Roundup ready, or not


by Ari LeVaux

 On March 25, 2008, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) responded to a lawsuit filed by several environmental and food-safety advocacy groups. At issue is the USDA’s deregulation of a genetically modified (GM) sugar beet. The organism, marketed as Roundup Ready Sugar Beet and known to science as “event H7-1,” was engineered by German seed company KWS and U.S. biotech giant Monsanto. The beet survives the application of Roundup, Monsanto’s signature herbicide, while the other plants in the field all die.

Monsanto and KWS petitioned the USDA in 2003 to deregulate event H7-1. In 2005, that petition was granted, and the USDA announced that deregulation of event H7-1 “would not present a risk of plant pest introduction or dissemination.”

Not true, says Frank Morton, an organic beet and chard farmer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Beet pollen can function as a plant pest, he argues, given that it can cross-pollinate with other members of Beta vulgaris, a species that includes sugar beets, table beets and Swiss chard.

Sugar beets grown for sugar production are harvested in their first year. Only when grown for seed are they allowed to live a second year, during which they flower and set seed. The majority of U.S. sugar beet seed is grown in the Willamette Valley, where pollen released from the flowering beet plants is causing concern.

Morton serves on the rules committee of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association.

According to association rules, sugar beets must be separated from other B. vulgaris varieties by  miles, although this distance can be negotiated by the relevant farmers to account for variables including prevailing wind direction or offset flowering schedules.

According to Morton, a “loophole” in the rules allows event H7-1 to be grown within 3 miles of neighboring B. vulgaris crops, and this diminished spacing is not negotiable. The loophole all but assures the spread of GM sugar beet pollen in the Willamette Valley, where much of our table beet and chard crops, as well as many B. vulgaris seeds, are grown.

To farmers who grow and market B. vulgaris organically, GM beet pollen is the economic equivalent of a plague of locusts. The presence of GM traits in supposedly organic crops can cost farmers marketing opportunities.

Monsanto’s early plantings of genetically modified organisms in the mid-1990s stirred a wave of opposition from anti-GMO consumers and activists. Their resistance helped push Monsanto’s stock price to an all-time low of less than $7 per share in 2002, when the company lost $1.7 billion.

Since then, Monsanto’s earnings and share prices have improved dramatically. Share prices topped $129 in January 2008, thanks largely to a shift in corporate strategy. High-profile GM foods, like table vegetables, were scuttled in favor of low-profile crops, like corn and soy, which disappear into the food chain as components of oil, syrup and animal feed.

The strategy, coupled with a campaign opposing GM labeling requirements in processed food, wilted public opposition like Roundup wilts daisies. Monsanto began slowly winning the ground war over GM foods.

What’s most troubling to farmer Frank Morton is the possibility that, as B. vulgaris comes in separate male and female (aka “male-sterile”) plants, the event H7-1 trait could have been engineered exclusively into the male-sterile line, which doesn’t produce pollen, and not the male-fertile line, which does. “If they had engineered this trait only in the females, we wouldn’t be having this problem,” Morton says.

Reached by phone, Monsanto spokesman Darrin Wallis, who purports to be the company’s go-to guy for sugar beet questions, wasn’t able to answer the question: “Why wasn’t the event H7-1 trait inserted only in the male-sterile line?”

Morton says he heard the trait was engineered in both male-sterile and male-fertile lines from Greg Loberg, general manager of West Coast Beet in Salem, Ore., one of the three companies that licenses event H7-1 from Monsanto. Shortly thereafter, Morton contacted the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash., and the lawsuit was launched. The defendant, USDA, had until the end of March to respond to the filing, and last week it did, with a statement that boiled down to, “We’ll see you in court.”

“That they didn’t move to dismiss it indicates our case is strong,” notes lead plaintiffs’ attorney Kevin Zelig Golden of the San Francisco-based Center for Food Safety. Just how strong remains to be seen, as does just how far event H7-1 pollen has already spread after a decade of unregulated field tests.

“If I were Earthbound Farm,” says Morton, referring to the organic salad behemoth whose bagged salad mix sometimes includes Willamette Valley baby Swiss chard, “I’d be testing my salad.” •