News Analysis: Biotech Crops Get The Nod From USDA

The federal government is moving toward deregulating certain genetically modified crops. The US Department of Agriculture approved the use of genetically-altered alfalfa and announced plans to partially deregulate G-M sugar beets. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray joins host Jennifer Szweda Jordan to discuss why the USDA seems to be allowing an expansion of biotech foods.

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OPEN: Now to the national agriculture spotlight. †The federal government is moving toward deregulating certain genetically modified crops. †The US Department of Agriculture approved the use of genetically-altered alfalfa and announced plans to partially deregulate G-M sugar beets. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray is here to discuss why the USDA seems to be allowing an expansion of biotech foods.

JORDAN: There has been a court ban on planting genetically altered sugar beets. †The USDA says it will let farmers plant biotech beets this spring. Again, they're calling this a partial deregulation. †But what's the difference between regulation and partial regulation--is the agency just splitting hairs?

MURRAY: The USDA has said that regulators will closely control the GM beet planting conditions while they finish an environmental impact statement by May 2012.

JORDAN: How would regulators control planting?

MURRAY: Growers of the sugar beets will have to agree to meet requirements about how the crop is grown. The government expects that sugar beet cooperatives and processors will be the only groups that will enter into agreements on behalf of their farmer members. †The USDA says it will regulate the crops through a permitting process.

JORDAN: Opponents such as organic farmers and environmental groups say that the USDA hasn't proved that genetically altered crops won't hurt the environment or other crops.

MURRAY: That's right. Groups including Earthjustice are planning to take the USDA back to court because they believe the agency can't deregulate a genetically modified crop before it finishes an environmental impact statement.

JORDAN: Say more about previous court †case?

MURRAY: The USDA approved the use of Monsanto's beet seeds in 2005 and Earthjustice took the Agriculture Department to court three years later. †A judge ruled in favor of Earthjustice this past August and said that the government had to finish an environmental impact statement that's required by law. The court also ruled that farmers had to dig up any seeds that were already planted.

JORDAN: Why are organic farmers and some environmental groups worried about GM sugar beets?

MURRAY: These Monsanto- developed crops are immune to Monsanto's herbicide Round-Up . Earthjustice and others predict an increase in the amount of herbicides used, the growth of herbicide resistant weeds and contamination of conventional and organic crops.

JORDAN: What do you mean by contamination?

MURRAY: GM beets raise the threat of cross-pollination -- genetic material from modified beets could make its way into organic table beet and chard crops. Both can cross-pollinate with sugar beets.

JORDAN: A lot of farmers and the US agriculture department contend that without Monsanto's modified sugar beets, the country won't have enough sugar.

MURRAY: Nearly half of the sugar we use in the United States comes from sugar beets. †The USDA reports that there aren't enough conventional beet seeds to keep up with the demand for sugar. So the agency says Monsanto modified beet seeds are needed to maintain sugar production.

JORDAN: The seeds were introduced †about six years ago. How†common a part of the US market are they?

MURRAY: Genetically engineered sugar beet crops represent almost all of the current beet production in the US. †The USDA estimates that without the use of GM beet seeds, the crop yield would drop by 20 percent.

JORDAN: Because the USDA says G-M sugar beets are so important in the market, are they planning to challenge last year's court decision?

MURRAY: The Ag Department is appealing the August 2010 decision to remove GM beet seeds from the ground. †A hearing might be set as soon as next week.

JORDAN: What does USDA's decision to fully deregulate alfalfa and partially deregulate sugar beets mean for the approval of other biotech crops?

MURRAY: It could set a standard for the way the federal government handles two dozen other GM crops that are in the pipeline for approval. The Wall Street Journal calls this a big victory for biotech.

JORDAN: Thanks, Ann.