Monday, August 23, 2010

If You Can't Beet 'Em...

Photo courtesy
In my part of the country, sweet corn season is fading into green chile season.  The pickups in the parking lot of the local farmers market are giving way to the roasting drums in front of grocery stores.  Such is the rhythm of late summer in the Rural Republic.  All summer, though, I’ve been struck with amazement with the existence of corn.  It truly is a wonder, and a testament to the ingenuity of mankind.  Ancient American peoples cross-bred grasses that more closely resemble sorghum or wheat into a completely alien crop with multiple ears of seeds along the stalk, rather than the traditional position of the seeds at the top, and then developed methods to process the corn to maximize the amount of nutrition that could be gained from it.  Over time, the crop spread all over the Americas, and was turned from a tropical plant to a reasonably hardy one in the temperate climes.  Modern breeding has only made the crop even more productive and universal.  Similarly, the venerable green chile was developed more recently through careful breeding to perfect the plant into “New Mexico #9,” a chile that’s as much a part of the culture of its eponymous state and Southern Colorado as it is a part of its cuisine. 
Photo courtesy

These are just two illustrations of the ancient art of developing agricultural crops to feed the world that’s gone on all over the world for nearly 12,000 years.  New crops with new strengths are still being developed in the traditional way to this day.  But in the 21st Century, we’re learning to harness the science of genetics to supplement the art.  It’s quite a controversial subject, for various reasons in various circles, though it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way.  This summer in particular has been a hot one in the war over genetically modified food. 

On August 13th, a district court judge in San Francisco ruled that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a part of the US Department of Agriculture responsible for regulating, among other things, genetically-modified crops, had erred in deregulating Roundup-ready sugar beets without accomplishing a full Environmental Impact Survey (EIS).  As a result, the judge allowed for the crops in the ground to be harvested, but ruled that Roundup-ready beets could not be planted again next year. 

This ruling stands to cause a few issues in the sugar market.  Sugar beets account for 50% of the national sugar supply, and 95% of all sugar beets harvested in the US are genetically modified.  It’s more than a question of where we get the remaining 47.5% of next year’s sugar supply, however.  You see, beets are a biennial crop, meaning they only produce seeds after their second growing year.  As a result, traditional seeds that would have to be planted next year would have to be produced by seed crops of sugar beets that were planted over a year before this decision was made.  Brilliant! 

It gets even better.  I’ll let Blake Hurst, writing in the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, have the punch line:
Photo courtesy
Because of the crop’s biennial nature, it’s not clear that this decision makes any sense at all. Sugar beets are harvested in the first year after planting, before they produce pollen, so they can’t contaminate neighboring crops. Oh, not so quick, White says. Sometimes beets undergo a process called bolting, and produce pollen in the first year of growth. And sometimes weed beets grow in fields, shedding pollen as well. Well, yes, but we eat the roots and leaves of table beets and Swiss chard, so even if they have been exposed to pollen from rambunctious bolting beets, it doesn’t affect the roots or foliage of that year’s crop. If we ate the seeds from table beets, we could be exposed to the herbicide-resistant genes, but we don’t. Incidentally, the sugar molecule, sucrose, is identical whether it comes from GM beets, conventional beets, or sugar cane. You can’t find, detect, test, or taste a difference.
Basically, APHIS performed the required Environmental Assessment, but, given the biological facts of beets and their relatives, determined it would be absurd to go into a long, costly EIS process.  Despite the inability to prove any potential damage whatsoever by GM beet crops, however, the District Judge ruled in favor of the organic farmers and environmental groups who reflexively filed the suit. 

The ruling is even more surprising in light of a ruling in a similar case heard by the Supreme Court earlier this summer.  This case was filed regarding Roundup-ready alfalfa, and had incredibly similar structure, in that the complaint was filed that APHIS failed to complete an EIS after the earlier Environmental Assessment was completed.  From the New York Times:
Photo courtesy
"In its first ruling on genetically engineered crops, the Supreme Court today overturned a lower court's decision prohibiting Monsanto Co. from selling pesticide-resistant alfalfa seeds until the government completes an environmental impact study."
In this case, Justice Alito, writing in the 7-1 majority, ruled the injunctions against Roundup-ready alfalfa were too restrictive, writing "An injunction is a drastic and extraordinary remedy, which should not be granted as a matter of course."  (The 9th Justice was Stephen Breyer, who recused himself because his brother wrote the initial District ruling on the alfalfa).  

In responding to the alfalfa decision, the Spokane Spokesman-Review brought the issue around to the larger issue of genetic modification:
According to Mike Kahn, associate director of the Agricultural Research Center at Washington State University, most of today’s soybeans grown in the United States have been engineered with a similar protein that allows them to survive the herbicide that kills adjacent weeds. Corn and cotton benefit from similar biotech protection against enemy bugs. The science has been well honed to achieve a specific, intended purpose without unleashing menacing consequences.
Not that critics don’t have valid concerns that wandering bees could spread unwanted pollen from engineered crops to nearby fields, thus tainting neighboring farmers’ organic-certified or export-bound crops. There are tested strategies for addressing those concerns, however.
Private agriculture researcher Alan Schreiber, who also raises both organic and conventional crops in the Tri-Cities area, reacted unequivocally to Monday’s ruling: “It’s a triumph of science and reason and logic over hysteria.”
The basic situation is that the environmental groups and organic farmers, as a matter of course, view all genetically-modified crops as a direct threat and try to use the justice system to prevent their use, while the USDA, as a matter of course, views all genetically-modified crops as plant pests until proven otherwise, and then proves otherwise.  As a result, they’re heavily regulated and controlled until tests sufficiently prove that the crops pose no adverse effects.  Due to all of this testing, APHIS has apparently determined that the EA is all that’s necessary, and the EIS is generally expensive overkill.  While this may or may not have been true regarding alfalfa, it seems that the biology of sugar beets and related crops justified the less-restrictive decision. 

I suspect that, after issuing their earlier decision and having it ignored by the same District Court, the Supreme Court may not be so willing to base their next decision on the question merely on the illegality of the injunction alone, and may indeed deal more directly with the question of approving genetically-modified crops.  Unless there’s a stay of the District ruling, watch for the price of sugar to rise


  1. Lori and I watched "Food Inc." just last night, actually, because I had gotten a little wary of something else I've been reading, and how much it seems to take the conclusions of the movie as gospel. Its major complaint about GMOs seemed to be the idea that you can patent genetic traits, and it spent quite some time dwelling on how people who plant Roundup-ready seeds can't grow their own seeds for future plantings. What the filmmakers fail to mention, though, is how many millions of dollars go into developing these traits and how that investment would ever be made back if the patents weren't respected. It's an intellectual property issue, the same as it would be if someone were selling bootleg copies of "Food Inc." But I guess what's "good for the goose" isn't always good for the gander.

  2. A couple weeks ago I was talking to a guy who runs a Vitamin Cottage. They only sell the all natural, organic kind of stuff. Another market they supply is the non-GMO market and claim to sell no GMO's foods(as best they can). He said that the peoples ultimate judgement against GMO's lies with them coming out of "big, evil corporations" like Monsanto, Dupont and Syngeta. And, just as Brett said above, some of it comes from the patenting of a gene and not allowing farmers to re-use seed. Don't get me wrong, some concern still revolves around health and food safety but I was amazed to learn it was an anti-big corp attitude more than anything.