Organic Seed company joins lawsuit against GMO sugar beets

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(Host) A Vermont organic seed company has joined a lawsuit that aims to halt the use of genetically modified sugar beets.

The suit says the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts before allowing the crops for sale.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Tom Stearns is president of High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott. Founded 12 years ago, the company has grown quickly to meet demand. It now employs about 30 people and sells seeds to organic farmers all over the country.

But Stearns sees a threat to the organic industry – and to parts of his business – from the proliferation of genetically modified crops. The lawsuit that he joined asks the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a thorough environmental review.

(Stearns) "Our assessment is that they didn’t give a hard look. .. and do the environmental impact study that they were supposed to do. And so what we say is halt any planting of genetically engineered sugar beets, halt any seed production of genetically engineered sugar beets until you go through this process of the full environmental assessment."

(Dillon) Stearns explains that beets pollinate by wind. Each plant makes millions of grains of pollen, which can blow for several miles in the breeze. So he says the genetically modified varieties could easily cross pollinate with organic plants.

(Stearns) "The economic impact that it would have on us – both our seed company and the organic industry in general, I fear – is that both in crossing from one field to another you have a risk of contaminating non genetically engineered beets, and on chard. Chard is the same species as table beets and as sugar beets, so they will cross indiscriminately."

(Dillon) Sugar beets aren’t grown commercially in Vermont. But Stearns is especially concerned about the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where organic seed producers and sugar beet growers work side by side.

The genetically modified sugar beets are sold by Monsanto. The company altered the DNA of the beet seed – as it’s done with corn and soybeans — so the plant can withstand a popular herbicide Monsanto also sells.

But environmentalists and organic farmers worry that increased use of herbicide-resistant crops will lead to more chemical spraying. Stearns says there’s also evidence that weeds are becoming tolerant of the herbicide, which is sold by Monsanto under the brand-name Roundup.

(Stearns) The second thing is that because of genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops becoming dominant in the market, the company that owns Roundup and develops these Roundup ready crops has gained a greater market share. And so therefore as more and more growers are planting Roundup Ready corn, and soybeans and alfalfa and the like – they end up having to use Roundup, because that’s the only herbicide that will work on these new crops.

(Dillon) USDA has declined to comment on the lawsuit. Stearns is joined in the case by the Organic Seed Alliance and several non profit environmental groups. The suit was filed in federal court in San Francisco. Last year, a judge in that court blocked the sale of genetically modified alfalfa seeds.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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