by Marion Nestle
Dec 2 2010

The latest on the GM front: sugar beets and apples

I haven’t seem much comment on what’s happening with Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, a suit to prevent planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets because USDA allowed them to be grown without filing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

This is kind of after-the-fact because Monsanto’s GM sugar beets have been planted widely for the last five years and now comprise 95% of the sugar beet crop in the U.S.

As the Center for Food Safety explains,

The court outlined the many ways in which GE sugar beets could harm the environment and consumers, noting that containment efforts were insufficient and past contamination incidents were “too numerous” to allow the illegal crop to remain in the ground. In his court order, Judge White noted, “farmers and consumers would likely suffer harm from cross-contamination” between GE sugar beets and non-GE crops. He continued, “the legality of Defendants’ conduct does not even appear to be a close question,” noting that the government and Monsanto tried to circumvent his prior ruling, which made GE sugar beets illegal.

No surprise, Monsanto is appealing and is likely to be joined by the government in the appeal.  Food Safety News quotes a Monsanto spokesman:

With due respect, we believe the court’s action overlooked the factual evidence presented that no harm would be caused by these plantings, and is plainly inconsistent with the established law as recently announced by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said David Snively, general counsel for Monsanto, in a news release….The issues that will be appealed are important to all U.S. farmers who choose to plant biotech crops…We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence.”

Food Safety News also reports that a Washington state apple grower has petitioned USDA to allow it to market a GM apple engineered to resist browning.

But wait.  I’m confused.  Isn’t the FDA supposed to be the agency that approves the planting of GM foods?

This sent me right to the FDA site that summarizes GM varieties that are permitted to be planted (“completed consultations“).  I see papayas and cantaloupe on the list, but not a single apple variety.

How can this company market a GM variety of apples if the FDA hasn’t approved it?  Can anyone explain what’s going on here?  Thanks.

Update December 3:  A judge in San Francisco ordered GM sugar beets planted on 256 acres to be destroyed.  USDA is appealing.  And now everyone is worried about sugar shortages.  Oh dear.

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  • Brooke

    Perhaps the biotech company is petitioning to market the seeds to be planted (as opposed to the fruit being marketed)? Thus the USDA and not the FDA is being petitioned at the moment? Not sure, just a thought.

  • While I don’t know any specifics about the regulatory process for the non-browning apple, I could venture a guess. Maybe as Canadians they didn’t know they also needed FDA approval for selling the apples on the market, or maybe they are also petitioning the FDA as well – if they are petitioning the FDA it would not show up as a completed consultation. In any case, no matter what the FDA says, they can’t put the trees in the ground without talking to the USDA. The FDA does not decide the fate of the plants – they decide the fate of the food.
    For more information on how the non-browning apple works, check out this excellent post written by Anastasia on Biofortified:

    The Sugar Beet case is interesting because the USDA is undergoing a partial deregulation approval process, which the Supreme Court mentioned in the Alfalfa case ruling that they are able to do prior to the EIS being completed. The beets aren’t banned (or illegal), but instead re-regulated. So unregulated plantings are illegal, but regulated one’s aren’t. They planted the permitted non-flowering “stecklings” in anticipation of future partial-deregulation pending the completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA) that is in-process. I am no lawyer, but it sounds like the trouble with this is that the stecklings were planted before the EA is completed. The trouble with this debate over the regulation of these beets is that we could see this again in the Supreme Court to debate whether the USDA has the ability to grant partial deregulation at all. SCOTUS ruled that the court in the Alfalfa case overstepped its bounds by issuing an injunction against any plantings. It kind of sounds like the beet court is trying to side-step SCOTUS by ruling again that the USDA cannot make its own decisions on how to regulate the crops. Again, I’m no lawyer.

  • Could there be some sort of loophole related to the fact that apple varieties are generally propagated by graft, not by planting seeds?

    That is a wild guess, though.

  • Maya

    With respect to the apples — the USDA regulates the planting of GM crops (through the Biotechnology Regulatory Services, which are part of the USDA’s APHIS). The USDA has to give permission for field testing, and then also a final approval for “de-regulation” of the crop, which I think means that it can then be planted for general use without further USDA approvals. The apples in question have already been field-tested, and the company–Okanagan Specialty Fruits–has recently asked that the USDA deregulate the apples. The petition is registered here:

    As far as I can tell, the FDA just “consults” with companies who are developing GM plants for consumption, and requests that companies complete this process 120 days before the food is marketed. Since deregulating a GM crop requires that the USDA do a full Federal Register notification process, my guess is that it is going to be a lot longer than 120 days before the FDA will have to have completed the apple consultation. (The FDA database only lists completed consultations, so who knows which ones are going on now!).

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  • GM food is food out from Pandora Box