Judge Jeffrey White of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued a ruling on August 13, 2010 vacating a USDA decision to allow Monsanto to continue to plant Genuity® Roundup Ready® (GMO) sugar beets. Based on the recent press reports, there seems to be some confusion regarding the nature of this ruling. First, this is a follow-up to an earlier ruling on September 2009, in which the Court ruled that the decision by the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”) to deregulate a variety of genetically engineered sugar beets without preparing an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) violated the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4335 (“NEPA”). The same court subsequently held that it would not issue a preliminary injunction. The ruling issued on August 13, 2010 took up the issue of a permanent remedy. Although a permanent injunction was not issued, by issuing this vacatur, genetically engineered sugar beets are once again regulated articles pursuant to the Plant Protection Act. This has the effect of prohibiting all future plantings until further action by APHIS.
Potential Impact. The current crop of more than one million acres of the GMO sugar beets can still be harvested, but the next crop cannot be planted until after the USDA submits an environmental impact statement, which could take years and be the subject of further judicial and administrative scrutiny. This may be complicated by the fact that 95% of all sugar beets are now genetically engineered. Since half of the sugar in the United States comes from sugar beets, look for production problems next year. Any non-GMO seed stock would already have to be nearing harvest in order to be available next year. It is likely that there will be disruptions and price increases.
It is obvious that other GMO agricultural products could be subject to similar attacks. If a court issued a permanent injunction on a major food crop such as corn or soybeans, the resulting chaos can hardly be imagined. The variety and competition available in those products may make the likelihood of a single ruling having a major market effect unlikely. However, this does outline the necessity to avoid short cuts (I am giving the plaintiffs and the court the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument) when regulatiing GMO products.
This ruling followed a lawsuit filed on January 21, 2008 by the Center for Food Safety and other groups in the District Court for the Northern District of California challenging the deregulation of Roundup Ready sugarbeets by the USDA. These sugarbeets have been on the market since 2005.