U.S. District Judge rejects USDA's decision to allow GM sugar beets

On Sept. 1, 2009, the USDA announced its determination to deregulate a genetically engineered (GMO) papaya and allow commercial production on mainland U.S. soil despite more than 12,000 public comments from environmental and consumer organizations, scientists, natural food companies, community food cooperatives, organic farmers, beekeepers, concerned citizens and others that urged the USDA not to approve commercial production and sale of GMO papaya.

The USDA announced in the Sept. 1 Federal Register that:

We are advising the public of our determination that a papaya line developed by the University of Florida, designated as transformation event X17–2, which has been genetically engineered for resistance to the papaya ringspot virus, is no longer considered a regulated article under our regulations governing the introduction of certain genetically engineered organisms. Our determination is based on our evaluation of data submitted by the University of Florida in its petition for a determination of nonregulated status, our analysis of other scientific data, our response to comments received from the public on the petition for nonregulated status for papaya line X17–2, and our associated environmental assessment.

On Nov. 3, 2008 Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers, Inc. (FOG) submitted official comment urging USDA to:

…deny deregulation of X17-2 papaya resistant to Papaya Ringspot Virus because of the significant harm which may ensue from deregulation. If USDA/APHIS continues to consider deregulation, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is necessary because this project will have significant effects on the human environment.

FOG’s stated rationale for opposing the deregulation of GMO papaya included the following:

  • USDA’s Environmental Assessment (EA) does not adequately consider the consequences X17-2 GMO papaya release will have on the human environment worldwide. Factors for consideration include the possibility of cultural rejection of a GE papaya for culinary and medical use, and the possibility that genetically engineering papaya will change the medicinal properties of any useful plant part. Papaya is traded, grown and consumed around the world. X17-2 papaya may thus inadvertently grow in nations which have not approved, or declined to approve, this genetically engineered tree.  Therefore, the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) requires that USDA conduct a full EIS.
  • In addition to food uses of immature and mature papaya fruits, the leaves, seeds, and roots of Carica papaya L. are used in culinary and medicinal applications by cultures worldwide. The USDA has failed to consider the potential for allergens or other novel substances in the GMO papayas. There has been no short-term or long-term safety testing or feeding trials for toxicity or other adverse effects of the construct of genes inserted into the GE papaya trees. Toxicity tests are necessary since unintended genetic effects are known to occur with gene splicing.
  • Hawaii’s experience with GE papaya, and Canada’s experience with GE Canola suggest that organic and conventional non-GE papaya growers will face new hardships due to concerns over genetic contamination
  • Because current law does not require GMO product labeling, seeds from consumed GMO papaya fruits will become the intended or unintended planting stock for home-garden papaya trees, assaulting consumers’ choice to consume and grow non-GE foods and representing a secondary (non-commercial) means for the spread of GE papaya and genetic contamination of non-GE papaya.

Close on the heels of the USDA’s approval of GMO papaya came a Sept. 21 federal court ruling rejecting USDA’s 2005 approval of Monsanto’s “Roundup-Ready“ GMO sugar beet. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White said the USDA discounted the likelihood that wind-borne pollen would spread to fields where conventional sugar beets, table beets and Swiss chard are grown and that planting genetically modified sugar beets has a "significant effect" on the environment. White said the USDA must prepare an EIS.

The ruling followed a similar decision in 2007 by another federal judge, Charles Breyer, to halt the nationwide planting of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa until the USDA conducted an EIS. Judge Breyer’s decision was upheld by a federal appeals court last year.