USDA: Farmers can plant genetically modified beets

Clean field
Farmers who plant genetically modified sugar beets have fewer weeds, which means bigger yields.
MPR file photo/Dan Gunderson

The U.S. Agriculture Department says farmers will be allowed to grow genetically modified sugar beets this year, while it finishes work on a full environmental impact statement on the beets' effect on other crops and the environment.

Farmers had been waiting for the USDA to finish its work and make a decision about deregulation of the beets. They feared a decision wouldn't come in time for spring planting.

The USDA Friday announced interim rules that will allow farmers to grow the herbicide-resistant sugar beets while the study is completed. Under those rules, farmers can grow the beets if they get permits and agree to inspections.

Farmers used the genetically modified seed for about five years, until a lawsuit put its use on hold. The concern is that the genetically modified beets could cross-pollinate and affect other crops.

Paige Tomaselli, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety, says the USDA decision is not supported by science.

"We think these measures will not protect farmers from contamination and the other side effects of Roundup Ready sugar beets. We will be filing a lawsuit immediately, addressing this partial deregulation," said Tomaselli.

Sugar beets are widely grown in northwest Minnesota, and much of the crop is sold to American Crystal Sugar, which is based in Moorhead.

The company's president, David Berg, predicts weeks of legal wrangling over the USDA decision.

"This is a first step which probably, or very likely, could lead to additional lawsuits anyway. It moves us closer to having Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011, but it certainly is not the single act that's going to allow it to happen," Berg said.

Farmers are making plans to grow conventional sugar beets this year if the genetically modified version remains tied up in the legal process.