USDA Approves Roundup-Ready Sugar Beets

Published September 10, 2012

After more than a decade of study, approval, court hearings, and more study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reaffirmed farmers’ right to cultivate sugar beets genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup. 

Long-Term Certainty

As a practical matter, USDA’s approval will not make much difference in the near term, as 95 percent of the nation’s sugar beet farmers already grow Roundup-ready beets under prior USDA approval. The significance of the USDA’s reaffirmation is long-term certainty provided to sugar beet farmers that Roundup-ready beets won’t be pulled from the market due to challenges by environmental activists. 

Importance of Sugar Beets

Farmers’ ability to grow improved sugar beets will significantly benefit agricultural production. Sugar beets are not the type of beets you eat in salads but are instead used primarily to produce sugar.

The sugar from sugar beets is identical to the sugar produced from sugar cane, and sugar beets account for approximately 55 percent of the sugar produced in the United States. Cash receipts for U.S. sugar beet production were $1.335 billion in the 2007/2008 crop year.

Biotech Benefits Crop Production

Elimination of weeds is important in sugar beet fields because they compete with the crop for water, nutrients, and light. Roundup-ready beets enable farmers to effectively prevent weeds without harming the sugar beets.

Prior to the development of Roundup-ready sugar beets, growers used other herbicides to control weeds. Although these chemicals are still available, they are not as effective as Roundup and are more toxic. They also tend to injure the sugar beet crop.

Long Road to Approval

USDA initially approved Roundup-ready beets in 2005. In 2009, however, environmental activist groups and organic sugar beet growers challenged the approval in federal district court. The growers argued Roundup-ready beets might crosspollinate their crops. Environmental activists raised the specter of super-weeds evolving in response to the frequent use of Roundup on genetically engineered beets.

A federal district court ruled that before full approval for Roundup-ready beets, USDA had to produce an Environmental Impact Statement addressing a range of issues. In the meantime, growers were allowed to continue planting the beets under rules that had been in place before USDA’s previous approval. 

Approval ‘Long Overdue’

Henry I. Miller, the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, praised the reaffirmation of Roundup-ready beets.

“The approval is long overdue,” Miller said. “The delay resulted from synergy between flawed regulatory policy and the cynical machinations of anti-technology activists who blocked the approval with spurious lawsuits.

“USDA imposed and has maintained an unscientific regulatory scheme for decades,” Miller explained. “This illogical regulatory burden exists only because 25 years ago the Agriculture Department rejected the scientific community’s consensus that no special regulations were needed for genetically engineered plants. Instead, USDA chose to require a mandatory preapproval process, thereby spawning the ‘major actions’ that trigger the need for Environmental Impact Statements required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Those Environmental Impact Statements, in turn, made possible endless procedural legal challenges, which have caused delays, uncertainty, and higher development costs.”

USDA’s environmental impact statement, released in June, concluded Roundup-ready beets are no more likely to pose a risk to other agricultural crops or plants than traditionally bred sugar beets. 

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.