The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled Tuesday controversial plans to again approve genetically modified sugar beets in time for planting next year, a move that would nullify a federal court ruling in August that invalidated the approval the USDA issued five years ago.
The USDA’s proposal, published Tuesday, represents the preliminary stage of the process and will be followed by a 30-day comment period before a final decision. The USDA laid out three options in the proposal, including an option not to re-approve the sugar beets, but said its preferred action would be to “authorize the commercial production” of genetically modified sugar beets under strict regulations.
The USDA remains in a legal battle with groups seeking to halt production and planting of genetically modified sugar beets because of concerns that the plants contaminate nearby non-biotech crops.
“The mandatory conditions outlined in the permits would work to minimize any potential for the escape and dissemination of plant pests and the likelihood of environmental impacts of concern raised by the court,” the USDA said in a statement scheduled to be released Tuesday.
The mandatory conditions the USDA proposes as part of the plan to allow for planting in 2011 are contained in an “environmental assessment” document that will be posted on the its Web site Tuesday.
Genetically modified sugar beets now account for 95 percent of the U.S. crop. U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White’s August ruling to invalidate USDA’s 2005 approval threw into doubt the ability of many farmers to plant in 2011 and the ability of seed companies to produce seeds for 2012.
Sugar from sugar beets will account for about 60 percent of domestic U.S. production this year. If farmers can’t plant genetically modified seeds next spring, U.S. sugar production will be cut by about 20 percent, according to an estimate the USDA supplied to Judge White.
March sugar futures on the New York’s ICE exchange rose to a nine-month high of 30.19 cents a pound Tuesday, nearing February’s high of 30.40 cents before pulling back to 29.93 cents.
“APHIS takes its role in protecting plant health very seriously and is well aware of the importance of this decision for sugar beet growers and processors,” said Michael Gregoire, deputy administrator for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “We are issuing this environmental assessment to share our decision-making process as transparently as possible and allow for public comment.”
Paige Tomaselli, a lawyer for the Center for Food Safety, said recently that as soon as the USDA issues new approvals for genetically modified sugar beet planting in 2011, her group will challenge it in court.