Despite a court ban, federal regulators said Friday that farmers would be able to plant genetically modified sugar beets this year — though such plantings would have to happen under certain conditions while the government finishes up a full environmental impact statement.
The news comes after estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the country's sugar supply could run short and domestic farmers could lose as much as 21% of their 2011 crop if they were unable to use the seeds this spring.
The decision also marks the second time in recent days that the USDA gave farmers the go-ahead to plant genetically engineered crops. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this month that the department would authorize unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa, another biotech crop based on seeds developed by Monsanto Co. that are resistant to its Roundup Ready herbicide.
Friday's decision is a temporary measure until the Agriculture Department can complete its study of the effects of planting Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds, officials said in a statement Friday.
Opponents of the genetically modified crop were outraged by the news and announced plans Friday to immediately return to federal court in San Francisco to stop the action.
"Nothing they're saying now significantly changes the risks that prompted the court to make the decision that it did," said Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environment firm that is one of the groups that sued the USDA in 2008 for approving the use of biotech beets.
In August 2010, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White banned future plantings of the plants until the federal government had completed a more thorough review.
Critics contend that the use of the popular seed has resulted in increased use of herbicides, the contamination of organic and other crops and a boom in "super weeds" that are resistant to herbicides. White sided with Earthjustice and other plaintiffs, who had argued that the sugar beets could cause irreparable harm to organic and other conventionally grown crops, and that the preventive measures the USDA would require from farmers weren't thorough enough.
"We don't think what they're saying now, and what they're doing now, will fly with the court," Achitoff said.
On Friday, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said that evidence and public comments gathered so far had convinced officials that the seeds "can be partially deregulated without posing a plant pest risk or having a significant effect on the environment," Michael Gregoire, deputy administrator for APHIS' biotechnology regulatory services, said in a statement.
Monsanto's biotech seeds are used to produce an estimated 95% of the U.S. sugar beet crop. The crop accounts for more than half of the country's sugar supply, according to USDA data.
Monsanto had petitioned the government to deregulate the seeds and allow them to be used this season, thereby letting the company continue to sell them.