance of the case. “Frank Morton is directly threatened. This is about protecting him directly.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report February 2009