The Organic Seed Alliance of Port Townsend and three other nonprofit organizations filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco Wednesday, Jan. 23 against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The suit was filed after USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approved the use of a new type of genetically altered sugar beet that is resistant to the herbicide Roundup. The plaintiffs are concerned it could lead to the creation of Roundup-resistant “super weeds.”
Both the new sugar beet and Roundup are made by agribusiness giant Monsanto Corp., which is not named in the suit. The suit challenges APHIS’ approval of the genetically altered crop because it could contaminate the crops of nearby organic and conventional farmers and cause them economic damage, said Matthew Dillon, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance, a nonprofit successor to the former Abundant Life Seed Foundation.
A similar lawsuit was successful last year in reversing an APHIS decision approving another Monsanto crop, a Roundup-resistant alfalfa. That suit, in which the seed alliance was not a party, was brought before the same judge and raised many of the same issues, said Dillon. And just 10 days ago, he added, USDA ordered APHIS to start over in its evaluation of the genetically altered alfalfa.
“We believe we have a chance of success,” Dillon said Tuesday. The other plaintiffs are the Sierra Club, High Mowing Seeds, and the Center for Food Safety.
The seed alliance became aware of the sugar beet issue from both conventional and organic farmers who grow chard and table beets in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, said Dillon. Monsanto’s new sugar beets would have been planted this spring, he said, and neighboring farmers would not have been able to stop contamination of their own crops.
Genetically altered seeds are a risk to organic seeds and to the market for organic food and local agriculture, Dillon said. “Without organic seed, we can’t have organic agriculture.”
“It was a difficult decision for us,” said Dillon of his nonprofit organization, which primarily does research and education. Ironically, the USDA has been the organization’s largest source of funding, giving it more than $250,000 for education and research in four years, he said.
“We’re not condemning the USDA. We’re for the rights of farmers,” Dillon said.
The issue is more than giving farmers and consumers a choice between organic and genetically altered crops, the groups said in a joint press release Tuesday. They point to studies suggesting that the development of “Roundup-ready” crops and more use of the pesticide has led to the creation of Roundup-resistant “super weeds.”
“Contrary to the industry’s mantra that these plants reduce chemical use, studies have shown that herbicide use actually increases with the planting of Roundup-ready crops,” said Kevin Golden, of the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. “Just as overuse of antibiotics eventually breeds drug-resistant bacteria, overuse of Roundup eventually breeds Roundup-resistant weeds. When that happens, farmers are forced to rely on even more toxic herbicides to control those weeds.”
Crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides made up 81 percent of the genetically engineered crops planted globally in 2006, according to the press release. And 99 percent of the herbicide-tolerant crops grown in the United are “Roundup ready.”