Seeds of Life: David Vs. Goliath (video)

David vs. Goliath

December 4, 2009
Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Thomas J. Vilsack, et al.

Frank Morton in a Field of Transgenic Sugar Beet Plants in the Willamette Valley

Frank Morton in a Field of Transgenic Sugar Beet Plants in the Willamette Valley

In an ongoing David versus Goliath legal battle, Frank Morton, an organic seed breeder in Philomath, Oregon, along with the plaintiffs listed in this lawsuit, have successfully sued the USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), for failure to require an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to deregulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beet plant.

In the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Judge Jeffrey S. White ruled on September 21, 2009 in favor of the plaintiffs— Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds— requiring that APHIS prepare an environmental impact statement, and setting in place the remedy phase of the trial, scheduled to begin today (December 4) to decide the fate of next year’s transgenic sugar beet crop.

This interview took place Summer 2009 prior to Judge White’s September ruling in favor of Frank Morton, and the other plaintiffs.

This ruling marks a resounding renunciation of the USDA/APHIS 2005 decision to deregulate and thus allow the unrestricted commercial development of “Event H7-1”, a Glyphosate tolerant sugar beet engineered by Monsanto and the German company KWS. Deregulation opened the door for transgenic sugar beet production in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. The judge ordered that an environmental impact statement be conducted because USDA/APHIS failed to adequately consider the impact on the environment from stated cross contamination concerns, and the socio-economic impacts on consumers (eaters), farmers, and other market participants over the question of the continued availability of non-transgenic sugar beet crops.

In 2006, most of the sugar beet production was from conventional seeds but the Roundup Ready transgenic variety increased sharply in 2008 to about 60% of production, and rose again this year to estimates as high as 95% of the total U.S. market. The United States is among the largest producers of sugar, more than half comes from the production of sugar beets. Most of the U.S. sugar beet seed is produced in the Willamette Valley, where between 3000-5000 acres of sugar beet seeds are grown each year. The sugar beet plants grown from these seeds occupy areas of the western and mid-west regions of the country; the largest concentrations of (harvested) acres are in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan.

From Frank Morton’s perspective, his livelihood depends upon the ability to produce organic seeds that are not contaminated with transgenic genes spread from neighboring GMO related species of plants. In the Willamette Valley, an elaborate, but voluntary system exists to coordinate the growing of a diversity of crops to prevent the accidental cross-pollination and contamination that can occur naturally between related species. In the case of sugar beets, Morton’s Swiss Chard organic seed is commercially threatened by neighboring GMO sugar beet plants; the tiniest of contamination if it were to occur, would prevent him from selling his Swiss Chard organic seeds to his customers here and abroad. In addition, the introduction of any GMO crops into the ecologically unique Willamette Valley without a thorough environmental impact study sets a dangerous new precedent for more unregulated transgenic crops to follow.

Monsanto has recently decided to appeal to the U.S. Supreme court an earlier decision that forced the company to remove its GMO Alfalfa from the market (except under very limited conditions), pending the completion of an environmental impact statement. The alfalfa decision, in part, helped establish the precedent for the judge’s ruling in this Roundup Ready sugar beet case.

Related Stories:
Organic grower inspires beet lawsuit
Monsanto Loss Hurts Farmers
The GMO sugar beet
USDA Proposes Further De-regulation of GMOs (August 2007)
Non-GMO beet seed available
Biotechnology, the Media, and Public Policy (American Enterprise Institute)
The Dirty Little Secret of Organic Seeds
Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research (NYT)
Monsanto asks Supreme Court to review alfalfa ban


  1. says

    That is great news. Thanks.

    I’m wondering if Monsanto had to label the bales do the bags of Alfalfa cubes that I buy at the feed store also have to be labeled? And is is safe to assume now that if it’s not labeled it’s not GMO?

    • says

      Hi Diane:

      Really good question! Here’s some information that I was able to find, though I don’t know if it directly answers your question. I would suggest two possible avenues to explore, either contact the regulatory agency directly (their number is listed below) or contact the Center For Food Safety, they were one of the chief litigants in the Alfalfa case. If you are able to find out something more, please let us know. Good luck!
      “As of March 12, 2007, all sales of
      Roundup Ready alfalfa seed are prohibited pending the Court’s issuance
      of permanent injunctive relief. The court decided that growers who have
      already planted Roundup Ready alfalfa will not be required to remove
      the plants. Additionally, they will be permitted to harvest, use, and
      sell such Roundup Ready alfalfa. The court also prohibited all future
      planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa beginning March 30, 2007. Growers who
      intended to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa before that date and who had
      already purchased the seed prior to the March 12, 2007, preliminary
      injunction order may plant the seed. Growers who intended to plant
      alfalfa after March 30, 2007, or who did not purchase Roundup Ready
      alfalfa seed prior to March 12, 2007, must plant non-genetically
      engineered alfalfa.”

      FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Thomas Sim, Biotechnology Regulatory
      Services, APHIS, 4700 River Road Unit 147, Riverdale, MD 20737-1236;
      (301) 734-7324.

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